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Relevance Theory and the communication of pictures and multimodal information

Charles Forceville
University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Human beings are thoroughly purpose-driven creatures. In order to achieve their goals in life (getting food, shelter, love, sex, money, experiencing artistic catharsis, fame, respect, or simply catching your plane), people constantly, even automatically, judge phenomena confronting them by how these phenomena could help advance, or jeopardize, their goals. Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson make the search for goal-enhancing information the centre-piece of their Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995, Wilson and Sperber 2004, 2012), claiming that all human communication and cognition revolves around optimizing relevance. Although the authors present their theory as holding for all types of information, it is mainly based on face-to-face communication (but cf. Forceville 1996, 2005, 2009, Yus 2008). After briefly outlining the key ideas of Relevance Theory, I will in this talk show and discuss a number of pictorial and multimodal “texts,” some of them metaphorical, that impart information visually, usually in combination with language and other modalities (music, sound, gestures) in the light of Sperber and Wilson’s theory. The “texts” to be discussed include advertisements, commercials, logos, cartoons, comic panels, and animation films. The aim is to reflect (1) on the ways in which non-verbal differs from verbal information in achieving relevance; and (2) on the shared knowledge and values any communicator presupposes in his/her audience.