Sign systems, according to Professor Jerome Harste, are the ways in which humans construct and share meaning. Rooted in the study of semiotics, sign systems are essentially forms of commuication that include well-known domains like art, music, drama, mathematics, and language.
For example, I might read about the Napoleonic Wars and, if I was sufficiently creative and attuned, create something like the 1812 Overture (music sign system) or the unnamed painting of the Battle of Borodino (art sign system) to reflect my interpretation. Both samples incorporate different representations and conventions that convey meaning to an audience. “In the case of a song or story, the [recipient] is presented with signs arrayed across time. There is a linear quality to the media. Music can express feelings we cannot put into words…” (Berghoff et al, X). An artistic sign system like painting, on the other hand, use the “elements of color, shape, and line in a simultaneous presentation. When viewing a picture, the [recipient] is presented with all the information at once” (X). Both Tchaikovsky’ 1812 Overture and the unnamed painting of the Battle of Borodino describe the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, but each are unique.
Yet, sign systems are undoubtedly interpretive; for example, a musician may create a piece of music infused with personal meaning that causes an unknown reaction or interpretation from what was intended. The 1812 Overture is a French original, but it is a staple of Americana and firework explosions on the fourth of July (America’s Independence). The discrepancies between the delivery and the receipt arise from different knowledge sources, life experiences, cultural norms, and personal ways of knowing. Just look at Radiohead’s “All I Need” and experience its literary and visual interpretations…
|Radiohead’s “All I Need”
The Official MTV Version
|Radiohead’s “All I Need”
The J. Tyler Helms Version
- Many people believe that Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead singer, wrote “All I Need” to describe love and longing for an unknown woman.
- For whatever reason, Radiohead’s official video for “All I Need” (see above) is a poignant commentary on the ills of human trafficking and western society’s blind naivety towards the creation of cheap modern conveniences.
- J. Tyler Helms, the producer who created the second video (see above), felt that “the sensual pace and delicate melody of the song reminded me of a world much smaller than ours, with all the love and violence we experience.”
Helms and the director of the official video knowingly, but probably unable to label or define, engaged in an act of transmediation: Taking what is [perceived] in one sign system and recasting it another sign system (Suhor, 1992). They re-purposed and mashed Thom Yorke’s original melodies, meanings, and lyrical prose (music sign system) into two separate and distinct videos with markedly different interpretations and purposes. They married Thom’s meaning and tonal mood with a purposeful cinematic uniqueness (art sign system), and the results are two entirely different works that evoke new ideas to contemplate.
There is a group of educators and researchers (Jerome Harste, Phylis Whitin, Kathy Short, Vygotsky) who contend that, when someone engages in an act of transmediation, comprehension and understanding becomes visible. Someone can see, hear, witness, and experience understanding through the juxtaposition of personal knowledge and the interpretive qualities of a reframed, transmediative reproduction. Even better, transmediation coupled with an explanation like Helms’ video description is the equivalent of a telescopic window into one person’s understanding of the original sign system. The interpretation might not be right in the creator’s eyes (Thom Yorke), but it is a window nonetheless. The water drops in the J. Tyler Helms video seem like bombs to me, but bombs are much different then the love I hear when processing Thom’s words without the visual element of J. Tyler Helms.
Transmediation is alive in the remixed and republished videos on YouTube, and it’s visible in classrooms and the educational cultures like Konrad Glogowski’s. In a recent post entitled Learning to Avoid “School Talk” (Part 1), Konrad describes a series of activities involving students, modern music, and Anne Frank’s book, Diary of a Young Girl.
Konrad and his students (the teacher participated as well) made virtual soundtracks for Anne Frank’s life based on their personal interpretations and feelings from the text. They explored the book, questioned the inferred qualities of what Anne Frank probably felt or experienced, and then searched for music that exemplified their interpretations. Whether it was the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love” or The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” every person justified their choice of music in relation to the text, and conversations unfolded… conversations about the book, conversations about personal connections, and (I am assuming) conversations about understanding. Everyone was engaged. Everyone became music critics and text analyzers.
Why? Transmediation. Konrad and his students juxtaposed their personal interpretations of various songs (one sign system) with the words and meaning in Diary of a Young Girl (another sign system). The collection of songs that became each person’s soundtrack as well as the verbal or written justifications became their transmediated reproduction, the equivalent of J. Tyler Helms’ version of Radiohead’s “All I Need.” The musician’s lyrical and melodic meaning faded and a message with different contemplative potential emerged. I have no doubt that, in the abstract qualities of this open-ended experience, Konrad had a window for viewing EACH student’s understanding and personal connections that no multiple choice test or classroom discussion could provide.
I wholeheartedly believe that transmediation needs to be a part of each classroom. Just examine Konrad’s reflective experience and you will see engagement, learning, understanding, and conversations. It’s messy, difficult, and undefinable, but I love it.
Berghoff, Beth, Kathryn A. Egawa, Jerome C. Harste, and Barry T. Hoonan. Beyond Reading and Writing: Inquiry, Curriculum, and Multiple Ways of Knowing (Wlu Series). urbana, il: Natl Council Of Teachers, 2000.
Pensiero. “Dichotomy.” Flickr. 11 Feb. 2007. 10 July 2008 http://www.flickr.com/photos/63894760@N00/392756763/.
Onkel_wart. “Whirlpool take me to the Deeps below.” Flickr. 12 June 2007. 10 July 2008 http://www.flickr.com/photos/26405526@N00/542877013/.
Suhor, C. (1992). Semiotics and the English language arts. Language Arts, 69, 228-230.