De Certeau, Michel. "Reading as Poaching." The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 165-176. Summary The social constructionist De Certeau contests the idea that consumers are passively guided and molded by the media-products that are imposed on them (165). This assumption about the public is rooted in the Enlightenment's ideological goal of the necessity of educating and reforming the public and has gained ground ever since. During the Enlightenment the book was thought of as the perfect instrument to instruct. Today the message of the book is no longer of primary importance. Rather, it is the book as a means to read that garners significance (166). Another development from the 17th and 18th century onwards is the expansion of the playground of the authority of the text: it has extended from school to society as a whole. Contemporary society is predominantly structured according to scriptural models (167-168). As a result, writing is granted a privileged status over reading and is equated with producing and dictating, whereas reading is reduced to merely passively consuming, absorbing, and reproducing (169). In this stratified system producers are privileged and consumers oppressed (167). De Certeau opposes the image of reading as being a passive matter and states that reading is also a process of creative production, for the reader must actively construct a meaning on the basis of a collection of signs that the text presents (168-169). In general, media-consumption should be understood as a form of assimilation in which it is not so much the consumer that is adapted to the media-product, but the media-product that is adapted to the consumer (166-167). Not only is there a hierarchical relation between reading and writing, but the domain of reading also appears to be hierarchically structured. An elite group of official interpreters (e.g., teachers, intellectuals, academics, critics, media-producers) has monopolized reading and reveal the true meaning of a text. This social institution dictates the text's righteous meaning to the public, defines the relationship the public should have with a text, and uses the text as a "cultural weapon" to consolidate its own authority (171, 176). A revolution is necessary to overthrow this hierarchical structure (173). In spite of the normative power of the literate elite, a common poetics is practiced behind closed doors (172-173). This is a creative and transgressive reading by means of which the reader deterritorializes him- or herself by traveling through invented, unknown lands that exist between self and image, between text and the reader's social milieu, between the text that is read and other texts that are brought to the imagination through the reading process (173-174). The emergence of this sort of reading has come hand in hand with the change from reading aloud to silent reading. Even though in silent reading the bodily activity has been reduced to the mobility of the eye, paying attention to the body as it responds to the practice of common poetics might help us explain the dynamics of this type of reading (175-176). Critique De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life focuses on how social stratifications determine the nature of social practices of which reading is just one manifestation. According to De Certeau, reading as we know it is the index and result of the socially stratified relationships between reading and writing, reading and the literate elite, the literate elite and the masses, and the masses and reading. However, other factors that influence the reading process are left out of these relationships, such as the working of emotions and cognition, the reader's gender, reading motives, literary competence, and personal background. Whether or not these influences are thought of in terms of resulting from or functioning in social relationships, they should be taken into account when the aim is to characterize the phenomenon of reading as practiced by non-professional readers. Nevertheless, the examination of literary reading through the looking-glass of social relationships or as a product of the combination of several influences is an approach that empirical studies of literature should take to heart. The picture that De Certeau draws of the nature of common poetics appears to be of a rather speculative caliber. Empirical research could contribute more insight to the nature of both common poetics and non-common poetics, as well as to their interconnection. I would like to mention three aspects that seem to be fairly problematic in De Certeau's account of common poetics. First, the practitioners of this type of reading are characterized as readers who "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" (174). "Poaching" and "despoiling" assume that something is taken away from something or someone. What do readers (permanently) take away when reading? Second, the assertion that "[r]eading 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" (174) could be questioned. It disregards, for instance, that people may have very memorable, sometimes even life changing, reading experiences. Third, De Certeau quotes Michel Charles who states that "every reading modifies its object" (169). It appears to me that the object (the text) is not modified every time it is read (leaving aside bibliographical adjustments), but that just every time it is read more readings (interpretations) are added to its virtual and in some cases scriptural reading history. Charles, 83 Another problematic aspect of "Reading as Poaching" is that it remains unclear to what extent common poetics escapes or is hindered by the power of the literate elite. This indistinctness appears from, for instance, stating on the one hand that in spite of the literate elite, there is always "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'" (172) and on the other hand arguing that "the media extend their power over his [the reader's] imagination" (176). Lastly, the chapter lacks elaboration on the observed causal connection between the development from reading aloud to silent reading and the increased interpretive freedom of the reader. The hypothesis sounds fairly plausible, but would be more convincing if backed up by more (empirical) evidence. Reference Charles, Michel. Rhétorique de la lecture. Paris: Seuil, 1977.
Document created March 4th 2005