Reading as Poaching

The twenty-second piece in our Polity of Literature series:

“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

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 poems[5] —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.

[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.

Reading as Poaching

Michel de Certeau

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

Jean-Francois 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 activities[2] 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.

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.

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 Education[4] 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 large loud machine produces a long line of identical images of a person reading.

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 comprehension[6] 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.

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).

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.’

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.

A politics of reading must thus be articulated on an analysis that, describing practices that have long been in effect, makes them politicizable.

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 Clerks 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.

[Reading] 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.’

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.

Translation: Steven Rendall

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. His translations have won the French-American Foundation/Florence Gould Foundation prize, the American Historical Association's James Henry Breasted prize, the MLA's Scaglione prize, and the National Jewish Book Council's Sandra Brand and Arik Weintraub Award.

Lapiztola + Chiquitraca: Collective Crises

In May of 2006, Rosario Martinez and Roberto Vega were fresh out of design school when the annual teachers union strike took on a sinister character as an explosive social movement of street protests turned into an seven-month war between the citizenry, organized by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, and the state. Oaxacan Governor Ruiz Ortiz rejected calls for his resignation and instead ordered police to remove protestors at all costs and authorized the use of deadly force, at which point violence erupted in the streets. The teacher’s union called on the rest of civil society to act and the people of Oaxaca responded in kind.

Nighttime stencil project in downtown Oaxaca

Nighttime stencil project in downtown Oaxaca. Courtesy of Lapiztola.

By June 14th, protestors had occupied the historic Zócalo of Oaxaca city and the movement to remove Governor Ruiz Ortiz had gained momentum. Between June and November the government responded by sending in “death squads” comprised of police, military – mercenaries paid to gun down citizens. Protestors organized themselves into topiles (neighborhood watches) and built barricades around barrios to stop the transit of police and stem the encroaching violence. The more the repression intensified the more organized the protestors became.

Both Rosario and Roberto come from teachers’ families, so the protests hit close to home. It was at this time that they started making socially conscious art, forming an autonomous collective Lapiztola, a portmanteau of the Spanish words lapiz (pencil) and pistola (pistol). Their resistance began with small posters in support of the protest movement, particularly the public university’s radio station which served as an important communication platform during the protests.

Throughout the summer, Rosario and Roberto began to notice that their simple but iconic graphics were disappearing amidst the eruption of graffiti and public art that took over the city walls during the protests. They decided to go bigger, but unlike many of the murals they were seeing which depicted state violence directed at citizens, they wanted to focus on pride and not victimization. Among their most widely recognizable works was a stenciled, life-size image of balaclava clad protestors throwing Molotov cocktails, the message being: “We are winning, not the police.” Around this time, Rosario and Roberto began to receive threats of retribution if they continued their work. They were followed and required protective escorts home.

painting of people wearing balaclava throwing molotov

XIV • VI. Courtesy of Lapiztola.

By the end of October, more than 6,000 state and federal police had been deployed around Oaxaca city and 5,000 army troops were positioned just outside the city. A month later, on November 25th, several thousand federal police officers stormed the city and the city-wide demonstrations came to a violent end. The movement has shifted and Rosario and Roberto had to ask themselves: “What do we want to keep doing?” It was then that Lapiztola began to concentrate its attention on working with other collectives and NGOs to secure the release of protestors from jail.

Lapizotla’s work is a combination of art and anarchy, studio practice and protest. When the movement started they were still young activists and relatively fearless. However, as word spread that activists were routinely being kidnapped, tortured and jailed, Rosario and Roberto decided to change their mode of operation, go underground and become anonymous and invisible artist-provocateurs.

Rosario and Roberto began working in communities outside the city and developing a less aggressive approach toward conceptualizing, producing and communicating with their audience. They wanted to be more respectful and inclusive dialogue of the public, and their work transformed from the literal to more symbolic and metaphorical pieces of art.

three children sitting surrounded by boxes

El Lugar Seguro. Courtesy of Lapiztola.

After several of their murals were painted over, including a commissioned piece, they decided to collaborate with partner organizations and other collectives rather than run the risk of their work, and their messages, being destroyed. By this point they were recognized among Oaxaca’s new generation of artists and despite being courted by the municipality, but they opted instead to commute their work to alternative spaces outside the city center.

Rosario and Roberto’s decision reveals a hard truth for many Oaxacan artists, particularly those working in the streets: self-preservation and self-censorship are inextricably linked in Mexico. Corrupt governments, gang rule and violent repression against civil society actors have effectively made speaking truth, or even pointing in its direction, a deadly proposition.

Elderly Zapotec woman wearing a floral mask

Courtesy of Gotha

Two hundred-fifty kilometers southeast of Oaxaca city in Juchitán, Gotha has a full schedule between his tattoo shop and a contract with the municipality to paint 100 murals, half of which have been completed. Gotha says that he makes work that is critical of the system, yet that is hard to register in the seemingly ambivalent way he talks about the current situation in the Isthmus or the paintings and photos of past work that adorn the walls of his studio. Gotha and his mural collective, Chiquitraca, which translates to “fireworks for children” in Juchitán slang, “try to capture local culture, to let people know and be aware of Zapotec culture.” But being in the employ of the state, their work, while aesthetically sound, is resoundingly in line with the impotent “neo-indigenismo” of the Lopez Obrador administration. Vicente is not opposed to the Transistmico in the way that some of his peers are, but chooses to see both sides – the possible benefits and the potential for unwanted changes.

painting of chinese new year dance using a one-eyed cow

Courtesy of Gotha

Gotha is not naïve about the violent and contradictory politics of Juchitán, a rapidly growing urban hub that has become the epicenter of state and corporate sponsored violence in the Isthmus. It is a town of dirty politicians, cartel operators, paramilitaries and meth heads – all employed in the service of extractive capitalism. He says that the “strategy to create confusion through disinformation” has been effective in silencing artists, journalists and activists, including him and his peers. And as President Lopez Obrador ushers in the completion of the Transistmico by the end of 2021, the current environment of fear and paranoia does not bode well for those who are intent on resisting the ravaging impacts the project will have on the land and the livelihood of Indigenous people in the Isthmus.

High Tide: Reflections on Music, Isolation & Catharsis 

*Paintings & Text by Sidd Joag

Several weeks before the pandemic began in earnest was the last time I would sit across the table from a woman I had been seeing for a time, more off than on. I often listen to music when I write, as did she, and without much thought I clicked on a playlist whose first song was Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself. Not ten seconds into the intro guitar riff, she snapped and said: “You always play the same music.” To which I responded, No I don’t, before turning it off. Having spent my adult life traveling the world hanging out with incredible musicians, cultivating a varied taste, I was annoyed. “You’re too sensitive,” she had said on several occasions. To which I responded, Yes I am–I’m an artist. During our tumultuous few years she never asked me a single question about the many paintings hanging around my apartment or to play her a song on my guitar. I had long noticed what was either disinterest or discomfort with the arts, so in a sense I was being too sensitive. Just as I was dancing with myself. 

Black painting of wave

“The periodic disturbance of the particles of a substance” 

I’d never had a relationship with someone who was significantly younger than me. I was born in 1982 and she in 1989, so by some neoliberal calendars we are both millennials. But it dawned on me that when she was a toddler, I was already developing a taste in music. My sister’s friend Nalini had let me borrow Blood Sugar Sex Magik and I was listening to it on repeat. By the age of twelve, music (the guitar) and paint (the brush) were becoming central to my existence, though I was not possessed with natural talents, nor gifted the kind of training required to transform a ham-handed kid into a virtuoso. 

“To make inaudible by means of a louder sound”

During the course of that relationship I found myself often defaulting to whatever random Spotify playlist she decided to put on –mostly hip hop, jazz, R&B, occasionally the Beatles–much of which I loved. Songs that she rarely knew the titles of, nor the lyrics to. Subconsciously, I defaulted to not playing my music to avoid that scrutiny, a blanket disregard for songs deemed too white or too heavy (read: rock n’ roll) or too whatever. She had grown into a world of pop singles, music apps, streaming services, skipping and scrolling forward to immediate gratification. We didn’t have the option to tune out as soon as the music didn’t exactly fit our taste; we listened to tapes, CDs or the radio, all of which required of us a certain patience. On a rare occasion, I pulled out the guitar and started strumming clumsily, she walked to another room and closed the door behind her. 

black wave rising

“To deaden one’s awareness of”

Over the course of those years, she had, like my music and the paintings on my walls, completely tuned me out. The months of isolation that would follow the death rattle of that broken thing, would bring me back to listening to music the way I did growing up: Obsessively. Full albums and songs on repeat. Studying all the layers until for a time being they, along with the connected emotions and experiences, are exhausted. The ritual of diving and surfacing into assemblages of sounds and words, was a much needed catharsis after the steady obliteration of self-worth and trust, both political and personal. A return to that wonderful, childish excitement that precludes betrayal and heartache.

“To submerge or flood”

As 2020–a year that seemed far-fetched when I was saving pennies to buy albums–comes to a close, I realize how much I’ve aged in the past four years. Watching my dear friend and mentor wither from cancer and pass away, the murder of a “little bro” gunned down in the streets, drowning in the political filth of America, while barely keeping my head above the crashing waves of conditional love. We have all experienced involuntary solitude in some form or another this past year. I’ve watched relationships thrive, limp forward or completely collapse. Friends cycling through depression, anxiety and frustration, some weathering the pandemic better than others. On the streets, pent up frustration from stay-at-home orders and rising unemployment manifested in weeks of firecrackers and kids (and childish adults) tweaking their engines to an obnoxious growl or to backfire. As irritating as it was, I felt a kinship with that tendency to want to be noticed, appreciated (or detested if all else fails), but present somehow. 

painting of black wave crashing

“To kill or be killed by submergence”

In the absence of creative mediums and the encouragement to use them, people will express themselves somehow–often in ways that are disruptive or destructive. Rates of robbery, domestic violence, murder and suicide have spiked all over the world. Our imaginations and creative tendencies–the characteristics that preserve our humanity–are of no concern to the governments and corporations whose actions compromise our mental health and sense of self. As they wreak havoc on ecologies and communities without repercussion, we are bombarded with breaking news and a collective sense of helplessness becomes consistent and pervasive. Lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps I’m done with the news for a while. Instead of bludgeoning ourselves with depravity or mediocrity (at best), may I suggest we roll into 2021, listening, watching, creating and enjoying what we please, when we please, and as loud as we please. Rewinding and pressing play, exhausting the painful emotions and experiences, celebrating the joyful ones and drowning out the noise as we move forward.

painting of black vortex

“To die by submersion”

I’m looking out at a volcano
Trying to read the world today and see where you’re at
I’ll never do that
I’m a model that is uncomplicated
You can play a happy tune on me, but don’t turn me off
‘Cause then I am silenced

High tide, high tide, high tide, high tide
And it feels like I’m falling in again

Gorillaz – “Aries” ft. Peter Hook & Georgia

Ahmet Altan: Wood Sprites

The twenty-first piece in our Polity of Literature series:

The best libraries are often tiny, as small as a single book. A library’s value is in its use. Every book that a prisoner comes by, or that a refugee carries with her, opens onto other worlds and a realm of agency—a single book can unlock an entire subjectivity, the reader’s. But can books ever give back society to an isolated person? Absent the collective group that shares or maintains a library, can the imprisoned or isolated reader find the plurality necessary for politics inside of a book? Ahmet Altan finds something crucial, and he calls them “Wood Sprites.” In this Christmas Day, 2020, installment of the Polity of Literature we return to the book, I Will Never See the World Again, and Ahmet Altan’s delightful account of reading, “Wood Sprites.”

Ahmet Altan is still in Silivri Prison, near Istanbul, Turkey (see PoL #2, “Ahmet Altan: the Writers Paradox”). Other writers and media workers—the poet Ilhan Sami Çomak, journalist Hatice Duman, publisher Erdal Süsem, editor İshak Karakaş, and scores more—are also imprisoned in Turkey, often without due process. Expression Interrupted puts the number at 87. Worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 274 journalists imprisoned—for doing their work. In “Wood Sprites,” Altan shows us the power of writing and reading to erode, if not undo, the state’s intentional injustice.

In the struggle to stay in politics—or, having been expelled from politics, to return—what crucial resources are sequestered inside the pages of a book? “Wood Sprites” was translated into English by Yasemin Çongar and is published in the book, I Will Never See the World Again. Illustrations by Ken Krimstein.

For months, I didn’t see a single book, I didn’t touch one.

It was forbidden to have books delivered from “outside.” The prison had a library, but for whatever reason it was closed.

I grew up in a house full of books. My childhood was spent among them. Books were the wood sprites in a forest the essence of which I couldn’t quite grasp, one that looked quite complex and boring to me. I liked the fairies’ bright charm, their air of mystery, their promising smiles more than the forest itself.

The first time I went missing I was five years old. After searching for hours, my parents found me in a bookstore that had recently opened in our neighborhood. I was sitting on the floor between two bookcases with a pile of books in front of me.

The small runes on the paper came alive and gleamed as soon as you laid eyes on them; they metamorphosed from one shape to another, transforming themselves into unknown cities, narrow streets, steep rocks, deserts and palaces. They sprinkled you with drops of magic water and you too were transformed.

You became Peter Pan, you became Le Chevalier de Pardaillan, you became Arsène Lupin, you became Sherlock Holmes, you became Ivanhoe, you became Lancelot.

I spent the years of my childhood playing with the wood sprites. I got used to having them always around me as they slept in between pages, ready to wake and start dancing as soon as I opened a book. I loved watching them even in their sleep.

One of the things I found most difficult in prison was to live in a place where there were no books.

Finally, they gave us a list of the books in the library. The list resembled a junkyard with a few jewels strewn here and there. There were many useless books but there were also books you’d never have guessed you would find in a prison.

Everything is done by petition in prison, so I immediately wrote asking to be given the books I wanted.

I didn’t hear back for a long time.

Just as I was about to give up hope, the hatch in the middle of the door opened one morning and a book fell through.

I took the book from the floor with the ecstasy of a mariner shouting, “Land ahoy!” after sailing the open seas for many months without hope.

I was reunited with the wood sprites, they who gave me such immense joy, boundless confidence and an excitement that sent shivers through my body.

It was as if life had suddenly changed; a crack from the inner depths set a continent adrift.

I wasn’t helpless, I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t lost.

I had a book in my hands.

They had given me Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.

Tolstoy, that conflicted Zeus of literature, had come to our cell.

In the most unexpected of places, I had happened on a book by a genius, one who can describe an infantry sergeant as elegantly as he would a princess; one who, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “reveals the most carefully hidden secrets of human nature” and is “able to read the minds of different people as certainly as we count the buttons on their coats.”*

It made me especially happy that the first guest in my cell was Tolstoy because this man, whom Woolf held up as an example to all writers, had been my guide to deciphering the secrets not only of people but of literature itself. Ever since I first read Tolstoy, I have sounded the depths of every statement regarding literature and writers by holding it against his image. Many a phrase and many a claim have lost their luster and dimmed in his shadow.

Tolstoy’s shadow was as great as his light, a shadow cast on eras beyond his own.

Tolstoy could capture and hold life in the palm of his hand as easily as a farmboy catches a ladybird. His majestic shadow falls on twentieth-century literature.

All the great writers of the nineteenth century intimidated the writers of the twentieth, but I think the most intimidating was Tolstoy.

Like travelers seeking an alternative route around a mountain range they believe too steep to climb, writers of the twentieth century looked for other paths so they would not be compared with Tolstoy. Very few writers dare hold life in their palms in order to reshape it.

While nineteenth-century literature told us about people’s emotions in staggering depth and revealed the most carefully hidden secrets of human nature, the literature of the twentieth century veered toward ideas.

It veered toward ideas because writing about ideas is always easier than recounting emotions and reading people’s minds.

Ideas in a novel contain grave dangers, because ideas represent the author in the novel. The more ideas there are, the more present is the author. The more present the author, the more constricted the space for characters. They cannot develop and, more importantly, they cannot gain depth.

When you look at the great classics of the nineteenth century, you see that characters come before the writer. Le Père Goriot comes before Balzac, Anna Karenina supersedes Tolstoy, Madame Bovary supersedes Flaubert, the brothers Karamazov supersede Dostoyevsky. The opposite is true in the twentieth century, where writers come before their characters.

If you look at The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, one of the most extraordinary writers in the history of literature and one who attached such importance to ideas that he said he wanted to write an autobiography of ideas, you will see that Musil takes precedence over Ulrich. The book is not Ulrich’s book, it is Musil’s book.

Similarly, Céline comes before Bardamu, Joyce before Bloom.

The major difference between the novels of these two centuries lies, I think, in the importance of the ideas and the writer within the novel.

I like to read novels in which characters’ emotions and relationships have the upper hand.

In novels, I prefer the complexity of emotions to the clarity of ideas; my beloved wood sprites become vivid with emotions, but pale when ideas dominate the text.

I believe ideas should not give birth to the novel, but that the novel should give birth to ideas.

Of course, literature is not a prescription of exact formulas, and those who assert the very opposite of what I am saying here and now, and with much more authority, may prefer another color of literature’s rainbow.

At the end of the day, we all write what we can, and then develop notions of why novels have to be written the way we write them.

Tolstoy wrote about people’s emotions because he could read people’s minds and write about how they felt.

He managed this with a miraculous sense of intuition.

I don’t know how anything but “intuition” could explain how this man who knew nothing of female sexuality was able to write Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy believed women didn’t enjoy lovemaking. Doris Lessing thought this critical delusion could be explained by the manner in which Tolstoy made love to his wife: he attacked her like a lustful bear, and when she turned him down he thought all women disliked having sex.

Yet this lustful bear created some of the most unforgettable female characters in literature.

I doubt there’s another example that can better prove that genius in literature is a result of intuition rather than ideas and knowledge.

I know that contemporary Western literature hugely underrates intuition, even to the point of treating it as “kitsch.” But when I look at Balzac, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky I cannot help but think that if they had written their novels using only their ideas and not their intuition no one would remember them today.

Taking my argument to extremes – using the infinite liberty of a man in a prison cell with no one else to debate or discuss with, no one on whom to try out his ideas – I will even go so far as to say this:

A novelist is helped not only by his intuition, but also by a certain amount of ignorance when he is giving depth to his novel.

It is perfectly possible that I am arguing this in an attempt to have my own ignorance tolerated; nonetheless, I haven’t given up my belief in the importance of ignorance to literature.

A novelist keeps the knowledge he truly needs deep down in his mind, in a secret repository not far from where his intuition resides – a repository so well hidden that even the novelist himself doesn’t know what has been accumulating there.

In order to access this hidden intuition when writing, the novelist cracks his own mind as if breaking the hard shell of an exotic fruit with the sweep of a heavy broadsword to reach the nectar at its core. He must dismantle his own being in order to reach the bedrock and attain the secret knowledge that will astonish even himself.

Once he strikes this blow against himself, the more the broadsword chafes against the ideas and information accumulated on the surface, the more difficult it will be to reach the nectar.

Surface knowledge is not much use to the novelist. He needs the truths that have seeped through life to the very bottom. With the knowledge that astonishes even himself, he writes his novel.

Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” for a reason. He came across Emma Bovary’s emotions not on the surface but in that deep-down repository. There was the knowledge he had accumulated unwittingly.

There is something animal-like in writing a novel, something that relies purely on instinct and intuition. It is indeed why that “ignorant and lustful bear” could write Anna Karenina; he could arrive at such precision only by way of a primal beastliness.

The first book that I managed to get my hands on after months without drove me crazy. I pressed the book against my chest and paced up and down the courtyard, sensing the ideas rushing into my mind and colliding with one another.

I savored the joy of possessing a book.

Only after I had calmed down a bit did I come in, sit on a plastic chair and begin to read.

The young Olenin, bored with the superficiality of Moscow, he who is so full of admiration for the natural ways of the Cossacks; the beautiful Maryanka who sits on her bed and watches with indifference as life goes by; the selfish Daddy Eroshka; the peasants who take pride in stealing; Tatars and Cossacks killing each other just for fun; jugs full of wine drunk with a cup of honey, the gardens separated by wooden fences, the scents of herbs and flowers, the neighing horses, the crowing roosters, romances, battles, the sounds of gunshot…

Truth be told, this is one of the weakest of Tolstoy’s books. The young Tolstoy was so eager to tell his readers about the different culture and the different nature he had encountered that he wrote the novel from the pieces of knowledge that sit on the surface, and in this loosely woven book the writer takes precedence over his protagonist.

The book had become not Olenin’s but Tolstoy’s book.

The novel was the victim of an excess of knowledge.

Like Pushkin in The Captain’s Daughter, Tolstoy had fallen into the trap of facts and pushed his plot and characters to the background in order to relate more of what he had seen.

Young Tolstoy’s ideas and knowledge had shaped the novel, not his intuitions.

I saw all that, but frankly I didn’t care.

I surrendered myself to the alluring mystery of the wood sprites who took me to riversides and village gardens, to battlegrounds and innocent love affairs, all the while dancing on the gleaming sentences and vivid descriptions scattered here and there in the text that foretold Tolstoy’s brilliant future.

I was reunited with books and with my sprites.

The forest had once again become a place of joy.

* Translator’s note: This quote is taken from the Times Literary Supplement.”

Stones stand in for the words: thoughts on a polity of literature

Books cited:
Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves, House of Anansi Press, 2019
Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, Gaspereau Press, 2009

With reference to ArtsEverywhere series, Polity of Literature, edited by Matthew Stadler

2020 has been a bumper year for readers. Without the usual social obligations tugging us away from our bookshelves and reading lists, we could indulge in a life of words, and the stories or ideas to which they give form. This has been a particular delight for me as the months at home with Jacob the Cat stretched on and on with seeming endlessness.

Last December a close friend gave me a copy of Karen Solie’s latest book of poetry, The Caiplie Caves. I read the poem then and it brought to mind Jan Zwicky’s poetic writings in Lyric Philosophy. Both books sat abreast on my reading table for months, their simple covers reminding me often that there were resonances between them to be explored.

The realization came to me a month ago that what I was contemplating in miniature was a polity of literature, a political space of reading and writing—one that I sensed was available to me through a close reading of the books side-by-side, and taking shape in my mind as a reader in conversation with the two writers’ words and worlds. The freedom of such a polity lies in its making—the deliberate associations made, imaginatively, without proscription or inhibition. Other polities can exist, too, in which the writers’ words are placed in association elsewhere and by others. There is no authority.

Writing now, next to my campy spruce Christmas tree dressed in tinsel and silk-wrapped orbs, with Jacob happily curled up on the tree blanket, I am immersed in a polity that is written, and read, into being by The Caiplie Caves and Lyric Philosophy.

Illustration by Ken Krimstein

The Caiplie Caves are an uncelebrated network of coves in Scotland, near Edinburgh, where the Firth of Forth flows into the North Sea. It’s a craggy bit of rock and scrubby brush by all descriptions, and would have been a desolate place in the 7th century when Ethernan, presumably an Irish missionary to Scotland, took up his hermitage there in one of the caves. Today the caves are used for camping, late-night parties, and Instagram photo shoots.

Karen Solie spent time as a researcher and writer inhabiting the place, sensing what could be sensed, and metabolizing that into poems in her voice and that of Ethernan’s—hers left-justified on the page, and his, right. In the preface, she notes that her writing was motivated by Ethernan’s decision to pursue the life of a hermit rather than set up a priory on the nearby Isle of May—a “choice, between life as a contemplativeor as an active….” (xi) The writer herself weighs this decision as she meditates on the life of poetic contemplation she chose to lead.

Jan Zwicky in Lyric Philosophy has laid out a programme for which, she says, the exercise of writing can be seen as an attempt to teach oneself to think; and in so doing, to encounter the unassailable limitations of language and contemplation. She writes that the depth of thinking (philosophy) can only be plumbed to the depth of our misinterpretations of language. This is not about imprecision or translation, but about human incapacity to know—which Zwicky calls “the slash in the mind.” (124)

The world is not ordered by language, but language can open up our affective capacity to be in relation to, and in resonance with, that which we cannot know or say. That this gap between language and knowing the wholeness of the world cannot be healed, is the “source of lyric’s poignancy.” (Zwicky 124) Poetic language, moving beyond description, prescription, explication, or definition, brings us the closest that any use of language can to glimpsing the world’s wholeness. It is precise language that casts a spell; it works at a cellular level beyond thought, awakening the imagination in our guts and in our loins. This is where the reader’s attention—their eros—gives form to a polity. The associations made in lyric reading, between words, images, ideas, silences, gaps, and centuries, form a political space—a polity brought into being by lyric’s poignancy.

Throughout Solie’s poems, she echoes Zwicky’s suspicions about the inability of language and thought to encompass a whole knowledge of the world. She writes, in Ethernan’s voice, “a creature isnt thought from its shell, my knife extracts it/to nourish me wasnt in its plan no kidding.” (43) The affective knife-edge of lyric does what thought-as-language cannot do. Something happens within us when we read poetically; it sits in our guts—we have to metabolize it rather than think it. Lyric pushes language to its limits of meaning, gesturing vaguely toward something beyond meaning. The sense of desolation that pervades Solie’s book isn’t the product of description but of affective and erotic attention. Something happens within us.

Solie takes a break from her writing desk to visit some ancient standing stones with their “powdery, topical growth,/chemical aggression from the carbon of the century.” (90) Modernity has ravaged the ancient.

Such is the nervous power of life. Symbols,
allegorical forms, language
signifying less and less
though very slowly. (90)

And then, as she drives away from the standing stones:

As if happiness felt there might shelter, and survive,
even though all that gave rise to it has passed away. (91)

It was pre-modern thought (and brawn!) that underpins the placing of the stones on which the poet muses, but what remains after thought “has passed away” is the joy of lyric’s poignancy! Zwicky writes thatlyric art is the fullest expression of the hunger for wordlessness.” (132) The stones stand in for the words.

The polity I occupy in reading Solie and Zwicky side-by-side is shaped by poetry’s affective precision and its invitation to sit with Ethernan in his cave and drink the bitter vetch that prepares in us “a place/with the broom/of metabolism—/should one be so worthy,/having sold the laptop…” (93)

A Brief History of Mexico’s Transoceanic Trade Route

“The mind is bewildered with the difficulty of embracing in one comprehensive view the astonishing consequences that would result from a communication between the two oceans, by means of which ships sailing from Europe will save two thousand leagues, and those from North America three thousand one hundred leagues [10,700 miles], in their voyage to the coasts on China. What an economy of time and money!”

–Survey of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, by José de Garay and Cayetano Moro, 1843    

Atlantic-Pacific Trade Routes. Published New York: J. Disturnell, 1851.

Jose de Garay’s 1851 map of Central American Atlantic-Pacific trade routes featuring detailed surveys of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Isthmus of Panama.

So enchanted by the possibility of bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is José de Garay that he writes a letter to President Santa Anna proposing to self-finance an exhaustive survey of the route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the construction of a railroad in exchange for 75 percent of profits for the next 30 years. He envisions a free trade zone spanning the isthmus, where goods from England, Brazil or China can be transported across the continent in a single day, where industrial development will flourish and mining concessions will be open to foreign investors.

“A great revolution will take place in the commercial and even in the political affairs of all nations the instant America shall open the passage through any of her isthmuses,” writes Garay, noting the enormous economic advantages the project could yield for the newly independent Mexican Republic. But he is also careful to play to the vanity of his audience. “The epoch which shall see this effected will be more memorable than that of the discovery of this continent, and the name of him to whom the world shall owe this event will be at least as glorious as that of Columbus.”

Although Garay’s proposal is signed and ratified by agents of the Mexican and U.S. governments, tensions lingering from the annexation of Texas boil over and lead to the Mexican-American War, dooming the Garay route to failure. A series of subsequent attempts are undertaken over the next forty years, but they manage only to complete segments of the railway. Little more than a decade after the last railroad tie is driven into the ground, the Tehuantepec railway is rendered obsolete by the Panama Canal, which does, in fact, transform international shipping and global commerce for the next century.

19th century rendering of the plan to transport large ships across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via railroad.

19th century rendering of the plan to transport large ships across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via railroad.

On a calm evening, ruptured only by a symphony of cicadas, the candle-lit silhouette of Hernán Cortés hunched over his desk comes into view. The year is 1524 and the conquering marquis is drafting his fourth letter to 24-year-old Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Cortés writes in panegyrical prose befitting his station as a subject of the Crown, but despite his deference, it is clear that he too considers himself a living god.

Several years have passed since he, six hundred Spaniards, and a legion of Indigenous allies marched on Tenochtitlán and subjugated the Aztec Empire. His obsession for glory, though, is unquenched. Cortés’ letter to Charles V lays bare his fanatical desire to continue surveying the coasts of the American continent in search of a strait that will link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and facilitate commerce between Spain and the East Indies.

“If the strait is found,” he writes, “I shall hold it to be the greatest service I have yet rendered. It would make the King of Spain master of so many lands that he might call himself the lord of the whole world.”

Like Garay more than three hundred years later, Cortés offers to personally finance the expedition in the name of Charles V. He informs the Emperor that he has already ordered the construction of four ships and instructed their captains to “continue their exploration of the [South American] coast as far as the land discovered by Magellan, whilst those to the North will pursue their route as far as the (phantom island of) Bacallaos.”

In the end, Cortés’ inexorable dream to discover the mythical Strait of Anián, believed by some to connect the Sea of Cortez with the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, evaporates when news arrives that Francisco de Ulloa’s ship is lost and likely thrashed against the Pacific coast of Baja California.

17th century map of North America depicting the continent’s unexplored interior and California as an island.

Not a century passes without renewed efforts to locate a transoceanic passage or an effective overland route. In the late 17th century, Willam Dampier, an English pirate and the only person to circumnavigate the globe three times, proposes a route from the Coatzacoalcos River on the Gulf of Mexico to the Tehuantepec River on the Pacific coast via a low-lying mountain pass on the border of Veracruz and Oaxaca. His proposal is noteworthy in that it is almost identical to the route of the 21st century Transistmico.

In 1774, military engineer and brigadier general Don Agustín Crame offers a revised plan in which he recommends damming the Almoloya and Citune rivers and joining the reservoirs via canal near a highland pass in the Sierra Madre. After crossing the mountains, he writes, the route will encounter “no further difficulties, because it is one perfect plain as far as Tehuantepec.”

By the mid-19th century, industrialization has produced advancements in technology and engineering that were previously unimaginable. José de Garay is a man of these times, and his interest in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is shared by industrialists and empire-builders across Europe and the United States. Garay’s plan is ultimately undermined by a failure of diplomacy. Those who chase his dream succumb to staggering costs, limitations in engineering and the rugged terrain. When the railway is finally completed in 1894, the achievement is celebrated with a headline in The New York Times: “The Tehuantepec Railroad: An Important Mexican Enterprise Completed. A Line 130 Miles Long Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — Of Advantage to This Country.”

1906 New York Tribune article reporting on the construction of a modern harbor at Salina Cruz.

In September 2018, Mexican President López Obrador visited Juchitán, Oaxaca to announce a plan to modernize the crumbling Tehuantepec Railroad and pledged to allocate 1.1 billion pesos (US$58.5 million) from the 2019 budget to fund the project. The railway, which will link Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico with Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast, is intended to be operational by 2021. Despite the commercial benefits that have been touted by López Obrador’s government, his announcement has been widely received with skepticism and condemnation.

Community resistance and violent reprisals have done little to convince the government of López Obrador that the Transistmico project should be reimagined or that local interests should be taken into account. Gustavo Esteva, the founder of Unitierra, and a collective of community organizers are responding by publishing a document entitled El Istmo Que Queremos (“The Isthmus We Want”) that they intend to send to the President’s office in the Spring of 2021. The result of years-long surveys, El Istmo Que Queremos will offer the most comprehensive account of the objections and alternatives expressed by communities that will be directly impacted by specific aspects of the Transistmico project.

Repairs are already being made to the Tehuantepec Railroad and it seems likely that the dream shared by Cortés and de Garay will be realized in the years to come. What remains to be seen is how communities on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec will decide to negotiate their demands and what influence they will ultimately have in transforming the 21st century Transistmico into a project that they want.

“No Maize Es No Pais”: Accounting as Artistic Practice

“Why is Mexico hinging its future on a neoliberal economic model when it’s failing everywhere in the world?” asks Edith Morales, a conceptual artist from Oaxaca whose work draws paradoxically from her Mixe roots and her background in accounting. Her artistic practice is extraordinarily meticulous, bordering on the neurotic, and her process is painstakingly repetitive–carrying the visual banality of office life. The materials she uses–file folders, staples, stamps and receipt tape–draw heavily from the activities required for her day job as an accountant for artists, teachers and NGOs.

We’re settled around a rickety wooden table in Morales’ work space/experimental urban farm in the hills above Oaxaca. In the open air garden, endemic varietals of maize best suited to a symbiotic system of agriculture known as milpa grow wildly beneath a tangle of telephone wires. Next to the garden is a bamboo and brick-walled gallery where Morales displays dozens of clusters of corn kernels and their places of origin. She hopes to develop the space into an artist’s residence and community center in the future, but for now its main purpose is as a repository of Oaxacan maize.

Edith morales displaying maize collection

Edith Morales explains her process of documenting maize as a means to map the geography, topography and local agricultural practices of Indigenous communities across the state of Oaxaca.

Of the sixty-seven types of maize found across Mexico, thirty six are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. It took Morales five years of ethnographic field work visiting communities across the state to collect samples and document local agricultural practices–a conceptually simple yet rigorous process of community mapping.

She explains that in terms of both diet and cultural history, maize is the most important crop in Mexican foodways, and recent findings suggest that maize was first cultivated here in Oaxaca 12,000 years ago. Yet, as the Mexican government continues to provide subsidies for industrial agriculture that compromise local land rights and subsistence farming practices in favor of commercially-oriented, genetically-modified (GM) crops. Maize is among the most extensively studied plant species in the history of genetics due to its use as food, feed, fuel. “Well-established breeding strategies [and] easy-to-follow phenotypes” make it relatively easy to sequence and modify.  Its genetic advantages also leave it vulnerable to biopiracy, and patents are being sought for industrial and pharmaceutical purposes.

Morales shows us images of a particularly desirable olotón variety with sticky, mucus-coated “aerial roots” that poke out of the base of the plant like stunted legs. Wild olotón maize is capable of growing nearly twenty-feet-tall, even in nutrient-poor soil. But what astounded plant scientists from University of California-Davis and Mars Inc. was olotón’s ability to pull nitrogen from the air and feed it to the plant. The findings were hailed as the “holy grail” of nitrogen fixation research–the first example of a self-fertilizing corn that could significantly reduce the demand for fertilizer worldwide and prove extremely lucrative if mass produced.

The “discovery” is not without drawbacks or concerns when thousands of years of agricultural development and knowledge are being privatized and co-opted for commercial use. Recognizing long-term potential, BioN2, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., signed an agreement to share financial benefits from the commercialization of olotón with the Mixe community of Totontepec. But farmers in the mountains of Oaxaca are finding it increasingly difficult to grow crops for their own consumption and there is a justified sense of dread that if the land remains unproductive landowners will be either be forced to use genetically-modified crops or sell their land to Mars Inc. or other transnational food producers.

Morales explains that local farmers are generally wary of partnering with biotech firms. The introduction of GMOs into agricultural communities has left a legacy of adverse effects on the soil that has reduced productivity and increased imports from the United States. Flexible laws for GMO cultivation in Mexico, resulting from agreements imposed under NAFTA, prevent the Mexican government from subsidizing maize cultivation for export. To guarantee that cultivation deadlines are met and yields maximized, cheap, genetically modified seeds are distributed widely to replace local species and toxic herbicides are used to tame the wild ecosystem.

Morales’s objective is to strengthen the ancient milpa agricultural practice in order to safeguard symbiotic systems from being destroyed by industrial monoculture farming. The milpa system is a precursor to modern biodynamic agriculture and permaculture, a technique honed over presumably thousands of years that involves planting complementary crops–principally maize, pumpkin and beans–that create a functional micro-ecosystem suited to subsistence farming in nutrient deficient soil. One milpa crop, for example, can produce enough food for a family, depending on the size, for six months to a year.

varietals of Oaxacan maize depicted in a way that depicts elevation and geographic location

Installation view showing Morales’s meticulous accounting of different types of maize by region and altitude.

The milpa system is a marvel of human ingenuity and genetic evolution, It’s little wonder that it developed in Oaxaca, where the world’s oldest cultivated pumpkin seeds (cucurbita pepo) were recently unearthed–a find that makes it likely agricultural production dates back some 7-10,000 years in the mountains of southern Mexico. The milpa system is symbiotic by design–it seeks balance. In rudimentary terms, a crop field will be seeded with maize, nitrogen-consuming plant, a specific species of bean, which produces nitrogen, and pumpkins that provide ground cover. Milpa farms can be cultivated every two years and lie fallow for eight years to allow for natural regeneration of vegetation.

For Morales, preserving the agricultural legacy of her people is only a part of her motivation. She believes that “valuing Indigenous knowledge and practices is an expression of love to the land.” She works closely with the National Network in Defense of Maize (Red en Defensa del Maize) on projects that aim to revitalize the milpa system across Oaxaca. The network promotes a return to Indigenous practices of subsistence farming, which she sees as integral to the struggle for autonomy and sustainability for local farmers.

Morales’ work is an exploration of the connections between geography, cultural diversity and biodiversity. 570 of Mexico’s 2,446 municipalities are located in Oaxaca alone, making it a unique and complicated socio-political landscape that has been called “a mixture of anarchism and autonomy.” The spirit of protest is palpable in the streets of Oaxaca city and throughout rural corners of the state due to an enduring legacy of organization among teachers’ unions contesting low wages and income inequality during the 1980s and parallel efforts to safeguard Indigenous land rights.

colorful close-up of oaxacan maize varietals

Installation detail showing several varietals of maize indigenous to one highland region of Oaxaca.

When colonial haciendas (primarily in Oaxaca and Chiapas) were broken up and redistributed to Indigenous inhabitants after the Mexican revolution, the government implemented a new system of land tenure that combines communal ownership with individual use called ejido. The constitutional amendment was loosely based on the pre-Colombian Aztec calpulli system and gave farmers tenuous communal ownership over parcels of land provided that it was cultivated at least every two years. But it forbade owners from selling their land, instead obligating them to pass it down to their children. This all changed dramatically in 1992 when then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari caved to pressure from NAFTA signatories and nullified Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution which prohibited ejidos from being leased or sold. The result has been devastating on production, and Oaxaca is now a net-importer of maize.

Morales is critical of current President Lopez Obrador, who she argues has done little to address the dire situation of farmers in southern Mexico. She refers to Lopez Obrador’s political strategy as a manifestation of “neo-indigenismo,” which pays lip service to cultural preservation while justifying extractivismo, or the expansion of extractive industries. She concedes that he inherited policies of neglect that have resulted in decades of mass outward migration to the United States and severely reduced the number of young farmers. But the challenges remain: “We are on our own,” she states without a hint of hyperbole.

Edith Morales refuses to shy away from or be defined by the difficulties of being an artist who engages complicated issues. She is, after all, Indigenous and a woman in a country that routinely dispossesses both. Despite opportunities to travel and work abroad, Morales chooses to live and work in Oaxaca: “I stay to resist machismo. I have to work twice as hard for the same. But that’s OK, because the Mixtecos, my people, we are warriors.”

*To learn more about Edith Morales’ work, please visit:

The Secret Library of Daraya

The twentieth piece in our Polity of Literature series:

Wherever there are libraries, there are threats to libraries. Any collection of books needs both care and readers, without which they will decay into paper and dust (or, with digital libraries, into meaningless, unread sequences of code). Libraries have been targets in war since the sacking of Alexandria. In Syria, in 2013, after the Assad government’s repeated attacks on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, a group of Darayans began to rescue and store books lost in the rubble of the bombing raids. They brought them to a hidden, underground room and created “the  Secret Library of Daraya.” The actions in Daraya pose a striking parallel to work that began that same year in Rotterdam, where neoliberalism had destroyed the local library (see PoL #19, by Maurice Specht). In both cases, creating a “collection” of books became the site for embodied collectivity and politics. French journalist Delphine Minoui’s award-winning account of the work in Daraya, The Book Collectors, has just been published in an excellent English translation by Lara Vergnaud (available from FSG). Today we reprint the opening ten pages, along with illustrations by Ken Krimstein. 

It’s a remarkable image. A mysterious photo that somehow escaped the hell that is Syria without a trace of blood or bullets. Two men in profile, surrounded by walls of books. The first one leans over a text, open to the middle. The second scans a shelf. They’re young, in their twenties, one sporting a hooded sweatshirt, the other with a baseball hat secured firmly on his head. Artificial light frames their faces in an enclosed, windowless room, emphasizing the unexpectedness of the scene. A fragile parenthesis in the midst of war.

An illustration of a photograph of two men standing at rows of bookshelves, each holding a book. On one row of books reads "Humans of Syria."

The photo fascinates me. I came across it by chance on Facebook, on the page kept by Humans of Syria, a collective of photographers. I read the caption: the secret library of Daraya. I repeat it out loud: secret library of Da-ra-ya. The three syllables crash into one another. Daraya, the rebel. Daraya, the besieged. Daraya, the starved. I’ve read—and written—a great deal about this suburb of Damascus, one of the cradles of 2011’s peaceful uprising. Since 2012, it has been surrounded and blasted by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The idea that these young readers are hidden in an underground basement as bombs explode above their heads arouses my curiosity.

What’s the story behind this picture? What’s the hidden angle? The image haunts me, drawing me like a magnet to an inaccessible place: Syria has become too dangerous a destination. It takes me several calls on Skype and WhatsApp to track down the photographer, Ahmad Muaddamani. Ahmad is one of the cofounders of this secret haven. Through a spotty internet connection, their sole portal to the outside world, he tells me of his devastated city—houses in ruin, fire and dust, and amid the tumult, thousands of books saved from the rubble and reassembled in a refuge accessible to all of Daraya’s residents. He spends hours explaining this project to save their cultural heritage, born from the ashes of a town that won’t yield. He tells me about the incessant bombing. The empty stomachs. The soups made of leaves to stave off starvation. The voracious reading to nourish the mind. The library is their hidden fortress against the bombs. Books are their weapons of mass instruction.

Drawing of books running down a bombed out road while cartoon bombs rain down on them

His story is riveting. It rings out like an ode to peace that Syria’s leader is hell-bent on muffling. An underground chorus that the jihadists of Daesh want to eradicate. A new voice that sprang from loudspeakers at the early demonstrations of the antiregime uprising, and was nearly muted by the ongoing conflict. This unheard account of their revolution whispers: write me down.

It is a perilous undertaking. How can you describe something you can’t see, that you haven’t lived? How do you avoid falling into the trap of misinformation, knowing Assad is not the only one spreading it? Aside from the books they are reading, what kinds of ideas do these young men entertain?

Are they really jihadists, as the regime would have us believe? Or mere rebels who refuse to surrender? In Istanbul, I calculate the distance separating me from Daraya: 932 miles. I study the myriad ways to get there. But there’s no point. Since my last trip to Damascus in 2010, when I was living in Beirut, I’ve been unable to get another press visa to access the Syrian capital. Even if I could get to Damascus, how would I reach the trapped suburb? This fall, even the United Nations was prevented from penetrating the barricades, failing in its attempts to send any humanitarian aid. Is there a tunnel, a back road, a secret path? On the other end of the line, Ahmad confirms that every usual route is blocked. All that’s left is the breach through Moadamiya, a neighboring town, used only by the most daring. Such a crossing happens at night, at the mercy of snipers.

But should the story of Daraya be buried simply because we can’t see past the wall erected by Assad? Should we settle for being passive witnesses to the incomparable barbarism unfolding live on our television sets?

If we look at this city only as it appears on a computer screen, we risk getting the story wrong. But looking away would condemn it to silence. Bashar al-Assad wanted to put Daraya in parentheses, to make it a footnote. I intend to make it the headline. To find other images, to fit them together with that first snapshot, the way you assemble the pieces of a puzzle.

A few days later, I call Ahmad to tell him my plan, anxious to hear his response.

At first, there’s a long silence at the other end of the Skype connection.

I repeat my request: “I’d like to write a book about the library in Daraya.”

A metallic clamor chokes the line. Another night full of this constant terror and danger—how ridiculous this project must seem to him. When the rain of bombs ends, his voice breaks through. “Ahlan wa sahlan!” Be my guest.

Hearing his enthusiasm, I smile at my screen. Ahmad will be my guide. I will be his willing scribe.

I make him a promise: one day, this book—their book—will join the other volumes in the library. It will be the living diary of Daraya.

At first Ahmad is a distant voice coming through my computer speakers. A fragile whisper from a hidden basement. When I first make contact with him on Skype, on October 15, 2015, he hasn’t left Daraya in nearly three years. Located fewer than five miles from Damascus, his town is a sarcophagus, surrounded and starved by the regime. He is one of 12,000 survivors. In the beginning, I struggle to understand what he is saying. He mumbles, timid but keyed up, his words broken by the omnipresent crackling of explosions. Between detonations, I try to focus on his face. He appears on my computer screen, then disappears, at the mercy of an internet connection patched together from small satellite dishes smuggled from abroad in the early days of the revolution.

Cubist portrait of Ahmad Muaddamani.His image stretches and deforms like a Picasso portrait: round cheeks slant at an angle under black-rimmed glasses before breaking into a million cubic pieces and fading behind a thick black curtain. When the pixels come back together, I listen carefully and try to read his lips, chewing on my pencil.

He introduces himself. Ahmad, 23 years old, born in Daraya, one of eight children in his family. Before the revolution, he studied civil engineering at Damascus University. Before the revolution, he liked soccer, movies, and being around plants in his family’s nursery. Before the revolution, he dreamed of becoming a journalist. His father quickly dissuaded him from the idea, having himself spent twelve months in prison for a simple remark whispered to a friend. “Insult to power,” the court had ruled. That was 2003, when Ahmad was eleven. A somber memory that had burrowed deep inside him.

Then the revolution. When Syria rouses in March 2011, Ahmad is 19, a rebellious age. His father, still traumatized from jail, forbids him to go into the streets. Ahmad misses the first protest held in Daraya, but sneaks into the second one. He joins the crowd, chanting at the top of his lungs: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.” In his chest, inside this budding revolutionary, something rips, like a sheet of paper. His first sensation of freedom.

Weeks, then months go by. The protests are unending, too. Bashar al-Assad’s voice shouts menacingly from transistor radios. “We will win. We will not yield. We will eliminate the dissenters.” Regime forces shoot into the crowd. The first bullets whistle, but Ahmad and his friends chant even louder—“Freedom! Freedom!”—as other resisters take up weapons to protect themselves. Unable to imprison them all, Syria’s president decides to put their town under lockdown. It’s November 8, 2012. Like many others, Ahmad’s family pack their suitcases and escape to a neighboring town. They beg him to follow. He refuses—this is his revolution, his generation’s revolution. Ahmad gets hold of a video camera and finally realizes his childhood dream: he will expose the truth. He joins the media center run by the new local council. In the daytime, he roams the devastated streets of Daraya. He films houses ripped apart, hospitals overflowing with the injured, burials for the victims, traces of a war invisible and inaccessible to foreign media. At night, he uploads his videos to the internet. One year of paralyzing violence goes by, full of hope and uncertainty.

One day in late 2013, Ahmad’s friends call him—they need some help. They found books that they want to rescue in the ruins of an obliterated house.

“Books?” he repeats in surprise.

The idea strikes him as ludicrous. It’s the middle of a war. What’s the point of saving books when you can’t even save lives? He’d never been a big reader. For him, books smack of lies and propaganda. For him, books recall the portrait of Assad and his long giraffe neck that mocked him from his schoolbooks. After a moment of hesitation, he follows his friends through a gouged-out wall. An explosion has ripped off the house’s front door. The disfigured building belongs to a school director who fled the city and left everything behind. Ahmad cautiously feels his way to the living room, illuminated by a single sliver of sunlight. The wood floor is carpeted with books, scattered amid the debris. With one slow movement, he kneels to the ground and picks one at random. His nails flick against the dust-blackened cover, as if against the strings of a musical instrument. The title is in English, something about self-awareness, a psychology book, no doubt. Ahmad turns to the first page, deciphers the few words he recognizes. It turns out the subject doesn’t matter. He’s trembling. His insides turn to jelly. An unsettling sensation that comes with opening the door to knowledge. With escaping, for a second, the routine of war. With saving a little piece, however tiny, of the town’s archives. Slipping through these pages as if fleeing into the unknown.

Ahmad takes his time standing up, the book against his chest. His entire body is shaking.

“The same sensation of freedom I felt at my first protest,” he whispers through the computer screen.

Ahmad cuts off, his face once again a patchwork of pixels. A detonation has interrupted the internet connection. I stare at the screen. I think I hear a sigh. He takes a big breath and continues his story, giving an inventory of the other books found in the rubble that day: Arabic and international literature, philosophy, theology, science. A sea of information in arm’s reach.

“But we had to hurry,” he continues. “Planes were rumbling outside. We moved fast, dug up the books, and filled the bed of a pickup to the brim.”

Drawing of three people with books for heads, superimposed on a photograph of bombed out buildings

In subsequent days, the collection effort continues in the ruins of abandoned houses, destroyed offices, and disintegrating mosques. Ahmad quickly develops a taste for it. With each new hunt for books, he savors the immense pleasure of unearthing abandoned pages, bringing back to the world life buried in wreckage. They excavate with their bare hands, sometimes with shovels. In all, they are forty or so volunteers—activists, students, rebels—always at the ready, waiting for the planes to go silent so they can dig in the rubble. They salvage 6,000 books in one week. One month later, the collection reaches 15,000. The books are short, long, dented, dog-eared, damaged; some are rare and highly sought-after. They have to find someplace to store them. Protect them. Preserve this small crumb of Syria’s heritage before it all goes up in smoke. By general agreement, a plan for a public library takes shape. Daraya never had one under Assad. So this will be the first. “The symbol of a city that won’t bow down—a place where we’re constructing something even as everything else collapses around us,” adds Ahmad. He stops, pensive, before uttering a sentence I will never forget: “Our revolution was meant to build, not destroy.”

Fearing reprisals from the regime, the organizers decide this library would be kept in the greatest of secrecy. It would have neither name nor sign. It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked. After scouring the city, Ahmad and his friends uncover the basement of an abandoned building at the border of the front line, not far from the snipers, but largely spared rocket fire. Its inhabitants are gone. The volunteers hurriedly construct wooden shelves. They find paint to freshen the dusty walls. They reassemble two or three couches. Outside, they pile a few sandbags in front of the windows, and they bring a generator to provide electricity. For days, the book collectors busily dust, glue, sort, index, and organize all these volumes. Now arranged by theme and in alphabetical order on overstuffed shelves, the books find a new, harmonious order.

One last detail remains to be sorted out before the library’s unveiling: making sure that every book is numbered and carries its owner’s name, meticulously written by hand on the first page.

“We’re not thieves, and certainly not looters. These books belong to the residents of Daraya. Some are dead. Others have left. Others have been arrested. We want all of them to be able to retrieve their belongings once the war is over,” insists Ahmad.

Driven by their thirst for culture, they are quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be.

I set down my pencil, impressed by his civic-mindedness and speechless at such respect for others. For all others. These young Syrians cohabit with death night and day. Most of them have already lost everything—their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the bedlam, they cling to books as if to life. Hoping for a better tomorrow. For a better political system. Driven by their thirst for culture, they are quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be. An idea that’s growing. That challenges both the regime’s tyranny and the brutality of Daesh, whose fighters set the library of Mosul, in Iraq, on fire in the beginning of 2015. Ahmad and his friends are true soldiers for peace.

Another explosion rips through our conversation. Unflappable, Ahmad continues his story. He tells me how on the day of the library opening the celebration was muted—no fruit juice or streamers, just a few friends gathered for the occasion. But most important, yes, most important of all, that tingling sensation prickling in his chest again, like it did during his first protest chant.

The library very quickly becomes one of the cornerstones of this isolated town. Open from 9 am to 5 pm, except on Friday, the day of rest, it welcomes an average of 25 readers per day, mainly men. In Daraya, Ahmad explains, women and children are not very visible and rarely venture outside. In general, they make do with reading the books their fathers or husbands bring home, rather than risk the barrel bombs raining from the sky.

“Last month, around six hundred fell on the town,” says Ahmad.

His friend Abu el-Ezz, codirector of the library, was a near casualty. In September 2015, he was on his way to the book cellar when one of the many barrel bombs being tossed from regime helicopters landed in front of him. These containers full of explosives and scrap metal fall randomly and are therefore particularly destructive. Abu el-Ezz was hit in the neck by pieces of shrapnel that affected his nervous system; he suffers from cramps that stab down to the small of his back. Ever since the explosion, he’s been on bed rest in a makeshift clinic.

Detonations echo. The bombings have resumed. Ahmad continues. This time, he lets me know that he needs to end our call. We don’t know it yet, but there will be many more conversations like this one. Much longer ones, in fact. In his shattered country, where virtual connections have replaced physical ones, it’s common to spend entire evenings talking on the internet. But I’m anxious to visualize this extraordinary place. To discover the color of its walls. The faces of its readers. The titles of all the books gathered there, saved from chaos.