Reading as Poaching

Reading as Poaching

This foundational text of the Polity of Literature series was written by a Jesuit scholar in the long wake of the May 1968 student uprisings.

“Reading as Poaching” is an essential text for the Polity of Literature, and a dense, word-by-word read; but flex your head, as the wise man* said, and this essay will reward you. The images are the stars! “Readers are travellers,” Michel de Certeau, the French Jesuit scholar and psychologist, wrote. “They move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves.” He celebrates “every subject’s ability to convert the text through reading and to ‘run it’ the way one runs traffic lights.” In the glow of these glittering images—which is to say, while they shed light it is broken and refracted; these are deliberately unstable images—de Certeau maps a detailed geography of “tactics,” those powers of the powerless that readers use to transform a top-down culture into our own playground. 

Michel de Certeau began writing L’ Invention du quotidien (published in English as The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984, University of California Press) in the long wake of the May 1968 student movement, which he witnessed as an instructor at University of Paris-VII. De Certeau was skeptical of the gains claimed by the students. In the chapter he titled “Reading as Poaching,” he lists “revolutionaries,” alongside authors and educators, as the “elite claiming for itself the right to conceal different modes of conduct and substituting a new normative education for the previous one.” But he doesn’t despair. His text is a festival of insurrections, some of them conveyed via dense, analytical accounts of French intellectual history, and some through his uncanny, often unresolved imagery:  “…from the nooks of all sorts of ‘reading rooms’ (including lavatories) emerge subconscious gestures, grumblings, tics, stretchings, rustlings, unexpected noises, in short a wild orchestration of the body.” What if literature is not the pages of writing (both made and witnessed in private), but is instead the messy, conflicting eruptions of myriad undisciplined bodies, the fantastic stink of readers reading? Could it thereby host a plurality and function as a site of politics? As de Certeau concludes, “we mustn’t take people for fools.”

To situate de Certeau’s sui generis performance in the context of his life (and ours) we’ve asked Steven Rendall, the original English translator of the book, to introduce it. His affectionate recollection of a then-unknown French scholar, who not only handed his book over to a complete stranger but also told the publisher of the translation to give all the profits to his new, hard-working colleague, lets us glimpse de Certeau putting his words to action. Ken Krimstein has illustrated the introduction and the text.

* Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat), “12XU” (1982).

How I Came to Translate Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and What Happened Afterward

by Steven Rendall

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1980, I attended a week-long conference organized by my friend Marc Eli Blanchard at the University of California at Davis. In a series of talks, several eminent literary theorists delivered papers on the topic of “space and literature.” One of the speakers was Michel de Certeau, of whom I had never heard. I was so impressed by his presentation that I approached him afterward to tell him how much I had liked his talk. He must have been pleased by my enthusiasm since he responded by giving me a copy of his book Les Arts de faire,1 which had just been published in France.  I thanked him and took the volume back to my hotel where I skimmed through it as fast as I could.  When I saw de Certeau at the next day’s session of the conference (if I remember correctly, the speaker was Paul de Man), I expressed my admiration for his book. To my utter surprise, he asked me if I’d like to translate it into English. Rashly, and without seriously considering the magnitude of the challenge I was taking on, I said yes.

At that point, I had no experience as a translator. I was a professor of French literature at the University of Oregon, specializing in early modern literature, especially Montaigne, and I was only marginally familiar with the intellectual context of de Certeau’s book. Thus it was probably foolish of me to agree to translate Les Arts de faire, especially considering my other obligations. I was to spend the following year on a Humboldt-Stiftung grant at the University of Constance in Germany, studying reader-response theory and reception aesthetics while writing a book on Montaigne. Because I had to improve my very rudimentary German to participate in seminars conducted by Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss, during that year I had little time to spend on the translation of de Certeau’s book. Hence when I applied for an extension of my grant for a second year in Constance, I asked the Humboldt Foundation to allow me to spend September in Paris (at their expense), working on the translation I had promised to produce for the University of California Press.

The Humboldt Foundation generously agreed to support my work on this project, even though it might at first seem to have nothing whatever to do with the purpose of my grant. I could have argued, though at that time I did not, that my work in Constance was related to the contemporary shift in the focus of cultural studies away from producer and product and toward the ways in which consumers use/practice art works—a shift to which de Certeau’s book made a very influential contribution. Thus Iser was concerned with how individual readers construct and make sense of texts, while Jauss’s reception aesthetics examined the ways in which readers collectively develop, over time, the potential meanings inherent in texts.2 All three thinkers emphasized the ways in which individual consumers practice cultural phenomena, how they adapt them and make them serve their own interests and rules, and in so doing sometimes subvert the authors’ intentions—just as the Indigenous peoples of the New World “often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind” (Practice of Everyday Life, p. xviii).  As regards Montaigne, apart from his account of his famous encounter with a “cannibal” from Brazil, which grants a paradigmatic outsider a voice within the European polity of literature, Montaigne’s way of reading the European literary tradition exemplifies the kind of “poaching” that de Certeau discusses in the excerpt reprinted here. His Essays can be read as an attempt to appropriate and adapt for his own purposes the auctoritates transmitted to him by tutors who played the role of clercs, the guardians of a certain construction of the text concerned. For Montaigne, reading is not the passive assimilation of an established cultural capital, but rather the active assimilation of that capital to ends that may be quite different from those intended by its authors/authorities, through a practice of selecting, questioning, comparing and judging that remains resolutely tactical (to use the terminology de Certeau borrows, or “poaches,” from Clausewitz). This aspect of the Essays is central in the book I began during my tenure of the Humboldt fellowship, Distinguo: Reading Montaigne Differently.3

So in the fall of 1981 I arranged to crash with one of my former graduate students who was living in Paris, and walked halfway across Paris every day to a building on the rue Saint-Jacques where work spaces were made available to visiting faculty. There I shared an office with a professor from SUNY who was writing something about contemporary French theatre. I arrived early in the morning and banged away until noon on the old manual typewriter that came with the office, stopped briefly to eat lunch in the restaurant universitaire next door or in one of the many restaurants on the rue Mouffetard, and then returned to continue my work until closing time. Access to these offices was guarded by two formidable secretaries who always seemed to be busy doing something—exactly what, I never discovered. When I encountered expressions in de Certeau whose meaning seemed to me obscure, and when dictionaries did not clarify their meaning, I asked these ladies’ advice, but they often simply informed me that my author’s French left much to be desired.

Two People sit on either side of a door that reads"Study room" at the end of a long hallway.

De Certeau’s style was anything but academic, and I struggled to find an English voice that was neither too casual nor too stuffy. I had to “invent” a version of the book that would allow anglophone readers to “uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives” (“Preface to the English Translation,” p. ix). This was no easy task, especially given the broad range of sources to which de Certeau referred, many of which were unknown to me. Nevertheless, I somehow managed to complete the first draft of the translation by the end of the month. Before I left Paris, I met with Luce Giard, de Certeau’s chief collaborator and the principal author of the second volume of L’Invention du quotidien (Habiter, cuisiner). We went over the translation in great detail, and she suggested numerous changes and corrections that greatly improved its accuracy. We finished these revisions in October, and I returned to Constance to resume my work there. I had little or nothing to do with the subsequent stages in the publication of the translation.

After I completed de Certeau’s book, I had no intention of doing further translations. However, a few years later Lawrence Kritzman asked me to translate Jacques Legoff’s History and Memory for Columbia University Press. I was putting the finishing touches on my book on Montaigne, and was available for a different project, so I agreed. It went well; so well in fact that I decided to undertake a translation project of my own, the first volume of Jacques d’Urfé’s seventeenth-century pastoral novel, l’Astrée. By the time I had finished that massive tome,4 I was hooked on translation. The following year a colleague from Constance asked me to translate a book by the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer, for the MIT Press, and again I agreed, though not without trepidation: was I ready to translate a German philosopher? But after I had that challenging project under my belt, I decided to retire from teaching and devote myself to translation full time. I have never looked back. As of 2020, I have published 60 book translations from French and 30 from German, along with many translations of articles, essays, and poems5—so that I can truly say that de Certeau launched my second career as a translator.

Being an American academic, when I undertook the de Certeau project I was used to pursuing scholarly projects without expecting any direct remuneration (if remuneration came, it came in the form of eventual promotions or salary increases), it never occurred to me that I might be paid for my translation labours. I signed no contract with the University of California Press and received no advance payment for the translation, which appeared in 1984. But a few years later, around 1986, I was surprised to receive a royalty cheque. It turned out that de Certeau had directed the Press to send all the royalties on the book to me. The first cheque was for nearly a thousand dollars, and I was delighted. I was even more pleased when a second, larger cheque arrived the following year. “Well,” I thought, “that’s nice, but of course it won’t last. Once the libraries have made their acquisitions, sales will taper off.”  However, the cheques kept coming, and to my great surprise, they kept getting bigger, reaching a high over $2,000 annually between 2007 and 2010 before beginning a gradual decline to about $1,000 in 2019. Furthermore, over the years I have received several thousand dollars in royalties for photocopies. As of 2020, the royalties on the book have totalled well over $30,000, making The Practice of Everyday Life the most lucrative translation project I have ever done, at least in terms of payment per word.

This outcome is explained, of course, by the fact that the translation sold far better than I (and perhaps even the publisher) ever imagined. As of 2020, about 90,000 copies (hardback, paperback, electronic) have been sold, which must make it one of the best-selling titles on the University of California Press’s list. In addition, excerpts like the one republished here are reproduced in packets of required or recommended reading for classes in a wide variety of fields ranging from art history and architecture to philosophy and urban planning. I am very pleased to see that readers continue to find it (or make it) relevant to their concerns.

Endnotes to the Introduction

[1] The first of two volumes of which were to appear under the collective title L’Invention du quotidien.

[2] Cf. p. 170, where de Certeau cites Jauss as one of those who sought to analyze the practice of reading as a kind of “poaching” on foreign territory; see also the reference to studies on reception aesthetics and the theory of action developed in Bochum, p. 175.

[3] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

[4] Astrea, Binghamton NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts series (SUNY-Binghamton Press), 1995.

[5] For a full list, see here.

A large loud machine produces a long line of identical images of a person reading.

Reading as Poaching

by Michel de Certeau

To arrest the meanings of words once and for all, that is what Terror wants.

Jean-François Lyotard, Rudiments Païiens

Some time ago, Alvin Toffler announced the birth of a “new species” of humanity, engendered by mass artistic consumption. This species–in–formation, migrating and devouring its way through the pastures of the media, is supposed to be defined by its “self mobility.”1 It returns to the nomadic ways of ancient times, but now hunts in artificial steppes and forests.

This prophetic analysis bears, however, only on the masses that consume “art.” An inquiry made in 1974 by a French government agency concerned with cultural activities2 shows to what extent this production only benefits an elite. Between 1967 (the date of a previous inquiry made by another agency, the INSEE) and 1974, public monies invested in the creation and development of cultural centers reinforced the already existing cultural inequalities among French people. They multiplied the places of expression and symbolization, but, in fact, the same categories profit from this expansion: culture, like money, “goes only to the rich.”

The masses rarely enter these gardens of art. But they are caught and collected in the nets of the media, by television (capturing 9 out of 10 people in France), by newspapers (8 out of 10), by books (7 out of 10, of whom 2 read a great deal and, according to another survey made in autumn 1978, 5 read more than they used to),3 etc. Instead of an increasing nomadism, we thus find a “reduction” and a confinement: consumption, organized by this expansionist grid takes on the appearance of something done by sheep progressively immobilized and “handled” as a result of the growing mobility of the media as they conquer space. The consumers settle down, the media keep on the move. The only freedom supposed to be left to the masses is that of grazing on the ration of simulacra the system distributes to each individual.

That is precisely the idea I oppose: such an image of consumers is unacceptable.

The ideology of “informing” through books

This image of the “public” is not usually made explicit. It is nonetheless implicit in the “producers’” claim to inform the population, that is, to “give form” to social practices. Even protests against the vulgarization/vulgarity of the media often depend on an analogous pedagogical claim; inclined to believe that its own cultural models are necessary for the people in order to educate their minds and elevate their hearts, the elite upset about the “low level” of journalism or television always assumes that the public is moulded by the products imposed on it.

To assume that is to misunderstand the act of “consumption.” This misunderstanding assumes that “assimilating” necessarily means “becoming similar to” what one absorbs, and not “making something similar” to what one is, making it one’s own, appropriating or reappropriating it. Between these two possible meanings, a choice must be made, and first of all on the basis of a story whose horizon has to be outlined. “Once upon a time….”

In the eighteenth century, the ideology of the Enlightenment claimed that the book was capable of reforming society, that educational popularization could transform manners and customs, that an elite’s products could, if they were sufficiently widespread, remodel a whole nation. This myth of Education4 inscribed a theory of consumption in the structures of cultural politics. To be sure, by the logic of technical and economic development that it mobilized, this politics was led to the present system that inverts the ideology that formerly sought to spread “Enlightenment.” The means of diffusion are now dominating the ideas they diffuse. The medium is replacing the message. The “pedagogical” procedures for which the educational system was the support have developed to the point of abandoning as useless or destroying the professional “body” that perfected them over the span of two centuries: today, they make up the apparatus which, by realizing the ancient dream of enclosing all citizens and each one in particular, gradually destroys the goal, the convictions, and the educational institutions of the Enlightenment. In short, it is as though the form of Education’s establishment had been too fully realized, by eliminating the very content that made it possible and which from that point on loses its social utility. But all through this evolution, the idea of producing a society by a “scriptural” system has continued to have as its corollary the conviction that although the public is more or less resistant, it is moulded by (verbal or iconic) writing, that it becomes similar to what it receives, and that it is imprinted by and like the text which is imposed on it.

From the child to the scientist, reading is preceded and made possible by oral communication, which constitutes the multifarious ‘authority’ that texts almost never cite… [De Certeau calls this hidden usurpation] scriptural imperialism.

This text was formerly found at school. Today, the text is society itself. It takes urbanistic, industrial, commercial, or televised forms. But the mutation that caused the transition from educational archeology to the technocracy of the media did not touch the assumption that consumption is essentially passive—an assumption that is precisely what should be examined. On the contrary, this mutation actually reinforced this assumption: the massive installation of standardized teaching has made the intersubjective relationships of traditional apprenticeship impossible; the “informing” technicians have thus been changed, through the systematization of enterprises, into bureaucrats cooped up in their specialities and increasingly ignorant of users; productivist logic itself, by isolating producers, has led them to suppose that there is no creativity among consumers; a reciprocal blindness, generated by this system, has ended up making both technicians and producers believe that initiative takes place only in technical laboratories. Even the analysis of the repression exercised by the mechanisms of this system of disciplinary enclosure continues to assume that the public is passive, “informed,” processed, marked, and has no historical role.

The efficiency of production implies the inertia of consumption. It produces the ideology of consumption–as–a–receptacle. The result of class ideology and technical blindness, this legend is necessary for the system that distinguishes and privileges authors, educators, revolutionaries, in a word, “producers,” in contrast with those who do not produce. By challenging “consumption” as it is conceived and (of course) confirmed by these “authorial” enterprises, we may be able to discover creative activity where it has been denied that any exists, and to relativize the exorbitant claim that a certain kind of production (real enough, but not the only kind) can set out to produce history by “informing” the whole of a country.

A misunderstood activity: reading

Reading is only one aspect of consumption, but a fundamental one. In a society that is increasingly written, organized by the power of modifying things and of reforming structures on the basis of scriptural models (whether scientific, economic, or political), transformed little by little into combined “texts” (be they administrative, urban, industrial, etc.), the binominal set production–consumption can often be replaced by its general equivalent and indicator, the binominal set writing–reading. The power established by the will to rewrite history (a will that is by turns reformist, scientific, revolutionary, or pedagogical) on the basis of scriptural operations that are at first carried out in a circumscribed field, has as its corollary a major division between reading and writing.

“Modernization, modernity itself, is writing,” says François Furet. The generalization of writing has in fact brought about the replacement of custom by abstract law, the substitution of the State for traditional authorities, and the disintegration of the group to the advantage of the individual. This transformation took place under the sign of a “crossbreeding” of two distinct elements, the written and the oral. Furet and Ozouf’s recent study has indeed demonstrated the existence, in the less educated parts of France, of a “vast semi-literacy, centered on reading, instigated by the Church and by families, and aimed chiefly at girls.”5 Only the schools have joined, with a link that has often remained extremely fragile, the ability to read and the ability to write. These abilities were long separated, up until late in the nineteenth century, and even today, the adult life of many of those who have been to school very quickly dissociates “just reading” and writing; and we must thus ask ourselves how reading proceeds where it is married with writing.

Research on the psycho-linguistics of comprehension6 distinguishes between “the lexical act” and the “scriptural act” in reading. It shows that the schoolchild learns to read by a process that parallels his learning to decipher; learning to read is not a result of learning to decipher: reading meaning and deciphering letters correspond to two different activities, even if they intersect. In other words, cultural memory (acquired through listening, through oral tradition) alone makes possible and gradually enriches the strategies of semantic questioning whose expectations the deciphering of a written text refines, clarifies, or corrects.

From the child to the scientist, reading is preceded and made possible by oral communication, which constitutes the multifarious “authority” that texts almost never cite. It is as though the construction of meanings, which takes the form of an expectation (waiting for something) or an anticipation (making hypotheses) linked to an oral transmission, was the initial block of stone that the decoding of graphic materials progressively sculpted, invalidated, verified, detailed, in order to make way for acts of reading. The graph only shapes and carves the anticipation.

In spite of the work that has uncovered an autonomy of the practice of reading underneath scriptural imperialism, a de facto situation has been created by more than three centuries of history. The social and technical functioning of contemporary culture hierarchizes these two activities. To write is to produce the text; to read is to receive it from someone else without putting one’s own mark on it, without remaking it. In that regard, the reading of the catechism or of the Scriptures that the clergy used to recommend to girls and mothers, by forbidding these Vestals of an untouchable sacred text to write continues today in the “reading” of the television programs offered to “consumers” who cannot trace their own writing on the screen where the production of the Other—of “culture”—appears. “The link existing between reading and the Church”[7] is reproduced in the relation between reading and the church of the media. In this mode, the construction of the social text by professional intellectuals (clercs) still seems to correspond to its “reception” by the faithful who are supposed to be satisfied to reproduce the models elaborated by the manipulators of language.

What has to be put in question is unfortunately not this division of labor (it is only too real), but the assimilation of reading to passivity. In fact, to read is to wander through an imposed system (that of the text, analogous to the constructed order of a city or of a supermarket). Recent analyses show that “every reading modifies its object,”8 that (as Borges already pointed out) “one literature differs from another less by its text than by the way in which it is read,”9 and that a system of verbal or iconic signs is a reservoir of forms to which the reader must give a meaning. If then “the book is a result (a construction) produced by the reader,”10 one must consider the operation of the latter as a sort of lectio, the production proper to the “reader” (“lecteur”).11 The reader takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in texts something different from what they “intended.” He detaches them from their (lost or accessory) origin. He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings.

By its very nature available to a plural reading, the text becomes a cultural weapon, a private hunting reserve, the pretext for a law that legitimizes as ‘literal’ the interpretation given by socially authorized professionals and intellectuals.

Is this “reading” activity reserved for the literary critic (always privileged in studies of reading), that is, once again, for a category of professional intellectuals (clercs), or can it be extended to all cultural consumers? Such is the question to which history, sociology, or the educational theory ought to give us the rudiments of an answer.

Unfortunately, the many works on reading provide only partial clarifications on this point or depend on the experience of literary people. Research has been primarily concerned with the teaching of reading.12 It has not ventured very far into the fields of history and ethnology, because of the lack of traces left behind by a practice that slips through all sorts of “writings” that have yet to be clearly determined (for example, one “reads” a landscape the way one reads a text).13 Investigations of ordinary reading are more common in sociology, but generally statistical in type: they are more concerned with calculating the correlations between objects read, social groups, and places frequented more than with analyzing the very operation of reading, its modalities and its typology.14

There remains the literary domain, which is particularly rich today (from Barthes to Riffaterre or Jauss), once again privileged by writing but highly specialized: “writers” shift the “joy of reading” in a direction where it is articulated on an art of writing and on a pleasure of re-reading. In that domain, however, whether before or after Barthes, deviations and creativities are narrated that play with the expectations, tricks, and normativities of the “work read”; there theoretical models that can account for it are already elaborated.15 In spite of all this, the story of man’s travels through his own texts remains in large measure unknown.

Many readers float in the air above three armchairs.

“Literal” meaning, a product of a social elite

From analyses that follow the activity of reading in its detours, drifts across the page, metamorphoses and anamorphoses of the text produced by the travelling eye, imaginary or meditative flights taking off from a few words, overlappings of spaces on the militarily organized surfaces of the text, and ephemeral dances, it is at least clear, as a first result, that one cannot maintain the division separating the readable text (a book, image, etc.) from the act of reading. Whether it is a question of newspapers or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers; it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control. It becomes a text only in its relation to the exteriority of the reader, by an interplay of implications and ruses between two sorts of “expectation” in combination: the expectation that organizes a readable space (a literality), and one that organizes a procedure necessary for the actualization of the work (a reading).16

It is a strange fact that the principle of this reading activity was formulated by Descartes more than three hundred years ago, in discussing contemporary research on combinative systems and on the example of ciphers (chiffres) or coded texts: “And if someone, in order to decode a cipher written with ordinary letters, thinks of reading a B everywhere he finds an A, and reading a C where he finds a B, and thus to substitute for each letter the one that follows it in alphabetic order and if, reading in this way, he finds words that have a meaning, he will not doubt that he has discovered the true meaning of this cipher in this way, even though it could very well be that the person who wrote it meant something quite different, giving a different meaning to each letter. . . .”17 The operation of encoding, which is articulated on signifiers, produces the meaning, which is thus not defined by something deposited in the text, by an “intention,” or by an activity on the part of the author.

Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the television viewer reads the passing away of his childhood in the news reports. One viewer says about the program she saw the previous evening: ‘It was stupid and yet I sat there all the same.’

What is then the origin of the Great Wall of China that circumscribes a “proper” in the text, isolates its semantic autonomy from everything else, and makes it the secret order of a “work?” Who builds this barrier constituting the text as a sort of island that no reader can ever reach? This fiction condemns consumers to subjection because they are always going to be guilty of infidelity or ignorance when confronted by the mute “riches” of the treasury thus set aside. The fiction of the “treasury” hidden in the work, a sort of strong-box full of meaning, is obviously not based on the productivity of the reader, but on the social institution that overdetermines his relation with the text.18 Reading is as it were overprinted by a relationship of forces (between teachers and pupils, or between producers and consumers) whose instrument it becomes. The use made of the book by privileged readers constitutes it as a secret of which they are the “true” interpreters. It interposes a frontier between the text and its readers that can be crossed only if one has a passport delivered by these official interpreters, who transform their own reading (which is also a legitimate one) into an orthodox “literality” that makes other (equally legitimate) readings either heretical (not “in conformity” with the meaning of the text) or insignificant (to be forgotten). From this point of view, “literal” meaning is the index and the result of a social power, that of an elite. By its very nature available to a plural reading, the text becomes a cultural weapon, a private hunting reserve, the pretext for a law that legitimizes as “literal” the interpretation given by socially authorized professionals and intellectuals (clercs).

Moreover, if the reader’s expression of his freedom through the text is tolerated among intellectuals (clercs) (only someone like Barthes can take this liberty), it is on the other hand denied students (who are scornfully driven or cleverly coaxed back to the meaning “accepted” by their teachers) or the public (who are carefully told “what is to be thought” and whose inventions are considered negligible and quickly silenced).

It is thus social hierarchization that conceals the reality of the practice of reading or makes it unrecognizable. Formerly, the Church, which instituted a social division between its intellectual clerks and the “faithful,” ensured the Scriptures the status of a “Letter” that was supposed to be independent of its readers and, in fact, possessed by its exegetes: the autonomy of the text was the reproduction of sociocultural relationships within the institution whose officials determined what parts of it should be read. When the institution began to weaken, the reciprocity between the text and its readers (which the institution hid) appeared, as if by withdrawing the Church had opened to view the indefinite plurality of the “writings” produced by readings. The creativity of the reader grows as the institution that controlled it declines. This process, visible from the Reformation onward, already disturbed the pastors of the seventeenth century. Today, it is the socio-political mechanisms of the schools, the press, or television that isolate the text controlled by the teacher or the producer from its readers. But behind the theatrical décor of this new orthodoxy is hidden (as in earlier ages)19 the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the “masters.”

Reading is thus situated at the point where social stratification (class relationships) and poetic operations (the practitioner’s constructions of a text) intersect: a social hierarchization seeks to make the reader conform to the “information” distributed by an elite (or semi-elite); reading operations manipulate the reader by insinuating their inventiveness into the cracks in a cultural orthodoxy. One of these two stories conceals what is not in conformity with the “masters” and makes it invisible to them; the other disseminates it in the networks of private life. They thus both collaborate in making reading into an unknown out of which emerge, on the one hand, only the experience of the literate readers (theatricalized and dominating), and on the other, rare and partial, like bubbles rising from the depths of the water, the indices of a common poetics.

An “exercise in ubiquity,” that “impertinent absence”

The autonomy of the reader depends on a transformation of the social relationships that overdetermine his relation to texts. This transformation is a necessary task. This revolution would be no more than another totalitarianism on the part of an elite claiming for itself the right to conceal different modes of conduct and substituting a new normative education for the previous one, were it not that we can count on the fact that there already exists, though it is surreptitious or even repressed, an experience other than that of passivity. A politics of reading must thus be articulated on an analysis that, describing practices that have long been in effect, makes them politicizable. Even pointing out a few aspects of the operation of reading will already indicate how it eludes the law of information.

“I read and I daydream. . . . My reading is thus a sort of impertinent absence. Is reading an exercise in ubiquity?”20 An initial, indeed initiatory, experience: to read is to be elsewhere, where they are not, in another world;21 it is to constitute a secret scene, a place one can enter and leave when one wishes; to create dark corners into which no one can see within an existence subjected to technocratic transparency and that implacable light that, in Genet’s work, materializes the hell of social alienation. Marguerite Duras has noted: “Perhaps one always reads in the dark. . . . Reading depends on the obscurity of the night. Even if one reads in broad daylight, outside, darkness gathers around the book.”22

The reader produces gardens that miniaturize and collate a world, like a Robinson Crusoe discovering an island; but he, too, is “possessed” by his own fooling and jesting that introduces plurality and difference into the written system of a society and a text. He is thus a novelist. He deterritorializes himself, oscillating in a nowhere between what he invents and what changes him. Sometimes, in fact, like a hunter in the forest, he spots the written quarry, follows a trail, laughs, plays tricks, or else like a gambler, lets himself be taken in by it. Sometimes he loses the fictive securities of reality when he reads: his escapades exile him from the assurances that give the self its location on the social checkerboard. Who reads, in fact? Is it I, or some part of me? “It isn’t I as a truth, but I as uncertainty about myself, reading these texts that lead to perdition. The more I read them, the less I understand them, and everything is going from bad to worse.”23

This is a common experience, if one believes testimony that cannot be quantified or quoted, and not only that of “learned” readers. This experience is shared by the readers of True Romances, Farm Journal and The Butcher and Grocery Clerk’s Journal, no matter how popularized or technical the spaces traversed by the Amazon or Ulysses of everyday life.

Readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves

Far from being writers—founders of their own place, heirs of the peasants of earlier ages now working on the soil of language, diggers of wells and builders of houses—readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves. Writing accumulates, stocks up, resists time by the establishment of a place and multiplies its production through the expansionism of reproduction. Reading takes no measures against the erosion of time (one forgets oneself and also forgets), it does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly, and each of the places through which it passes is a repetition of the lost paradise.

Indeed, reading has no place: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text;24 the television viewer reads the passing away of his childhood in the news reports. One viewer says about the program she saw the previous evening: “It was stupid and yet I sat there all the same.” What place captivated her, which was and yet was not that of the image seen? It is the same with the reader: his place is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together, associating texts like funerary statues that he awakens and hosts, but never owns. In that way, he also escapes from the law of each text in particular, and from that of the social milieu.

Spaces for games and tricks

In order to characterize this activity of reading, one can resort to several models. It can be considered as a form of the bricolage Lévi-Strauss analyzes as a feature of “the savage mind,” that is, an arrangement made with “the materials at hand,” a production “that has no relationship to a project,” and which readjusts “the residues of previous construction and destruction.”25 But unlike Lévi-Strauss’s “mythological universes,” if this production also arranges events, it does not compose a unified set: it is another kind of “mythology” dispersed in time, a sequence of temporal fragments not joined together but disseminated through repetitions and different modes of enjoyment, in memories and successive knowledges.

Another model: the subtle art whose theory was elaborated by medieval poets and romancers who insinuate innovation into the text itself, into the terms of a tradition. Highly refined procedures allow countless differences to filter into the authorized writing that serves them as a framework, but whose law does not determine their operation. These poetic ruses, which are not linked to the creation of a proper (written) place of their own, are maintained over the centuries right up to contemporary reading, and the latter is just as agile in practicing diversions and metaphorizations that sometimes are hardly even indicated by a “pooh!” interjected by the reader.

The studies carried out in Bochum elaborating a Rezeptionsästhetik (an esthetics of reception) and a Handlungstheorie (a theory of action) also provide different models based on the relations between textual tactics and the “expectations” and successive hypotheses of the receiver who considers a drama or a novel as a premeditated action.26 This play of textual productions in relation to what the reader’s expectations make him produce in the course of his progress through the story is presented, to be sure, with a weighty conceptual apparatus; but it introduces dances between readers and texts in a place where, on a depressing stage, an orthodox doctrine had erected the statue of “the work” surrounded by consumers who were either conformers or ignorant people.

Through these investigations and many others, we are directed toward a reading no longer characterized merely by an “impertinent absence,” but by advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text. This process comes and goes, alternately captivated (but by what? what is it which arises both in the reader and in the text?), playful, protesting, fugitive.

We should try to rediscover the movements of this reading within the body itself, which seems to stay docile and silent but mines the reading in its own way: from the nooks of all sorts of “reading rooms” (including lavatories) emerge subconscious gestures, grumblings, tics, stretchings, rustlings, unexpected noises, in short a wild orchestration of the body.27 But elsewhere, at its most elementary level, reading has become, over the past three centuries, a visual poem. It is no longer accompanied, as it used to be, by the murmur of a vocal articulation nor by the movement of a muscular manducation. To read without uttering the words aloud or at least mumbling them is a “modern” experience, unknown for millennia. In earlier times, the reader interiorized the text; he made his voice the body of the other; he was its actor. Today, the text no longer imposes its own rhythm on the subject, it no longer manifests itself through the reader’s voice. This withdrawal of the body, which is the condition of its autonomy, is a distancing of the text. It is the reader’s habeas corpus.

Drawing of a woman's face, with arrows detailing the "subconscious getures of reading"

Because the body withdraws itself from the text in order henceforth to come into contact with it only through the mobility of the eye,28 the geographical configuration of the text organizes the activity of the reader less and less. Reading frees itself from the soil that determined it. It detaches itself from that soil. The autonomy of the eye suspends the body’s complicities with the text; it unmoors it from the scriptural place; it makes the written text an object and it increases the reader’s possibilities of moving about. One index of this: the methods of speed reading.29 Just as the airplane makes possible a growing independence with respect to the constraints imposed by geographical organization, the techniques of speed reading obtain, through the rarefaction of the eye’s stopping points, an acceleration of its movements across the page, an autonomy in relation to the determinations of the text and a multiplication of the spaces covered. Emancipated from places, the reading body is freer in its movements. It thus transcribes in its attitudes every subject’s ability to convert the text through reading and to “run it” the way one runs traffic lights.

…Emancipated from places, the reading body is freer in its movements. It thus transcribes in its attitudes every subject’s ability to convert the text through reading and to ‘run it’ the way one runs traffic lights.

In justifying the reader’s impertinence, I have neglected many aspects. Barthes distinguished three types of reading: the one that stops at the pleasure afforded by words, the one that rushes on to the end and “faints with expectation,” and the one that cultivates the desire to write:30 erotic, hunting, and initiatory modes of reading. There are others, in dreams, battle, autodidacticism, etc., that we cannot consider here. In any event, the reader’s increased autonomy does not project him, for the media extend their power over his imagination, that is, over everything he lets emerge from himself into the nets of the text—his fears, his dreams, his fantasized and lacking authorities. This is what the powers work on that make out of “facts” and “figures” a rhetoric whose target is precisely this surrendered intimacy.

But whereas the scientific apparatus (ours) is led to share the illusion of the powers it necessarily supports, that is, to assume that the masses are transformed by the conquests and victories of expansionist production, it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools.

A man sits in a chair reading a book. The words "Once upon a time" flow out of the book, into the air.


1 Alvin Toffler, The Culture Consumers (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965), 33–52, on the basis of Emanuel Demby’s research.

2 Pratiques culturelles des Français (Paris: Secrétariat d’Etat à la Culture, S. E. R., 1974, 2 vols.

3 According to a survey by Louis–Harris (September–October 1978), the number of readers in France grew 17% over the past twenty years: there is the same percentage of people who read a great deal (22%), but the percentage of people who read a little or a moderate amount has increased. See Janick Jossin, in L’Express for 11 November 1978, 151–162.

4 See Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France pendant la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: SEPVEN, 1963), 753–767.

5 François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Lire et écrire. L’Alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry (Paris: Minuit, 1977), I, 349–369, 199–228.

6 See for example J. Mehler and G. Noizet, Textes pour une psycholinguistique (La Haye: Mouton, 1974); and also Jean Hébrard, “Ecole et alphabétisation au XIXe siècle,” Colloque “Lire et écrire,” MSH, Paris, June 1979.

7 Furet and Ozouf, Lire et écrire, 213.

8 Michel Charles, Rhétorique de la lecture (Paris: Seuil, 1977), 83.

9 Jorge Luis Borges, quoted by Gérard Genette, Figures (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 123.

10 Charles, Rhétorique de la lecture, 61.

11 As is well known, “lector” was, in the Middle Ages, the title of a kind of University Professor.

12 See especially Recherches actuelles sur l’enseignement de la lecture, ed. Alain Bentolila (Paris: Retz CEPL, 1976); Jean Foucambert and J. André, La Manière d’être lecteur. Apprentissage et enseignement de la lecture, de la maternelle au CM2 (Paris: SERMAP OCDL, 1976); Laurence Lentin, Du parler au lire. Interaction entre l’adulte et l’enfant (Paris: ESF, 1977); etc. To these should be added at least a portion of the abundant American literature: Jeanne Sternlicht Chall, Learning to Read, the Great Debate . . . 1910–1965 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967); Dolores Durkin, Teaching Them to Read (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1970); Eleanor Jack Gibson and Harry Levin, The Psychology of Reading (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1975); Milfred Robeck and John A. R. Wilson, Psychology of Reading: Foundations of Instruction (New York: John Wiley, 1973); Reading Disabilities. An International Perspective, ed. Lester and Muriel Tarnopol (Baltimore: University Park Press, 1976); etc., along with three important journals: Journal of Reading, since 1957 (Purdue University, Department of English), The Reading Teacher, since 1953 (Chicago International Reading Association), Reading Research Quarterly, since 1965 (Newark, Delaware, International Reading Association).

13 See the bibliography in Furet and Ozouf, Lire et écrire, II, 358–372, to which we can add Mitford McLeod Mathews, Teaching to Read, Historically Considered (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). Jack Goody’s studies (Literacy in a Traditional Society [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968] and The Domestication of the Savage Mind [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977], etc.) open several paths toward an ethnohistorical analysis.

14 In addition to statistical investigations, see J. Charpentreau et al., Le Livre et la lecture en France (Paris: Editions ouvrières, 1968).

15 Roland Barthes, of course: Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973), The Pleasure of Text, trans. R. Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), and “Sur la Lecture,” Le Français aujourd’hui, No. 32 (January 1976), pp. 11–18. See, somewhat at random, in addition to the works already cited, Tony Duvert, “La Lecture introuvable,” Minuit, No. 1 (November 1972), 2–21; O. Mannoni, Clefs pour l’imaginaire (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 202–217; Michel Mougenot, “Lecture/écriture,” Le Français aujourd’hui, No. 30 (May 1975); Victor N. Smirnoff, “L’Oeuvre lue,” Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse, No. 1 (1970), 49–57; Tzvetan Todorov, Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971), 241 et seq.; Jean Verrier, “La Ficelle,” Poétique, No. 30 (April 1977); Littérature, No. 7 (October 1972); Esprit, December 1974, and January 1976; etc.

16 See, for example, Michel Charles’ “propositions” in his Rhétorique de la lecture.

17 Descartes, Principia, IV, 205.

18 Pierre Kuentz, “Le tête à texte,” Esprit, December 1974, 946–962, and “L’Envers du texte,” Littérature, No. 7 (October 1972).

19 Some documents, unfortunately all too rare, shed light on the autonomy of the trajectories, interpretations, and convictions of Catholic readers of the Bible. See, on the subject of his “farmer” father, Rétif de la Bretonne, La Vie de mon père (1778) (Paris: Garnier, 1970), 29, 131–132, etc.

20 Guy Rosolato, Essais sur le symbolique (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 288.

21 Theresa de Avila considered reading to be a form of prayer, the discovery of another space in which desire could be articulated. Countless other authors of spiritual works think the same, and so do children.

22 Marguerite Duras, Le Camion (Paris: Minuit, 1977), and “Entretien à Michèle Porte,” quoted in Sorcières, No. 11 (January 1978), 47.

23 Jacques Sojcher, “Le Professeur de philosophic,” Revue de l’Université de Bruxelles, No. 3–4 (1976), 428–429.

24 Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte, 58.

25 Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962), 3–47; The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). In the reader’s “bricolage,” the elements that are re-employed, all being drawn from official and accepted bodies of material, can cause one to believe that there is nothing new in reading.

26 See in particular the works of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (“Die Dramenschliessende Sprachhandlung im Aristotelischen Theater und ihre Problematisierung bei Marivaux”) and of Karlheinz Stierle (“Das Liebesgeständnis in Racines Phèdre und das Verhältnis von (Sprach-)Handlung und Tat”), in Poetica (Bochum), 1976; etc.

27 Georges Perec had discussed this very well in “Lire: Esquisse sociophysiologique,” Esprit, January 1976, 9–20.

28 It is nonetheless known that the muscles that contract the vocal cords and constrict the glottis remain active in reading.

29 See François Richaudeau, La Lisibilité (Paris: Retz CEPL, 1969); or Georges Rémond, “Apprendre la lecture silencieuse à l’ecole primaire,” in Bentolila, La manière d’être lecteur, 147–161.

30 Barthes, “Sur la lecture,” 15–16.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Michel de Certeau (17 May 1925 – 9 January 1986) was a French Jesuit scholar whose work combined history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the social sciences. He was known as the philosopher of everyday life and widely regarded as a historian with interests ranging from travelogues of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contemporary urban life.

Introduction & Translation by

Steven Rendall is Professor Emeritus of Romance Languages at the University of Oregon and Editor Emeritus of the journal Comparative Literature. He has translated ninety books and many articles, stories, and poems from both French and German.

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Ken Krimstein is an illustrator, writer, and cartoonist for The New Yorker Magazine, and a graphic novelist. His new non-fiction graphic narrative is When I Grow Up – The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish

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