Thinking about Multi (or Trans-) Modality, and Trans (or Multi-) Linguality: Power, Ideology, and Emerging Questions

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A potential synergy arises from the confluence of multi- (or trans-) modality, and trans- (or multi-) linguality. These areas of concern have emerged contemporaneously—at least within the context of modern composition studies—partially, in response to changes in the means and identities of people in communication practices worldwide. In important ways, these changes challenge compositionists to rethink what composition entails.

However, despite the common points of origination, discussions of modality have remained largely separate from discussions of translinguality, to the impoverishment of both. We find this situation to be most interesting and worthy of exploration. In our preliminary observations—which will be explored in more detail in a later publication—we make the following observations:

1. Recent world-order changes in communication practices and environments—especially, but not solely those that are digital in their nature—call attention to ideologies elided by the supposed “norm” of a single, uniform (“standard”) language or mode (hereafter referenced as “SLMN”).

2. These same changes bring to awareness the presence of communicative practices in the past that SLMN ideology has suppressed.

3. Emergent communicative practices are themselves materially different from past, and other, communicative practices in ways that challenge both “SLMN“ ideologies and the practices now identified (ideologically) as SLMN.

We resist any understanding that statistically standard language practices are singular either in their linguistic or modal forms, and we resist the understanding that statistically standard is the linguistic or modal equivalent of normal. This ideological formation is two sided and doubly dangerous.

As we explore these observations, it seems ultimately problematic to distinguish between language and modality. Dominant conceptions of language offer a highly attenuated, restricted sense of all that goes on in the activity of “language acts” (a.k.a. communicative acts). Kress (2000) acknowledges this in calling language multimodal (p. 186), vs. thinking of language as itself a discrete mode. Conversely, it seems appropriate to recognize modalities as a feature of language. Given this, it no longer makes sense to treat language, whether as writing or speech or both, as apart from the “multimodal” (see Calvet 21-22).

We need to be wary of the power of monolingual-ist, monomodal-ist, dispositions to distort our sense of the practices under consideration. This danger manifests in two ways: the tendency to view practices not marked as either multimodal or multilingual as SLMN; conversely, the tendency to conflate practices marked as either multimodal or translingual with multimodal/translingual dispositions, when their non-SLMN character may be more apparent than real.

Second, and paradoxically, we also need to recognize the effect of specific material social environments on dispositions toward language(s) and modalities. As we’ve already suggested, the emergence of changes to communicative practices—most obviously, the development of digital communication technologies and global communicative networks, and less obviously, the increasing traffic of (exchanges and changes to) peoples and language practices—have  contributed to the increasing visibility of, and questions about, language and modality.

The “new” communicative practices, as they are often described—those that dominant dispositions lead us to recognize as different—also force a re-evaluation of and change to those communicative practices that we see and experience as simply natural, the norm.

In light of all this, rather than understanding modality and linguality in terms of fixed (“defined”) categories and practices, we pose the following questions of definition as more productive in bringing out the dialectical relations between dispositions and practices with language and modality:

  • What are the material social conditions of composing possibility for the deployment of language and modality (including available and competing dispositions toward and training with these)?
  • How are modality and language deployed (or might they be deployed) in this composition? To what end? Demanding, or expecting, what kinds of work? How does such deployment work on and with the conditions of its composition, distribution, and reception?
  • In what ways do our current analytical categories of modality and language need to be revised to accommodate differences in the ways this composition engages these?

About Author(s)

Tim Lockridge is an Assistant Professor of English at Miami University (Ohio) and a senior editor of Computers and Composition Digital Press.


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  2. These are great questions–why haven’t we asked them together (about language and modality) before?! Thank you–looking forward to reading more!

  3. While I welcome a lot of the healthy questioning of linguistic (and, in this post, modal) norms, I worry about the speed with which translingual (and now, perhaps, transmodal) theories are proliferating and combining. There are certainly ways in which agnosticism about linguistic code are similar to agnosticism about mode. However, there are also very clear and salient differences. Even Kress, whom the authors here cite, does not dispense with distinctions between “language” and “image”: he challenges traditional literacy-based ideas that language is THE key mode for communication, to be sure, but he is also clear that different modes have different affordances and must function together.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m in Korea this academic year and am daily negotiating two languages (English and Korean) that afford/require different kinds of very hard work, but I want to express concern. Scholars of the translingual approach are rightly and importantly sharpening the field’s focus on ideologies and languages, tying together disparate strands that stretch far back in the fields of rhetoric and composition and of second language writing, to name two. But those strands have histories of careful work behind them, and scholars are pointing out that many differences (between the modes of speech and writing, for instance) are not so easily elided. As scholars explore the utility of trans-formational and trans-boundary thinking, we also need to slow down a bit and account for discrete histories and literatures that now inform such thinking–or that at least should.

    Incidentally, tomorrow (Oct. 9) is Hangeul Proclamation Day in South Korea–a national holiday on which Koreans celebrate the establishment of their written script. As a writing scholar with my own critical perspective on language work, I think that’s fascinating. And certainly relevant to the topic of language and materiality/history.

    • Laura Gonzales on

      Hi Jay,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I especially appreciate your point, “As scholars explore the utility of trans-formational and trans-boundary thinking, we also need to slow down a bit and account for discrete histories and literatures that now inform such thinking–or that at least should.” I think this is incredibly important and certainly in need of more attention as we continue to consider (and unfortunately in some cases only begin to account for) the historical and cultural underpinnings of linguistic diversity in a variety of contexts.

      I’m also really interested in learning more about your experiences in South Korea, and I’d be interested to hear how your perspectives on language and materiality have been influenced through this experience. If by chance you’d be willing to join our blog carnival by sharing a blog post on these experiences, please let me know.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

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