‘We mustn’t take people for fools’: de Certeau on Reading as Resistance

In The Practice of Everyday Life, French theorist and sometime Jesuit, Michel de Certeau presents an account of individual agency which seeks to nuance Foucault’s exposition of the disciplinary society.  Where certain historical and sociological narratives are inclined to see only passive consumers at the mercy of structural forces, de Certeau wants us to see active users who “make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural  economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (xiv).  Without denying the existence and significance of “disciplinary technology” and the “microphysics of power,” he also wants to

bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline.’  Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline …” (xiv-xv).

Among the anti-disciplinary practices analyzed by de Certeau, we may be surprised to find reading.  And reading is of particular significance as a practice because,

From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey.  It is a sort of epic of the eye and of the impulse to read (xxi).

Bear in mind that de Certeau is writing in the early 1980’s, well before the advent of digital technologies we now take for granted which have only accelerated and accentuated (certain forms of) reading and the visual.  Given his eclectic account of what constitutes reading, however, de Certeau’s analysis is well-positioned to retain its relevance.

Reading, in the very broad sense employed by de Certeau, may appear to be in its very nature a quintessentially  passive activity, a kind of thoughtless consumption.  This could not be further from the truth:

In reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production:  the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance.  [The reader] insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation; he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one’s body.  (xxi)

The movement of the reader’s world into the author’s place “makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment.  It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient” (xxi).  Later in the book, de Certeau returns to this theme of reading (consumption) as transience, especially in contrast to writing (production):

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 travelers; 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 …. 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 …. [The reader’s] 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. (174)

The placelessness of reading and the tactics it evokes from the reader, if I understand de Certeau, free the reader from the law-like dominance of any one text and, by extension, society itself, which can be read as a book.  In the Middle Ages, de Certeau notes early on, the text was a book, today it is a “whole society made into a book” (xxii).  Later on he adds, “This text was formerly found at school.  Today, the text is society itself.  It takes urbanistic, industrial, commercial, or televised forms” (167).

The tactics of reading become the strategies of non-conformity.  The consumer is not merely a passive recipient, she is an active user that evades the pressures of conformity, even if subtly and evasively.  This analysis elides nicely with the conditions of the digital age, but should now be updated to account for the vast democratization of the means of writing/production that digital technologies and the Internet have enabled.  What happens to the strategies of resistance developed and deployed under the conditions of the mass market when we enter into the diversified field of digital media?  Do the implicit and tacit tactics become explicitly instantiated under the new conditions?  Does the underground and invisible now turn into the mainstream and visible?  Did the silent tactics of reading guide the evolution of digital practices?

And one last word, for now, from de Certeau.  In debates about the consequences of the Internet, it may be too often assumed that users are merely passive pawns at the disposal of massive and often invisible forces, whether of the medium itself or the commercial powers that profit from the medium. As he counseled his contemporaries, de Certeau may have counseled us:

… it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools (176).

2 thoughts on “‘We mustn’t take people for fools’: de Certeau on Reading as Resistance

  1. Good post. De Certeau is on my summer theory reading list, mainly for the reasons you allude to in this post, his work on the possibilities of evasion and production within culture. I think you might, if you are planning to do more reading about this issue, want to pick up John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture. Also, Stuart Hall has this interesting theory of how media is read, it’s in his Encoding/Decoding, and also has to do with resistant reading. Like de Certeau, the theories of these men need to be extended a bit in order to encompass things like YouTube. I see a lot of the theorizing of resistance as reacting directly to Adorno and his discussion of the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment (which pretty much said that any resistance to mass culture will be temporary and eventually contained and adopted by mass culture, and thus turned into mass culture).

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I’m not sure how far I’m pursuing this particular line, but it is always good to have some suggestions for further reading lined up. Adorno is an interesting person to bring in to this discussion. At least in The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau’s immediate conversation partners are Foucault and Bourdieu, but throwing Adorno in adds an interesting dimension. While one may be tempted think Adorno an incorrigible crank, he certainly is on to something on the count you mentioned. Putting Adorno and de Certeau in conversation would be intriguing.

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