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George P. Landow, in his book, “Hypertext 2.0”, denotes Hypertext as ‘an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information’ (Landow, 1997: 3). Of this nonverbal information, he cites examples like ‘images, maps, diagrams and sound’. A quick browse through the internet would show this idea to be obvious. Indeed, the advent of the electronic writing space, in which hypertext is written, is concurrent with the development of an increasingly visual and experiential generation. The beginnings of cinema and the moving image, and then the television, which made available a more visual alternative to the narrative, led the way towards the development of multi-modal discourses. While the the multi-modal discourse has always been present, the dominance of writing as a means of communication has eclipsed its significance. The prominence and significance of multi-modality in this era is exemplified by the developments in semiology in several fields.  Kress and Van Leeuwen defines the ‘multi-modal text’ as ‘any text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code’ (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996: 183). Print media has since moved towards multi-modality, as shown in the increased usage of illustrations and photographs.

However, the physical space of the printed page is too limiting. The electronic, virtual writing space, freed of the same physical, even temporal restrictions, has the capacity to be even ‘more’ multi-modal, so to speak.

This essay shall explore the semiotic potentials of this space, through examining the possible modes of expression that are used, and discussing the implications such an assemblage of semiotic systems has on the users participating in the reading and writing experience.


Semiotics: A brief overview and its relevance in this essay

Ever since Ferdinand de Saussure postulated the existence of a ‘general science of signs’ in 1916 (Barthes, 1967: 9)and called it ‘semiology’, this science has developed such that several terms, ideas and notions have become definitive or even stereotypical of it. The dyads of ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, of ‘langue’ and ‘parole’, for example have become famous terminology familiar to any student of semiotics or semiology. Yet this is a simplification of what semiotics is about. Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) briefly detailed the three schools of semiotics that have contributed to the richness of this ‘study of signs’: the Prague school of the 1930s and 40s, the Paris school of the 1960s and 70s, and the more recent movement of social semiotics from Michael Halliday in Australia.

The study of signs has been extended into various fields, from the study of linguistics (Halliday), art (Mukarovsky), cinema (Jakobson, Metz), music (Nattiez, van Leeuwen) through to comic strips (Fresnault-Deruelle) (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996: 5). Thus, the semiotics of the electronic writing space is a collection, if not synthesis, of the semiotics of each possible mode.

In the semiotic perspective, thoughts and meanings are represented via signs, or manifestations that are perceptible to other people, who observe these signs and interpret the meanings they signify. Hence, the meanings are the ‘signified’ and the manifestations, or forms, are the ‘signifiers’.

Beyond this, of particular pertinence to this essay is the notion of langue and parole as described by Saussure, and dealt with in countless other semiotic texts. There are various ways of explaining this dyad. Barthes, in “Elements of Semiology” (1967), describes langue as a ‘social institution and a system of values’ in which parole (which he calls ‘speech’) is the ‘individual act of selection and actualization’(emphasis mine) of this langue (p. 14). Elsewhere, O’Sullivan et al. (1983) define langue as ‘the abstract potential of a language system…’ and parole as ‘an individual utterance that is a particular realization of the potential of langue…’ (O’Sullivan et al., cited in Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996:8).


Semiotic Potential: Langue as the context of the electronic writing space

It is the notion of langue as ‘potential’ which is relevant here. While the ‘potential’ of the langue  which Saussure and Barthes defines, extends as far as the ‘system of values’ allows, Kress and van Leeuwen, in keeping with the social semiotic conception, sees semiotic ‘potential’ as the ‘semiotic resources available to a specific individual in a specific social context’ (1996: 8). Social or otherwise, the semiotic potential of the electronic writing space is bound to the resources available to the hypertext user in the multi-modal realm of the electronic writing space (context). These resources are the means for meaning transmission and meaning reception. More directly, the resources are the signs available for use in a sign system to signify and to derive the signified.

And because of its multi-modality, the semiotic potential of the electronic medium as a whole, is necessarily tempered with the semiotic potentials of each of the available modes of expression. In the ensuing discussion of these modes, it shall be seen that the very nature of the electronic writing space (its multiplicity, its weblike structure, etc.) is a function of its semiotic potential as well.