Figures of Learning: The Reader

As part of its Making Methods for Digital Humanities project, CIS-RAW organized two consultations on new figures of learning in the digital context. For a proposed journal issue on the theme of ‘bodies of knowledge’ which draws upon these conversations, participants were invited to write short sketches on these figures of learning. This abstract by P.P Sneha examines the figure of the reader, and the manner in which it is redefined in as text and practices of reading are reconstituted in the digital context.


The Reader

P.P. Sneha


The reader is a common figure of learning; we are all readers of one kind or another in an abstract sense. But practices of reading and writing have changed with the advent and proliferation of the internet and digital technologies. Be it your Kindle or updates on your Twitter feed or FB page, reading and writing have both been rendered as extremely technologised processes, more so than they already were, because of the mediation of the machine at different levels. At one level it is the encounter with the screen in our daily lives, the changing materiality of the text and how that determines the practices of meaning-making. At another, we can also connect this to larger questions of textuality itself, and the nature of the ‘digital text’. So is there a new kind of reader being constructed through these changing technologies of reading and writing? Within the varied and multi-layered space that is the ‘digital’, we can revisit the understanding of reading and writing as technologised processes through an exploration of the reader as a figure of learning. This brief sketch will examine the reader as a figure of learning, and her transition to the machine reader in the digital context.


Particularly in the age of big data and excess information, and with the introduction of methods such as speed reading, machine reading, distant reading, and not reading, we are in essence being taught or forced to read a certain way. An immediate concern for a lot of traditional humanists is the loss of criticality, as they see the sudden influx of new technologies as taking away from more accepted and conventional methods of reading, such as close reading for example. But what are the practices of reading engendered by the digital? The little variations in text, tagging, marginalia, errata or the glitch that now take precedence in the way one interprets or reads a text; do they add on, fundamentally change or produce a shift in the process of meaning-making is a question to contend with. Reading as a social or collective process is one prominent aspect of this change. The sociality of reading is more pronounced in the digital context; but at the same time it also strangely obscures this with the increasing portability and customisation of devices to suit different kinds of reading needs. The role of affect in the process of reading then becomes prominent.


Questions about authorship and authority over meaning would be more than relevant in this instance too, as the individual reader slowly gets replaced by more collective methods of reading and knowledge production. Online knowledge repositories such as the Wikipedia and a several dynamic archives have fostered and actively encouraged processes of collaborative knowledge production. In a reiteration of the classic debate on the death of the author, one now finds the role of reader in the traditional sense becoming more diminished, as the text itself takes precedence in the determination of meaning, and calls for a different kind of competence from the reader. Most importantly, it also suggests a change in the understanding of text and textuality in the digital space, with the possibility of innumerable readings with the help of algorithms emerging as a new textual practice. The possibility of reading data as text also hints towards a new kind of ‘machine reader’, or reading practice completely mediated by or reliant on the machine and unverifiable by the human subject. The emergence of new fields of scholarship such as the Digital Humanities also suggest these changes, and it may be worthwhile to examine how the text and practices of reading are constituted or reconstituted in such a space.



Puthiya Purayil Sneha

Sneha is a Programme Manager at CIS, and co-leads the researchers@work programme. She is engaged in a mapping of the emergent field of Digital Humanities in India, and is also interested in questions on the nature of textuality, reading, and writing practices in the digital sphere. She can be reached at sneha[at]cis-india[dot]org.