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The Practice of Everyday Life

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Michel de CerteauEdit

Certeau (1925-1986) was a French Jesuit and scholar whose work combined history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the social sciences. He held degrees in classics and philosophy, and was ordained in 1956. In 1960, Certeau received a doctorate in theology. He was a founding member of the École Freudienne de Paris (with Jacques Lacan), and participated in the unrest of May 1968.

The Practice of Everyday Life [French: 1984 | English: 1988]Edit

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau considers the point of his work to "make explicit the systems of operational combination which also compose a 'culture,' and to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term 'consumers'. Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ays on the property of others" (xi-xii). While Certeau acknowledges that many researchers have been interested in the representations of society, Certeau argues there is further work be done with what individuals "make" or "do" with their time and the representations they have access to. While we may simply presume that individuals practice uncomplicated consumption, Certeau suggests that individual engagements with such materials involve more nuances poiesis, "making", "ways of using". These practices may include reading, talking, dwelling, cooking, walking, etc. Entrenched in this figuration is a notion of "popular culture" that is part of our contemporary, urban life, rather that simply colloquial, pastoral or primitive formations. Popular tactics such as the pop luck thwart historical presumptions of the modern market economy, allowing space for a gift economy that renders as transgression within capitalism.

The circulation of images, Certeau argues, is a seperate cultural matter from "its manipulation by users who are not its makers. Only then can we gauge the idfference of similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization" (xiii). The distance between dominant production and secondary use is a space of difference that occupies Certeau's insight. His mechanism for understanding this phenomenon is primarily taken from linguistic analysis, thinking of individual acts as enunciations that allow a researcher to privilege the act of speaking rather than the uniform construction of language. In privileging these individual acts, Certeau suggests that "such an objective assumes that users make (bricolent) innumerable and infintesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules" (xiii-xiv). Certeau is able to apply linguistic theory to modes of social practice: "[the problematics of speech acts and linguistics] can be extended to culture as a while on the basis of the resemblance between the ("enunciative") prodcedures which articulate actions in both the field of language and the network of social practices" (19).

Certeau's approach, however, is fairly structuralist, insofar as he believes that these operations conform to certain rules and carry an essential logic. At stake in Certeau's analysis is also a political dimension, wherein "the tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lends a political dimension to everyday practices" (xvii). As each individual consumer has their own matrices of possible actions, their actions are indebted to their historic, geographic, and socio-political position. The consumer tactic is an errant or indirect trajectories which "trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop" (xviii), an "art of manipulating and enjoying" (xxii).

Critique of FoucaultEdit

Certeau offers his analysis in contrast to the theories of dominant social forms studied by Foucault. Certeau summarizes: "Foucault analyzes the mechanisms (dispositifs) that have sapped the strength of these institutions and surreptitiously reorganized the functioning of power: 'miniscule' technical prodcedures acting on and with details, redistributing a discursive space in order to make it the means of a generalized 'discipline'. [...] Once again, however, this 'microphysics of power' privileges the productive apparatus" (xiv). In Certeau's estimate, a society cannot be defined based on its dominant practices along: "what popular procedures (also 'miniscule' and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them" (xiv). Moreover, "a way of using imposed systems constituted the resistance to the historical law of a state of affairs and its dogmatic legitimations" (18).

Tactics and StrategiesEdit

A significantly cited idea is Certeau's articulation of tactics and strategies. A strategy is the "calculation of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power [...] can be isolated" (36). Strategies function be territorializing and controlling space, rather than time, allowing one to acquired advantages, plan attacks, prepare and allocate resources. It is the method of "modern science, politics, and military strategy" (36). The utilization of space also involves a panoptic practice whence "the eye can transform foregin forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and 'include' them within the scope of its vision. Lastly, strategy involves the power of knowledge by being able to turn what is unknown or unfamiliar into a readable Cartesian field by taking over space and installing a mastering vision: "a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics" (36).

In constrast, tactics a "a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimination of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy" (37). Tactics involves time over space; tactics cannot be over-planned, nor involve total knowledge or mastering vision. Tactics give up what they win because they have no central location to allocate what they conquer. Trickery is all that is possible for the weak, and tactics are truly the actions of the Other.


Certeau links "strategies" with institutions and structures of power who are the "producers", while individuals are "consumers" acting in environments defined by strategies by using "tactics". In the influential chapter "Walking in the City", Certeau asserts that "the city", which is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole. Certeau's uses the vantage from a skyscraper in New York to illustrate the idea of a unified view. By contrast, the walker at street level moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts in spite of the strategic grid of the streets. This concretely illustrates Certeau's argument that everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, using the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products.

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