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Michel de Certeau

(1925—1986)


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(1925–86)

Frenchreligious historian and cultural critic. He is especially well known for his critique of historiography and his analyses of the practices of everyday life (particularly its spatial dimension) which he undertook in the middle part of his career. The work he did in the early and later parts of his career are less well known, especially in Anglophone countries, though no less significant or important.

After studying philosophy and the classics at the universities of Lyon and Grenoble, Certeau entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 25. Ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 1956, he went on to complete a doctorate in religious history at the Sorbonne in 1960. Certeau's principal theoretical interest in the early years of his career was the question of why we need history in the first place. Rather than inquire into the ideological meanings of histories, Certeau asked: What specific cultural need does history fulfil? Using as his model Freud's concept of dreamwork, Certeau argued that history should be seen as a kind of machine for easing the anxiety most westerners seem to feel in the face of death. By speaking of the past in the way it does, history raises the spectre of our inevitable demise within a memorial framework that makes it appear we will live forever after all. History is not, in other words, an innocent or straightforward documenting of the past, but an integral component of the structuring of the present. The main essays from this period were later collected in L'écriture de l'histoire (1975) translated as The Writing of History (1988).

Then in May '68 the streets of Paris erupted in a paroxysm of student and blue-collar protest. Certeau later described his personal experience of the ‘events of May’ (as they are often euphemistically called) as ‘shattering’. In trying to theorize what happened during the long weeks of strikes and street protests, Certeau drew a distinction between law and authority, arguing that although law prevailed during the course of the events of May authority was diminished. When authority is lost, he argued, law has only the naked exercise of violence at its disposal. Certeau's work on May 1968, was written as an immediate response to what was happening on the streets of Paris. It was initially published in the monthly magazine Études, published by the Society of Jesus, and later printed in pamphlet form as La prise de parole (1968), translated as The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings (1997). It inaugurated a change of direction in Certeau's career which saw him move away from questions of history to more contemporary issues.

This new direction led to the work for which Certeau is best known, particularly in Cultural Studies, namely his writings on everyday life: L'Invention du quotidien 1. arts de faire (1980), translated as The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) and L'Invention du quotidien 2. habiter, cuisiner (1980), translated as The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living and Cooking (1998). The second volume was written in collaboration with his research associates Pierre Mayol and Luce Giard. A third volume on futurology was planned, but never completed. Certeau proposed that everyday life could be seen as a balance between two types of practices which he termed strategy and tactics: the one referring to the set of practices Foucault theorized as discipline and the other being a kind of anti-discipline or resistance.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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