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Born in 1925 in Chambery, France, Michel de Certeau obtained degrees in classics and philosophy at the universities of Grenoble, Lyon, and Paris. Joining the Society ofJesus in 1950, he was ordained in 1956. He completed a doctorate on the mystical writings of Jean-Joseph Surin at the Sorbonne in 1960 and taught in Paris and San Diego. He died of stomach cancer in 1986.
Certeau’s career can be divided into three stages. The first was largely concerned with traditional religious history; then, after ”the Events of May” (1968), his work took a very different turn, becoming both contemporary and sociocultural; then, after a highly productive decade writing about contemporary issues, Certeau’s thoughts returned to the history of religion and he produced what would be his last book, a two-volume history of seventeenth-century mysticism in Europe.
The first stage of Certeau’s career culminated in a profound retheorization of history, the fruit of which is to be seen in L’ecriture de l’histoire (The Writing of History), first published in 1975. Greatly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, Certeau argued that history is a machine for calming the anxiety most westerners feel in the face of death. It works by raising the specter of death within a memorial framework that gives the appearance that we will live forever after all.
The second stage of Certeau’s career began abruptly in May 1968 when the streets of Paris erupted in a paroxysm of student and blue-collar protest. The essays written on the run in these heady days (The Capture of Speech) are of lasting interest to social theorists for the way they begin to theorize everyday forms of resistance. Certeau was given an opportunity to expand on these preliminary investigations in the early 1970s when he was given a large research grant to study French culture on a broad scale. The legacy of this work is the two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (a third was planned, but never completed). In terms of their uptake in sociology, Certeau’s most important and influential concepts come from this period: strategy and tactics, place and space.
Both strategy and tactics are determined as calculations. The essential difference between strategy and tactics is the way they relate to the variables that everyday life inevitably throws at us all. Strategy works to limit the sheer number of variables that can affect it by creating some kind of protected zone, a place in which the environment can be rendered predictable if not properly tame. Tactics, by contrast, is the approach one takes to everyday life when one is unable to take measures against its variables. Tactics refers to the set of practices that strategy has not been able to domesticate. They are not in themselves subversive, but they function symbolically as daily proof of the partiality of strategic control.
Certeau began to work in earnest on his mysticism project, which culminates the third and final stage of his career, when he returned to France after nearly a decade in California. This project revisits the topic with which Certeau’s career began, but as with his critique of historiography, its aim was not merely to add yet another catalogue of curiosities to an already well-stocked cabinet. Rather, he wanted to understand the logic of mysticism, to try to understand it for itself as its own peculiar kind of discourse.
- Buchanan, I. (2000) Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist.
- Sage, London. Certeau, M. de (1984) The Practice of EverydayLife,trans. S. Rendall. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.