118: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that far from being a passive act, consumption, whether as use of an object or space, “ways of operating,” or art/ “ways of making” (combination, selection, cut-and-inversion), is a kind of spatial production.   
Building on (but rejecting) Foucault, Bourdieu, Kant, and others, de Certeau conceives of the physical world as divided into two classes: those with power and capital who are in control of space and production, and those with neither, but who exercise their agency by taking advantage of opportunities and consuming creatively.  The powerful side of things is also the scientific, the rational; this side creates static places of power, characterized by rational utopian uniformity, legibility, clarity, strategy, and centralized control.  The weak consumers take advantage of cracks in the rational system of these places; dependent on time, these peripatetic storytellers (walking and narration are inseparable) combine the fixed elements of the city/story with memories and inventions triggered by circumstance and audience to subvert the rational powers and create something new.

If power creates place, these storytellers operate in space, an undefined realm within place that is created as they walk/perform their narratives.   Critical is the connection between space and discourse; critical also is that this storytelling, while it carves out spaces of agency, is fleeting and momentary; it can subvert the rational powers but it cannot develop capital or power itself.  The whole point is that walking/ narrating is the illegitimate, illegible, other to the rational system; it unites discourse and practice, and as such it cannot be abstracted or contemplated from outside itself.   Or accumulated, for that matter.

Stuff I like: de Certeau is very clear: even in a Foucauldian system, there is still ample room for human agency.  That agency may not be able to build the kind of social capital needed to overthrow rational powers, but it’s not going away – the walker/ storyteller/ city inhabitant is the necessary corollary/ internal contradiction in the rational system.  Also, he combines narration with spatial movement, which links discourse to performance – sometimes with an audience, sometimes not.  His use of myth is interesting: myths humanize the city by layering legend, memory, and dream into the rational place and thus subverting its rational, logical (objective?) order.  They function as an escape from oppression.  The way he sets up the space/ place opposition is interesting: like Tuan, he argues that places “stay put” and spaces are for movement or for practicing place: one gets the feeling that the walker opens them up and they close again once he/she has passed through.  Memory also subverts place: ghosts of people or things or businesses that are no longer in a place haunt it and link people  to a place/ convert place to space in a way that defies the logical, rational order.  I also like his method: he clearly sets out the five or so theorists he is working with, pokes holes in their arguments, and shows how everyday practice links theory and discourse AND allows for human agency and ingenuity in a way that the other theorists seem to have missed.  And he clearly sees technology as rationalizing society in a way that’s no bueno.
Stuff I don’t like: To attempt to see the system from any perspective other than direct experience – to try and take it in conceptually, as a whole – is to alienate yourself from the system and to see it from the perspective of the rational powers, not from the embodied  consumers.  To study the production of space, then, requires giving up any chance to see the whole and only studying the stories on their own terms, which, sorry, just feels claustrophic and unnecessarily limited (though useful in the whole PoMo turn bit, for sure.)  Also, it makes me sad that these seem to be practices for surviving a utopia, not for changing it – unless he’s just being descriptive instead of normative.  He seems to take a technological determinist stance on the relationship between technological rationality and place/space.  Also, individuals are not atomized, but they are anonymous in the masses; without the potential for generalization, how are they not atomized again?  Further, it’s not like people are wholly irrational, and to classify them in binary opposition to rationality (er, technology and machines came from somewhere) is doing individuals a disservice… and may even be taking precisely the birds-eye view he so eschews.  From above, walkers in a medieval city probably look like rats in a warren; but from the perspective of the opportunistic walker, thinking on the margin, every movement she makes probably makes perfect sense.  Beware seeing people in the aggregate.
Connections: Laclau’s empty signifier, especially in the section on belief (to make people believe, offer them something and then don’t give it to them); Hardt & Negri, anything really, because they believe in the power of excess to overthrow the utopia (tho they allow for the development of capital among the oppressed).  He directs engages at length with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, Freud (both his psychoanalysis and his more social piece, Civilization something), Durkheim, and Kant (though admittedly I didn’t read the bits on Kat or Durkheim.)  He also uses Lacan’s mirror phase bit as a way at getting at the relationship between the individual and society.  He is fascinated by the basic premise of anthropological work in Durkheim: to go somewhere else to study yourself; and although he picks on Foucault in particular for cutting out a small piece of culture (panoptics, for instance) and then inverting society so that that small piece of culture becomes the organizing principle of a social analysis, he uses it as the basis for his definition of tactic: cutting up, reassembling, creating narratives out of fragments.  I guess the point is that it is a tactic of the weak, not a strategy (which requires vision!  Of the big picture!) of the strong?
What are the implications of de Certeau’s walkers for performance?
Why is it so important to link space and language?
What cities is he talking about
How does this work fit in with other PoMo (vs post-structural theory)?
Originally published on 6.26.12.
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