Visual and Verbal Resources for Evaluative Meaning in Political Cartoons

J. L. Lemke
City University of New York

Related recent work:

"Multiplying Meaning: Visual and Verbal Semiotics in Scientific Text" in J.R. Martin & R. Veel, Eds., Reading Science. London: Routledge. (pp.87-113).

"Resources for Attitudinal Meaning: Evaluative Orientations in Text Semantics." To appear in Functions of Language, 1998. [Newspaper editorials]

Evaluative Meaning: The Big Picture

In social semiotics, evaluative meaning arises as an important special case of the Orientational semiotic function. The three general semiotic functions; Presentational, Orientational, and Organizational, correspond to the fact that we always make meanings of these three kinds simultaneously. We construct or construe some presentation (aka representation) of a reality, situation, or state of affairs, real or possible. We also always orient our meaning production (talk, drawing, etc.) to some real or possible addresses and audiences, and in doing so we include some stance or orientation toward the presentational content of our meaning in the context of a system of viewpoints or attitudes and construals of reality available in our community, to us and our addressees and audiences (system of heteroglossia). And finally, we must also always construct our meanings in such a way that each meaningful whole, on each of many levels and scales, is organized by relations among its constituents parts, be they structural units or cohesive threads of semantic continuity. These social semiotic functions generalize Michael Halliday's three general meaning functions (or "meta-functions") for language (Ideational, Interpersonal, and Textual respectively).

As we make Orientational meanings, we reveal a stance or orientation toward what we are presenting: we indicate, implicitly or explicitly, to what degree we consider the presented state of affairs certain or uncertain (Warrantability), including true or false as polar extremes; we may also indicate the degree to which we regard the state of affairs as desirable or undesirable (Desirability), important or unimportant (Importance), usual and expected or surprising (Usuality), obligatory or prohibited (Normativity), mysterious or comprehensible (Comprehensibility), and serious or humorous (Humor). These seven semantic categories or Evaluative Dimensions appear to cover all the possible kinds of evaluations which can be made in English and related languages with regard to states or affairs or propositions and proposals. There are other evaluative categories for persons, things, actions, and phenomena, though the latter two overlap substantially with the seven just listed. These seven are mutually independent of one another in principle, though often conflated in practice and in the connotations of particular words in the lexicon.

Evaluative meaning plays a special role in social semiotics. It provides the link between belief and action, i.e. between semiotic representations or meanings and the material processes by which we participate in our local ecosystem. The theory asserts that we must analyze human social systems as ecological-social-semiotic systems, or networks of interdependent processes and practices: ecosocial systems for short. In such systems the flows of matter and energy and information that constitute the system materially depend critically on the meaning-making practices of human participants, individually and collectively, and particularly on (a) what we imagine to be real and possible, desirable, important, necessary, serious, etc. Our representations mediate our actions, particular in respect of our beliefs about what is and can be (Presentational meaning formations) and our values regarding what must or should be (Orientational evaluative meanings).

Evaluative Meaning Resources in Language and Visual Representation

In language there are many lexical and grammatical resources for evaluating propositions (states of affairs) and proposals (possible states of affairs), as well as people, things, actions, and phenomena. These include attitudinal qualifiers (good dog, key proposal), nouns with evaluative connotations (threat vs. promise), verbs of expression (believe vs. know), sentence and process adverbials (hopefully, significantly; possibly, frequently), and modals (could be, should be). Even more interestingly, analysis of connected text or discourse shows that evaluations in one part of the text normally propagate, i.e. bias our interpretation of other parts of the same text. Consistency of evaluative stances also defines and links different discourse formations intertextually, so that we interpret the evaluative force of words in one text in relation to expectations deriving from the evaluative stance of related texts.

In our visual representations, we certainly also have means and conventions by which to indicate how important an element should be seen to be (Salience, or visual Importance), whether an image is to be read realistically or as a fantasy possibility (Warrantability), whether a person is good or bad, acting desirably or undesirably, ways of indicating unusualness, mysteriousness, and humorousness. In specialized genres there are very special conventions for some of these evaluative dimensions (e.g. in scientific graphs "error bars" indicate degree of Warrrantability of data points). In simple drawings, we must often rely on intertextual information, i.e. on presumptions of consistency with other visual representations, often accompanied by more explicit verbal evaluations. We will see this in the case of political cartoons.

Evaluative Meaning in Multimodal Texts

I believe that all semiosis is necessarily multimodal semiosis. That is, we always produce material signs that are susceptible of interpretation not just according to linguistic codes or meaning systems, but also according to visual ones or actional ones, etc. And as we make the signs for meanings according to those systems, we almost always also invoke interpretation in terms of verbal semantics as well. We talk about pictures as well as view them; we see and recognize conventions of typeface and font and layout as well as interpret printed words linguistically. Accordingly I believe that all the semiotic resource systems have co-evolved to work in integrated ways with one another, and that we cannot fully understand any of them until we have looked at how they make meaning together, multimodally, with one another.

I began this multimodal analysis for scientific print publications, where Presentational and Organizational meaning are much more varied and foregrounded than are Orientational meanings. When I focussed on evaluative meanings in newspaper editorials, it occurred to me to extend the analysis to include the related and saliently multimodal genre of editorial or political cartoons. These cartoons generally include verbal meaning units as well as visual ones. I have not examined these cartoons in the context of associated editorials, since for many of them such contexts were not available. My newer work will look at multimodal genres such as hypermedia on CD-ROMs and especially on the WorldWideWeb.

The Political Cartoons

Each of these cartoons is enormously rich in the complexity of its evaluative meanings and the verbal and visual resources mobilized and deployed to construct these meanings. Studying multimodal genres one quickly realizes that the co-production of signs which serve Presentational, Orientational, and Organizational functions all at once means that the expression of each of these meanings strongly influences the expression of the others. Moreover, verbal and visual choices become tightly interdependent, not least because of their unification in the material sign complex itself. There is moreover a strong tendency, both within language, and between language and visual imagery, for there to be 'metaphorical' transfers of meaning from one evaluative dimension (of our principal seven, above) to another. Far from obviating the value of distinct analysis on each dimension and for each general semiotic function, these interactions among dimensions and functions only confirms the usefulness of distinguishing them in principle, if only in order to better understand their combinations in practice.

I have assigned a short gloss to each cartoon for purposes of reference. Brief descriptive-interpretive notes are linked to each cartoon, and a rough draft overview of some of the visual resources in play for each of the seven evaluative dimensions also references these cartoons. I have as well some detailed notes on the interpretation of each cartoons involving both visual and verbal meaning, and may post some of this material in the future by linking it as well to the cartoons.

To the List of CARTOONS

To the Inventory of Visual Resources