O'Toole, Michael
Murdoch University

Michael O'Toole
School of Humanities
Murdoch University
Perth, Western Australia 6150


Strand: semiosis in language and other modalities

Title: From Systems to Hypertext: Mapping Semiotic Space in Art

There has been a natural tendency among systemic linguists to focus on 'closed systems' of grammatical and phonological options, but theories of open dynamic systems stress that a 'system is a kind of arrangement in which the parts do not participate by means of their inherent characteristics but by means of their positional values' (Angyal, 1941). In other words, systems are by definition functional, and the systems in the systemic-functional model as applied to painting (O'Toole, 1994) contribute to the Gestaltqualitat of a coherent work of art.

Recent work on applying the principles of interactive multimedia to the analysis and interpretation of paintings suggests that the classic systemic-functional chart (Halliday, 1973; O'Toole, 1990) is a kind of map for hypertext. The detailed study of individual systems in the visual array promotes exploration and comparison of features across the boundaries of the metafunctions and a 'shuttling' strategy between elements at different ranks and the whole work.

In the context of reading an art work this enables one to enact and record not merely the patterns of meaning which one takes to have been encoded by the painter according to generic or stylistic norms, but the patterns of meaning which result from the interplay between those norms and the expectations, assumptions and mood of the viewer. In other words, the supposed barriers between 'formal' analysis and 'reader-centred' or 'contextual' criticism are no longer valid or, indeed, interesting.

Like systemic grammar, topological approaches to the study of semiotic space (Atkin, 1981; O'Toole, 1981) start from the specification of features at particular ranks (or 'sets' and 'cover-sets'). They quickly move, however, to the mapping of a whole 'backcloth' of patterns of features against which the knowledge and preoccupations of the receiver/ viewer/ reader become a kind of 'traffic'. Tracing and recording this through the operations of hypertext appears to bring alive the processes of semiosis and highlights the functioning of a work of art as an open dynamic system interacting with the social semiotic of the culture and the individual viewer/ reader.

The paper will attempt to demonstrate what all this means in the reading of a single famous painting and a poem.