Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview
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9

Rhythm

In this chapter and the next I discuss two major sources of cohesion in multimodal texts and communicative events - composition in time, or rhythm, and composition in space, or layout. Rhythm provides cohesion in texts and communicative events that unfold over time - conversations, oral storytelling, music, acting, dance, film and television, etc. Layout provides cohesion in texts that are spatially organized - pages, screens, paintings, museum exhibits, buildings, cities, and so on. Some kinds of text combine the two types of organization. In films the composition of the shots and the arrangements of the sets and locations are spatially organized, while the action, the dialogue, the music and the other sounds are organized according to the rhythmic principles discussed in this chapter.

Apart from being the two single most important sources of cohesion in multimodal texts and communicative events, rhythm and layout have something else in common. They form the key link between semiotic articulation and the body. They are the 'life-blood' of semiotics. Rhythm is a basic biological given. Human action is by nature rhythmically co-ordinated, and, as micro-analytical studies have shown (see Hall, 1983), so are human interactions. As we act together and talk together we synchronize. The rhythms of our actions become as finely attuned to each other as the parts of different instruments in a musical performance. They have to be. If they were not, things would go drastically wrong. We would fall over ourselves and trip others up. Successful social action and interaction would become impossible. The same applies to layout. Our sense of layout derives from our sense of balance (see Arnheim, 1982). Layout is a matter of positioning things in or on a space -…a bit this way a bit that way just a little bit up here just a little bit down there etc. - until a sense of balance has been achieved so that the arrangement feels 'just right'. And balance is as fundamental as rhythm. Without it we fall down. Everything stops and action becomes impossible.

Perhaps terms like 'organizing', 'structuring' and 'providing cohesion' are not really appropriate here. Rhythm does not just provide some kind of formal structure, some kind of scaffolding to keep the text from collapsing, or some kind of cement to hold it together. It also plays an indispensable part in getting the message across. The old Ella Fitzgerald song has it right: 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.' As well as that, rhythm is indispensable in fusing together the meanings expressed in and through the different semiotic modes that enter into the multimodal composition, for instance the meanings expressed by the action, the dialogue, the music and the other sounds in films. As I will show in the next chapter, all this is equally true of layout. But I will start with rhythm, trying to show just how it does its work of organizing (and 'vitalizing', blowing life into) texts and communicative events.

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