De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Michel de Certeau.The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. University of California Press: Berkely. 1984. Print.

Initial Thoughts

I’ve read bits and pieces of de Certeau’s Practice, but never in its entirety. Prior to reading this text, I am intrigued by the concept of looking at the world of the everyday, our locales, and a micro lens to view life. While I have great respect for Foucault and Althussier before him, their macro view of institutions and disciplines left me with more critical questions than answers. How, for example, do we move beyond the understanding of power and its repression on society? Whose society is this critique for, and if we are to invoke these ideas in writing studies, how can we thoughtfully apply a theory that must transgress time, cultures, and geopolitical borders? Foremost, where do I even go from here? The macro view presented by Foucault certainly has its place in the discipline, but I am inclined to look more closely at the locales where everyday practices occur in communities, in homes, schools, sidewalks, and stores.

In the sections below, I elaborate on what I found most interesting about de Certeau’s theory, some historical and disciplinary considerations, and a little illustration of de Certeau’s theory that helped me understand his concepts.


“The purpose of this work is to make explicit the systems of operational combination (les combinatoires d’operations) 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 ways on the property of others” (xi-xii).

Study of consumption must also look at use. de Certeau provides an example: “[…] the analysis of the images broadcast on television (representation) and of the time spent watching television (behavior) should be complemented by a study of what the cultural consumer “makes” or “does” during this time and with these images” (xii). Also, Certeau notes that this making is a form of production (poiesis), which is hidden, “scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of “production” (television, urban development, commerce, etc.), and because the steadily increasing expansion of these systems no longer leaves “consumers” any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems” (xii). Consumption relates to a pervasive, silent, and submissive acceptance of ways of usingproducts imposed by what de Certeau calls the dominant economic order. Those subjected to consumption are referred to as the “other.”

Certeau claims that we must first analyze the “manipulation of users who who are not its makers” (xiii). In other words, there’s an initial production (provided by the dominant economic order) and a secondary production (when the users find ways to make, do, or create something out of the initial production). The object of the study is focused on moving from the idea of speech acts to many other practices. A speech act “establishes a present relative to time and place, posits a contract with the other (interlocutor) in a network of places and relations” (xiii). At this moment in history, I am unsure of how widely accepted this broadly conceived notion of “speech act” was held, though I am under the assumption that a widening of this conception, and a movement from spoken or written utterance to action or movement is profound:

“[…] speaking operates within the field of a linguistic system; it effects an appropriation, or reappropriation, of language by its speakers” (xiii).

Certeau recognizes, following the work of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, that discipline may be becoming increasingly extensive and clear. However, this presents an even more pressing need to analyze the ways that society resists the discipline, ways that makers can manipulate the mechanism of the discipline, and “conform to them only in order to evade them” (xiv). I find it interesting how Certeau positions his method alongside Foucault. He does this carefully and strategically, mentioning how users benefit from the ideas that Foucault presents (here, Certeau notes his goal is similar in that he’s looking at “microbe-like” operations occurring within larger, technocratic structures, with users employing “tactics” in everyday life). “Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline which is the subject of this book” (xv). Here, in the moment while I read this passage, I was filled with excitement. The notion that consumers are already working to resist these technocratic structures–that they are already resisting them from within–encourages me to question the goal of studying antidisciplinary tactics if the outcome of that study contributes to a discipline (rhetoric). This is related to questions like: what would de Certeau say about academic disciplines today? Would he consider them to represent or reaffirm technocratic structures? How might makers be employing tactics within the technocratic structures of today?

Instead of imagining contemporary applications, a situated historical reading of de Certeau’s text might understand his technocratic structure as one being influenced by living in a western-aligned country during the cold war, when there was a global surge in science and technology research. It makes sense to me that his text would emerge from that context; there was a need for a statement (be it political, philosophical, or rhetorical) to call out how science was disconnected from the everyday lives of people.

As I read, I attempted to make a list of characteristics of these practices of the everyday (in no particular order):

  1. microbe-like operations
  2. “tactics”
  3. conformity only to then evade within
  4. goal is to form network of antidiscipline
  5. must be a logic of these practices
  6. conform to rules
  7. multiform and fragmentary
  8. tactics of consumption (ways that weak make use of strong) lends a political dimension to everyday practices
  9. performed by the other
  10. clever tricks, knowing when to get away with things, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries
  11. Greeks called these “ways of operating” metis

These everyday practices are marked by “poetic ways of making do.” de Certeau invokes the concept of bricolage in the following ways:

  1. as makeshift
  2. artisan-like inventiveness
  3. as making and transformation in the face of dominance

Tactics vs. Strategies

  • Strategy is “proper”, employed by proprietors, enterprise, a city, a scientific institution–political, economic, and scientific rationality constructed on strategic model (xix). Proper is a victory of space over time.
  • tactic cannot count on a “proper” (spatial or institutional location)–the place of a tactic belongs to the other. Tactic resides in the other’s space fragmentarily in small instances. Tactic depends on time, and seizing the right moment. Everyday practices are tactical (talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.).

Rhetoric as Discipline

de Certeau discusses his use of rhetoric for the goals in the text. His presentation of rhetoric here has given me a little bit of trouble. First, I can see that rhetoric, though a consideration, does not seem to be at the core of what he is seeking to accomplish (rhetoric as tool). Second, I can sense that his conception of rhetoric is coming from the classical canons; thinking of rhetoric as a science reminds me of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. Nonetheless, his use of rhetoric provides a guiding framework for his discussion of action in the everyday:

  1. Rhetoric offers models for differentiating between different types of tactics
  2. Certeau describes rhetoric as the science of the “ways of speaking”
  3. Two logics of action (tactical and strategic) arise from the ways of speaking and ways of acting

On Reading, taking, dwelling, cooking, etc.

These are just some notes on this section of the introduction, and I took them because they speak to ways that de Certeau understands reading as a form of production in itself:

  1. The eye has an impulse to read—epic visual journey
  2. Makes parallel: production-consumption as writing-reading
  3. Reading may seem like a passive activity that characterizes the consumer, but Certeau states that reading is a form of silent production: “the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance” (xxi).
  4. “But since he is incapable of stockpiling (unless he writes or records), the reader cannot protect himself against the erosion of time (while reading, he forgets himself and he forgets what he has read) unless he buys the object (book, image) which is no more than a substitute (the poor promise) of moments “lost” in reading” (xxi).

Writing-reading, then, has a required materiality. It’s also interesting to me that Certeau seems to have a somewhat platonic understanding of writing and memory (i.e., similar argument in the Phaedrus). “Ruse, metaphor, arrangement, this production is also an “invention” of the memory. Words become the outlet or product of silent histories…the thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place” (xxi).

de Certeau also uses an intriguing metaphor: text is habitable like a rented apartment. At this point, I’m intrigued by Certeau’s method of blending both rhetorical and linguistic ideas to understanding making. At this point in the discipline of rhetoric, and in France, perhaps these two ideas were far more connected than the disciplinary boundaries at present. Today, I feel like I haven’t rented the space of a linguistics text for some time, possibly because the disciplines of rhetoric and linguistics have developed distinct boundaries (and at our institution, these departments occupy different spaces altogether). This isn’t to say that there’s no overlap, or that there’s no renting that happens–I just feel like there are a lot of vacancies there.

Journey/vignette into the everyday

“Far from being writers […] readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves.” ― Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Looking at my personal computer, its screen marked by a collage of icons, pins, and toolbars, I locate my start button to begin a process that many others have followed. Once on my web browser, I move along my regular, meandering path, past Facebook, email accounts, online music streaming, and Twitter, finally resting on Google, a location where I would quickly decide on entering a number of search terms: “historiography,” “rhetoric,” “technology,” “walking in the city.” These terms produce thousands of sites, images, texts, and some videos, attesting to the corpus of discourse artifacts that have made their way into digital spaces, all marking this histories made and not made. As I navigate these sources, orchestrating the open tabs on my browser, I only begin to see the complexity of my process, a process of researching, doing, managing content, and making something. But the practices of exploring, marking, and navigating this landscape are just as vast and expansive as its terrain. Reading de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” has encouraged me to rethink my own process of engaging in everyday activities. I see tweets reporting on the Umbrella Movement happening right now in Hong Kong. Using a platform for public recording of history, these microbe-like speech acts slowly work to produce a network that resists the discipline (in this example, the government). These tweets produce a fragmented form of making do with the platforms that are available, platforms not designed for this form of meaning making.

On Science and Futurology

To Certeau, “[…] the procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle art of “renters” who know how to insinuate their countless differences into the dominant text” (xxii). He then notes the movement of text in the form of a book (in middle ages, tradition) to an entire society made into a book, “into the writing of the anonymous law of production” (xxii). Again, I’m intrigued to thin of how this movement of text applied to society today. For instance, it seems that the internet has become an extension of this anonymous law of production, a space where the technocratic structures are not only reaffirmed, but provide a map for how we conceive, act, and go about our everyday activities? In what ways are “the other” (also, who is “the other” when discussing online spaces, anway?) making do in this space and employing tactics from within that structure?

Because I found the exigency of de Certeau’s argument to be fascinating, I wanted to look into futurology and how he seemed to be opposing the ideas of scientific production through this text. Futurology can be understood as a systematic forecasting of the future. To Certeau, this “scientifically” included method presents a number of nonfunctional concepts and an inadequate procedure for thinking about space. “Thus in futurology we must consider (1) the relations between a certain kind of rationality and an imagination (which is in discourse the mark of the locus of its production); (2) the difference between, on the one hand, the tentative moves, pragmatic ruses, and successive tactics that mark the stages of practical investigation and, on the other hand, the strategic representations offered to the public as the product of these operations” (xxiii). I am interested in Certeau’s energy for this work as a critique of science, where operations in laboratories are distinctly separate from the everyday lives of people.

There’s no question to me how this text has been so often cited, and there’s a ton of things I couldn’t possibly explore in one blog post. de Certeau offers so much to me as someone interested in studying not just writing, but all forms of making, and he situates those tactics as common, participatory, and everyday tactics that resist oppressive power structures in little ways, in ways that those fragments work together to form networks of change.