August 25, 2010

Reading is Like Wandering Through a City

The idea of a passive readership has undergone numerous challenges. Amongst them, French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau argues that reading is a misunderstood activity, more akin to “poaching” than it is to “receiving.” This presumption, located in the ideology of the Enlightenment, is based on the notion that reading is a perfunctory activity in which the reader is the receiver of text and is informed and transformed by its content. On the contrary, according to de Certeau, we actually do the opposite: “to read is to wander through an imposed system.” It is an activity analogous to walking in the city or temporarily inhabiting another’s apartment. Every reader modifies the text, making use of the system of linguistic signs as a reservoir of forms from which to give a meaning, and invents something other than what the author intended. To read against the grain of imposed meaning is ultimately a political activity; it is, like other “everyday practices” identified by de Certeau, an act of resistance against the dominant economic order. The reader takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in the 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.

      -- Kathleen Ritter in Fillip

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