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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Modal aggregates 

Norris's work on modal aggregates is a powerful way of conceptualising the iPad data that I've recently been writing about. Although her argument that multimodal perspectives destabilise the primacy of language in social interaction is not exactly new, the focus on action, as a unit of analysis, helps to highlight the shifting dominance of modes - how, in her words, modal hierarchies fluctuate. In the sorts of multiparty interactions that occur between children, adults and iPads, we can see how deictic gestures, at times dominant, give way to spoken language, onscreen visual movements, object-handling and so on. Accepting that overall meanings are always greater than the sum of these modal parts, this perspective helps to incorporate materiality and embodiment into the analysis in useful ways. There are some limitations, though. The analytical work that Norris (2012) engages in places humans as social actors at the centre of the interaction, thus following in the footsteps of earlier sociolinguistic approaches, but in doing this objects are cast as rather mute associates. For example, in Norris's data, a painting is moved (object-handling mode), pointed at (deictic gestural mode), and then talked about. But when scripted material objects - like iPads - are so deeply woven into activity, I think we need a broader perspective, one which shows how things (such as technologies) can generate, initiate, or participate in action. Perhaps it would help to focus on developing accounts of action sequences with different trajectories - the vibrating alert from a mobile phone that heralds an incoming text message, prompting some email checking, a phone call and so on, for example. Thinking about fluctuating hierarchies in modal aggregates might well be a useful way of approaching and understanding the emerging patterns of communication associated with new technologies. This could then lead to a more sophisticated account of how objects participate in social interaction, bringing what we read in Latour to bear upon our discussions of multimodality and discourse analysis.

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