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The Politics of Bag-Reading (a draft for a Café Humanities talk about “microliteracy”)

The following unfinished text was the draft for a talk at Columbia’s Café Humanities. They ask the speakers not to read anything, and not to bring any supporting material of any kind. Naturally, I had to write it for me. I actually never talked about bag-reading -but instead, about the glosses to the Corpus Iuris Civilis. I am going to teach a graduate seminar on medieval microliteratures, and while gathering materials for the syllabus, I stumbled upon this fragmentary text.

Literacy is transitive. It is a literacy of something. Literacy is something we use, as we are constantly inventing new ways, new spaces, new limits for literacy. Literacy is not something like a code that we acquire and that makes us a part of a given community -a textual community, for instance. Instead, literacy is dynamic, it can and even must be redefined over and over again.

What about what I have called here microliteracy? What is it at all? I would say it is, above all, a research, one of the dynamic manifestations of literacy, one of the ways, spaces, and limits around which literacy transits.

The transit of microliteracies does not occur in the center, in the orderly, justified structure of reading the page. The organizers of this café told me not to bring anything like handouts, and even less power points or other image support of the same kind. And they are right. But this only grants me the opportunity to make you visualize, with words, something that is, above all, both space and the production of it.

Think of a Lulu Lemmon bag. And no, I do not have anything to do with them, and I neither recommend yoga nor support their products. It is only that I was reading one of their bags in the subway a short time ago. So, think of that bag. The person who’s holding it is too close to the bag, but, like many other bags, it contains at least one symbolic message that is intended to be read by all the other people who are not holding a bag. The bag-holder is invested with the particular distinction of this bag and everything it stands for.

Also, the same bag-holder, is the itinerant support for the multiple messages across the surface of said bag. When you are in the subway at an adequate distance of the bag-holder you cannot not read it. It is compulsive, there is no way to stop reading, as there is no way not to read the box of cereals or the bottle of milk while we are having breakfast. Since text is there, text must be read. We are already a society of readers [1].

The Lulu Lemmon bag, however, is not easy to read. It has a non-linear constellation of texts that are adapted to every single inch of the bag in different typefaces and in different modules or font sizes. Literate humans can read text written in any direction, but at the same time we cannot avoid leaning, inclining, and tilting the head, in order to read some parts of the bag. It can be comical, and depending on the interpretation of the bag-holder and the relative position of the bag to the body, it can also be pretty awkward. The point, here, is that no matter what is written on this bag, we are going to read it.

Let’s not forget, that it is also a recycled bag, a reusable bag, a bag that immediately speaks about its prestige and nobility in our society. It is a bag that, as soon as we see it, without even reading what has been written on it, we are prone to pay heed to. Its materiality is already a fabulous ideological statement. Its very materiality alone will locate the politics of this bag, its sociological situation. The bag’s, and also the bag-holder’s. It is a source of cultural and political characterization. Depending on our own characterization, we will interpret the text in very different ways, but we will locate all the text on the bag as an expression of the social, political, and cultural implications of the bag itself. We will see how this text is related to a particular vision and description of the world, and that it can be interpreted as the utterance or textual production of a particular ideology.

The text does not allow us to make any mistake: surprisingly enough, the bag is extremely authoritarian, for all the textual elements are expressed in the imperative mode -do that, do not do that. They are decontextualized, and they do rarely contain any rationale for the imperative. They are just orders. Orders. Like “do something that scares you”, or “dance, sing, floss, and travel” -an incredible zeugma indeed.

The bag is pure microliteracy, and so is the reaction to it, the material analysis, the compulsory reading, and the socio-political interpretation of both texts and materiality. It is discovering that text production and textual analysis is strictly related to space and materiality and to the production of both space and materiality.

Obviously, I am not a bag reader. Not professionally, at least. I have never taught a class on bag reading, for instance, nor I have my bookshelves filled with bags. I recycle bags, though. Like I recycle text. It is about the same. What I mean is that I did not start thinking about microliteracies while going in the subway reading other people’s bags -something that some would consider even rude.



  1. “-Io? Io non leggo libri -says Irnerio. -Cosa leggi, allora? -Niente. Mi sono abituato così bene a non leggere che non leggo neanche quello che mi capita sotto gli occhi per caso. Non è facile: ci insegnano a leggere da bambini e per tutta la vita si resta schiavi di tutta la roba scritta che ci buttano sotto gli occhi. Forse ho fatto un certo sforzo anch’io, i primi tempi, per imparare a non leggere, ma adesso mi viene proprio naturale. Il segreto è di non rifiutarsi di guardare le parole scritte, anzi, bisogna guardarle intensamente fino a che scompaiono.” Italo Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, Milano: Arnaldo Mondadori, 1994: 55.

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