Reading as Poaching (from The Practice of Everyday Life)

By Michel de Certeau

“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).

Reading as Poaching

8 August, 2022