Notes on: De Certeau, M.(1984) 
The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: Berkeley

by Dave Harris

This is a particularly difficult book to summarize. It is written in a deliberately poetic style and the argument is very academic, and pretty self referential [that is referring to de Certeau’s contemporaries and to then current debates in French philosophy]. I have tried to extract the main points which interested me -- one of the earlier sections which sets out his position as against Foucault and Bourdieu, and one of the most commonly cited chapters, on walking in the city. Some of the other chapters are very worth while reading, on topics which range from railway journeys, through the difference between tours and maps to some interesting analyses of storytelling. As for the beautiful style, and the dense citation of examples, I hope you know my approach by now -- I tend to cheerfully and rather brutally abstract one or two points and render them in very plain English.

 The General Introduction, which offers a very useful summary of the main themes, but which makes more sense once you have read the book, tells us that this book is about the 'ordinary man' [usual apologies for the gendered terminology], who existed before texts and any attempt to represent him or his activities, especially in the form of numbers. Everyday practices are to be foregrounded and articulated. This is not an analysis of individuals, since social relations are always involved: indeed, the 'individual' is but a plurality of these relations. For that matter, culture is best understood as 'systems of organizational combination' (xi). It is about a very ancient operational logic of disguise and survival The goal is to understand consumers, and how they 'poach'.

This book is about the uses consumers make of the things that they purchase, for example the uses of TV images. Such usage reveals a hidden 'poesis', which is diffuse and not offered a privileged space. An example might be the way in which Indians subverted the culture of their Spanish colonizers, or what students do to university culture, or how individual sentences are constructed on the basis of shared vocabulary and syntax. And the idea of a speech act can be used to understand activities such as walking or cooking.

There is an argument with Foucault and his work in Discipline and Punish... In that book the micro physics of power is explained in some detail, but which networks and resources help people resist and evade the discipline offered by institutions? The disciplinary functions in institutions are deflected by tactics: the participants offer an anti-discipline. We need to understand the logic of these practices, the rules they obey. Some examples are collected in this work -- by readers, urban users, those who engage in everyday rituals, or use memory, or interact in families, or while cooking.

There is a need to review some famous work on the unconscious in Bourdieu, some on anthropological bricolage, some on ethnomethodology, and some on formal logics of action. The ordinary uses of language are important. It is difficult to study these matters because they are so fleeting and dispersed. Consuming activity, for example, is widespread but little studied: and it is 'unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolized' (xvii). The notion of tactics lends a 'political dimension to everyday practices'.  Consumers develop their own erratic 'trajectories', 'unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths'. These cannot be described by formal analysis, including statistics. They feature bricolage and discursivenss, and lack the homogeneity required by analysis.

There is a difference between strategies and tactics. Strategies require a subject (an enterprise or city and so on) separated from an environment. They also require a 'proper' place [later described as a regularized, rule governed, institutionalized location] from which to generate relations with an exterior (their competitors or clients and so on). Strategies lie behind political and economic rationality. Tactics, on the other hand, have no 'proper' localization, and are not strongly separated from the other. Indeed, they often take place in the territory of the other. They are opportunistic, always on the watch, and involve combining disparate elements to gain a momentary advantage.

Lots of everyday practices are tactical in this sense. They often involve victories of the week over the strong, via 'clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, manoeuvres...'(xix). These in turn are based on really ancient, maybe even natural survival techniques. It might be possible to classify tactics according to classifications of rhetorical techniques.

The point for the observer is to describe these tactics without taking them over and packaging them in terms of some general theory. Reading, for example, looks passive, but it is an activity, a 'silent production', involving improvisation, the use of memory to connect elements from other texts, or activities such as skipping. The world of the author is really only 'rented' by readers (xxi). Reading is as mobile as conversation.

Everyday practices are about spaces, for example about inhabiting spaces. Space is another accessible term, but an important one. It has a role in the increasing abstractions pursued by science as well [futurology is the rather odd example cited here -- I think this point makes more sense a bit lower down]. Science also offers combinations of formal discourses and 'ancient tricks', masquerading as methods -- these are tactical too.

We need to rescue the individual from their absence and from systems, which is a political problem again and we need to rescue social relations too. The hero here is the 'man without qualities' [the title of a famous novel by Musil. I have always read this as a critique of the modern soulless bureaucrat or narcissist, but de Certeau reminds us that this character is also a sensible pragmatist, seeking happiness from what is available, and in the accumulation of small pleasures. I still think he's a prat!].

Chapter IV

This chapter is about Foucault and Bourdieu, and how they connect the everyday to notion such as ideology and habitus. The critique begins by denying the originality of authorship, including de Certeau’s own originality: there is always a network of writings, and influences are not easily accessed -- for example, some work contradicts an unacknowledged author.

Foucault's work suggests that everyday procedures are not always articulated in discourse. So what is the relation between these procedures and discourse? If we look at Discipline... we find an example of the colonization of reformist projects. The struggle against the feudal regime is materially assisted by techniques, and practicalities, and details. These matters are described as a semi-autonomous force. Similarly, one effect arises from the construction of special spaces in prisons, via practices such as 'gridding': these activities are duplicated in the social sciences. Again, these important practices are non-discursive.

In his more general work, on archaeology, Foucault selects from a number of social activities and then traces these back in order to explain them. For example, we get the optical and panoptical procedures dominating the account, which somehow emerge from a huge mass of detailed policies and plans. But what privileges these particular procedures? What about all the others that did not go on to generate powerful discourses? Foucault tells us that these other practices are innumerable, [and denies some common ways of suggesting how particular ones emerge as dominant -- in marxism, for example]. Foucault himself imposes a coherence. There is no reason why these omitted procedures could not colonize the established ones -- surely the development of institutions shows the effects of these other non-discursive practices, once they're established?Disciplinary procedures are given their proper place in Foucault, but what about the displaced ones?

Bourdieu, like Foucault, seems to need distant examples in order to clarify current French practices [in his Outline of a Theory of Practice, which is the text being discussed here. Bourdieu begins by discussing his own field work in Kabylia -- Algeria -- and then generalises his theory of practice. I think this is a clever point by de Certeau, though, and it is developed in more detail below. To be brutal about this, the argument is that exotic and foreign examples are needed because they seem to be so external and objective to the theory -- the theorist can then innocently use these as examples to validate the theory. The true connection is that the theory is closely involved in the description of these examples in the first place, as we shall see].

The notion of habitus is based on this anthropology too, as an abstraction from it. The analysis then tries to use anthropology to generate sociological theory, and in the process admits that which is impenetrable and exterior, anything which is unknowable. The analysis cleverly shows how the interiors of Kabylian dwellings come to represent social order, a problem for orthodox sociology. This involves both analysis of the data and the construction of a theory.

What Bourdieu does is to isolate 'strategies' from his descriptions [for example, the way certain ambiguities in the official calendar can be exploited to serve the interests of dominant groups].This is of course an abstraction, which assumes that relationships between families and their environments and texts are the same in every case. What is really happening is that practitioners themselves are concealing the specific differences in order to help the observer clarify [which is a point Bourdieu makes himself, explaining how participants do much of the work in reconciling their statements with theoretical categories].

Other variability is also lost. For example, the basic principles of a marriage are not binding, so some degree of tolerance and variability must exist, and there are several other cases where explicit rules are limited, and traditions can be played off against each other -- 'like students maintaining a high grade point average' (54).Strategies arise when people choose among traditions: these are never simply 'applied'.[Again, this is all in Bourdieu 's own account]. What Bourdieu does is to go on and abstract useful properties from these traditions and rules, such as their substitutability, or the way they may be used in analogies (long seen as the basis of creative thought, hardly needing to be discovered from fieldwork). Apparently, underlying principles govern strategies, such as the needs to maximize wealth or preserve the body, and again these are associated with the interior 'place’ or habitation.

Are these principles always uniformly related to actual practices? Bourdieu manages deviant cases by insisting that tactics always have to be properly grounded in wealth or the maintenance of the body: in this way he glosses anomalous practices. He has a strange definition of strategies as well, insisting that these are not deployed in a calculating manner but through a set of assumptions [which is where habitus comes in]. This is 'a cleverness which does not recognize itself as such' (56), and is a way of going back to traditional ethnography where action was understood as unconscious, coherent, and repetitive, based on roots ('places'), which can only be discovered by the ethnographer following theoretical abstraction.

Bourdieu simply omits the issue of how structures lead to practices. There are lots of assumptions here generally -- that objective structures can only be uncovered by sociological discourse, for example. Bourdieu manages to deny both sociological determinism and the idea of a calculating subject, so he has to revert to mechanisms in the sociology of education to explain how structures actually work -- through knowledge acquisition, the interiorisation of structures, and then the exteriorisation of the results of learning in the habitus. This invisible habitus is responsible for subsequent action, rather than specific processes.

This process involves a movement from structure, which is a sociological construct, to habitus, an assumed reality, to the interpretation of observed facts. Foreign examples assist here in lending this model coherence -- in this specific case, some kind of primeval habitus is supposed to be detected, represented in the dwelling of the Kabylia. This poses as a concrete illustration, but Bourdieu focuses mostly on its form rather than its content, since its main role is to illustrate the general theory. No doubt it helps generate further research, too! (59).[It is worth pointing out that Bourdieu replies to many of these criticisms, mostly by denying them, in his later work Pascalian Meditations. See also his meditations on methodology, or rather on understanding]. 

So instead of a concrete examination of tactics, we get some 'violently imposed truths', and instead of complexity, dogmatic reason. This is a way of domesticating the impact of tactics on theory -- they are either subsumed under normal rationality, or declared as a matter for the unconscious. In fact, a serious attention to tactics would offer a real challenge to scientific theory. Tactics proliferate and resist classification. They are singular and unconscious. Bourdieu is torn between acknowledging complexity and adhering to sociology, and has to resort to tactics himself, including the very common one of 'affirming... the contrary of what he knows' (60). Instead of telling us about the Kabylia en route to the concept of habitus, he might have told us about his own scientific dogmatism instead!

Chapter V

Several theorists have tried to offer a discourse on nondiscursive practices. This is usually been managed by interrogating a limited field of activity, but that always leaves a remainder, something excluded by theory and method. The process of application of theories is rather like following a recipe in cooking.

Turning to Foucault and Bourdieu again, both isolate a field of foreign objects, Panoptical procedures or Kabylian strategies. These are assumed to be a metonym for practices as a whole. The notion of a field is then used to illuminate the theory. The exhaustive nature of details gathered from different sources illustrates universality for Foucault. The notion of habitus for Bourdieu shows an apparent single principle for all the examples. The principles of construction of the theory are then forgotten, although they are really the same as for the ones studied.

For Durkheim and Freud, there is a similar attempt to isolate a foreign and primitive place (Australia for Durkheim, and the unconscious for Freud). These areas were literally foreign to them too -- Durkheim never visited Australia (and Marx never visited a factory). This is a classic 'figure of modernity' (64) -- those foreign places are familiar and ever-present now, yet they were once far away, secret, and to be theorized.

There seems to be a classic procedure for all theory: 'methods' have to be found to domesticate something that is foreign, to impose the 'fundamental schema of a discourse' (65). Methodological 'know how' is involved, involving a certain ingenious knowledge or craft. Attempts to describe it have taken a number of forms, such as the distinction between art and science [below]. However, the area has been left largely unexamined, certainly when compared to discourses or to the elaborate hermeneutics practised on texts. The same goes for 'practice' as opposed to theory. Theory emerges at the top of a hierarchy of ways of knowing, usually on the basis that it is more 'reflexive', although such reflection is still very limited [couldn't agree more, especially in educational theory, which features a very rapid retreat to the 'practical' or the immediately 'relevant'].

The old distinctions between art and science, which used to carry this discussion, are no less helpful, because art also has a set of abstract techniques which can even be mechanized. Non-technical arts have been devalued, although they are still there, invisible, a remainder.

The key technique to manage and domesticate is narrative, which once led to the dominance of literary knowledge as the key to understanding. Literary knowledge is a good example of privileged knowledge that is in fact unstatable, a matter of discernment or taste [this literary aesthetic is also apparent in the works of Foucault and Bourdieu? And in the work of de Certeau too?].

Freudian analysis assumes some privileged knowledge, which is supposed to appear through symptoms, and which can only be discovered by science, not an ordinary consciousness. This too is characteristic of modern theory, which involves looking at and showing. It is often contrasted favourably to the uncodified 'know how' of artisans. This claim is also found in Kant's exaltation of 'judgment'-- an apparent balance between science and know- how, between concrete experience and universal principles. However, such balance and judgment is found commonly in it every day life too, as in the practice of 'la perruque’ [literally, a cosmetic wig. The term originated to describe the practice of workmen using the bosses' time and materials to create goods of their own .De Certeau uses the term much more widely, to include any practice of 'poaching' from an employer -- using company envelopes for your own mail, for example]. This practice is also a combination of moral freedom, aesthetic creation, and practical art.

Since Kant, aesthetics has slowly become isolated and codified, and the discipline gradually becomes a matter of relating theory to practice. [Such relations always subordinate and marginalize practice -- as de Certeau says, the last stage is to try and develop a theory of practice, precisely as do Foucault and Bourdieu].

Chapter VI

Practice as an activity in its own right gradually slips from attention, and becomes merely a source of data to be explained by theory, often via this pantomime of originating somewhere else. Practice itself is rarely analyzed, except in the form of a statement about it by someone, a narration. These narrations:

(a) Organize the construction of objects, but are taken as objects for theory themselves

(b) Are integral to the theory of practices, not just 'evidence' or 'case studies',or some remainder outside discourse. We need to revalue the structure of folk tales, and the 'art of speaking', not as something Other to theory, but as a variant of a 'discourse that knows and an authority in what concerns theory' (78).

Narrations of this kind are linked to practical operations too --'the same practices appear now in a verbal field, now in a field of non-linguistic actions' (78). Narrations therefore are never just descriptive, but involve the creation of 'fictional space' (79), which helps people escape from, and 'balance with' the present. For example, people tell proverbs or a story to make a point, as part of an art of saying. Such utterances are not to be taken literally. Foucault happens to be very good at this technique too, using rhetoric and description -- ‘he makes what he says appear evident to the public he has in view' (79). He pretends to be not there, he pretends to be 'eclipsed by the erudition and the taxonomies that [his theory] manipulates' (80). Theory as well as folk tales clearly show a link between narratives and tactics.

Detienne [who he?] has collected and admired such folk stories. He claims there are no deeper meanings in them, nothing 'outside'. Instead of theorizing about them, in some 'museogeographical alteration', he recites stories instead (80). Storytellers get lost in their stories, but they also actively interpret them. A basic intelligence is uncovered in these stories, sleights of hand, flair, sagacity, the use of stratagems and so on. Stories are always related to the situation of the moment. They can take on disguise, using masks and metaphors, to undo the properness of place [to appear innocent, yet turn out to be sneakily critical]. Good stories also aim at the invisibility of their practice [de Certeau also refers to the ‘recit’ here. Film buffs might know this as a common form of French cinema, where an off-camera voice tells a story which is illustrated by the images and action that we see -- try The Hairdresser's Husband. As with much off-screen commentary, of course, it is not really innocent description that we're getting, but interpretation]. These techniques are designed to produce a maximum of effects, as an aesthetic. A great deal of experience is important in storytelling, involving the ability to link the story with other elements stored in memory (and in the memories of the audience). Experience is used to multiply the possibilities [to embellish in ways the audience can understand, to develop additional points, to add notes of humour or other emotions, to make things relevant -- sounds exactly like a description of good teaching to me].  [NB This is the kind of narrative that Lyotard sees as heavily undermined in public life?]

There are important qualitative dimensions to telling effective stories as well: memory can alter space, and destabilize equilibrium. Memory can disestablish order, since it is invisible and thus escapes power. Local order can be disrupted [there are some rather odd examples here, apparently indicating how past knowledge can disrupt present social relations, or refer to miracles, transforming moments from the past, with destabilizing effects. I found it hard to think of some homely examples of this of my own. Maybe it is the sort of thing that happens when aged relatives bring out some memory of the past which reduces the authority of the present generation, or when people recall the humble origins of great rulers in their presence -- whispering about Caesar's mortality in the great man's ear?] The introduction of memory completes the tactical repertoire of a story teller, permitting them to take advantage of an opportunity to transform. Memory is always active in this way, and constantly on the watch for opportunities of this kind [remembering precedents in arguments about power relations seems to be hinted at here, or remembering past promises that have not been kept, possibly, or reminding present rulers of their past obligations?]. In this way, story tellers can gain authority even though they have no power (87).

Tactical moves of this kind display:

(a) alteration, in that they are essentially other, secret, something which is allowed to emerge, something operative in relationships. This otherness is killed by institutionalization in 'proper places', [with official records?] The example here is the power of repartee [the example I thought of was the marvellous power of hecklers to disrupt the smooth patter of politicians by introducing topics that they have not scripted].

(d) singularity, in that memory provides a number of possible fragments, each one of which acts as a metonym [which individualizes storytelling and also makes it impossible to script or contain?] The amount of detail provides power to the storyteller.

(c) mobility, where memory provides the opportunity for movement, as when a recalled fragment is able to mobilize a whole ensemble of knowledge and emotions [in another homely example, I thought of occasions where I have been thrown off course myself in the middle of a lecture, say, by being reminded that I have told the same joke before, which immediately denaturalizes my approach, and reveals some of the artifice in it].

The maintenance of a proper place means meant that memory and time must be controlled, for example by 'scientific writing' (89). But stories haunt science as well as every day life. Tricks of the storyteller include reversing the significance of the story by the inclusion of one detail [the only example I can think of right away is a rather literary one, Balzac's Sarrasine, which, as Barthes remind us, uses a number of clever devices to convince the main victim in the story that the object of his love is a woman, only to reveal finally that the ‘woman’ is a castrato -- the 'detail' of the castration immediately changes everything and turns the romantic love story into a farce. Turning to sociology, I have heard colleagues 'go through the motions' of giving a 'fair' account of the work of Althusser, and then end with innocently including the 'detail' that he had killed his wife. Unsurprisingly, it is that detail that students tend to remember, and they give it great importance in evaluating Althusser’s work]. An effective story is able to 'compose harmonies... doing it by surprise' (90) . [There is a strong implication here, of course that these tricks are found in scientific writing too, maybe in the work of the sociological theorists discussed earlier on. De Certeau also reminds us that pulling off these rhetorical tricks is a source of pleasure in its own right, and may even be the central pleasure in academic writing]..

Chapter VII Walking in the City

This piece offers both a poetic and a semiotic analysis, and can be seen as an extension to the famous work on the flaneur -- although this is about ordinary people rather than those extraordinary academics and bourgeois who got pleasure from wandering around cities looking at people, but never communicating with them.

The story begins with looking down on the city of New York from the top of the World Trade Centre, and enjoying the pleasures of seeing the city laid out below. The pleasures are voyeuristic ones, of course, and this leads de Certeau to speculate that any such holistic perspective trying to look down on life and to map it neatly as a whole is equally voyeuristic. Obviously, this includes using some abstract general theory in social science to understand every day life. You need to get down onto the street itself, to get a perspective of the city as most people see it

The pedestrians on the streets down below read the city as a text, but, crucially they also write it. They do not have a single map or picture of the city but a series of ‘migrational metaphors’ for it, which change as they actually walk. As with the city, so with the State, which likewise is not seen in some simple holistic terms but as a conglomeration of properties. 

Every day understanding is managed by speculative and classificatory operations. These always generate contradictions, as social extremes are encountered, for example. They are impossible to administer rationally, consisting of 'ruses and combinations of power'  (page 156). Thus the apparent decay of the city, seen from above by politicians and administrators  (and academics) is not supported by the people who actually live or walk in it. 

This offers the reciprocal of Foucault's analysis of the mechanisms of top-down power. However, space and spatial practices are equally important in coming to understand everyday life, which can elude power and discipline  [we can start see this by using spatial metaphors like 'keeping your distance'  from authority, or 'trying to find your own space'. Buchanan (2000) also suggests that the spatial metaphor refers to particular positions in time as well].. 

As you walk through the city you weave spaces together in a subjective way: this can never be captured objectively, say by drawing maps to trace journeys, since it is the experience of walking or ‘passing by’ that counts. Maps are typical forms of fixation of the flux of everyday life, which try to pin it down by abstracting heavily from it.

There is a rhetoric of walking, so that all walkers actually articulate sentences using a series of signifiers, although this is often done unconsciously (as when one finds oneself unconsciously drawn to particular circuits of city streets or locations in cities). Planners give areas of the city names in an attempt to make them signify in their discourses, but walkers and users take these over, so that a 'poetic geography'  emerges on top of the objective one.  [An example that occurs to me here is finding so many monuments to revolutionary activities dotted around Paris. Whereas the students I was with saw no particular significance in these, walking from the site of the Bastille past the Monument to the 1848 revolution and then to the monuments commemorating those killed in the 1830 revolution had considerable significance for me, resonating with all sorts of political sentiments, and also enabling me to confirm the French history I had learned while at school]. Official names and plans therefore become taken over by new signifiers.

This sort of self centred and often unconscious process of significations can be displaced and condensed, as in dreams.  [Buchanan goes on to pursue the issue of what is being wished for in these travelling and walking dreams, and finally concludes that it is a rather strange dance with the notion of otherness that is at the source of pleasure here]. De Certeau also refers to the role of 'legends' which once offered a series of 'habitable spaces' but which 'places nowadays lack' (160). Travel can replace such lost legends in one's own vicinity, offering 'an exploration of the deserted places of my memory' [ an unattributed quote in de Certeau here], or a 'return to nearby exoticism by way of a detour through distant places' (160). Walking is a kind of 'story', composed of 'debris...leftovers...fragments of scattered semantic places...combined with  things extra and other' (160) These interrupt the accepted  framework and order, which 'leaks... meaning: it is a sieve order' (160). [Further, signifying practices like these can even 'invent spaces' -- one of my own examples here refers to the ways in which elderly inhabitants in my home town still offer strangers directions in terms of buildings that were demolished in the late 1940s!]. 


Buchanan I (2000) Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist, London: Sage

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