Relevance Theory as model for analyzing visual and multimodal communication by Charles Forceville

Chapter in David Machin (ed.), Visual Communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2014.

This is an interesting use of R.T.; on p. 57 Forceville observes that, although R.T. is conceived as a theory of all ostensive-inferential communication, “face-to-face verbal communication is the prototype form of communication in S&W’s model.” Here, though, he’s arguing for its usefulness in discussing multimodal mass media. “Such a project should benefit both multimodality theory, which urgently needs more rigorous analytic models than have hitherto been proposed for it, and RT, which while claiming to hold for all forms of communication has been mainly applied to its spoken verbal varieties.” p. 52

He gives A Crash Course in Relevance Theory. This is useful to me. He’s pretty clear that some will see this as a bastardisation, but I think this is probably the kind of bastardisation I need for what I’m doing. He starts with the Communicative versus Informative Intention: “The communicative intention, then, is the sender’s intention to get one or more addressees to accept certain assumptions I as (probably) correct, while the informative intention pertains to the contents of these assumptions… Put differently: if you understand what I say to you, I have informed you; but only if you accept what I say, I have communicated with you.” p. 53. That’s different to the interpretation I had! I was thinkiing of something like this, which Forceville backs away from: “For my purposes it is useful to emphasize one specific dimension of ostensive-inferential communication mentioned in passing by S&W, namely the signal(s) that one person wants to communicate something to another in the first place. In Forceville (1996) I considered this an aspect of the communicative intention. However, since this is incommensurate with S&W’s claim that fulfilment of the communicative intention presupposes fulfilment of the informative intention, it seems wiser to refrain from burdening the communicative intention with the signaling of a desire to communicate as such.” p. 53

“One of the most interesting and far-reaching claims of RT is that since he trusts his interlocutor to be optimally relevant, an addressee will typically stop interpreting a message as soon as it achieves relevance. The addressee assumes that the sender has selected the best possible or available stimulus, given the circumstances, to get across the message.” p. 54 This is the kind of language I find a bit tricky, and unconvincing as a characterisation of thought. This is cool, though: “In poetry, a text-genre known to require rereading, pondering, and reassessing, a reader may be aware that he needs to invest more effort to achieve optimal relevance than stopping at the very first interpretation. Consequently, he may settle for an aesthetically pleasing ambiguity that he would find intolerable in most other forms of communication (see Pilkington 2000).” p. 54

He moves on to enriching and higher-level explicatures, then there’s a section called Relevance is Always Relevance to an Individual. This is interesting! He talks about different people bringing different contextual knowledge and going away with different implicatures, and what this means for mass communication.

He then discusses problems and advantages, such as babbling and lying, choosing the best possible stimulus, sympomatic communication, and the communication of emotional effects. This last one seems interesting – communicating feelings about something. “Emotional effects. Within cognition studies, there is now increasing consensus that emotions are part and parcel of cognition, and RT is no exception. It may well be that the main, or even only, effect of a stimulus is the communication of an emotional response (“This is beautiful/ terrifying/ disgusting …”). Even if the intended effect is primarily the activation of certain assumptions in the addressee, these often have affective dimensions as well; arguably, the reverse is no less true. I note in passing that Michael Tomasello emphasizes that successful communication does not only presuppose the transmission of information, but also the mutually manifest awareness of the communicator’s attitude to this transmitted information (Tomasello 2008: chapter 3.)” p. 57

Possible cognitive effects:

  1. new information
  2. strengthen assumption
  3. weaken assumption

Here Forceville claims pictures to be capable of explicatures, which later the same year with Billy Clark he seems to back away from.

“When the communicator is a lecturer standing in front of a class of two hundred students, her verbal communication, gestures, and the diagrams and pictures on her PowerPoint constitute mass-communication in which there is at least a shared time-and-space frame. In most mass-communication, by contrast, the audience does not share spatio-temporality with the maker.” p. 61

“Genre is an element of context whose importance cannot be overestimated. Genre-attribution moreover occurs mostly subconsciously and in milliseconds, and is in my view the single most important element in the addressee’s cognitive environment steering his strategy of interpretation of any pictorial or multimodal message (Forceville 2006). Whereas context is endless, and ever-changing, genre-attribution is quite stable and reliable. Indeed, I submit that “genre” more than any other contextual factor helps constrain what the relevance theorist Robyn Carston calls “free pragmatic processes: […] pragmatic processes that contribute to what a speaker [or picture-maker, ChF] is taken to have explicitly communicated but which are not triggered or required by any linguistic [visual, ChF] property or feature of the utterance [picture, ChF]” (Carston 2010: 265).” p. 62 – this is great for something I’m writing about galleries.

So he talks a lot about mass communication, temporal synchronicity and spatial co-presence, which all seems like it might be useful but I can’t pick out exactly why right now. So maybe I should come back to it when I’ve got some concrete things to analyse. “In contrast to face-to-face communication, however, it is often quite easy to decline the invitation to heed the message; if so, the informative intention is not fulfilled. If it is, whether the communicative intention is subsequently fulfilled depends, as always, on whether the assumptions conveyed in the message are fruitfully processed in the cognitive environment of the addressee. Misinterpretation may be due to a faulty derivation of explicatures (due, for instance, to inadequate knowledge of the code, or incorrect procedures of disambiguation), or to the derivation of implicatures not intended by the sender (due to associations evoked by the stimulus in the addressee’s cognitive environment that were not foreseen by the sender).” p. 64



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