Reading and its Cultural Politics

Robert Faivre


Reading has become big news in the U.S. today. This is because, it seems, no one is reading. As a recent U.S. National Endowment for the Arts report indicates, the past two decades have seen "accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults", especially among the youngest, declines which correlate with "increased participation in a variety of electronic media" and point to "an erosion in cultural and civic participation" (xii-xiii). In response to the report, many public commentators have weighed in. The conservative columnist George Will, for instance, sees declines in literary reading as yet another symptom of how "the depredations of higher education" have undermined the traditional humanist canon. He suggests that because of the loss of "a common culture of shared reading", the nation is at risk in "today's new age of barbarism", by which he refers to terrorism. For him the decline in reading is not caused by the turn to electronic media for entertainment but aggravated by it; the loss of a common culture goes back before the advent of video games and the web. Similarly, liberal author Andrew Solomon sees the decline in "reading for pleasure" as a crisis in the health, politics, and education of the nation, and indeed a threat to civilization itself. Reading—or as he puts it, "discerning the patterns of [the] arrangements" of "26 shapes on a piece of paper"—is "the essence of civilization" in that we need to read to live; further, reading for pleasure is the means by which we can mature through "an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge", rather than succumbing to "a process of mental atrophy". For Solomon reading is fundamental to "community" and "democracy". According to these commentators, in the crisis of reading our very humanity is at stake.

Despite the political differences of the commentators, however, these reports on the crisis of reading are remarkably the same. What links these accounts is that they isolate the crisis from the underlying class relations that shape it. They focus, as a result, on reading as a private act and see the current crisis of reading as a moral failure. The solution to the reading crisis, and thus the salvation of the nation if not of civilization itself, they propose, is to re-brand "reading" by renewing a "personal" interest in reading.

Exemplary of this approach is the recent anthology of personal accounts of reading, I Hear America Reading, edited by Jim Burke, a teacher in California. Burke's anthology, which intersperses letters with literary quotations about "reading", is presented by its back-cover blurb as a response to a national crisis in "an era of decreasing commitment to literacy", and as a register of the hope and inspiration to be found in "the full spectrum of humanity". Literacy across social difference is represented here as a potential resolution to the literacy crisis and indeed as the purpose of reading: to hear the stories that are told and to appreciate in them "our story, the one we never tire of hearing" (5). What is this story?  To judge by the anthology's contents, it is a pluralist story of singular experiences. It is a story of people overcoming obstacles in order to live as fully as possible within the limits of a reality that they cannot change: a prison inmate who appreciates "escaping" to exotic places by reading National Geographic, regretful adults who disliked reading when young and now urge students to discover the joys of reading and thus avoid their mistake, earnest professionals who offer maxims drawn from their reading (such as "We are all 'different' and capable of much love" and "Life is a joy! It depends how you look at it").

But, as I argue in this essay, "how you look at it" is not simply a personal matter, despite the editor's suggestion. One could just as easily argue, in fact, that despite the claims of a "crisis" of reading, people are reading more than ever: they read email at work and text messages at home, they read the newspaper or magazine on the train, they read their health insurance and social security forms, they watch television and films in their spare time, and if they go on vacation they take a "pulp" novel with them. Contrary to the image of a decline in reading, in other words, reading has not only become central to everyday life but also more complex. Today, people must learn to read and instantly respond to a constant stream of texts and images.

My point, to be clear, is not simply to "celebrate" reading as the alternative to the depressed rhetoric of reading's end. Rather it is to point out that all reading practices and theories of reading are historical. By historical I mean that reading is shaped by labor and the labor relations in which it takes place. For instance, what unites all of the examples above is that they are determined by the relationship between work and leisure, which is determined by the division of labor in society, which is itself determined by the mode of production. Reading today, in short, is determined by capitalism, and it is the labor of reading—the level of skill and why one reads in the first place—that all dominant discussion of reading has banned. The reasons are not surprising. Re-reading reading in terms of labor not only situates reading as a social practice with its roots in underlying social structures; it also draws attention to the fact that the problems of reading today are the problems of reading in class society. They are not, in other words, transcendental problems of reading as such. Reading (and its "crises") always reflects the priorities of the societies in which reading occurs. Reading in a society based on exploited labor will reflect the priorities of profit; in a society which puts meeting the needs of all at the forefront of society, reading will reflect very different priorities. Not talking about the labor and labor relations of reading is a way of not talking about the fundamentally unjust priorities of class society. And not talking about the historical nature of class society is a way of not talking about why the existing class relations can and should be transformed.

My argument, in other words, is that the dominant theories of reading as a "personal" matter are ideological theories of reading that reinforce the existing relations of inequality. They cover over the fault-lines of class through an exclusive focus on the personal isolated from the structures which shape the personal and the individual. Reading, on these terms, is an occasion to meditate on (the joys of) singularity and sensuousness, rather than an inquiry into the underlying social relations which condition all reading. Such affective theories of reading, I believe, not only privatize reading, thus erasing the labor relations which make it possible, but, as a result, produce readers who are increasingly vulnerable to, and accepting of, the commodification of life under capitalism and the consequent deepening of social inequality. And this is, in the end, precisely the effect of Burke's anthology, which, despite its attempt to articulate a common ground of multiple differences, nevertheless reads these differences through a framework that is only able to grasp reading on highly localized, personal terms. In order to make reading socially relevant and enable readers to be effective participants in the struggle for social justice, I argue that reading needs to be connected to the material conditions in which reading takes place. Thus in contrast to the privatized theories of reading that have become immensely popular in the U.S., I argue for a materialist theory of reading. Reading, on these terms, conceptualizes social relations in their totality. Instead of accepting the empirical realities of daily life as given and autonomous in our "experience" of them, it seeks to unearth the structures that shape our experience, so as to advance new relations based on economic equality.

To more fully examine the relation between the dominant mode of reading and the materialist theory of reading I am arguing for, in what follows I re-read two classic texts on reading, which are themselves situated on the fault-line of the social contradiction of class: the first is Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, which exemplifies affective reading, and the second is John Berger's Ways of Seeing, which is a useful starting point for theorizing the ways in which reading is structured by the social. After establishing the relationship of these two statements on reading, I return to the current debates over the "crisis" of reading in order to begin to foreground its material dimensions.


Manguel's A History of Reading is a vast thematic catalog of literary anecdote, memoir, and cultured trivia of reading. Advancing the view that reading is simultaneously "common to us all" and at the same time deeply personal and singular, the book is structured in two main sections—"Acts of Reading" and "Powers of the Reader"—within which various themes are traced. These themes, which are presented as the almost obvious features of reading, are indicated by the chapter headings: "Learning to Read", "Picture Reading", "Being Read To", etc. They are supposed to stand as trans-historical scenes of reading, instantly recognizable and capable of supporting a density of details, those of one's own experience and of others'. As a catalog, Manguel's book does not build a comprehensive historical analysis of reading, but rather assembles its "history" as an almost accidental exploratory documentation of one reader's appreciation of reading. In fact, his book might be more appropriately titled The Accidental Reader. History, for Manguel, is an open book from which to sample and savor the rich tapestry of the world's cultures through a deliberately unstudied approach. Thus, all knowledge is local, personal, felt, and above all pleasurable. Such affective knowledge of reading and history becomes a sampling suggestive of endless and ongoing readings that lack any determinate connections.

Manguel focuses on details in order to locate the personal there. He cites his own reading in great detail, as well as that of his mentor Jorge Luis Borges, alongside many accounts and reports from his reading of cultural history. For example, in the chapter "Stealing Books", Manguel writes that

The act of reading establishes an intimate, physical relationship in which all the senses have a part: the eyes drawing the words from the page, the ears echoing the sounds being read, the nose inhaling the familiar scent of paper, glue, ink, cardboard or leather, the touch caressing the rough or soft page, the smooth or hard binding; even the taste, at times when the reader's fingers are lifted to the tongue (which is how the murderer poisons his victims in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). All this, many readers are unwilling to share—and if the book they wish to read is in someone else's possession, the laws of property are as hard to uphold as those of faithfulness in love. Also, physical ownership becomes at times synonymous with a sense of intellectual apprehension. We come to feel that the books that we own are the books we know, as if possession were, in libraries as in courts, nine-tenths of the law; that to glance at the spines of the books we call ours, obediently standing guard along the walls of our room, willing to speak to us and us alone at the mere flick of a page, allows us to say, "All this is mine", as if their presence alone fills us with their wisdom, without our actually having to labour through their contents. (244-245) 

Here, reading is presented as a highly intimate, physical, sensuous, and above all private activity. To read on Manguel's terms is to undergo a quasi-religious experience, a virtual communion with the presence of meaning contained in the book, which is absorbed through the senses. What counts when one reads is not the ideas or "content" of the book, or the frameworks of intelligibility through which one makes sense of the book, but the reader's sensory experience of reading. The "encounter" of a book is always a "singular" and rapturous experience. Which is to say that Manguel substitutes "perception" (the private experience of reading) for "conceptuality" (the social logic through which one abstracts and makes connections). The "ecstatic reading" promulgated by Manguel empties reading of its conceptual content and re-situates reading on a experiential plane. To situate individuals in their larger social relations is for him a violent, not to mention uninspired act that restricts subjective agency. Social agency is found instead in the excessive details of private property ("books").

Manguel makes this quite clear when he states that, because any account claiming to be definitive is a false imposition and a violent totalization, he can only write a singular history of reading and not the definitive history of reading. Reading's "chronology", Manguel writes, "cannot be that of political history", because reading is life, life goes on, and neither is to be totalized as politics (22-3). According to this logic, to reduce the universally practiced and wholly individualized activity of reading to politics—that is to a matter of the structuring of experience by the social relations between people—is an ignorant and indecent intrusion on what is an all but indefinable activity. Reading as a political act is made into a strategy aligned with those in positions of authority and power. To be true to reading, and to resist reigning power structures, then, is to give witness to the great diversity of readings, without claiming the authority of a grand narrative of social justice.

Thus, following Borges, Manguel repeatedly refers to the idea of reading as "rescue". That is, just as reading itself is not to be totalized, so too are texts themselves to be left open for future readings and not pigeonholed in arbitrary categories of understanding. Instead reading, like the reader, is to be rescued from classifications.

Categories are exclusive; reading is not—or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader—the curious reader, the alert reader—to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned. (199) 

Reading for Manguel, like writing for Derrida, is the space of "dissemination": it is continually opening out in its uncontainable intertextuality, fixed only by the violent boundaries imposed by totalizing epistemologies. The reader, then, is not to function as a follower of established authorities' concepts or categories, nor to impose an authoritative claim on what is read (although a possessive claim of ownership is abided), but rather to read for oneself, as if outside any categories of reading, experience, knowledge,…  Such a reader, then, will be a reading subject who focuses on the singularities and differences of a reading experience, not on the structures that make such experience possible. That is, such a reader will focus on that which appears as one's "private" possession (or that which has taken "possession" of one while reading), and not on the social relations in which "possession" (property) has become a trope.

By denying any determinate connections and situating all reading as personal, Manguel ultimately reduces all knowledge to autobiography. "Autobiography", to cite Stuart Hall, another popularizer of de-totalizing experience, is essentially all that remains of knowledge in the wake of the collapse of the "grand narratives" of cultural and social theory—and this is of course for him and for Manguel a sign of an optimistic shift away from notions of collectivity and solidarity and toward a new sense of "personal" power (with a lowercase "p") and authority (with a lowercase "a"). In his discussion of how new developments in cultural studies and its history should be understood, Hall tellingly writes,

Autobiography is usually thought of as seizing the authority of authenticity. But in order not to be authoritative, I've got to speak autobiographically. I'm going to tell you about my own take on certain theoretical legacies and moments in cultural studies, not because it is the truth or the only way of telling the history. I myself have told it many other ways before; and I intend to tell it in a different way later. But just at this moment, for this conjecture, I want to take a position in relation to the "grand narrative" of cultural studies for the purposes of opening up some reflections on cultural studies as a practice. (262-263)

This displacement of history and knowledge of social totality with autobiography and provisional understanding of a moment in a moving series of moments has the effect of dismissing any attempt to understand reading, society, and history as structured. Although represented as a means of intervening into hegemonic frameworks and dominant relations of power, it actually disenables reading subjects, since the unequal relations Hall wants to make available to critique are dispersed in a fog of contingencies. What kind of critical understanding of social relations can be developed if there are no determinate relations between any events?  If no analysis is any more true than any other?  If the "story" one tells is determined only by the local exigencies of the moment?  One is hard pressed to find an approach to reading the social that is more legitimating of the operations of the powerful. This is, after all, precisely the logic that the Bush administration has deployed to justify its onslaught on the Iraqi people: telling one story after another (from the existence of "weapons of mass destruction", to Saddam Hussein's "intent" to use weapons, to his "gassing of his own people", etc.) to serve the administration's own private purposes, regardless of the reality. And in the same way the Bush administration has rejected as sympathetic to terror and tyranny all those who have sought to explain the conflict in Iraq on larger, historical terms—in countless texts of "left" writers such as Hall, Lyotard and Manguel, the attempt to develop comprehensive and coherent knowledge is dismissed as "authoritarian" (not only "authoritative"), "totalitarian" and "terroristic" (not merely "totalizing"); that is, as "violent" impositions on an open, living process.

What is at stake here is, in short, the understanding produced by reading: "understanding" is presented as an always incomplete grasp of what one can privately experience.

What distinguishes "private" experiences of reading, however, is not subjective difference but class. Differences in experience are the effects not simply of being discrete "individuals" but rather of the structuring of subjective experience by the objective conditions of life. We can see this, for instance, even in Manguel's own supposedly "provisional" above-class reading of reading. Manuel's text—which he presents as being free from the "impositions" and "exclusions" (the violence of categories) that "good reading" should avoid—is, far from being "above class", premised on a series of political and economic assumptions about the conditions of life. For instance, in claiming reading as common to us all, Manguel describes and assumes a very uncommon reading experience; in celebrating individual difference, he projects his own class privilege onto others. To be more specific, Manguel's appreciation of reading takes for granted the private library, leisure time for reading, advanced education, world travel, etc. His argument proceeds as if these were the conditions in which all people read, rather than the conditions of a very privileged global elite. But to mark the personal as the space of freedom when most of the world's people experience a profound lack of freedom in their personal lives is to advance a reading of the personal which denies economic and social inequality. Thus Manguel, who claims that totalizing readings are unreliable and inadequate for understanding the complexities of "personal" reading, in fact bases his argument on the silent assumption of a totalizing reading. In closing off what he does not want reading to be (political, economic, social-historical, etc.), Manguel sums up reading within the inexhaustible wholeness of the "individual" and the "singular", putting out of sight that which does not fit his definition.

Consequently, Manguel's text produces a reader who is transported from her social existence to an enraptured private experience, focusing on the seemingly singular while displacing the relation between the "singular" and the social totality. This is a reader, in other words, who is not only unable to make connections between her experiences and those of others, but "delights" in the apparent lack of structural connections. This is an "accidental" reader-tourist who may, perhaps, find more personal pleasure in private reading habits; but she is ultimately more vulnerable to the manipulations of the powerful, whose aim is to maintain their class privilege by fracturing class consciousness among the working class and instead promoting an ethics of difference. It is not surprising, in this context, that in the dominant common sense of the U.S., Manguel's history of reading has been widely embraced as a "subtle" and "sensuous" expression rather than a violent celebration of private property and the subjective pleasures it provides the few. It is embraced as "subtle", however, not because it represents the "truth" of "universal" reading but because it represents the dominant interests of the existing class arrangements by fostering the illusions of individual freedom and autonomy that are so needed to obscure the (changeable) structures that produce the haves and the have-nots.

Manguel and other theorists of affective, private reading, then, ultimately de-conceptualize reading to make comprehension safe for the continuation of exploitative social structures. Contemporary theories of reading, to put this differently, are really modes of what I call "de-reading". De-reading is a means of conceptualizing social relations as personal, affective or functional matters. The effect of de-reading is to conceptually de-link social issues and phenomena from each other and from the social totality of which they are a part. De-reading thus de-structures cultural practices, and makes them appear as free-floating, self-determining "personal" practices without any necessary conditions, interrelations or implications. In effect, it also de-"activates" readers. By making them unaware of their social relations, it also makes them significantly less effective participants in the struggle to bring about economic and social equality. It makes them consenting reading subjects.

Yet, ironically, one of the consequences of "de-reading" is that in the name of privileging "personal" differences, one of the most fundamental aspects of a person's life—his or her class position—becomes entirely invisible or else it is turned into a matter that appears to have nothing at all to do with class. But, in contrast to Manguel, any examination of people's "personal" reading practices that do not address the conditions in which they live and work, which are the effects of their position in the division of labor, misses the very dimensions of their lives that shape their practices and give different meanings to different practices. The "differences" in reading practices between someone like the working class prisoner in I Hear America Reading who reads to escape his stark, confined, and impoverished reality, and someone like a CEO who reads to learn better strategies for lowering the cost of labor power to increase profits (which leads to growing prison populations)—are not simply cultural or free-floating differences. They are differences made possible by the division of labor in capitalist society.

De-reading is one side of reading in class society: it is ideological reading. But contrary to the common sense, ideology is not simply ideas that are "misinformed" or ideas that correspond to particular political programs. Rather, ideology, in the materialist sense, refers to ideas which justify unequal class relations. More specifically, ideology under capitalism, as Marx theorizes in Capital, is a direct effect of the exploitation that occurs in the wage-labor exchange.

Since the concept of "ideology" has been so emptied of its economic content in contemporary theory (when it is not being outright banned from use), it is necessary to take some time here to clarify its relation to wage-labor and the working day, and its significance for the question of reading. In the context of wage-labor, Marx explains, it appears that people are free to sell their labor (or not), and that in going to work and receiving a wage, workers receive fair compensation. Yet the actual relations that make this exchange possible contradict its appearance. Not only is the worker not free to sell her labor power—she is economically compelled to because she does not own the means of production—but the apparently equal exchange is actually based on the theft from the worker that occurs during the working day. The working day, Marx explains, is divided into two parts. One part of the working day involves the expenditure of the worker's labor-power which is necessary to reproduce the worker (that is, necessary labor, or labor which produces the use-values which meet the worker's needs, whether these are the minimal basic needs for survival or more complex needs), while the other part of the working-day involves the excess expenditure of labor-power (surplus labor) in order to produce surplus value, which is claimed by the capitalist as profit. But this division, Marx emphasizes, "is not evident on the surface" (Capital 245). Whereas under feudalism, that part of the time spent working for the lord (the "corvée") and that time spent producing the serf's own means of subsistence was clearly established and violently enforced, under capitalism there is no such visible distinction. While "surplus labor in the corvée has an independent and immediately palpable form" (244), the appropriation of surplus labor is not directly available to experience (perception), since it is concealed beneath a veil of equivalence (wages), and requires a more complex, conceptual understanding of what takes place during the working day. Thus, although it appears that in going to work and receiving a wage, the worker receives fair compensation (the full value of what she produces), she is actually, as Marx puts it, being "robbed" by the capitalist. The entire basis of capitalist profit is the surplus value stolen by capitalists from the working class. It is precisely because all profits are based on surplus value, and because it is the goal of capitalists to constantly expand their rate of profit, that capital seeks to extend the time workers spend producing surplus value relative to that spent reproducing themselves and their families. The actuality of the working day in capitalism (exploitation), in short, is what explains why a seemingly equal exchange results in the greater and greater impoverishment of workers and the concentration of wealth into fewer hands.

Working people thus have an interest not only in reclaiming the fruits of their labor, but in reclaiming control over the conditions under which they are compelled to labor overlong for a lesser share of their labor's yield. They have, in short, an interest in their collective ownership of the means of production. However, as it is in the interest of the ruling minority to maintain these relations, their private interest in remaining free to purchase and thereby exploit the labor power of others is presented as the general interest, which is the reading which ideology is always aimed at producing. In other words, the ability to represent the particular interests of a privileged class as the interests of all, a move which Manguel repeats when he projects his class circumstances onto others, is not a moral matter, but an effect of the class relations of capitalism. "The ideas of the ruling class", Marx and Engels argue in The German Ideology, "are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force" (59). Thus those subject to the ruling class in the division of labor are also subject to the ruling class' ideas.

What is central to re-understanding reading in general and Manguel's theory of reading in particular, is that the role of ideology is to substitute "appearance" (free exchange) for "essence" (exploitation). It takes what is "directly visible" in capitalism (i.e. the "freedom" and "fairness" of the exchange of wages for labor power) as the "root explanation" of life under capitalism. Affective theories of reading such as Manguel's serve ideological ends in that they take for granted the apparently equal, unstructured and undetermined relations between people who are apparently free and autonomous social beings. This appearance of capitalist society (which is quite at odds with actuality) is, in fact, the starting point of his analysis. It is the fundamental, though unspoken, premise of his history of reading, in which reading emerges as a purely personal and private matter without any social determinations.

Theories of reading such as Manguel's, in fact, simply "describe" or "repeat" at the level of theory and culture, capital's need to update the consciousness skills required for the new technologies within the framework of the old production relations. Manguel's attempt to ideologically dissolve social structures into a structureless morass of appearances without any determinate connections or causes, for instance, is really a more mediated embrace of global capital's more recent needs for a labor force skilled in the use of new cybertechnologies, which are less linear and structured. Technologies, in other words, which require readers with an even more fragmented consciousness: subjects with hypertextual intelligibilities. This is represented in the cultural common sense as the height of subjective "freedom" and theoretical "subtlety", when it actually represents the deepening exploitation and subjective unfreedom of the working class worldwide.

What I call transformative reading is, by contrast, situated at the boundaries of contemporary social relations, since it seeks to advance the conditions that will bring about the end of exploitation. It therefore insists on the necessity of concepts (science) that enable reading to grasp the "particular" and the "personal" in relation to the global, or the "visible" realities of everyday life to their "invisible" structures. In other words, transformative reading is the science of the advancing productive forces that make possible a just society.


To clarify what I mean by transformative reading, I turn now to a discussion of another foundational text on reading; John Berger's Ways of Seeing. Ways of Seeing has long been regarded as a classic in reading visual culture. But what I want to argue is that we can understand Ways of Seeing as a theorization of "reading" more generally: a theorization of reading that begins not from the appearances of daily life under capitalism (although it spends a great deal of time addressing these experiences), but from the material relations that shape all appearances and our readings of them.

The main argument of the book is that "perception"—that is, our sensory impressions of the world around us, other beings, things, as well as images and other representations of these in art and media—is not individual, but always is constituted by socially derived "ways of seeing". In other words, our ways of seeing are historically developed ways of conceptualizing both what we experience and the social totality in which our experience occurs. The focus of Ways of Seeing is on the ways of seeing that have developed in capitalist society, beginning with an emphasis on the conventions of representation in art, specifically oil painting, and building to a discussion of how these same conventions inform "publicity" (his term for advertisement and related media imagery). By making this argument, Berger aims to show readers how and why certain ways of seeing have emerged in capitalism, and with what consequences, so that they might gain a greater level of control over how they see, understand, and act on the world. In short, Ways of Seeing not only shows that the personal is structured by the social relations of class, but begins to advance a mode of reading which develops conceptual explanations of appearances (the perceptible or  the visible) in class society in light of the material relations (the invisible or the imperceptible but for concepts) of class.

By now, works of high art (oil painting, sculpture, etc.) and the everyday texts of commodity culture (ads, television, popular films, etc.) hardly represent new objects of study. The field of cultural studies, which was emerging when Ways of Seeing was first published (1972), has long established that all cultural production, not just "high art", is worthy of study and need to be situated in the context of the kinds of subjectivities they create in their production and consumption. What is significant about Berger's text is that it is located in the early years of the debates over "high" and "popular" culture and that it puts forward at this early juncture a class analysis of diverse cultural forms. In other words, in focusing on analysis of art and advertisement, Berger is responding to the conservative cultural critics of his day who are producing an ideological above-class reading of culture which elevated art over other forms of cultural production in order to separate aesthetic value from market value. For example, Ways of Seeing, as both a TV series and book, has been characterized as a "polemical riposte" to Kenneth Clark's TV series and book Civilisation, which sought to (re)establish the traditional canon as the main body of shared culture and the common values of society (Fuller). In demonstrating that all cultural value is in the end an articulation of market values, and arguing that claims to the contrary are anti-democratic, class-interested mystifications of the material relations, Berger is taking part in one of the main debates of the past century over the value of culture and the nature of cultural critique. What is at stake, in other words, is the determination of what should be "read", how, why, and with what consequences—not only for reading as a cultural practice but for the possibility of democracy and the improvement of people's lives. This point, so central to the emergence of cultural studies, bears repeating at a time when much of cultural studies has "forgotten" about the material relations of exploitation and focuses instead on the "materiality" of appearances. (See, for instance, Michael Bérubé's Aesthetics and Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall's Representations, Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations, and Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart's Photographs/Objects/Histories: On the Materiality of Images.)

To address these questions—what, how, why, wherefore?—Ways of Seeing begins by explaining the relationship of seeing (perception) and knowing (conception). Berger states that "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled" (7).In other words, perception, which seems to precede conceptualization, is only able to grasp the immediate (Berger's opening example: "The child looks and recognizes before it can speak"), while conceptualization is a mediation of what is perceived that connects the visible to the often invisible social structures.  What we see or perceive has a kind of felt immediacy, but this perception of immediacy (and its attendant sense of naturalness) is itself an experience which is constituted by the social relations. What appears to be natural (or not) can only ever be the product of a way of seeing that has been made possible by the given social situation. There is, in short, a dialectical relation between perception and conception that is always mediated by class.

Berger addresses this by examining the image and the conventions of image-making in capitalism. Any image, he argues, is not a natural occurrence but a reproduction of a particular way of seeing and thus of a reading of both what the image depicts and its relation to those to whom it is presented. Berger's brief discussion of the development of the artistic convention of "perspective" is particularly useful in demonstrating the historicity of seeing/reading. Perspective—a method for creating a proportional image that suggests dimensions and therefore seems "real"—emerged as an aesthetic convention as the bourgeois class emerged as an economic and political power. Its emergence is not a coincidence or accident, but rather is an articulation of the values of the economic field in the cultural field. In perspective, all lines converge on a single horizon or vanishing point which is the projection of the single eye of the centered viewer. Berger writes, "Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God" (16). Perspective can be thus regarded as a way of "organizing the visual field" (18)—in other words, as a particular way of reading the world, which locates the spectator as the center of the world, the center of meaning. Berger shows that this way of seeing—which produces the centered, private subject who sees all that can be seen/known—is a class-interested way of seeing in that it reproduces in the visual/aesthetic field what is being advanced by emerging interests in the economic and political fields: namely, that the "individual" is the rightful center of understanding, meaning, and value. Berger's discussion of perspective, in other words, emphasizes that "seeing" is historical, rather than "natural". Perspective "proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world" (18), an idea central to the development of wage-labor (which, unlike feudal relations, requires "free" labor and the ability to accumulate capital freely). But insofar as all spectators are presumed to see the same (omniscient) view (when clearly they are not only not omniscient but not of a common class either), perspective also covers over the actual material relations in which some are able to accumulate capital freely, while others are forced to engage in "free" labor to survive. Perspective organizes the visible around the individual as the center of meaning and directs attention to the appearances of freedom and self-determination and away from the material relations.

It is in the context of the analysis of appearances and their material conditions that Berger's contribution to a materialist theory of reading needs to be situated. He is working to explain the ways in which appearances under private property relations simultaneously reflect and obscure material conditions, a contradictory social phenomenon that requires not simple affirmation but critique of appearances under capital. It is for this reason he is particularly concerned with explaining the mystifications of class that are articulated in oil painting and publicity (advertising), which for him offer exemplary opportunities to unpack the complex relations of class. The critical spectator or reader—that is, the reading subject that Ways of Seeing is aimed at producing—brings concepts to bear to show that the singular appearance of the painting (or the ad, or of any text) is actually divided, conflicted, contradictory. This is not a mere matter of textual deconstruction—drawing out the supposed inherent internal undoing of any text.  It is instead a matter of showing that ideological closures of meaning are never aimed at explaining but at explaining away the contradictory nature of capitalism.

Take, for instance, Berger's discussion of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews", which depicts a well-dressed 18th century couple under a tree. A pastoral landscape behind them stretches to the hills and clouds in the distance; they look toward us. Berger tells us that Kenneth Clark had written in Landscape into Art (1950), that the picture shows us a couple who in the spirit of Enlightenment are appreciating real nature—a real place that they know and love, as opposed to some idealized space invented by the artist. Berger counters that this is indeed the way of seeing that the painting aims to establish, but that study of the painting as a commissioned artwork shows that it is a depiction of bourgeois property-holders whose "proprietary attitudes" toward a "recognizable landscape" is "visible in their stance and their expressions" (106-107). What Berger suggests here is that when we study the "stance" and "expression" of the figures depicted, rather than reflect on them only in terms of their own (aesthetic) qualities or their relation to an abstract ideal (i.e., Nature), we need to ask: what are the material conditions that give meaning to such stances and expressions?  What are the class relations that make not just the stances but also the commission of the painting possible in the first place?   Berger's reading is rejected by the critic Lawrence Gowing, who—in a move echoed by Manguel—declares Berger's class reading to be an interposition of Berger's own political reading between the artwork and its viewer, who will see the picture better by considering that the Andrews are depicted not owning the land but appreciating it. In response to Gowing's reading, which takes for granted the historical conditions in which such a couple can come to be in the position to "appreciate" their land, Berger brings to our attention what makes possible such a relation to the land in the first place. Possession of the land, he argues, is a precondition of such appreciation and enjoyment (107-108), and possession of the land by individuals is a historical development, not a transhistorical or universal situation. Berger argues that the property relations, which the critics obscure in their insistence that the picture shows something other (greater) than property-relations, are at the heart of the meaning of the picture.

What Berger's reading reveals is the mystification of the material relations which other critics produce by focusing on the cultural surfaces and marginalizing—or indeed denying—the relations which determine culture. "Mystification"—to explain Berger's term—is the imposition of the subjectivity (the way of seeing) of the class of property-owners and decision-makers on the working class. In his own words, mystification "is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident" (15-16). In this he is critiquing those modes of reading which isolate images from their material conditions, rendering them autonomous (self-evident). Critical reading, by contrast, re-connects images to their material reality. Mystification, like ideology, substitutes appearance for essence. In other words, what is important to emphasize is that for Berger, reading (like seeing) is, in the most fundamental sense, a mode of conceptualizing the totality of social relations. It is a process by which one comes to know the interrelations of the world, its complex history, and one's position in that world in relation to others. Thus, what one reads and how one reads are historical—and by "historical" Berger does not mean "accidental". Rather what and how one reads are shaped by the social relations of labor, which serve as the foundation of daily practices, and without knowledge of which it becomes impossible to develop a comprehensive understanding of "reading". To read critically in capitalism therefore means, not to disregard or dismiss the forms and appearances of culture, but to unearth the structures that remain hidden beneath the surface of daily life, which are not graspable in their totality by "perception" but only through conceptual understanding. In Ways of Seeing, Berger aims to get at the class content of images by reading what appears to the eye in relation to what is invisible but for concepts.

In working to develop such a reading, Berger addresses the reader as a social subject, especially as a class subject and a gendered subject. Having developed this reading through an engagement with various genres of oil painting, Berger closes with a discussion of the ubiquitous imagery of advertisements ("publicity") in contemporary culture. He writes, 

Does the language of publicity have anything in common with that of oil painting which, until the invention of the camera, dominated the European way of seeing during four centuries?  It is one of those questions which simply needs to be asked for the answer to become clear. There is a direct continuity. (134) 

The language of oil painting was mainly directed toward the bourgeois "spectator-owners", as a means of confirming the rightness of their place in the world;  the purpose of publicity, which as Berger shows, "speaks" the same "language", is to show the class of the "spectator-buyers" that their place in the world can be improved through consumption. That is, in his reading of ads for soap, clothes, home furnishings, alcohol, travel, credit, etc., Berger shows how these images work to get social subjects, the producers of value in class society, to define themselves as private subjects, as individual consumers, to whom certain ideas of pleasure are made visible while the actual conditions which undermine the ideals of democracy and equality become invisible.

Berger writes that the images and claims of publicity form "a kind of philosophical system" which "interprets the world", and that through this systematic re-interpretation of the world, "Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy" (149). Thus, the spectator-buyer's consciousness of "what one is" and "what one would like to be" are cast in private terms by publicity, and one's dissatisfaction with the current conditions of one's life are rewritten in ways that deny access to the idea that what needs to change is not something about oneself but rather the entire social structure (private property). Berger's aim is to help the reader cut through the commodified surfaces of daily life and see that she is not an individual in a unique situation but that she is part of a social collective—the working class, or the "masses", as he puts it—whose class interest (in changing the existing relations) it is the role of the culture industry to deny. And this denial is justified (and thus hidden from the reader) by a massive media apparatus which systematically substitutes private, temporarily pleasurable experiences of consumption for real freedom (from exploitation and oppression). In his conclusion, Berger writes that "without publicity capitalism could not survive", and that in fact "Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible" (154). Berger's goal in linking publicity—capitalism's commodity culture—to traditions in art history is to show the continuity of conflicting class interests and thus to enable the contemporary reader to begin to see through the appearances to the structure and thus—perhaps—to think and act differently, that is, to think and act in her class interest in a just society. 

In short, the kind of reader which Berger's theory of reading produces is one who connects cultural practices to their material conditions, for instance, by showing how the conceptual framework of a particular image, text, practice,… articulates a particular class-interested view of the social relations. Berger seeks to enable a reader who is not "fooled" by capital, but who sees and understands how particular ways of framing the issues either mystify or reveal the underlying structures. One of Berger's fundamental assumptions, in other words, seems to be that knowledge of the underlying structures can help people to be more effective actors in transforming their material conditions.

Yet Berger's text is not without limits. Berger's aim in Ways of Seeing is, as I have suggested, to de-mystify the appearances of commodity culture and thus to provide an opening onto a critical reading not only of appearances but of their function within the class relations. But whether this opening is sufficient to enable social transformation is a different matter. For at the same time Berger emphasizes the need for structural change (not just change at the level of ideas), his text also opens on to a movement to disconnect the workings of culture and ideology from the economic relations of wage-labor—a movement that both has been commandeered by cultural studies today and is especially explicit in Berger's more recent writings.

However, unlike other critiques of Berger, mine is not that he is "outdated" or too "reductive". Rather my argument is that he is not reductive enough. For instance, although he appeals to ideology and the need for ideology critique, the economic basis of ideology—the relations of exploitation that necessitate it—are never addressed. As a result, we are left with a political theory of ideology and ideological reading that does not in the end get to its roots, though it gestures towards them. Having missed the roots, which are, as I have argued, transformable, it is not surprising that Berger tends toward a rather fatalist view of capitalism. For example, while Berger suggests that "full consciousness of the contradiction and its causes" is possible, and thus that one might "join the political struggle for full democracy" (148), he presents publicity as "the life of this culture" (154) which almost totally quashes all hopes, so that what is most likely to enable some kind of change is "our moral sense" (153). The limit here is that it is not clear how a "moral sense" which is not already subsumed by the culture that produces it is developed; that is, even while Berger begins to develop concepts that are "outside" the cultural commonsense, he does not explain what makes such transformative concepts possible, and thus turns to a moralism that both accepts a fatalist view of capitalism and posits an outside sense that is not explained. In fact, in arguing for morality, he posits an "outside" that is really part of the "inside" of capitalist relations: an argument for simply reforming (updating) capital rather than transforming its exploitative relations. This is further confirmed in a much more recent interview (Bonaventura), where Berger states that "I can't accept human liberation as some thing that can finally be gained. [...] I think it's something that has to be constantly and eternally struggled for". Following a much more postmodern line of argument relative to his earlier work, Berger here suggests that the goal of struggle, as he puts it, is not to actually "achieve" liberation but to "preserv[e] human dignity in the present". It seems that Berger, like many others on the left, has retreated from the kinds of arguments for social change he more forcefully defended in his earlier work. To read in order to "preserve human dignity in the present" is quite different than to read as part of a practice of achieving the liberation of the exploited from the relations of exploitation—to end the relations that cause "indignity". It reflects a (privileged) acceptance of social inequality.


Even on the left, then, acquiescence to capital is increasingly the rule of the day. Returning to the contemporary debates over the reading "crisis", the effects of such acquiescence can be seen in the position on the reading crisis taken by Charles Taylor. In an editorial in, Taylor equates reading with "a visual experience" and reduces much of the commentary on the reading crisis, specifically the position taken by Solomon and Will, to "high-brow" snobbery. In short, he argues that Solomon et al. are overly concerned with "traditional literacy", which is believed to be connected to Culture, intellectual development and critical citizenship, none of which are the reality of "reading" for the average person. As opposed to Solomon et al., Taylor argues that it is "mistaken" to see a division between "literacy and illiteracy", and that "the real contrast ... is between different models of literacy". In particular, Taylor believes that the traditionalists overlook that "visual literacy is more complex and necessary today than "traditional" or "conceptual" literacy.

While Taylor assumes that his view is more "in touch" with reality, he is really producing a view of reading and literacy that is just as much an ideological obfuscation as are the views of privatized reading put forth by Will and Solomon. First, in reducing reading to "a visual experience", even one which "enriches other experiences", Taylor denies that reading is a conceptual practice—visual or otherwise. What such a theorization of reading does is prevent the examination of the conceptual assumptions behind "spontaneous" or "private" reading, while it also dismantles the means which students need to understand the social totality. Reading is once again rendered as a personal experience rather than a social practice. Second, the crisis over reading reflects changes in capital that have brought about new needs in the workforce—more pragmatic information skills that are tied to cyberliteracy, among other things. On the one hand, the right wants to go back to times when education was "well-rounded" and steeped in the traditional values. But this is a nostalgic view which romanticizes and mystifies capital's earlier needs, including the marginalized position of women and people of color in the workforce. The left, on the other hand, responds more favorably to new needs of capital. Their embrace of the fragmentary and the singular is a reflection of capital's need for new working class subjectivities that do not require conceptual learning but easily replaceable skills that benefit corporations. Right and left quarrel over the moral surface features of the "crisis", but they do not grasp it by the roots; consequently, they produce readings and theories of reading which enable the existing relations of inequality to continue and to deepen.

Because of this, not only does privatized reading erase the material structures which compel the majority of the world's people to sell their labor power because the means of production have been privatized. Like all other forms of ideology, privatized reading also obscures what the forces of production have made possible under capitalism, namely new relations of production based on collective ownership. By substituting affective, experiential knowledge for concepts that would enable readers to understand the complex determining relations that constitute social structures, privatized reading keeps "invisible" the growing contradiction between the forces and relations of production. While production has become increasingly global and capable of meeting the needs of all people, what is ideologically fostered among the working class is that the privatization and commodification of life (which in fact benefits a very tiny transnational class of capitalists) is the most "democratic" way for all to live, even while the left accepts that democracy "doesn't offer any guarantees" (Taylor). Ideology "disappears" the objective contradictions of capitalism in order to present what is (what "appears") as what will always be. It turns capitalism into the transcendental signifier of human life itself in order to maintain increasingly outdated private relations. 

Reading, as it has developed within capitalism, develops in order to serve the needs of capital for an exploitable workforce with skills corporations require. While the material conditions exist for the development of full critical literacy for all, the social relations between the classes are such that this development only occurs in as much as it enables the dominant class to meet its need for new ways to accumulate capital. This contradiction of education and literacy in capitalism means that reading is always in crisis; the crisis appears today to be a crisis of people not reading as they once did, or as they need to in order to be employed in the new technical industries, or as they need to in order to serve the national interest,... But reading in class society is always contradictory; that is, it articulates the dominant class interests of its moment: the ruling class has an interest in developing certain aspects of knowledge (such as technical knowledge) in the working class, while at the same time blocking the development of other aspects of knowledge (such as knowledge of the social relations, which can guide transformative practices).

The reading "crisis", in short, is an effect of a shift in production; it is a reflection of the development of the cyber-skills of the new technologies and the new humanities. It represents a shift in what capital finds necessary for the new generation of workers to know, to facilitate capital’s further globalization. The solution is not in some moral resolution of the crisis within capitalist relations but rather is in the transformation of these relations to equal ones, that is, in the end of exploitation and the development of new relations between people in production and all other aspects of social life. The resolution of the "crisis" is not to be found in a re-instatement of "literature", but rather in the development of class conscious reading: comprehensive, conceptual reading that takes the side of working people in the struggle for a just society.

I have been arguing that reading which does not read the appearances in relation to their root relations is ideological reading. Thus, I am claiming that either the crisis of reading is going to be resolved in the imaginary through ideology, an always partial and defensive resolution that will constantly need to be updated, or it is going to be resolved in actual material reality by revealing what is ideological, explaining its necessity, making visible the causes of the reading crisis, and making intelligible the possibility of a society of free and equal subjects whose reading develops as a comprehension of the perceptual in relation to the conceptual. Such reading is reading that is transformative; it is transformative reading because it shows that the current social structure is transformable, and because, armed with this knowledge, the working class can make a revolution and transform society.

Reading is not the answer to social problems, but it is a social practice at the center of any attempt to understand or change society. Transformative reading explains the class contradictions, and thus not only opens up the possibility of developing the knowledge necessary for transforming the social relations, but in fact is a necessary precondition for such social practice. Transformative reading is the science of the advancing productive forces, reading the world not only to interpret it, but to change it.

Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC / Penguin, 1972.

Bonaventura, Paul. "Master of Diversity." New Statesman (originally published 1996) 12 Nov. 2001: 38. InfoTrac OneFile. Gale Group Databases. Adirondack Community College Library, Queensbury, NY. 14 July 2004 <>.

Burke, Jim. I Hear America Reading: Why We Read - What We Read. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1999.

Fuller, Peter. "Philistines Anonymous." New Statesman & Society (originally published 29 Jan.1988) 13 Nov. 1992: vxiii+. InfoTrac OneFile. Gale Group Databases. Adirondack Community College Library, Queensbury, NY. 14 July 2004 <>.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies." Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. New York: Routledge, 1996: 262-275.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking, 1996.

Marx. Capital. Vol. 1. In Collected Works 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

---. The German Ideology. In Collected Works 5. New York: International Publishers, 1976.

---. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Collected Works 29. New York: International Publishers, 1987.

Marx, Karl, and Fredrick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. In Collected Works 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976.

Solomon, Andrew. "The Closing of the American Book." International Herald Tribune. 17 July 2004. <>.

Taylor, Charles. "Let's Save Literature from the Literati." Salon. 14 July 2004. <>.

United States. National Endowment for the Arts. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. Research Division Report #46. June 2004. <>.

Will, George F. "Readers' Block." Washington Post. 23 July 2004. A29. <>.

THE RED CRITIQUE 10 (Winter/Spring 2005)