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Certeau’s _Practice of Everyday Life_

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On almost every campus, we see a shortcut from A to B that has been made by many people cutting across the lawn. Some people may stare at the trampled grass mourning for the decay of human morality and social order, as campus authorities do. Yet, some people celebrate the creativity and freedom that trampling represents for ordinary people. One of these is the author of the book in review, Michel De Certeau.

Certeau’s the Practice of Everyday Life concerns the various everyday practices of ordinary people, like “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking etc.” (xix) Certeau is fascinated by non-elite ordinary people’s power to subvert or transform elite imposed culture through such everyday activities. Operating in the colonizer’s given cultural system, the colonized find a way to manipulate the system – streets, written texts, etc.- for their own good. Modern day consumers are not passive recipients of popular culture. They participate in the production of popular culture through their creative or productive consumption of elite culture. Thus, those who are traditionally deemed as the weak, the ordinary people, gain power through everyday practices—that is, through their anti-disciplinary procedures, tactics and ruses, or micro-techniques. Certeau focuses on the structure of such techniques, which he elevates to a form of art.

Certeau tries to explain the relationship between elites and ordinary people. Elites monopolize the production of knowledge and ability. In pre-modern Europe, churches gained authority over the interpretation of sacred texts, like the Bible. Although ordinary people had their own interpretations of such texts, their reading was suppressed and smeared as heterodox. In modern societies, religious belief has been transferred to the political realm. Teachers, as producers of culture, like politicians, use popular media and the socio-political mediums, like school, newspapers, magazines, and television broadcasts, to control the authoritative reading of texts. We are constantly being told what and how to think correctly. This elite culture produces the discourse of order.

On the other hand, Certeau believes that ordinary people have always managed to transform elite-imposed systems of governance and order culture for their own purposes. In pre-modern times, ordinary people found ways to deliver and pass transmit their own messages about worth, their own point of views. Different from that of the elites, their message subverted the authoritative, orthodox and literal meanings of the texts. Even when literacy rates were very low and ordinary people were “told” the authoritative way to interpret texts, they “listened” and interpreted in their own way. In the modern period, with almost universal literacy rates and mass printing presses, people (i.e. readers) are finally able to poach, that is, to travel on others’ (i.e. authors’) texts—their continents of travel without body. In reading texts, no location is needed or provided. Eyes are free to tour in others’ texts—to skip passages, to work from back to front or front to back, to superimpose one’s own interpretation. In this sense, modern readers are emancipated to create and produce their own culture outside and through the authors’ texts. In daily practice, Certeau terms such procedures of culture by ordinary people “la perruque,” as putting the master’s resources to one’s own end. Factory workers, for instance, use their practices to subvert and benefit from the authoritative order. As a result, Certeau argues that “a tactic is an art of the weak.” (37)

Certeau poses many intellectual challenges. One concerns Foucault’s disciplinary panopticon. The universality of panopticon is discredited by people’s increasing suspicion of authority. Governance systems, like the police, grow even bigger, just as monitoring cameras double in number every day. Yet fewer and fewer people actually believe in authority. To make people believe in them, writes Certeau, politicians insist that others believe in or support their position. This is a common way to gain people’s trusts. It is sad that “by making people believe that others believe in it” becomes the only source of belief. (189) If this is true, Foucault’s panopticon might still work. The imaginary oversight of popular behavior may still have a disciplinary function, because people still believe in others’ ability to see and they do indeed accept a wide number of authoritative discourses—either as their own or as something widely believed. Another challenge posed by Certeau concerns the internal dilemma of history as a scientific discipline: according to Certeau, one cannot deconstruct the subject of study while simultaneously studying the subject in its circumstances. Once the subject is transportable into a scientific location for study—that is, situated in a conceptual frame, it is uprooted. It is distanced from its original location and given a new place. It is already removed from its original (authentic) position. Therefore, Certeau’s intelligent work not only highlights the creation of the ordinary people, as modern readers, to subvert elite culture, he also poses intellectual challenges to professionals, such as historians like us.


Chuning Xie
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

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