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Learning to Read in the Digital Age: From Reading Texts to Hacking Codes

  • Citton, Yves
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2015
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Reading is still often perceived as the decoding of a message, as if the message were meant to be merely " received " , as if the code were supposed to be known and invariable, and as if the meaning were determined solely by the sender. Since the 1960s at least, however, theories of interpretation have constructed (literary) reading in a more elaborate and inventive fashion: while each author was supposed to re-invent a singular language against the background of the common language, each interpreter necessarily had to recreate something new, even though reading exactly the same text, because each interpreter understood this text and its singular language within an ever-changing context of actualization. The model of interpretation, however, remained indebted to the activity of deciphering: the ever-changing meaning was to be found within the text itself.Both the CCSI initiative and, in Europe, the guidelines periodically imposed upon teachers by ministries of Education register this evolution from decoding to interpretation. Whether in the form of ambitious (although often hollow) preliminary declarations about " critical-thinking " , or in the form of more precise assessment criteria, most of these administrative documents recognize that reading involves more than merely deciphering an unequivocal message. The CCSSI displays insight when it asks students to " determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10) " (CCSSI Standards 40). In such statements, literacy is clearly defined in terms of interpretation rather than reading: the student cannot simply apply a proper knowledge of " the " English language on a text in order to extract its proper meaning; s/he must (re)construct a singular version of the language drafted by this singular author in order to make sense of its potential signification.The presence of such formulations in these types of regulatory documents should be celebrated by literary scholars, since they imply that there can be no real literacy that is not literary. The quasi-obsessive insistence of the CCSS on " cit[ing] strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says " (CCSSI Standards 36, 38, 39, 40) should also be welcome, given the significance of close reading for literary studies. As we enter the digital age, however, a new " post-interpretive " configuration seems to emerge, not to replace but rather to supplement our traditional conceptions of reading and interpretation. As Lev Manovich, Lawrence Lessig and many others have shown, variability, modularity, hybridization, recombination, remix are crucial properties of " new media ". Their main consequence is to explode the very notion of " the text ". Through the extensive use of the " copy " , " search " , " cut-and-paste " functions, through the practices of sampling, inserting, transferring, syndicating, re-editing, it is not only the integrity and the borders of " the text " that are altered and need to be reassessed: it is the reader's relation to the readable data that is mutating. " Data " (texts, slogans, keywords, tags, tweets, images, icons, logos, sounds, videos) are given only to be reprocessed: to read is no longer only to decipher, nor merely to reconstruct or de-construct, but also to re-use, 2 reshape and over-code. The re-contextualization which, in the age of interpretation, altered the meaning of the text (its " content "), now reconfigures its signs themselves (its " form ").In this digital context, it is significant to see literary scholars describe literary interpretation by emphasizing the notion of " use " (Rita Felski), by adding " distant reading " (Franco Moretti), " hyper-reading " (N. Katherine Hayles) to the traditional practice of close reading, or by valorizing (rather than stigmatizing) the practice of " continuous partial attention " as " a digital survival skill " , against the dogma of attentiveness equated with focalization (Cathy Davidson). In the digital age, learning to read means learning to properly and inventively use the (overwhelming) context of whatever is accessible through search engines, i.e., of whatever resonates through the dense and unpredictable web of hyperlinks.


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