Michel de Certeau, (1925-86) is a French religious historian and a 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 fulfill? 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 specter 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 personnel 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, the 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 Etudes, 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: The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) and The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living and Cooking (1998). The second volume was written in collaboration with his research also 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.
The final period of Certeau’s career was something of a return to origins, or closing of a circle. Returning to France after nearly a decade abroad, teaching at the University of California, San Diego, Certeau revisited the topic with which his career began, namely 17th-century French Mysticism. Completed shortly before his death, this two-volume work, La Fable Mystique (1982, 1986), of which volume 1 is translated as Mystic Fable Volume One: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1992), used semiotics to argue that the discourse of mysticism exhausted itself because of its project of trying to resurrect the word of God in an era that no longer knew its God simply could not be sustained. Through its bold linguistic experiments, Mysticism could occasionally evoke the essential mystery of God, but it could not convert that into an enduring presence. Overlapping the second and third periods was Certeau’s unfinished project on the anthropology of belief, or what he also termed heterology This project would in all likelihood have constituted the fourth period but was cut short by his untimely death. Three essays from this unfinished project exist They deal with three forerunners to modem anthropology (Montaigne, Léry, and Lafitau) and their counter with the New World.