The Practice of Everyday Life

Michel de Certeau


de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. 1974. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974. Paperback: 9780520271456.


“In this incisive book, Michel de Certeau considers the uses to which social representation and modes of social behavior are put by individuals and groups, describing the tactics available to the common man for reclaiming his own autonomy from the all-pervasive forces of commerce, politics, and culture. In exploring the public meaning of ingeniously defended private meanings, de Certeau draws brilliantly on an immense theoretical literature to speak of an apposite use of imaginative literature.”


I. Summary


The voice of the “ordinary man ... is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of history.” It is “the murmuring voice of societies.” The shift in focus onto the “audience” is the “advent of the number” that “comes along with democracy, the large city, administrations, cybernetics.” The audience “is a flexible and continuous mass, woven tight like a fabric with neither rips nor darned patches, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one.”


De Certeau wants to elaborate “a science of singularity” (ix), a “science of the relationship that links everyday pursuits to particular circumstances” (ix).

It is “only in the local network of labor and recreation [that] one can grasp how, within a grid of socio-economic constraints, these pursuits unfailingly establish relational tactics (a struggle for life), artistic creations (an aesthetic), and autonomous initiatives (an ethic)” (ix).

The translation of the text from French to English is a project in service of this end: “within the bounds imposed by another language and another culture, the art of translation smuggles in a thousand inventions which, before the author’s dazzled eyes, transform his book into a new creation” (x).

General Introduction

Keywords: action, consumer, doing, enunciation, innovation, user, making, manipulation, operation, practice, production, reappropriation, rent, tactics, use

The “users” de Certeau concerns himself with are not “passive”: they are constantly at work in their “everyday practices, “ways of operating” or doing things,” which “no longer appear as merely the obscure background of social activity” (xi). This means that the “everyday practices” of people have a real content, a real significance, that has been hidden.

De Certeau is not advocating for “a return to individuality” and “social atomism” (xi). “Analysis shows that a relation (always social) determines [the individual’s] terms, and not the reverse, and that each individual is a locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of such relational determinations interact” (xi).

As such, de Certeau is concerned with “modes of operation” or “schemata of action,” and “not directly the subjects (or persons) who are their authors or vehicles (xi). The “purpose of this work is to make explicit the systems of operational combination” that “compose a “culture”” (xi) and to articulate the “models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society ... is concealed by the euphemistic term “consumers”” (xi-xii).

”[R]epresentations” and “modes of behaviour” are “social phenomena that are put to “use ... by groups or individuals” (xii). De Certeau wonders what “the cultural consumer “makes” or “does” during this time and with these images [the social phenomena]” (xii).

“The “making” in question is a production, a poiēsis—but a hidden one, because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of “production” ... and because the steadily increasing expansion of these systems no longer leaves “consumers” any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems” (xii).

The “production” of “consumption” is “devious,” “dispersed,” and “insinuates itself everywhere, silently and invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order” (xiii).

Consumers “subvert[]” the “rituals, representations, and laws” of authority “not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept” (xiii).

The consumer becomes the “other within” (xiii).

De Certeau asks, how are “representation[s]” “manipulate[ed] by users who are not [their] makers” (xiii). What is the “difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization” (xiii)?

This difference can be theorized as a “performance” or “enunciation” (xiii). This is the difference between “the act of speaking” and the “knowledge of a language” (xiii). Though “[1] speaking operates within the field of a linguistic system” (xiii), it “[2] effects an appropriation, or reappropriation, of language by its speakers; it [3] establishes a present relative to a time and place; and it [4] posits a contract with the other (the interlocutor) in a network of places and relations” (xiii).

“These four characteristics of the speech act can be found in many other practices” (xiii).

Users effect “innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (xiv).

With Foucault, the dispositif (mechanism) “reorganize[s] the functioning of power” by “redistributing a discursive space in order to make it the means of a generalized “discipline” (surveillance)” (xiv).

So, if “it is true that the grid of “discipline” is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also “miniscule” and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally, what “ways of operating” form the counterpart, on the consumer’s (or “dominee’s”?) side, of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic order” (xiv).

These “ways of operating” are “the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of “discipline”” (xiv-xv). “Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline which is the subject of this book”—that is, tactics (xv).

‘Tactical’ “operations” are “multiform and fragmentary” but there is a “logic” to them (xv). The logic of tactics is essentially “an art or “way of making”” (xv). Thus, “popular culture” “present[s] [itself] essentially as “arts of making” this or that, i.e., as combinatory or utilizing modes of consumption. These practices bring into play a “popular” ratio, a way of thinking invested in a way of acting, an art of combination which cannot be disassociated from an art of using” (xv).

These “certain ways of making” carry out “the recomposition of a space” (xv).

This space is for the marginalized, who, in a consumer capitalist society are the “non-producers of culture” (xvii), whose “cultural activity” is “unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized” but is “the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself” (xvii).

This is the “necessity of differentiating both the “actions” or “engagements” (in the military sense) that the system of products effects within the consumer grid, and the various kinds of room to maneuver left for consumers by the situations in which they exercise their “art”” (xvii).

“The relation of procedures to the fields of force in which they act must therefore lead to a polemological analysis of culture”—that is, a political analysis (xvii).

“Like law (one of its models), culture articulates conflicts and alternately legitimizes, displaces, or controls the superior force” (xvii).

Culture “develops in an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides symbolic balances, contracts of compatibility and compromises, all more or less temporary” (xvii).

“The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” (xvii).

Tactics are consumer “trajectories” that “trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop” (xviii).

De Certeau prefers tactics to trajectories, however. Trajectory “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane projection, a flattening out. It is a transcription. A graph ... substituted for an operation; a line which can be reversed ... does duty for an irreversible temporal series, a tracing for acts” (xviii-xix). “Trajectory” is a “reduction.”

De Certeau uses tactics and strategies instead.

A “strategy” is the “calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power ... can be isolated from an “environment”” (xix). This environment is a “place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it” (xix).

A “tactic” however is a “calculus which cannot count on a “proper” (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance” (xix).

A tactic “has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances” (xix).

With strategy, the “proper” is “a victory of space over time” (xix).

“On the contrary, because it does not have a place, tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities.” The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them” (xix).

Tactics synthesize “heterogeneous elements” into “the form, however, not of a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is “seized”” (xix). Tactics is “knowing how to get away with things” (xix), the Greek mētis: wisdom, skill, craft.

“In our societies, as local stabilities break down, it is as if, no longer fixed by a circumscribed community, tactics wander out of orbit, making consumers into immigrants in a system too vast to be their own, too tightly woven for them to escape from it” (xx).

But tactics also “show the extent to which intelligence is inseparable from the everyday struggles and pleasures that it articulates. Strategies, in contrast, conceal beneath objective calculations their connection with the power that sustains them from within the stronghold of its own “proper” place or institution” (xx).

The “discipline of rhetoric” helps us see how tactics “[make] use of the opportunities offered by the particular situation” (xx).

Finally, for de Certeau, “reading” is the “everyday practice[] that produce[s] without capitalizing, that is, without taking control over time” (xxi, xx).

Reading has been characterized as the “maximal development of passivity” (xxi). But, “[i]n reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production” (xxi).

In reading, the “thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place” (xxi).

“This mutation makes the text habitable” (xxi) in “the same way the users of social codes turn them into metaphors and ellipses of their own quests” (xxi-xxii).

“Reading thus introduces an “art” which is anything but passive”: “innovation” (xxii).

The “procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle art of “renters” who know how to insinuate their countless differences into the dominant text” (xxii).

“Conversation,” in the same way, “is a provisional and collective effect of competence in the art of manipulating “commonplaces” and the inevitability of events in such a way as to make them “habitable”” (xxii).

Reading, conversation, and other such tactics are “ways of frequenting or dwelling in a place,” “of establishing a kind of reliability within the situations imposed on an individual, that is, of making it possible to live in them by reintroducing into them the plural mobility of goals and desires—an art of manipulating and enjoying” (xxii).

“Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicized and computerized megalopolis, the “art” of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days” (xxiv).

Tactics are “ways of reappopriating the product-system” and “have as their goal a therapeutics for deteriorating social relations” (xxiv).

A Common Place: Ordinary Language

The everyday and the ordinary is the nowhere of de Certeau’s project. De Certeau is concerned with the everyday forms of resistance that are the result of a disseminated commonality in culture—broadly, the experience of necessity and death. The everyday expresses this experience in both its repeatability and its uniqueness, in its coming into being and its passing away. The everyday is that which is both in time, but which in its ephemerality implicitly acknowledges the ineffable, universal experience of death, which is finitude and finality. Power seeks a place that can resist the erosion of time; the everyday resistance flourishes in the erosion of places of power.

Keywords: authority, common, death, everyman, fact, foreigner, Freud, ineffable, knowledge, law of the other, mastery, nobody, ordinary, place, power, truth, universal, Wittgenstein

“The tide tumbles and disperses in its waters works formerly isolated but today transformed into drops of water in the sea, or into metaphors of a linguistic dissemination which no longer has an author but becomes the discourse or indefinite citation of the other” (1).

The everyman is always also nobody, “ always the other, without his own responsibilities … or particular properties which limit a home” (because the destiny of every man is death and the passing away of all things) (2).

The anyone, everyone, or nobody “is a common place, a philosophical topos” (2) that, as a “general character” creates a “universal connection” between the “illusory” and “frivolous” of the everyday, and death, which is “the law of the other” (2).

The “doubt which haunts writing” is “traced by this ordinary man” who, in “act[ing] out the text itself,” possesses nothing, “draw[ing] it outside of itself” into “an Other who is no longer God or the Muse, but the anonymous” (2). The Other that authorizes the ephemeral writing of the everyday is the anonymous because the anonymous many are those without power and place, and thus those who must recognize death.

In Freud the “ordinary man” operates as a “principle of totalization and as a principle of plausibility” (4). In the ‘discourse’ (i.e. text) of the everyday Freud finds the site of his study: “trivialities no longer designate the object of discourse, but rather its place” (5). The “ordinary man becomes the narrator” and as such “it is he who defines the (common) place of discourse and the (anonymous) space of its development” (5).

Resistance for de Certeau, then, is “showing how … the sea [of everyday practices] … can reorganize the place from which discourse is produced” (5).

This is the distinction he sees between the “Expert” and the “Philosopher” (6). The Expert consolidates his power by converting “competence into authority” (7). He settles in a place. The Philosopher, however, lets “ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field” (7). The Philosopher unsettles (“disturbs”) a place (a “technical field”) by the (re)introduction of the general and the everyday to expert inquiry.

Wittgenstein is, for de Certeau, the Philosopher. He “draws “from the inside” of this language … the limits of that which … exceeds it. It is exclusively from the inside that he recognizes an outside which itself remains ineffable” (10). The “reality of language” in Wittgenstein (and de Certeau by extension) is “the fact that it defines our historicity, that it dominates and envelops us in the mode of the ordinary, that no discourse can therefore “escape from it,” put itself at the distance from it in order to observe it and tell us it’s meaning” (10). Expertise is an illusion that exerts itself through the exclusion of that ineffable which cannot be said.

With Wittgenstein, then, the “place” of philosophy is “defined by a universality identical with submission to ordinary use … scientific privilege disappears into the ordinary” (11). “There will thus be facts that are no longer truths” (11) because they have no ‘extratextual’ ground. So Wittgenstein “retains” the “exactingness” of knowledge “but not its mastery” (13).

The result is that Wittgenstein (and so de Certeau) work from “the position which consists in being a foreigner at home, a “savage” in the midst of ordinary culture, lost in the complexity of the common agreement and what goes without saying” (13). From ordinary language “there is no way out”; “the fact remains that we are foreigners on the inside—but there is no outside” (14).

“Thus we must constantly “run up against the limits” of ordinary language—a situation close to the Freudian position except that Wittgenstein does not allow himself an unconscious referent to name this foreignness-at-home” (14).

Popular Cultures: Ordinary Language

Having established the language of the ordinary, de Certeau sets out to elaborate the form of practice that the language of the ordinary makes possible. Condensed into a single form, the practice or “art” of the ordinary is la perruque, the use of scraps by the worker for his own ends, the subversion of factory time by a particularly human and unproductive time. The practice of la perruque, of use within a received system to ends outside of it, can be seen in games, legends, and word-play, in gifts, and in tricks, and in tenacity. La perruque is a voluntary loss, an excess within the system that constitutes a gain without.

Keywords: belief, enunciation, games, gift, fact, la perruque, law, legends, practice, procedure, resistance, technique, terrain, truth, utopia, Wittgenstein, word-play

De Certeau, following Wittgenstein, “set[s] out toward the open sea of common experience that surrounds, penetrates, and finally carries away every discourse” (15).

There is both a “polemological” and a “utopian” space in the language of the everyday. Ordinary language “recognize[s] in [] injustice an order of things that seem[s] immutable: it is always so; people see it every day. But no legitimacy [is] accorded this state of affairs … The fact [is] not accepted as a law [a truth], even if it remain[s] inescapably a fact” (16). “Trapped in dependency, forced to submit to the facts, this conviction is nevertheless opposed to the statutory fact of an order presenting itself as natural

The language of the anonymous, of “the vanquished of history” (17), in that it has no place, no power, can entertain the (apparent) paradox of the “non-coincidence of fact and meaning” (16), and so “provide the possible with a site that is impregnable, because it is a nowhere, a utopia” (17). Their belief “create[s] another space, which coexists with that of an experience deprived of illusions” (17).

This belief, which is practiced within “the order constructed by others redistributed its space; it creates a certain play in that order, a space for maneuvers of unequal forces and for utopian points of reference” (18). The anonymous must “get along in a network of already established forces and representations” (18). To navigate this network is a “technique … exercised in any labyrinth of powers, a skill ceaselessly recreating opacities and ambiguities—spaces of darkness and trickery—in the universe of technocratic transparency, a skill that that disappears into them and reappears again, taking no responsibility for the administration of a totality” (18).

This technique or skill is an enunciative procedure, an operation within “structural equilibria” (19). Technique is thus a repertory of “ways of using things or words according to circumstances” (20) and as such constitutes an “everyday historicity” (20).

The logic of these ways of using “turns on circumstances” (21). De Certeau identifies the presence of this logic in three places: games, legends, and word-play.

  1. Games “give rise to spaces where moves are proportional to situations” (22). Games formalize “schemes of actions” (22).

  2. Legends “offer both an inventory and a repertory of combinations [of] … actions relative to conflictual situations” (23).

  3. Word-play “participate[s] in the collation of these tactics” (23) by manipulating the “received language” (24). Word-play is “an art of living in the other’s field” (24).

De Certeau refers to games, legends, and word-play as discursive terrains “on which one can locate the modalities of “enunciative” practices” (24). This opens up “the immense field of an “art of practice”” (24).

Such practices are invisible resistances to “social hierarchization” which can be described by the notion of la perruque: the “gratuitous products” created by a worker “to signify his own capabilities through his work” (26). These products expend time and material in such a way that they cannot be recuperated by the “established order” (26). The “order is tricked by an art” (26). La perruque practices an “economy of the “gift”,” an “esthetics of “tricks,”” and an “ethics of tenacity” (26). In such a practice there is a “voluntary” loss which is inexplicable to the productive order.

The “game of free exchange” creates “networks of connivances and sleights of hand,” and a such is the “practice” of an ““ordinary” art” (28).

“Making Do”: Uses and Tactics

Having articulated the conceptual relevance of la perruque, de Certeau generalizes it into a theory of tactics, his ways of making do with what one has received. This allows de Certeau to recuperate consumption as a guileful mode of production that eludes and insinuates itself into power. Consumption is a transverse production that has no place of its own but operates within the networks of a system that is already established. De Certeau uses a model of enunciation to explain his tactics, and then returns from tactics to rhetoric to indicate the “tropes” of a tactical repertory.

Keywords: culture, diversion, figure, local, network, operation, place, plurality, popular, space, tactics, terrain, time, trajectory, transverse, traverse, trope

La perruque is only an archetype: “there are countless ways of “making do”” (29). These practices “traverse the frontiers dividing time, place, and type of action” (29). They are thus “transverse tactics” that are not “localizable” (29).

De Certeau compares these tactics with “strategies” which are “able to produce, tabulate, and impose [] spaces … whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert [] spaces” (30). As such, tactics are “ways of operating” that “establish[] within [a place] a degree of plurality and creativity” (30).

This understanding allows de Certeau to rethink consumption as a “different kind of production” that is “characterized by its ruses, it's fragmentation … its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed in it” (31).

Consumption allows one to “remain[] other within the system” (32). Furthermore, the “popularization” of culture is a “revenge that utilizing tactics take[s] on the poor that dominates production” (32).

In language speech is such an operation, parole the act to the structure of langue. Delving into this linguistic operation, de Certeau sees a four part model which will allow him to extend the speech-act, enunciation, to all “enunciative procedures,” to all operations that “make do” with a received system. The model is as follows (33):

  1. Realization of the system through the act

  2. Appropriation of the system by the user

  3. Constitution of an allocution (speaking to) (inscription in relation)

  4. Presentation (making present) of the user (situation in time)

This model formalizes a “nexus of circumstances” that is “adherent to” a “context” (33) of “power relationships” (34). This is where de Certeau passes from the “linguistic frame” to the “polemological” (34).

Consumer practices are “indeterminate trajectories” or “traverses” that “remain heterogenous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires” (34). They are like the “waves of the sea” flowing over “an imposed terrain” (34).

So where strategy is a what, tactics are ways, having no place of their own (35). Tactics “circulate without being seen, discernible only through the objects that they move about and erode” (35). This is the Brownian movement that so interests de Certeau.

Tactical practice can be described as a “trajectory” but a trajectory is “only their remainder, the sign of their erasure,” the “figure” a “diachronic succession of points” makes “on a space that is supposed to be synchronic or achronic” (35). “A distinction between strategies and tactics” is, therefore, “a more adequate initial schema” (35).

Strategy: “the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power … can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed … it is an effort to deli it one’s own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other” (36). This break between place and exterior has three effects:

  1. It establishes a “proper”: the “triumph of place over time” (36).

  2. “It is also a mastery of places through sight,” “a panoptic practice” (36).

  3. It uses the “power of knowledge” to “transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces” (36).

Tactic: “a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority … The space of a tactic is the space of the other … it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself … it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision” … It operates in isolated actions … It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them … It is a guileful ruse … a tactic is determined by the absence of power” (37-38).

Strategies require space, tactics require time (38): “strategies are actions which, thanks to the establishment of a place of power … elaborate theoretical places … capable of articulating an ensemble of physical places in which forced are distributed … They thus privilege spatial relationships” (38).

“Tactics,” however, “are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time—to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favourable situation, to the rapidity of movements that change the organization of space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogeneous rhythms” (38).

Strategies “pin their hopes to the resistance that the establishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduced into the foundations of power” (39).

De Certeau returns to language to elaborate the “tactics or the polemology of the “weak”” (39). Tactics are “figures” or “turns” like those “analyzed by rhetoric” (39), manipulations of grammar “relative to occasions” (39). Rhetorical turns are thus “indexes of consumption and of the interplay of forces … “ways of operating” with a repertory of models and hypotheses … variants within a general semiotics of tactics” (39).

De Certeau sees these practices in nature, “procedures of this art [] found in the farthest reaches of the domain of the living” (40).

Today, these practices have experienced a “fragmentation and explosive growth” because of the “generalization and expansion of technocratic rationality” throughout the world (40). The “local unit[]” has been destabilized, and so consumers “are transformed into immigrants” (40), and the ““proper” has become the whole” (49). Against the critics then (i.e. the Frankfurt School), de Certeau’s “inquiry … restores what was earlier called “popular culture,” but it does do in order to transform what was represented as a matrix-force of history into a mobile infinity of tactics” (41).

Theories of the Art of Practice

De Certeau sees in Foucault, Bourdieu, Vernant, and Détienne “fundamental analyses” of “different ways of locating a technicity of a certain type and at the same time situating the study of this technicity with respect to current trends in research” (43). The following chapters in Part II acknowledge that “we never write on a blank page, but always on one that has already been written on” (43). As such, the “objects produced by an inquiry result from its ... contribution to the field that has made it possible. They thus refer to a “state of the question”—that is, to a network of professional and textual exchanges, to the “dialectic” of an inquiry in progress” (43). Therefore, “the “objects” of our research cannot be detached from the intellectual and social “commerce” that organizes their definition and their displacements” (44). We cannot deny this commerce because to do so is to “create[] a fiction of a place of [one’s] own (une place propre) ... It removes the traces of belonging to a network—traces that always compromise the author’s rights” (44). “Every “proper” place is altered by the mark others have left on it ... Every particular study is a many-faceted mirror ... reflecting the exchanges, readings, and confrontations that form the conditions of its possibility” (44).

Foucault and Bourdieu

De Certeau examines two of his influences, Foucault and Bourdieu, contrasting the approaches to culture that the two theorists take. Foucault looks at products, whereas as Bourdieu looks at geneses. Foucault is able to identify a plurality of outcomes and practices, whereas Bourdieu reduces every cultural feature to a determination of a single origin, the habitus. In short, Bourdieu’s theory is homogenizing, while Foucault’s acknowledges the heterogeneity of human practice. In Foucault, force, which is the “technology of power” in the feudal period, “vampirizes” the reform movements, and so disseminates itself as discipline in every facet of society. Out of the many heterogeneous practices of society, the optical and panoptical are “foregrounded,” becoming the primary technologies of discipline. Beneath this panoptic eye, however, the other non-foregrounded practices remain in action, and as such become forms of resistance. In Bourdieu, however, the habitus totalizes all human action, reducing all practices to manifestations of a constructed unity. Against this bleak perspective, de Certeau sees in Bourdieu a potential inversion, a reclamation of the “unconscious” from Bourdieu’s rendering of it as ignorance, a transformation of it into a subversive tactics that undermines the “productive” logic of the habitus.

Keywords: Bourdieu, discourse, docta ignorantia, Foucault, habitus, place, power, practices, procedures, proper, strategy, technology, unconscious


De Certeau’s tactics—“practices” or “procedures”—must be examined in their “relation” to “discourse” (45). “Procedures lack the repetitive fixity of rites, customs or reflexes, kinds of knowledge which are no longer (or not yet) articulated in discourse” (45). There are, however, “[t]actics in discourse,” which can “be the formal indicator of tactics that have no discourse” (45).

In Foucault we see a variety of these discursive “procedures” in the ““apparatuses” (“dispositifs”), “instrumentalities,” “techniques,” “mechanisms,” “machineries”” that he discusses (45). The forms of resistance that were carried out by the “reformist projects of the late eighteenth century” were “colonized” or “vampirized” by “the disciplinary procedures that subsequently organize[d] the social space” (45). In this way power was disseminated through the procedures of reform, taking on the character of discipline. As such, disciplinary techniques were “refined and extended without recourse to an ideology. Through a cellular space of the same type for everyone ... the techniques perfected the visibility and the gridwork of this space in order to make of it a tool capable of disciplining under control and “treating” any human group whatever” (46).

The “move (le geste) which has organized the discursive space” is the “miniscule and ubiquitously reproduced move of “gridding” (quadriller) a visible space in such a way as to make its occupants available for observation and “information”” (47).

Foucault “extracts the optical and panoptical procedures” from history, which were “at first scattered indexes of an apparatus whose elements become better defined, combine with each other, and reproduce themselves little by little throughout all the strata of society” (47). Together, these procedures form a “technology of power” which is at “the origin of both criminal law (the punishment of human beings) and the human sciences (the knowledge of human beings)” (47). In this “remarkable historiographical “operation”” (47) of Foucault’s, de Certeau highlights something important: la place propre is not originary—it emerges and is consolidated from a variety of disparate practices. As such, these emergent practices are “foregrounded,” leaving behind a “multifarious and silent “reserve” of procedures [in which] we should look for “consumer” practices” (48).

De Certeau asks, “What is the status of a particular apparatus when it is transformed into the organizing principle of a technology of power?” (48). Any practice can be transformed in this way, “institutionalized as a penitentiary-scientific system” (49).


It would seem, then, that all practices or procedures are sociocultural “technologies,” but that they are “strategic” or “tactical” insofar as they operate from a proper or not. This is why tactics “seem to be analyzable only indirectly” (50), because tactical practices are so only in relation to the “technology of power” that has been foregrounded and capitalized on by a society.

With Bourdieu, de Certeau sees a model for this analysis in “the otherness introduced by the move through which a discipline turns toward the darkness that surrounds and precedes it—not in order to eliminate it, but because it is inexpungeable and determining” (51).

In his ethnographical study of the Kabyle House Bourdieu takes a “fragment” for the “figure of a global relation” (52): the “dwelling” (52). The “practices” of the dwelling, the Kabyle House, “that articulate its interior space ... invert[] the strategies of public space and silently organize[] the language” (52). Thus there is a simultaneous “inversion of the public order and the generation of discourse” (52).

These practices Bourdieu designates as “strategies” (52). The “differences” between these strategies “permit us to specify “some of the properties” of a “logic of practice”” (52).

The “strategies themselves ... constitute as “islands” family relations practiced because they are useful, places that are distinguished by the inverted and successive movements of the body, or the periods of actions carried out one after another in rhythms that are peculiar to each and mutually incommensurable” (53). The “practice” of these strategies “organizes discontinuities, nodes of heterogeneous operations ... Matters of family relationships ... are thus not the same in every case” (53).

These strategies “involve[] both the postulates that determine a playing space and the rules that accord a value ... and certain options to the player, in short, an ability to maneuver within the different conditions in which the initial capital is committed” (53). These are the “implicit principles” and “explicit rules” of a strategic practice.

"”Strategies ... play with all the possibilities offered by traditions,” mak[ing] use of one tradition rather than another, compensat[ing] for one by means of another ... they create their own relevance within the network ... Strategies do not “apply” principles or rules; they choose among them to make up the repertory of their operations” (54).

The “logic” of strategic procedures has three “essential” elements that Bourdieu identifies:

  1. Polythetism: “the same thing has uses and properties that vary according to the arrangements into which it enters”

  2. Substitutability: “a thing is always replaceable by another, because of the affinity of each with the others within the totality that the thing represents” (54).

  3. Euphemism: “one must hide the fact that actions conflict with the dichotomies and antinomies represented by the symbolic system” (54).

Foundational for “all of these procedures” is analogy, because they are all “transgressions of the symbolic order and the limits it sets. They are camouflaged transgressions, inserted metaphors and, precisely in that measure, they become acceptable, taken as legitimate since they respect the distinctions established by language even as they undermine them” (54).

All of these, de Certeau argues, are “dominated” by “an economy of the proper place” which takes “two forms” (55): “the maximization of the capital ... that constitutes the essence of patrimony” and “the development of the body, both individual and collective, that generates duration (through its fertility) and space (through its movements)” (55). The economy of the proper place “works to reproduce and make fruitful these two distinct, and yet complementary, forms of the “dwelling””: wealth and the body—land and heirs” (55).

Bourdieu “always presupposes a twofold link between these practices and a proper place (a patrimony), on the one hand, and a collective principle of administration (the family, the group) on the other” (55). In “our technocratic societies” however “this double postulate does not hold”: the “proprietary and familial insularities of earlier ages and other cultures have become utopian lost worlds” (55). Bourdieu’s cannot recognize the “problematic of practices” apart from the “proper place” (55). Furthermore, he “compromise[s] himself” in arguing for the “unconscious” nature of strategy in the group he examines, seeing the “coherence” of their practices as a result of their ignorance.

De Certeau argues, however, that the “bric-à-brac” of practices among the “petits bourgeois” (55) that Bourdieu sees as ““anarchical responses” relative to “a disparate ensemble of semi-knowledges”” (55) is no different from the “coherent” and “unconscious” practices of the Kabylians. It is rather that today the technologies of power are disseminated and so not localizable, placeable, in a single dwelling.

This shortcoming of Bourdieu’s comes from the sociological requirement of the “adequation of practices to structures” (56), which he explains with his theory of the habitus. The “achievements” of practices are always determined by the structure, the habitus: they “are the place in which structures are inscribed” (57). “The habitus,” therefore, “provides the basis for explaining a society in relationship to structures ... [but] [i]n order to be able to assume that basis has such a stability, it must be unverifiable, invisible” (58).

Bourdieu thus carries out the very “foregrounding” that Foucault elaborates, and which de Certeau discusses above. The theory of habitus works to draw disparate “practices and their logic ... under the law of reproduction” (59). Against the “fetish of the habitus” (60), de Certeau sees the unconscious discourse of the consumer and Kabylian (which Bourdieu dismisses) as “a conscious relationship with an outside it cannot eliminate ... the “docta ignorantia” claimed to be knowledgeable without knowing it precisely because it knows only too well what it does not and cannot say” (60). The unconsciousness of the consumer does not signify ignorance or a lack of agency, but is rather the conscious recognition that one’s situation is not statutory, that the facts of one’s condition are not eternal or natural truths, and that one can, therefore, believe in an “outside” that cannot be said, an ineffable and invisible utopia that is practiced in believing it, insinuated into the network of power that is the proper place (see Chapter 2: Popular Cultures).

The Arts of Theory

What is the docta ignorantia? What is the unknown way of the everyman? This is, here, what de Certeau explores. By examining the “art of theory,” the way in which such thinkers as Bourdieu and Foucault cut out and turn over the non-discursive practices of a particular group or community and make them the subject and so organizing principle of their own theoretic discourse, de Certeau shows that it is precisely that which cannot be “verbalized” in discourse that constitutes the “art” of the “everyday.” This is to say that the ineffable “remainder” which is constantly excluded by science and which science constantly seeks to circumscribe is that set of everyday virtuosities, signified by Kant’s theory of tact or judgment, which have no place of their own but are reflected in the practice of individuals in relationship with other individuals. Because these tactics are unknown to the user they cannot be possessed, and they can only be known insofar as they are reflected by the interpreter, fictive or otherwise, who is necessarily posited by the enunciative operation of judgment, which necessarily involves allocution (a speaking to).

Keywords: action, art, Bourdieu, discourse, Foucault, inversion, isolation, judgment, Kant, manouvrier, narrativity, remainder, tact

“Foucault and Bourdieu situate their enterprise on this [“where there are no longer any discourses”] by articulating a discourse on non-discursive practices” (61). “Without going back to ancient times, we can say that since Kant every theoretical effort has had to give a more or less direct explanation of its relationship to this non-discursive activity, to this immense “remainder” constituted by the part of human experience that has not been tamed and symbolized in language” (61).

Science, however, “can avoid this direct confrontation. It grants itself a priori the conditions that allow it to encounter things only in its own limited field where it can “verbalize” them. It lies in wait for them in the gridwork of models and hypotheses where it can “make them talk,” and this interrogatory apparatus, like a hunter’s trap, transforms their wordless silences into “answers”” (61).

Theory, on the contrary, is concerned with that which “does not speak” and which “takes the shape ... of “ordinary” practices”—“the memory of this “remainder”” (61).

The “way of making” a “theory of practices ... consists of two moments: first, cut out; then turn over” (62); that is, isolation then inversion (62). The isolated element “is considered a metonymic figure of the whole species” (62), and as such “is inverted to become the element that illuminates theory and sustains discourse” (63). So, both Foucault and Bourdieu “play the same trick when they transform practices isolated as aphasic and secret into the keystone of their theory” (63).

Because of this, “the theory belongs to the procedures it deals with” and so “forgets those that guarantee its own construction” (63).

De Certeau sees in this practice of theory “a figure of modernity” (64), in which the isolated and inverted practice, the practice “located far away from knowledge and yet possessing its secret” (64), becomes the external authority for the truth (contrary to facts) that the theorist presents. So even in theory the unspeaking “practice” is converted into a “discursive “action[]”” and thus has “imposed” upon it “the fundamental schema of a discourse” (65). This is method (65).

Against this de Certeau posits ““know-how” without a discourse,” an art “composed of multiple but untamed operativities” (65), a “kind of knowledge that operates outside the enlightened discourse which it lacks” (66). De Certeau uses Diderot’s term “manouvrier” to refer to these “arts that are satisfied with “adapting” materials,” the ““everyday” arts” that “make do” with what is received (66).

Theory, then, particularly with Durkheim, circumscribes art so as “to keep in its place the discourse of its own which art lacks” (68). Art becomes “a kind of knowledge essential in itself but unreadable without science” (68). The “mediator” between these realms is the “engineer” (69) who, through machines, “on the one hand isolated artistic techniques from art itself and on the other “geometrized” and mathematized these techniques” (69).

The technologization of art “left to everyday practices only a space without means or products of its own” (69), but a “sort of “knowledge” remains there, though deprived of its technical apparatus ... the remaining ways of operating are those that have no legitimacy with respect to productivist rationality” (69).

A “new representational space” emerges, “populated by everyday virtuosities that science doesn’t know what to do with and which become the signatures, easily recognized by readers, of everyone’s micro-stories. Literature is transformed into a repertory of these practices that have no technological copyright ... “stories” provide the decorative container of a narrativity for everyday practices” (70).

The everyday “return[s] ... in narration” (70), and with it the ordinary know-how of the everyman that was technologized and mechanized out of humanity. This “know-how of daily practices is supposed to be known only by the interpreter who illuminates it in his discursive mirror though he does not possess it either. It thus belongs to no one. It passes from the unconsciousness of its practitioners to the reflection of non-practitioners without involving any individual subject. It is an anonymous and referential knowledge” (71). The knowledge is nowhere, has no place, and yet it is. As such, it cannot be capitalized on, cannot be claimed.

This knowledge is Kant’s “judgment,” the “middle term ... between theory and praxis ... a synthetic unity of the two terms” (73). Judgment is “a matter of tact,” the unthinking, inexplicable application of knowledge to one’s circumstances (73). As such, judgement “exceeds the understanding” (73). Judgment is a “mode of exercise: it puts into play the concrete experience of a universal principle of harmony between the imagination and the understanding” (74).

Judgment “ties together (moral) freedom, (esthetic) creation, and a (practical) act” (74), the “three elements” of the tactic of la perruque (74).

Judgment is, therefore, the everyday practice, operation, or art, which is to say, the tactic, of the everyman, the application of his know-how to his circumstances, his use of his situation and the received structures of his world in an act of creative freedom.

Story Time

The structure of the operation of judgment can be seen in the act of narration, in everyday storytelling. Through the recitation of events as a story one can retell the practices of an occasion, and so re-present them to the others with whom one is in relationship. The everyday practices that are presented in this way cannot be possessed, because they can only be known in their presentation in stories, which in turn can only be known in their allocution. There is no proper place for the story, for the memory that is recited. Rather, the story and the memory alter place, rearrange it, traverse it, and as such are hidden from the panoptic eye of power.

Keywords: judgment, memory, mētis, narrative, recitation, speaking, stories, tact, tactic, turn

Judgment is “an art of speaking, then, which exercises precisely that art of operating in which Kant discerned an art of thinking. In other words, it is a narration” (77).

Ways of operating “do not merely designate activities that a theory might takes as its object. They also organize its construction” (77). As such, “tactics in general form a field of operations within which the production of theory also takes place” (78). Just as the art preceded the science in the previously chapter (operating through one’s tacit judgment), operations precede theorization. From this, de Certeau derives the “possibility” that the “narrativizing of practice is a textual “way of operating” having its own procedures and tactics,” and that “a theory of narrativization is,” in fact, “indissociable from a theory of practices, as its condition as well as its production” (78).

Story-telling, and narrative more broadly, is “a know-how-to-say” (78), savoir-dire to savoir. As such, we can “understand the alternations and complicities, the procedural homologies and social imbrications that link the “arts of speaking” to the “arts of operating”: the same practices appear now in a verbal field, now in a field of non-linguistic actions” (78).

So “narrated history creates a fictional space. It moves away from the “real”—or rather it pretends to escape present circumstances”—it is “a balancing act in which the circumstances (place, time) and the speaker himself participate, a way of knowing how to manipulate, dispose, and “place” a saying by altering a set—in short, “a matter of tact”” (79).

“Narration does indeed have a content” that “is characterized more by a way of exercising itself than by the thing it indicates ... It produces effects, not objects ... It is an art of saying” (79).

Narrative is tactical because it is not readily commodifiable: “Something in narration escapes the order of what it is sufficient or necessary to know, and, in its characteristics, concerns the style of tactics” (79).

The art of narration “does not have its own discourse. It does not say itself. It is the practice of nowhere (non-lieu) ... There and not there” (80).

In Marcel Détienne, de Certeau sees the art of narration: Détienne “rejects the break that would make of [Greek myths] objects of knowledge and also objects to be known, dark caverns in which hidden “mysteries” are supposed to await the scientific investigation to receive a meaning. He does not assume that behind all these stories, secrets exist whose gradual unveiling would give him, in the background, his own place, that of interpretation” (80).

Stories “are already practices. They say exactly what they do. They constitute an act which they intend to mean” (80). Interpretation is in recitation. To stand over against a narrative as an expert interpreter is to resist the practice of the story. “One understands it, then, if one enters into this movement oneself” (81).

Vernant and Détienne examine Greek mētis, demonstrating three specific “elements” of it: mētis is related to the “situation,” to “disguise,” and to “a paradoxical invisibility” (82). Mētis is “a temporal practice” in that it “plays on the right point in time” (82); it is “an undoing of the proper place” through its “masks” and “metaphors” (82); and it “disappears into its own action” and is thus invisible to itself (82). As such, “storytelling narrativity is also something like mētis” (82).

Mētis is “a principle of economy” in that it can “obtain the maximum number of effects from the minimum force” (82). It does so through the “substitution of time for space” (83), which can be represented by a “turn” (83).

The tactical principle of mētis the “passage[] into something else through “twisted” relations, through successive reversals” (84). This tactic “produces a founding rupture or break. Its foreignness makes possible a transgression of the law of the place ... [it] is thus an operation that transforms the visible organization. But this change requires the invisible resources of a time which obeys other laws” (85).

The insinuation of memory into a place is a “talent” or “tactic” and thus “is the instant of art” (86). “The occasion is taken advantage of, not created” (86). The “permanent mark” of memory “is that it is formed (and forms its “capital”) by arising from the other (a circumstance) and by losing it (it is no more than a memory)” (87).

The art of memory has three distinct features:

  1. The art of memory is “always being in the other’s place without possessing it” (87). In its “activity of alteration” memory is “a sense of the other” (87), “because it is constituted only by being marked by external occurrences and by accumulating these successive blazons and tattoos inscribed by the other” (87). Memory is therefore always a matter of “relationships” rather than of “proper places” (87, 88). Thus, the seizing of the “occasion” by memory “is the very transformation of touch into response” (88).

  2. The response of memory is “singular”: it is “one more detail ... relative to an ensemble which lacks it. Each memory shines like a metonymy in relation to this whole” (88). The “intense particulars” of memory “intervene in the occasion” (88).

  3. Memory has a “mobility” (88). Its “details are never what they are: they are not objects ... not fragments ... not totalities ... not stable ... [but a] “space” of a moving nowhere” (88).

The proper place wants to “eliminate[] these criminal tricks. But they return ... in rambling, wily, everyday stories ... The finely tuned ear can discern in the saying the difference introduced by the act of saying (it) here and now, and remains attentive to these guileful tricks on the part of the storyteller” (89).

Walking in the City

Just as stories present an art of speaking that cannot be capitalized upon, articulating the everyday practices of everyday people as they are expressed in relation with other everyday people, walking is another “enunciative” operation that appropriates and utilizes a received system for “excessive” or “gratuitous” ends. Walking creates singularities of nowheres within the totalizing city, making habitation out of places that are otherwise intended for production. This habitation is introduced by belief in what is lacked in any given place, most often the memory of a past which introduces a prior temporal instance to the totality of a synchronic system. The memory haunts the place, destabilizing it. In all of this, de Certeau’s preoccupation with lack and space stems from the original lack and separation, the child’s differentiation from his mother in birth. This childhood experience of every person is the ground for every spatial practice that insinuates itself into the network and undermines it from within.

Keywords: asyndeton, belief, differentiation, habitation, haunting, knowledge, lack, memory, nowhere, panorama, place, space, synecdoche, walking

Against the “erotics of knowledge” that the “exaltation of the scopic” entails de Certeau sets the “down below” of the city (93). The “panorama-city” is only “theoretical” (93), the “fiction of knowledge [] related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more” (92).

The “paths” of the “ordinary practitioners of the city” that “correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility” (93). “The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other” (93).

This is the power of the everyday and its stories: it has “a certain strangeness that does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible” (93). Stories are “migrational” (93), insinuating themselves “into the clear text of the planned and readable city” (93).

The concept of the “readable city” is “defined by the possibility of a threefold operation” (94):

  1. It produces its “own space (un espace propre)” (94)

  2. It substitutes a “nowhen,” a “synchronic system” (94)

  3. It creates a “universal and anonymous subject which is the city itself” (94)

“The Concept-city is decaying” (95). There is a danger in this, however. When the “ministers of knowledge ... transform their bewilderment into “catastrophes,” when they seek to enclose the people in the “panic” of their discourses, are they once more necessarily right?” (95-96). The crisis of decay is appropriated for the reconstitution of the city, the proper.

In response, de Certeau “analyze[s] the microbe-like, singular and plural practices ... which have outlive [the system’s] decay ...\ [and which] reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics” (96). These practices constitute the “chorus of idle footsteps,” the “innumerable collection of singularities” (97).

Here de Certeau draws a connection between walking and the “speech act”: it “has a triple “enunciative” function” (97-98):

  1. Walking appropriates a place

  2. Walking creatively performs a set of practices afforded by a place

  3. Walking “contracts” an “allocution” with another

Further, the “pedestrian speech act has three characteristics which distinguish it from the spatial system” (98-99):

  1. The pedestrian “actualizes some of these possibilities” in the present

  2. The pedestrian “creates discreteness” by “making choices” among practices and by “displacing them through the use he makes of them”

  3. The pedestrian “constitutes, in relation to his position, both a near and a far, a here and a there,” so “establishing a conjunctive and disjunctive articulation of places”—this articulation has a strong ““phatic” aspect” that makes “contact” with another

Just as memory introduces a difference to a space with a “turn” walking “offers a series of turns (tours) and detours” that are similarly “stylistic features” (100). These various “rhetorical” moves are different “ways of appropriating places” (100).

The two fundamental rhetorical “turns” of walking are synecdoche and asyndeton (101):

  1. Synecdoche “expands a spatial element in order to make it play the role of a “more” (a totality) and take its place”

  2. Asyndeton, “by elision, creates a “less,” opens gaps in the spatial continuum, and retains only selected parts of it that amount almost to relics” (101)

Together, synecdoche and asyndeton “make[] more dense” and “cut[] out” specific features of places, making them “into enlarged singularities and separate islands” (101). It is a “spatial phrasing of an analogical ... and elliptical ... type” that resists the “logical system of a coherent and totalizing space” (102).

“To walk is to lack a place” (103). As such, every place the walker enters into is only a “rented” dwelling (103). These rented nowheres haunt the city, as do the “proper names” that “carve out pockets of hidden and familiar meanings” (104) (e.g. street signs). These proper names, in their referentiality, effect the turn of memory, creating a “nowhere in places” that “change[s] them into passages” (104). Street names create a “strange toponymy” (104), a “poetic geography” on top the “proper” and “permitted” (105).

These names are “symbolizing kernels” possessed of “three distinct (but connected) functions of relations between spatial and signifying practices” (105):

  1. The believable: “they make habitable or believable the place that they clothe with a word”

  2. The memorable: “they recall or suggest phantoms ... that still move about”

  3. The primitive: “they create in the place itself that erosion or nowhere that the law of the other carves out within it”

Paradoxically, the “discourse that makes people believe” creates the very “lack” that belief strives to overcome: it “makes room for a void ... it opens up clearings; it “allows” a certain play within a system of defined places. It “authorizes” the production of an area of free play” (106). And through this, the discourse of belief “makes places habitable” (106). In expressing and believing in the ineffable outside the ordinary human can live within the networks of power.

Memories, stories, and walks all “permit exists, ways of going out and coming back in, and thus habitable spaces” (106)—they have the “effect of displacements and condensations” (107). They are “[t]hings extra and other (details and excesses coming from elsewhere) [that] insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order” (107). Their “relations are not thought, and for this reason they form a symbolic whole” (107).

“The dispersion of stories points to the dispersion of the memorable as well” (108). As such, the “places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences” (108). “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in—and this inverts the schema of the Panopticon” (108).

These places are “fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body” (108).

“In this place that is a palimpsest, subjectivity is already linked to the absence that structures it as existence and makes it “be there,” Dasein” (109). Being-there “acts only in ... ways of moving into something different” and so is a “repetition” of “the child’s differentiation from the mother’s body” (109). This differentiation is the “departure” that “constitutes localization and exteriority against the background of absence” (109). One can “be there ... without the other but in a necessary relation to what has disappeared; this manipulation is an “original spatial structure”” (109) that determines all spatial experience that follows.

In this differentiation the child “sees itself as one ... but another” (109), acquiring a space that is nowhere but is rather “inscribe[d]” in the “passage toward the other” (110). The “practice” of “space” is “to be other and to move toward the other” (110).

“The childhood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a “metaphorical” or mobile city” (110).

Railway Navigation and Incarceration

With the train “[e]verything is in its place, as in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (111). The train provides a “speculative experience of the world” (111). As in the voyeurism of panorama-city, this is a problem for de Certeau. It is a “dispossession of the hand in favour of a greater trajectory of the eye” (112). But “paradoxically it is the silence” of the scene observed that “makes our memories speak”—their “cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories” (112).

The window creates “a sort of rubbing together of spaces at the vanishing point of their frontier. These junctions have no place ... These frontiers are illegible” (113). This is not a pure experience of nowhere, however, as with walking in the city. The “machine ... organizes from afar all the echoes of its work” (113). Furthermore, the “[r]epose” of staring out the window “can be obtained only through payment” (113).

Spatial Stories

Stories allow us to make spaces out of places, to cut across terrain, to transgress the very boundaries that stories allow us to establish. Stories operate through frontiers and bridges, simultaneously joining and separating regions that, in their interlocution, are articulated by the enunciation of a tour by a subject. Stories are, therefore, in their polyvalence, delinquent forces that resist the totalization of place, positing the in-betweens necessary for movement and for habitation.

Keywords: articulation, boundary, bridge, frontier, narrative, region, story

De Certeau begins the chapter with a citation of “vehicles of mass transportation” in Athens called metaphorai (115). “Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together” (115). “Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice. For this reason, spatial practices concern everyday tactics” (115). “These narrated adventures, simultaneously producing geographies of actions and drifting into the commonplaces of an order ... make the journey, before or during the time the feet perform it” (116).

Key is the distinction between “space (espace) and place (lieu)” (117). “The law of the “proper” rules in the place,” while a “space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements” (117).

“Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities ... space is a practiced place” (117). The difference between place and space is the different between Merleau-Ponty’s “geometrical” and “anthropological” space. Anthropological space is the “experience of an “outside”” distinguished from the “univocity” of geometrical space. It is “being situated in relationship to a milieu” (117), marked by “passages back and forth” (118).

Stories enact the “labor” and the “play of changing relationships between places and spaces,” of “transform[ing]” them into each other (118).

To this distinction corresponds another distinction, that between the “tour” and the “map” (119). The tours describes “operations” and takes the form of a “speech-act” (119). The map is the “seeing” of a “tableau” (119). The tour is an “a discursive series of operations” while a map is a “plane projection totalizing observations” (119). The travel story, which narrates a tours, is a story of “actions ... marked out by the “citation” of the places that result from them or authorize them” (120).

The modern map establishes a “proper place in which to exhibit the products of knowledge” while the tour, the travel story, “exhibit[s] ... the operations that allow it, within a constraining and non-“proper” place” (121).

Everyday stories “tell us what one can do in [a place] and make out of it” (122). Stories allow us to use places as spaces.

In the telling of a space there is a “interlocutory judgment” that is an “operation of marking out boundaries” (122). There “is no spatiality that is not organized by the determination of frontiers” (123). The boundary or frontier is the “differentiation which makes possible the isolation and interplay of distinct spaces” (123). The story as such has a “distributive power and performative force” (123), and as an “enunciative” act it utilized two “essential narrative figures”: the frontier and the bridge (123).

The enunciation or narration of a boundary undertakes “two movements that intersect (setting and transgressing limits)” (123):

  1. Creating a theatre of actions” (123). The story “authorize[s]” or “found[s]” (123), it “create[s] the field” (124). It is a “recitation and a citation ... a prediction and a promise” (124). Narration is the “rite” that “opens a space” (124): it “opens a legitimate theater for practical actions” (125). But this founding is “fragmented ... miniaturized ... and polyvalent” (125). The story precedes “social practices” (125), and so the story also precedes the foregrounded practice that comes to be the vehicle of power in a society. Power isolates a single valence of a story to create a proper place.

  2. “Frontiers and bridges”: “Stories are actuated by a contradiction that is represented in them by the relationship between the frontier and the bridge, that is, between a (legitimate) space and its (alien) exteriority” (126). The “region” that is defined by its “frontiers” is “created by an interaction” and is “related to an “interlocutory” process” (126). The region, as with bodies, “can be distinguished only where the “contacts” (“touches”) of amorous or hostile struggles are inscribed on [it]” (127). This is the paradox of the frontier, that “the points of differentiation between two bodies are also their common points. Conjunction and disjunction are inseparable in them” (127). As such, the frontier “has a mediating role” (127).

We see, then, that the story that enunciates a boundary is also “the mouthpiece of the limit” (127). The story “establishes a border only by saying what crosses it, having come from the other side” (127). The story “articulates it. He [the story, the actor] is also a passing through or over” (127). The story, in that it is always practiced by a someone, elaborates the nowhere of the “space between” that is generated by the originary differentiation of mother and child.

Similarly, the bridge “alternately welds together and opposes insularities ... it offers the possibility of a bewildering exteriority, it allows or causes the re-emergence beyond the frontiers of the alien element that was controlled in the interior, and gives objectivity ... to the alterity which was hidden inside the limit” (128).

“Within the frontiers, the alien is already there ... It is as though delimitation itself [the enunciation of the boundary] were the bridge that opens the inside to its other” (129).

The story thus “cuts across” the received terrain, “hand[ing] the place over to the foreigner.” The boundary is a “transportable limit [and transportation[] of limits; [it is] also metaphorai” (129). The story is the “delinquent” force that “undoes” and “displaces” the proper place, a “delinquency [that] begins with the inscription of the body in the order’s text” (130). The story is “a linguistic system that distributes places insofar as it is articulated by an “enunciatory focalization,” by an act of practicing it” (130).

The Scriptural Economy

The voice, the spoken word, once held language and society together. But then, de Certeau tells us, the voice could no longer be heard, and upon this silence the entire modern effort has struggled to redefine itself without this external authority. In a way this is a sort of birth, a separation and differentiation. What must be understood is that the time before, the time of the pure voice, though lost, is still present in the strata upon which the modern West has been built. In the same way, de Certeau sees the scriptural economy crumbling, becoming part of the strata upon which a new economy, a new system will be built. The cynical ironism of the early modernists like Kafka and Duchamp gives ways to the decadent ironism of late modernism, characterized by the likes of Derrida and, arguably, de Certeau. In relation to the voice which is absent there can be only play. This is a point de Certeau will attempt to move beyond in the following chapters, his way forward marked by the bodily cry of pleasure and pain that cannot be articulated in the scriptural economy that is passing away.

Keywords: cry, economy, machine, orality, origin, pain, pleasure, plurality, scripture, writing

De Certeau cites Grundtvig: “Only words that stride onward, passing from mouth to mouth, legends and song, keep a people alive” (131). This “Grail of orality, authorizes today, as the Muses did in earlier ages, a quest for lost and ghostly voices in our “scriptural” societies ... these fragile ways in which the body makes itself heard in the language” (131).

Scripture, which is to say, writing, is the “apparatus of modern “discipline”” (131). Because discipline is so disseminated, there is no point pursuing a ““pure” voice” (132), whether or not it did, at one point, exist, because the voice “is always determined by a system ... and codified by a way of receiving it” (132).

Indeed, “there is no unique unity among the sounds of presence that the enunciatory act gives a language in speaking it ... [instead] orality insinuates itself, like one of threads of which it is composed, into the network—an endless tapestry—of a scriptural economy” (132). De Certeau claims, therefore, that “plurality is originary; that difference is constitutive of its terms; and that language must continually conceal the structuring work of division beneath a symbolic order” (133).

In the scriptural economy the origin produces “society as a text”—orality “is that which does not contribute to progress” because it does not construct “a text that has power over the exteriority from which it has first been isolated” (134). The scriptural economy constructs the proper place of the blank page and produces on it the order of a text (134).

We see that “the modern age is formed by discovering little by little that this Spoken Word is no longer heard, that it has been altered by textual corruptions and the avatars of history” (137). Truth is no longer “attention” in interlocution and judgment but “the result of work ... A work of mourning” of the spoken word (137). Modern “identity depends on the production, on the endless moving on ... that this loss makes necessary” (137).

“The capitalist scriptural conquest is articulated on that loss and on the gigantic effort of “modern” societies to redefine themselves without that voice” (137). The lost voice “becomes a “nothing,” a sort of void, which drives the subject to make himself the master of a space and to set himself up as a producer of writing” (138). But this “implies a distancing of the living body” (138). The voice recedes further and further away.

With “the law of writing” the “body is itself defined, delimited, and articulated by what writes it. There is no law that is not inscribed on bodies ... From birth to mourning after death, law “takes hold of” bodies in order to make them its text” (139).

Writing requires “tools” in order for it to “work on the body” (141). These tools “compose a series of objects whose purpose is to inscribe the force of the law on its subject ... This series forms an in-between; it borders on the law ... and it aims at the body ... An offensive frontier, it organizes social space: it separates the text and the body, but it also links them, by permitting the acts that will make the textual “fiction” of the model reproduced and realized by the body” (141).

So there are two regions: “symbolic corpus” and “carnal beings” (141), articulated by a frontier of tools, the “writing machine (la machine à écricre)” (141).

But with any proper place, including the blank page of the writing machine, there is always an excluded remainder, and here that is “the cry, which shrieks an inarticulable pain and constitutes the unthought part of bodily difference” (145). An “outside” is always needed. “Where there is no separation between the text to be inscribed and the body that historicizes it, the system no longer functions” (146).

“It is precisely the tools,” the machine of writing, “that establish that difference. They mark the gap without which everything becomes a disseminated writing ... or else, on the contrary, a continuum of natural forces, of libidinal drives and instinctual outpourings” (146).

“But this barrier is gradually breaking down” (146). The “cry—of pain or pleasure” (146) remains “at the extreme limit of these tireless inscriptions ... perforating them with lapses” (147). This does not mean, however, a return to some prescriptural pure voice—”[e]pistemological configurations are never replaced by the appearance of new orders; they compose strata that form the bedrock of the present” (146).

In all of this de Certeau sees an outcome of the originary differentiation: “every social orthodoxy makes use of instruments to give itself the form of a story and to produce the credibility attached to discourse articulated by bodies” (149). And we enter into this social orthodoxy, into the law, because it offers to transform one into “a unit of meaning, into an identity” (149). The law, the code, the symbolic order, is credibly “normative ... only if it has already become a story” (149). The story is the everyday practice of the everyman, the generation of meaning out of chaos. Social codes implement this practice to turn “bodies into a body politic” (142).

De Certeau identifies in the works of early modernism a new scriptural practice built on the old, which in turn was layered, as strata, upon the practice of the spoken word. In the work of Duchamp, for instance, there is “an erotic drive, a desire for the absent other,” which is the lost voice, that “puts the productive apparatus in motion, but it aims at something that will never be there” (151)—in short, the “new scriptural practice” (150) is one that “recognize[s] the impossibility of communication” (151).

Finally the Lacanian verbiage is made explicit: lalangue “connects speaking with the impossibility of conjoining ... it connects the very possibility of language to the impossibility of the communication it is supposed to produce ... Among desiring subjects, there remains only the possibility of loving the language that substitutes itself for their communication. And that is indeed a model of language furnished by the machine, which is made of differentiated and combined parts (like every enunciation) and develops, through the interplay of its mechanisms, the logic of a celibate narcissism” (152).

“The time is thus over in which the “real” appeared to come into the text to be manufactured and exported” (for instance, by the positivists) (152). The text, therefore, “mines its own death and makes it ridiculous ... a space of laughter at the expense of yesterday’s axioms. In it is deployed the ironic and meticulous work of mourning” (152). At last, “the written text, closed on itself, loses the referent that authorized it” (152), becoming “a locus solus, a penal colony” (152). This new scriptural practice “attacks the Occidental ambition to articulate the reality of things on a text and to reform it. It takes away the appearance of being” (153).

Quotations of Voices

What is the cry? What is this voice from the margins? This is de Certeau’s focus in this chapter. When the pure voice has been lost, when we find ourselves trapped within the disseminated network of language without a centre, in the interminable play and irony of the text, where is the exit? If it is true that il n’y a pas de hors-texte where can a hope for resistance be found? It is in the quotation of the voice, that unsignifiable cry, that insinuates itself into writing, into the scriptural economy, the delirium that destabilizes it from within.

Keywords: absence, body, cry, delirium, fable, limit, margins, other, plural, quotation, voice

“On the margins of the page, the mark of an “apparition” disturbs the order that a capitalizing and methodical labor had constructed ... A lapse insinuates itself into language ... something past and passing ... the “practically nothing” of a passing-by ... a “presence of absence”” (154-155).

“What marks itself and passes on has no text of its own (texte propre) ... The only language available to difference is interpretive delirium ... the nowhere ... and the fantastic modality ... of what will intervene as voice in the field of writing” (155).

This voice is “a form of alterity in relation to writing ... [that] insinuate[s] itself into the text as a mark or trace, an effect or metonymy of the body ... a “pagan” or “wild” reminiscence in the scriptural economy, a disturbing sound from a different tradition, and a pre-text for interminable interpretive productions” (155).

In the scriptural economy “the voice appears essentially in the form of quotation” (156). Quotation “operates between ... two poles defining its extreme forms ... the quotation-pre-text, which serves to fabricate texts ... [and] the quotation-reminiscence, marking in language the fragmented and unexpected return ... or oral relationships that are structuring but repressed by the written” (156).

  1. In quotation-pre-text “quotations become the means by which discourse proliferates”

  2. In quotation-reminiscence “it lets them out and they interrupt it”

As such, the first is “the science of fables” and the second is the “returns and turns of voices” [“retours et tours de voix”] (156).

A question “traverses and determines these forms” (156): “who is speaking? to whom?” (157). This question comes “from beyond the frontiers reached by the expansion of the scriptural enterprise. “Something” different speaks again and presents itself to the masters in the various forms of non-labor ... in the form of a voice or the cries of the People excluded from the written” (158).

The scriptural economy always tries to “re-establish[] writing in these emancipated areas” but the fact remains: “The place from which one speaks is outside the scriptural enterprise” (158). Writing always seeks to “master the “voice” that it cannot be but without which it nevertheless cannot exist,” but the “illegible returns of voices cut[] across ... [and] through the house of language” (159).

With the science of fables we see an attempt “to write the voice. The voice reaching us from a great distance must find a place in the text” (159). “The “fable” is thus a word full of meaning, but what it says “implicitly” becomes “explicit” only through scholarly exegesis” (160). This is a method de Certeau has already dealt with in comparing the work of Bourdieu and Détienne.

Even in such critical work as Bourdieu’s, a so-called “heterological science” (161), difference is “a detour necessary for [the] progress” of the scriptural economy: “orality remains indefinitely something exterior without which writing does not function. The voice makes people write” (161). As such, “the guaranteed success of writing hinges on an initial defeat and lack ... constructed as the result and occultation of a loss ... In other words, modern writing cannot be in the place of presence” (161). Heterological science is, therefore, an “erotics” dependent on the “inaccessibility of its “object” that makes it produce” (162).

But there is another school with those like Deleuze and Lyotard, who “labored to hear these voices again and thus to create auditory space ... The literary text is modified by becoming the ambiguous depth in which sounds that cannot be reduced to a meaning move about. A plural body ... a “stage for voices”” (162).

This other school pursues “the reminiscences of bodies lodged in ordinary language and marking its path ... [the] resonances produced by the body when it is touched, like “moans” and sounds of love, cries breaking open the text that they make proliferate around them, enunciative gaps in a syntagmatic organization of statements ... voices without language ... Cries and tears: an aphasic enunciation” (163). These voices “narrate interminably ... the expectation of an impossible presence that transforms into its own body the traces it has left behind” (164).

Reading as Poaching

Again, de Certeau narrates a tactic. Just as in speech, in walking, and in stories, reading is the subversive act of la perruque, that excessive and gratuitous practice that “makes do” with the products of society that seeks to inform and to conform the reader. Reading is an invisible traverse of culture, cutting across the grid that would relegate persons to subjectivities, localized, spatialized, and deprived of temporal presence and presentation. Reading, in being of no place, in making the reader elsewhere, is a subversion of place that allows one to insinuate something more, something else, something different into a place, making into a space for use.

Keywords: bricolage, consumer, expectation, information, meaning, media, reading, simulacra

Consumers are “progressively immobilized and “handled”” by the “expansionist grid” of the media (165). “The only freedom that is supposed to be left to the masses is that of grazing on the ration of simulacra the system distributes to each individual” (166).

The public is rendered a passive receptacle for information (166). But this perspectives “assumes that “assimilating” [information] necessarily means “becoming similar to” what one absorbs, and not “making something similar” to what one is, making it one’s own” (166).

The elites’ “idea of producing a society by a “scriptural” system” has become so disseminated that today “the text is society itself” (167). The text or code of the social order—the information to be assimilated—is dispersed through the media.

From this perspective reading is seen as that paradigmatic form of consumption through which the public can be “educated” and “informed” (167). This is not the case, however. Following on the previous chapter, de Certeau argues that, from “the child to the scientist, reading is preceded and made possible by oral communication, which constitutes the multifarious “authority” that texts almost never cites” (168). One’s posture when approaching any text, any writing, is one of the “expectation” or “anticipation” of meaning: the “graph only shapes and carves the anticipation” (168, 169).

Reading is not passive: “In fact, to read is to wander through an imposed system” (169). The social code is not a uniformly imposed order but “a reservoir of forms to which the reader must give a meaning” (169). The reader “combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings” (169).

So, “the text has meaning only through its readers ... It becomes a text only in its relation to the exteriority of the reader” (170). As such, it is the anticipation of meaning that “organizes a readable space ... that organizes a procedure necessary for the actualization of the work” (171).

The expert (we could argue, the critic) makes of a work a “secret of which [he is] the “true” interpreter[]” (171). The reader, however, takes no such place of authority, “insinuating their inventiveness into the cracks in a cultural orthodoxy” (172).

The power of reading consists in a similar turn as in memory: “to read is to be elsewhere ... it is to constitute a secret scene, a place one can enter and leave when one wishes” (173). The reader “deterritorializes himself, oscillating in a nowhere between what he invents and what changes him” (173). Readers “are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write ... reading has no place” (174).

Reading is “bricolage,” “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”” (174).

Reading 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” (175).

De Certeau argues, then, that we “should try to rediscover the movements of this reading,” that is tactical and playful, that enjoys, “within the body itself” (175). Furthermore, de Certeau argues that “we mustn’t take people for fools” (176). The practice of reading as resistance occurred well before he theorized it.

Believing and Making People Believe

Here de Certeau undertakes a critique of belief, but also opens it up to subversion from the inside. The early efforts of his book are vital, here. If the person is totally determined by the apparatus, the dispositif, the habitus, he or she has no choice, no agency. But if agency is that movement made possible by the differentiation of birth, that constant movement toward the other, that movement constituted in the gap between selves, then agency can never be totally determined, or at least it can be reclaimed from the totalizing proper place. The place maintains the gap, the distance, so as to create an external referent (in the absence of a transcendental other) to authorize itself. But in moving to the other, in recognizing its likeness and seeing also the otherness in oneself, one is able to move beyond the objectless “truth” peddled by power.

Keywords: authority, belief, citation, credibility, politics, religion

“As a first approximation, I define “belief” not as the object of believing (a dogma, a program, etc.) but as the subject’s investment in a proposition, the act of saying it and considering it as true—in other words, a “modality” of the assertion and not its content” (178). The truth of an assertion cannot be accessed because the truth, when belief is required, is always absent. Belief is necessitated by absence. Therefore, belief is a modality, because it modifies one’s relationship to the absent content.

The “functioning of “authority”” (178), then, is “faire-croire”—to make believe (178). With democracy and the dissemination of power that takes place through the Enlightenment, industrialisation, and modernity, there “are now too many things to believe and not enough credibility to go around” (179). There is an “inversion”—“more power and less authority” (179). The medieval monarch truly had little power in comparison with a modern prime minister, but the trade-off is that the prime minister must be elected, his authority no longer a divine right.

De Certeau claims, therefore, that “a cancerous growth of the apparatus is the consequence of the evaporation of convictions” (180). How did this take place? De Certeau undertakes an “archaeology” of the “transits of believing” (180). There are “two funds of credibility” that concern him:

  1. Religion

  2. Politics

There is an oscillation between the two, but as time passes the space changes, and so the content of the two forms changes. This distinction in de Certeau’s day in France remained “within the political system” (183), since the Revolution effectively overturned the authority of the church. There is no transcendent outside to appeal to.

There is an “apparently contradictory logic” at work in the new “unreligious” politics: “every reformist power is tempted to acquire political advantages, to transform itself into an ecclesiastical administration in order to support its project, to thus lose its primitive “purity” or change itinto a mere decoration of the apparatus, and to transform its militants into officials or conquerors” (184).

When the state becomes the manifestation of divine order (as in Hegel), the divine order is subsumed into the state and dispersed among its subjects (so the religious enters the political). The reformist or revolutionary drive is thus of a kind with the weak of chapter two who saw in the figure Frei Damião a miraculous deliverance from their conditions.

Today, then, “the logic of a “place” ... produces and reproduces, as its effects, militant mobilizations, tactics of “making people believe,” and ecclesiastical institutions in a relationship of distance, competition, and future transformations with respect to the established powers” (184).

Belief operates through “two mechanisms” (185):

  1. “the claim to be speaking in the name of a reality

  2. “the ability of a discourse ... to distribute itself in the form of elements that organize practices, that is, of “articles of faith””

The media makes “the real” talk by making “[n]arrations about what’s-going-on constitute our orthodoxy” (185). An “anonymous code, information innervates and saturates the body politic” (186). As such, our “society has become a recited society, in three senses” (186):

  1. “it is defined by stories

  2. “by citations of stories”

  3. “and by the interminable recitation of stories”

The narration transform “seeing into believing” and fabricate “realities out of appearances” (186). The “scopic drive” makes real what is “seen, observed, or shown. The contemporary “simulacrum” is in short the latest localization of belief in vision ... The simulacrum is what the relationship of the visible to the real becomes when the assumption crumbles that an invisible immensity of Being (or beings) lies hidden behind appearances” (187)

So, belief “no longer rests on an invisible alterity hidden behind signs, but on what other groups, other fields, or other disciplines are supposed to be. The “real” is what, in a given place, reference to another place makes people believe in ... And the same is true in politics. Each party derives its credibility from what it believes and makes others believe about its referent ... or about its adversary ... Citation thus appears to be the ultimate weapon for making people believe” (188).

Why? Because citation redirects the gaze from the absence of transcendentally authorized power to the “reality” of a referent. This “allows the technocratic mechanisms,” that have no authority in themselves, “to make themselves credible for each individual in the name of the others” (189).

But people are not fools, and through the subversive agency of the everyman this “circular and objectless credibility” of “political life” can be manipulated and denounced (189).

The Unnameable

Death cannot be spoken by a society built on production. It is the ultimate unproductive state. And yet, death is, perhaps, our most shared condition as humans. There is a necessity to the speaking of death. For de Certeau, death can return, it can be spoken, in the very writing of the scriptural economy that sought to exclude it. Writing itself is precipitated by a lack, the loss of the voice. In the play of writing that circles around this originary absence, the writer can, in a way, speak death, that final absence, that absolute other, that indeterminate nowhere. In writing, the writer can signify the unsignifiable, symbolize the unsymbolizable, name the unnameable.

Keywords: absence, body, call, cry, death, fiction, frontier, loss, name, possibility, writing

Death must be protected against, and the “voice that would break out of this enclosure to cry: “I am going to die”” (190) be silenced. The “dying man falls outside the thinkable, which is identified with what one can do ... Nothing can be said in a place where nothing more can be done” (190).

The “dying man” is the “subject at the extreme frontier of inaction” (191).

Death “is an elsewhere” and its language is without a place. In “religious, diabolical, magical or fantastic repertoires, those marginalized vocabularies, what is secretly laid to rest or whatcan re-emerge in disguise is the death that has become unthinkable and unnameable” (192). Death “returns in an exotic language” (193).

Between the “machine” and the “act of ding” there is “the possibility of saying. The possibility of dying functions in this in-between space” (193).

But we do not want to speak this possibility: “the dying person is prevented from saying this nothing that he is becoming” (193). But to “be simply called: “Lazarus!” ... To be called in that way would be to “symbolize” death, to find words ... for it, to open with the language of interlocution a resurrection that does not restore to life” (193). Just as with the proper names of streets, the calling of the name opens up a space, makes a turn, within the binding strictures of a place. The calling of the other’s name is that “interpersonal relation whose lexicon tells only: “I miss you”” (193).

“I can ultimately only believe in my death, if “believing” designates a relation to the other that precedes me and is constantly occurring. There is nothing so “other” as my death, the index of all alterity. But there is also nothing that makes clearer the place from which I can say my desire for the other; nothing that makes clearer my gratitude for being received—without having any guarantee or goods to offer—into the powerless language of my expectation of the other; nothing therefore defines more exactly than my death what speaking is” (194).

All that is placeless, absent, otherwise, elsewhere is captured in the speaking of death.

Society would not speak of death so as to “protect a place” (194). But when I move to the other that is the dying man, when I call his name, I represent the meaning that his death signifies, and accept that meaning into myself.

This “reversal” against the proper place “begins in the very work of writing, whose representations are only its result and/or waste product ... “meaning” is hidden there in the gesture, in the act of writing” (194). So why write, “if not in the name of an impossible speech?” (194), the speaking of death.

“At the beginning of writing, there is a loss. What cannot be said—an impossible adequation between presence and the sign—is the postulate of the labor that is constantly beginning anew and that has as its principle a nowhere of identity and a sacrifice of the thing ... Writing repeats this lack in each of its graphs, the relics of a walk through language. It spells out an absence that is its precondition and its goal. It proceeds by successive abandonments of occupied places, and it articulates itself on an exteriority that eludes it, on its addressee come from abroad, a visitor who is expected but never heard on the scriptural paths that the travels of a desire have traced on the page” (195).

“As a practice of the loss of speech, writing has no meaning except outside itself, in a different place, that of the reader, which it produces as its own necessity by moving toward this presence it cannot reach” (195).

Writing “constructs the movement of being indefinitely linked to an untethered, absolute response, that of the other. From this loss writing is formed. It is the gesture of a dying man, a defection of possession (avoir) while crossing the field of a knowledge (savoir)” (195).

“In this way, the death that cannot be said can be written and find a language, even though, in this work of expenditure, the need constantly returns, the need to possess through the voice, to deny the limit imposed by the uncrossable space articulating two different presences, to be blinded by knowledge to the fragility that every place’s relation with others establishes” (195).

Scientific language, however, has “opposed to death a conquering labor” (195). The scriptural economy employed writing as “a possibility of composing a space in conformity with one’s will,” seeking “to make the body what a society can write” (196).

But the “body-support wears out. What is produced as a management of life, as a mastery or writing of the body constantly bespeaks death at work” (197). There is a “part of knowledge of which knowledge does not speak” (197), and this “devil” returns in politics and therapy, and especially in “fiction” (197). Fiction “allows the reappearance of the indiscreet other ... it dramatizes, in the very place where it was eliminated, the inseparable excluded element whose question is raised repeatedly by sexuality or death” (197).

The “scriptural space becomes erotic ... The body itself finally writes itself therein, but as an ecstasy arising from a wound inflicted by the other, as the “expenditure” of a pleasure that is indissociable from the ephemeral, as the elusive vanishing point that links “excess” to the moral” (197). The “body return as the instant, the simultaneity of life and death: both of them in the same place” (197).

To write is “to practice the relation between enjoying and manipulating, in the in-between space where a loss (a lapse) of the production of goods creates the possibility of an expectation (a belief) without appropriation but already grateful” (198). The writer is “a dying man who is trying to speak,” to “express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention it alters” (198).


Theory is an art of “communication without substance” (199). It is concerned with “that which happens beneath technology and disturbs its operation ... technology’s limit ... the murmuring of everyday practices” (200).

Through everyday practices “an uncodeable difference insinuates itself into the happy relation the system would like to have with the operations it claims to administer” (200).

“The place is a palimpsest” (202). Time reveals as much. “Casual time appears only as the darkness that causes an “accident” and a lacuna in production. It is a lapse in the system, and its diabolic adversary; it is what historiography is supposed to exorcise by substituting for these incongruities of the other the transparent organicity of a scientific intelligibility” (202). But the ghosts of the palimpsest will always speak.

Theoretical time “is in fact a time linked to the improbable, to failures, to diversions, and thus displaced by its other ... And, strangely, the relation of the manipulable to gaps is precisely what constitutes symbolization” (202). The displacement of time, the gaps that it introduces, are the “indeterminate necessity” for thought. “The symbolic is inseparable from gaps” (202).

“Everyday practices, based on their relation to an occasion, that is, on casual time, are thus, scattered all along duration, in the situation of acts of thought” (203).

II. Critique

Hayden White describes Foucault’s work as a “thicket” and the term is appropriate here, as well, for de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life is dense, brambly, full of bypaths and windings and circularities. It is jargon heavy, frequently abstruse, and sometimes, apparently even, nonsensical. And yet, The Practice of Everyday Life is, in this surface (I do not say beneath, because de Certeau would, I think, be inclined to side with Foucault against the dichotomy of “surfaces and depths”) carefully argued and thoughtfully articulated. The play of language is of the utmost seriousness for de Certeau. To understand him we must play along and try and grasp hold of his moves.

Two influences are important for our interpretation of de Certeau, that of Foucault and of Lacan. Foucault is necessary to understand de Certeau’s preoccupation with the scopic and the panoptic, the privileging of the eye in a society built on epistemic power (we could say, on reason), as well as de Certeau’s sense of society as a densely woven network of systems, institutions, and apparatuses in which the ordinary man finds himself caught. Power is disseminated throughout this dispositif, maintaining itself from within the body politic, rather than from without. The credibility of power is assured by its constant referral and deferral to others. In the feudal state, the monarch had little power but much authority, being invested with the divine right of kings, but having little direct control over his subjects. In the modern democracy, however, the prime minister has much power but little authority—his authority is assured only by the whims of his constituents. This is not a true weakness, though. In a modern democracy divine right is unnecessary because the apparatuses of power, control, and normativity are so pervasive, so embedded in everyday life. In a sense, the people rule themselves.

Secondly, the influence of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan upon de Certeau cannot be ignored. The entire book is intimately concerned with lack, with the division from presence that, once effected, can never be overcome. As soon as the child is born perfect presence is lost, the unity in the embrace of the womb gone forever. This division is integral to de Certeau. Writing lacks the voice, the map lacks the tour, the memory lacks the place (and the place, too, the memory of it), lovers lack each other—the list goes on and on. And this is not a coincidence. The endeavour of being human, of acting and knowing, of loving and moving, is conditioned by that original division and the lack that follows. The symbolic, our very language, is built on this division. De Certeau is very much of Foucault’s “ironic” epoch—God is dead (though de Certeau is a Jesuit), meaning is groundless, the other is inaccessible, absence determines our being. It is a nihilistic vision.

De Certeau, however, is not a nihilist. Far from it. De Certeau takes up the post-Nietzschean mantle of the likes of Derrida, Heidegger, and Lacan, takes the pieces and fragments of the old metaphysics, and tries to see how he might make do with them, assembling them into a bricolage that needs no foundation, a throwing together of people apart from (or rather, within) the power systems that have traditionally ordered them. If power is disseminated, if we have been interpellated with the panopticon of discipline, should we not all be nihilists? Are we not utterly determined by our habitus, that invisible field which shapes our choices and our moments? This, de Certeau would argue, is not so. There is something in the everyday and ordinary man, the nobody, the anyone, that cannot be pinned down, that cannot be made an object of power. And it is from this something that our agency, and so our freedom, flows.

The key, here, is the ubiquity, the universality, of death. Death is the other, the final absence, the total division. Death together with birth constitutes the poles of human being-in-time, the two the only universal experiences of humanity. We are all born, we all die. Every other attempt at fixity has been an attempt to transcend this finite movement. But having seen that all such attempts at transcendence cannot escape the absence that conditions our experience, the Enlightenment project comes back up against the necessity of the ‘unenlightened’ periods that preceded it. Life is a constant struggle against death, a struggle that is never won. But to win, to conquer death, should not be our aim.

What is power in the face of death? Everything passes away. Every place that grounds us, every institution that authorizes us, will crumble and fade. We cannot escape our temporality. We are utterly conditioned by it. This is why, as de Certeau identifies, power tries to do away with time, reducing reality to a place that can be marked out on a map, a graph. If reality can be reduced to place, then people, too, can be reduced to subjects, individual citizens who can be controlled. But control is never perfect. Memories, stories, walks, writing—these all are movements into the other, movements precipitated by division, conditioned by absence and the desire for what is lacked. Power seeks to consolidate a (divided) place against the (excluded) other—to resist, then, is to embrace the other (which is ultimately to embrace death), to call the other by its name in acknowledgment of one’s separation from it, and so also to recognize the other within oneself, the lack birthed of the first division that constantly drives one outward and into relation. Power can never hope to control such a primal force.

Here, then, is a remarkable hope, a hope that the Jesuit de Certeau can never name, nor, strangely, tries to. Jesus of Nazareth presents us with a radical alternative to power, the radical embrace of death. Pure actuality, sheer presence, becomes man, becomes that field of potentiality so other from himself. He comes in flesh, in weakness, and is ultimately put to death, renouncing the infinite power of his divine nature and submitting to that first, and only, division that the Godhead would experience. In becoming sin Jesus becomes the other, the excluded, and in so doing he overcomes it, so that we might be reconciled to the Wholly and Holy Other, and so that the Other might come to dwell within us. In Jesus Christ, we die so that we might live. In Jesus Christ the dance of relation is restored, or rather, is brought to fruition, as we are drawn into the image of the invisible God, the God we can never place nor control, the God we can never contain, the God we can only know in unknowing who descended so that we might know one thing for certain, that he is love, and that that is our only commandment.

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