Focus: Michel de Certeau (1925-1986)

Focus: Michel de Certeau (1925-1986)

This Focus is a tribute to the work and life of French Jesuit Michel de Certeau.




週一, 05 十月 2015

Michel de Certeau and His Time

Names such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida or Jean-François Lyotard are usually mentioned in any description of the “French Theory” landscape (the intellectual climate that took shape towards the end of the 1960s and developed in the 1970s and in most of the 1980). It was their works which exercised most influence abroad, especially in the United States, where the term “French Theory” was ultimately coined. The name of Michel de Certeau is not usually quoted in this context. Several reasons might explain this situation:

-     Certeau was an independent thinker, who never tried to attach his name to a school or a given theory. “Michel de Certeau was not fond of defining who he was, nor did he like hemming in what he did to fit within the sort of disciplinary categories that university professors, as to reassure themselves, claim as their own.”[1]

-        At the same time, he remained a Jesuit till his death: though he certainly developed a very peculiar intellectual style compared to the majority of Jesuit intellectuals, this affiliation seems to be at odds with an intellectual movement that, at first glance, had no religious consonance at all and is often described as “anti-humanist.”[2]

-        Thirdly, if Certeau was very influential in France the echo met by his work was for long rather limited abroad. Nowadays, the situation has drastically changed: during the last thirty years, translations of his works have been published in more than 20 languages. Certeau has found an audience on which he has exercised an influence that may be deeper than it has been the case for Foucault or Derrida, even if the readership of the two latter is more widespread.

Certeau was an active member of the French intellectual scene at the period considered. He participated in the same debates and circles as well-known historians and philosophers did, such asPierre Nora, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roger Chartier or Louis Marin, among others. At the same time he developed studies on topics of his own that progressively became very influential. He was a risk-taker, or yet, as writes his biographer François Dosse, a “wounded walker.” In a text he wrote as a homage, Jacques Derrida has described Michel de Certeau as living and writing under a “Yes”: Certeau, he says, had reflected upon the way all mystical experiences and discourses start by risking a “Yes”[3], a “Yes” that makes the ones who pronounce it able to depart from well-known ground so as to embark into unknown territories. Saying “yes’ means at the same time to mark a breaking point and to enter into a promise. And Certeau, continues Derrida, thanks to the unconditional “Yes” under which he was placing himself, was living intellectual exploration as both danger and promise.[4]

[1] Roger Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff, Baltimore, John Hopkins U.P., 1997.p.39.

[2] Such appreciation should actually be qualified: a thinker like Lacan cannot be understood outside his relationship to the Catholic tradition. More generally, the relationship of “French Theory” to the topic of religious faith and even religious institutions would require a careful appraisal.

[3] Both Certeau and Derrida meditate over a well-known sentence from Angelius Silesius (1624-1677): “God never says anything else than a ‘Yes’ ” (Gott spricht nur immer Ja).

[4] Jacques Derrida, “Nombre de Oui”, in Luce Giard (ed.) Michel de Certeau, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, “Cahiers pour un temps”, 1987, pp.193-205.

週一, 12 十月 2015

Michel de Certeau: The Unity of an Itinerary

Nathalie Zemon Davis has given a very effective description of Certeau’s underlying intellectual and existential focus:

          “Whether writing about madness and mysticism in the seventeenth century, South American resistance movements in the past and present, or the practice of everyday life in the twentieth century, Certeau developed a distinctive way of interpreting social and personal relations. … Certeau wanted to identify the creative and disruptive presence of "the other"—the outsider, the stranger, the alien, the subversive, the radically different—in systems of power and thought. … To be sure, notions of ‘otherness’ were cropping up in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Certeau was gaining prominence, but he was original in the multiple ways he conceived figures of the ‘other’ and how they functioned in many settings. He coined the term "heterologies" to describe disciplines in which we examine ourselves in relation to otherness; history and ethnography, for instance, could be ‘sciences of the other’ if they confront the often disfiguring assumptions we bring to our understanding of different times and places.”[1]

Reflecting on the forms, expressions and meaning of “Experience” was at the core of Certeau’s research: what language do men shape and develop to give an account of what is impossible to express and yet cannot but be said, sung or cried out? How does “experience” coalesce into “institutions” that want to make it perennial and yet are prone to disfigure the initial intuition of the founder? How does our creativity in everyday life, regardless of the constraints to which we are submitted, flow from the roots of our inner experience and create new social configurations? As Marcel Mauss had done before him, Certeau was somehow looking for “total social facts” (fait social total), the study of which reconciles and transcends sociology, psychology and anthropology. Certeau’s quest has a strong epistemological dimension: it wants to restore the unity of all knowledge presently divided into different social sciences and humanities according to the way separate fields of study or “disciplines” are defined and organized by the academic world.

As it had been partly the case for Marcel Mauss some forty years before, Certeau entered the “linguistic turn” because of such epistemological concerns: paying attention to the logic of language was the key for reconciling the study of the individual and the collective into one. “Mystical” language was Certeau’s special topic. He studied mysticism not only as an individual phenomenon, but also as a collective adventure. He did it through the deciphering of the Mystical School which flourished in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, especially in Spain and in southwest France. His encounter on  the one hand  with Jacques Lacan and a certain type of psychoanalysis, on the other hand with Wittgenstein and his philosophy of language helped Certeau to center his thought on the formal linguistic study of speech and writing. That study provided him with an organizing thread which was instrumental in linking his  investigations through many disciplines. No wonder that Certeau was so quick to produce an insightful analysis of the 1968 movement: right on the spot he understood it as a major event concerning people’s language and speech.


Making Sense of Everyday Life

In L'Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) of 1980, Certeau brought attention to all kinds of daily practices. For instance, the way people are walking into the city according to their own whims creates a  "walking rhetoric”; we read books in ways we are not supposed to do it, somehow reshaping and giving new meaning to the material at hand. In the same way, cooking rituals organize our own space and ways of living together, with families and friends. Somehow, the “trajectories” developed by ordinary people can be seen as “tactics” they devise to build up their own markers, paths and spaces across settings to which they have to get adapted. By so doing,  they “poach upon” the territories controlled by political and social powers. Paying special attention to the “ways of proceeding” of the silent majority therefore leads to a “polemological analysis of culture.” Culture articulates conflicts and develops in an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides temporary balances, contracts and compromises. “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” concludes Certeau.

As developed by Certeau, the notion of “trajectory” or “wandering line” is especially thought-provoking: “In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which the consumers move about, their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space. Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences) … the trajectories trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop.” Note here the way the tactics of everyday life are compared to sentences, in which we use as we deem it best specific sets of vocabulary and grammatical resources.

Certeau’s line of analysis has been developed well beyond its original setting. The concepts developed in The Practice of Everyday Life have been used for explaining how people “create” ancestors for instance through representations and stories.[2] In modern megalopolises, urban-dwellers’ inventiveness is now taken into account by the ethnographic literature when describing how they make use of the places designed for mass consumption or how they carve out places for religious or recreational purposes.


History, Practices and Writing

Certeau’s epistemological acuteness took shape through his study of the mystical and spiritual literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It made him aware that believers had been continuously adapting their faith to new social contexts and giving new meanings to words, ideas and rituals coming from the past. Even for a 20th century historian who is a Catholic believer, any 16th century Catholic was really a “Stranger.”

According to Certeau, we cannot just project on the past our current vision and languages – and, at the same time, we cannot content ourselves with a learned, “objective” accumulation of data. There is an “absence”, a “lack”, a tension that truly opens up a way towards “historical knowledge.” It is the “otherness” of the one we first thought was “close” to us that gives birth to the risk of writing history. Certeau says that he started to write really about Jean-Joseph Surin, when he discovered how far away he was from this 17th  century French Jesuit  whose texts he was studying.

The reflection led by Certeau on the status of the historical text was inspired by his own historical practice, and at the same time it was  influencing his historical practice. His own research style has been well characterized by Roger Chartier: “’All of Certeau’s work as a historian was centered on the precise, careful analysis of the practices by which men and women of past times, appropriated, each in his or her own way, the codes and the places that were imposed on them, or else subverted the accepted rules to create new formalities.”[3]


Belief and Weakness: Entering the Mystic Path

As his historical research leads him to reflect on the nature of “belief’, Certeau also renews  Christian theology. He sees Christ as the figure of the Other, of the “Stranger’, he describes “belief” as a way of experiencing one’s weakness (La Faiblesse de croire, 1987 – English translation in preparation in London, Spanish translation available in Buenos Aires). Such existential weakness, he noted, needs also to mark the institution that conveys and gives social expression to faith. A “weak Church” is the only institutional model that can be fully loyal to the particular nature of Christian faith. Only in weakness can spiritual fecundity be experienced. Christianity had to be “scattered” (Le Christianisme éclaté, Paris, Seuil, 1974) in order to be reborn. “One can say that the mystical is a reaction against the appropriation of truth by the clerics, who started to become professionalized in the thirteenth century. It favored the illumination of the illiterate, the experience of women, the wisdom of fools, the silence of the child: it opted for the vernacular languages against the Latin of the schools. It maintained that the ignorant have competence in matter of faith. … The mystical is the authority of the crowd, a figure of the anonymous.”[4]

Chartier has said that, for Michel de Certeau, “History was a place of experimentation.”[5] The same can be asserted of all intellectual practices to which Certeau dedicated his thought and time. For him, a field of research was never actually defined and limited by its subject matter. His careful exploration of any issue, in any field of study, would rather turn it into a place, a laboratory : there he would  link together insights, hypotheses and methodologies into an ever-evolving intellectual synthesis. The discovery of the “Stranger” – located in us or outside of us –  was the driving force which inspired his insatiable curiosity. In a special way, Certeau tells us that mysticism and its study allow us to explore the very “strangeness” which always is within and outside our own being, such exploration will draw us farther away from our familiar ground.

Maybe when we embark into any research of our own, do we similarly need to nurture a “mystical drive” that brings us away from our comfort zone. Thirty years after his death,  Certeau’s works still challenge our intellectual habits and bring us towards grounds where we may be reluctant to be involved. As he would say so often, to fully live one’s life, everyone has to take some major risk.

[1] “The Quest of Michel de Certeau”, The New York Review of Books, 55 (8), May 15 2008.

[2] See Grégory Deleplace, 2009, L’invention des morts, sépultures, fantômes et photographie en Mongolie contemporaine, Paris, Centre d’Etudes Mongoles et Sibériennes- Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, « Nord-Asie I ».

[3] Roger Chartier, op. cit., pp.45-46.

[4] Interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 September 1982, pp.118-121; quoted in Chartier, op. cit., p.46.

[5] Op. cit., p.47.


Illustration by Bendu

週二, 06 十月 2015

Michel de Certeau: A Biographical Sketch

Luce Giard, her editor, has offered an excellent and inspiring English biography of Michel de Certeau, available online at

Luce Giard's essay can be complemented by the reading of François Dosse, Michel de Certeau le marcheur blessé, Paris, La Découverte, 2002 and a Spanish translation is available thanks to Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

The sketch that follows is mainly based on Luce Giard's text.


Michel de Certeau was born in 1925, in Chambéry (Savoie). He studied at the universities of Grenoble, Paris, and Lyons from 1944 to 1950, receiving degrees in Classics and Philosophy. He also studied at the "Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice" at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a Paris suburb, for two academic years and then at the Catholic University of Lyons, which had a strong program in biblical studies. In 1950 he decides to join the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), following the usual curriculum of philosophy and theology studies, with special focus on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. He was ordained a priest in 1956.

He first started a dissertation on Saint Augustine, aiming to analyze how the latter had reshaped Christian theology into a pessimistic legalist doctrine by selectively adopting elements of the Greek Church fathers and readapting them for people shaped by Roman legal concepts. Certeau would always be fascinated by the circulation and transformation of concepts, codes and practices. This unachieved study of Augustine already encapsulates his travels from theology to history, from anthropology to sociology

However, he was soon asked to rather invest on the study of the first spiritual authors of the Jesuit Order, including Ignatius of Loyola. Certeau thus received a Doctorate in religious history with a dissertation on Pierre Favre's spiritual diary in 1960. Favre (1506-1546), a Savoyard (canonized by Pope Francis in December 2013) encountered Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris, he was among the first companions who joined Loyola to found the Society of Jesus in 1543. Certeau moved soon to the figure of Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit from Bordeaux, contemporary of Descartes, who had been involved in difficult cases of demonic possession (see Certeau's The Possession at Loudun, University of Chicago Press, 2000). Certeau provided editions of Surin's Guide spirituel (1963) and of his Letters (1966). His desire to better understand Surin's destiny and mystical writings brought him to the active psychoanalytical milieu in Paris and he became close to Jacques Lacan (see Certeau's Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction, Gallimard, 1987, partly translated in Heterologies, University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Full Chinese translation published in 2010).

During those years, Certeau steadily worked for French Jesuit journals: the influential monthly Études, the quarterly Christus specialized in spirituality and two scholarly journals on religious history and theology, Revue d'ascétique et de mystique, and Recherches de science religieuse. He underwent a life-threatening car accident in 1967, in which he lost one eye The other turning-point in his life was brought by the events of May 1968 (see his book The Capture of Speech, University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

His analysis of the cultural and social changes taking place then brought him much fame in France, and from this time onwards he was asked to participate in endless cultural and media events. From 1970 on, he would publish book after book: on demonic possession (1970), on historiography (1973, 1975), on linguistic policy and social hierarchy (1975), on mass media, consumption and daily life (1980), on mystics (1982). At the same time, he would regularly teach graduate programs in different research fields at various universities: theology (Catholic University, Paris), anthropology and psychoanalysis (Université de Paris-Vincennes), then anthropology and history (Université de Paris VII), as well as literature and cultural studies at University of California at San Diego in 1978-1984. His Californian experience in San Diego ended when he accepted a new position at EHESS in Paris on "the historical anthropology of beliefs (16th -18th centuries)." He opened his teaching there in Fall 1984 but died from cancer in January 1986.

週一, 12 十月 2015

An Interview with Luce Giard

Luce Giard is a senior fellow researcher at the CNRS and the EHESS. She is the depositary and editor of Michel de Certeau's works. She is the director and organizer of the international conference "Michel de Certeau, le voyage de l'oeuvre" (Paris, March 2016).

- Could you introduce to us the colloquium you are presently organising, and which will be taking place in March 2016 in Paris?

The Conference in March 2016 in Paris will allow readers of Certeau's works to encounter and compare their analysis of his works. Invited speakers will come from all over the world. Generally they have never met one another, many of them are neither aware of other kinds of interpretation about Certeau's works nor have been able of reading papers published in many other languages.


- This colloquium seems to be very much focused on the reception of Michel de Certeau abroad. What are the countries in which Certeau's thought exercised most influence, and for which reason?

Certeau's books have been translated into 20 different languages, which shows how broad is the reception of his thought. Not all books are circulated in every country. Selections according to topics and/or related to circumstances and intellectual settings in different countries explain the choices made here or there about topics, issues, historical periods in which a local or regional readership got attracted to Certeau's thought.
There were also and there are still differences in time about Certeau's reception in different countries. For instance, in the USA Certeau was first known for his cultural studies, but in Great Britain more attention was given to his theological output. In Latin America his political insights were very influential at the time of dictatorship and social violent struggles


- Could you tell us more about the way Certeau's insights, concerns and methodologies are now received in Asia?

In Asia Certeau was first read in Japan thanks to some Japanese intellectuals who had studied in France in the semiotic and linguistic milieu with Greimas and Roland Barthes. Then his works started to be translated into Chinese, and in the last few years it was the same in Korea.
It seems that in Japan his analysis of the question of "time", "time-periods", and historiography attracts much attention. In China what concerns the practices of everyday life and also anthropology is at the center of the picture. In Korea the issues about possession, spirits, and the like are highly regarded in his works: the first translation to appear in Korea was "The possession at Loudun".



Illustration by Bendu

週二, 06 十月 2015

Michel de Certeau in China


Some writings by Michel de Certeau have been translated into Chinese. Chinese translations of "History and Psychoanalysis" (2010) and volume 2 of "The Practice of Everyday Life" (2014) have appeared, and "The Writing of History"(2012) and "The Practice of Everyday Life" (volume 1, 2009) have attracted the attention of anthropologists and historians. The other dimensions of Certeau's thought remain practically unknown. Much remains to be done in order to foster the impact that the thought of Certeau may potentially exercise on Chinese social and human sciences.

xu-ricci 2In October-November 2014, the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University invited Luce Giard, editor of the works of Certeau, to come to Shanghai. Three lessons introduced the audience to Certeau's thought and methodology in the field of historiography, anthropology and spirituality. And, most important, a one-day faculty seminar organized around some texts of Certeau, attended by 15 young professors from four different universities, discussed the methodology and meaning of social research in today's China.

Different initiatives are now taking shape in order to translate, disseminate and cross-fertilize the thought of Certeau in the context of contemporary China.






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