Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

[First published in NYU English Dept. Research Group on Transnational Everyday Life.]

This is a partial review of Michel de Certeau’s book, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) which is divided into five parts – the first two parts set out the general theoretical premise of the book and the next three parts look into certain everyday practices.

In the introduction to the book, de Certeau explains that his project is to find out how the individual users transform and appropriate the dominant, rational mode of productions in the modern society. The words ‘user’ and ‘producer’ are used to denote two groups of people in the modern economy: one who produce and the other who consume. The dominant economicmichel_de_certeau order, according to de Certeau, imposes its rational order and employs coercive disciplinary techniques to make the users conform to the demands of institutional power. It might appear that the ordinary people or consumers merely obey the dominant rational order. However, de Certeau suggests that consumers’ “ways of operating” create a “network of antidiscipline” (xiv-xv) through which the marginal groups and individuals tacticallychallenge the strategies of the dominant groups of producers. Marginality in this context means the cultural activity of the non-producers of culture. The words ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ borrowed from military activity are used to refer to the practices of the dominant (producer) and dominated (consumer) groups respectively. If ‘strategy’ is marked by an impulse of rational ordering, ‘tactics’ denotes the creative subversion of the rational order.

De Certeau’s theory of everyday practices operates on the principle of recovering the ordinary man who has been reduced into the generality of a mass. The capitalist system reduces the individuals into mass-consumers who “were the first to be subjected to the framework of leveling rationalities” (1). Citing Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, he argues that even though Freud started his psychoanalytical work with the individual human beings, in his later works the individual is made part of the mass. In both of these works, the individual merely serves to validate his argument about the masses. In Freud’s work, the distinction between the ordinary man and the enlightened one carry the seeds of a distinction between the ‘producer’ and the ‘consumer.’ Commenting on the difference between the expert/philosopher and the ordinary man, de Certeau notes how the expert assumes authority over the masses not by virtue of his knowledge but for the place from where he speaks. The separating out of a proper place (propre) suggests the strategy of the dominant socio-economic order in a society. If the ‘producers’ function by means of carving out a place of reason and order, the resistance offered by the dominated groups operate on a principle of temporality by seizing fleeting opportunities that arise from time to time. Thus, if the ‘producers’ look for spatial domination (for example, the army walling itself off from its surroundings), the ‘consumers’ subvert this dominant order through temporal tactics (for example, a guerilla warfare).

De Certeau opposes the claims of the experts/philosophers that their language bestows legitimacy to common everyday language. Citing Wittgenstein’s study of everyday language, he claims that there is no place outside of the everyday language. We are all “caught” in common linguistic historicity. Being “caught” in ordinary language, the philosopher no longer has his own appropriable place (propre) that could serve as a position of mastery: “The analyzing discourse and the analyzed “object” are in the same situation: both are organized by the practical activity with which they are concerned, both are determined by rules they neither establish nor see clearly, equally scattered in differentiated ways of working…Philosophical or scientific privilege disappears into the ordinary” (11). This revisionist philosophy of language suggests that truth is a matter of a privileged place in a socio-economic order. The expert/philosopher claims truth by imposing order on the common everyday language that is entangled in its everyday context. Thus, one must look into the ensemble of everyday practices in which one is implicated, into the forms of language that are markers of different modes of functioning governed by pragmatic rules.

De Certeau draws on Emile Benveniste’s concept of “enunciation,” Austin’s analysis of performative utterances, A.J. Greimas’ “semiotics of manipulation” in order to propound a theory of everyday practice. Making a distinction between the entire field of language, or a linguistic system (langue) and the individual’s performative, contextual utterance (parole), he suggests that the everyday practice of language differs from the whole linguistic system by virtue of its creativity. The opacity of everyday language resists the technocratic transparency of langue. Everyday practices of language “indicate a social historicity in which systems of representations or processes of fabrication no longer appear only as normative frameworks but also as tools manipulated by users” (21). Once this theory of everyday language is extended to the sphere of culture, we find that the everyday practices are marked by a trickery that resists the order of a rational economic system. A prominent example of this is le perruque (25) in which the worker tricks the employee into thinking that he is working for the company whereas he is doing his own work using the space and time of the company.

The concept le perruque helps de Certeau to explain how a place of work could be turned into a space of enjoyment, that is the productivist logic of the spatial separation between office, workshop, or theatres could be challenged through “transverse tactics” (29). Since such tactics do not obey the rule of the place, they are non-localizable. The ‘strategy’ of abstract rational modeling as in the cases of city-panning is often resisted by the ‘tactical’ use of space by the practitioners (for example, Bourdieu’s study of the Kabylia dwelling practices in the suburbs of Paris. The abstract modeling is modified by actual North African dwelling practices). The abstract planning ignores the actual practices of city dwellers who actualize the space in their dwelling, walking etc. The singular individual writes the actual city while a panoramic view from the top of the World Trade Center merely enables one to grasp an abstract mastery of space. The individual walkers in the city modify and reappropriate the city-space in diverse ways: “…one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated and eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization” (96).

While acknowledging his debt to both Foucault and Bourdieu for theorizing everyday practices, de Certeau is nevertheless is critical of both of them. He points out that Foucault while foregrounding certain procedures that operate through panoptic apparatuses and that win for them a discursive power ignores other ‘minor’ procedures which are active in innumerable ways without a proper place (proper) of their own. Moreover, the ““polytheism” of scattered practices” (48) has in them the ability to displace the dominant procedures. De Certeau’s project is to foreground these innumerable ‘minor’ everyday practices that resist and challenge the discursive regime imposed by the dominant strategies. Likewise Bourdieu while propounding a “theory of practice” in which the “practices shape the opaque reality” (51) commits the same symbolic violence (in terms of imposing categories of thought and perception on the dominated social agents) that he accuses others of doing: “The blanket of Bourdieu’s theory throws over tactics as if to put out their fire by certifying their amenability to socioeconomic rationality or as if to mourn their death by declaring them unconscious, should teach us something about their relationship with any theory” (59).

Though de Certeau’s book avoids a definition of the term, ‘everyday life’, it makes an important case about the manifestations of everyday life in the practices that people adopt. One wonders if de Certeau – anxious to empower the marginal ‘consumers’ in a capitalist society – is not resorting to bianarism in dividing the society between the ‘consumers’ and ‘producers.’ While advocating a new form of agonistic politics in place of antagonistic one (Bhabha’s formulation) in which the ‘producers’ and the ‘consumers’ are locked in a combat in the same terrain, he remains silent about how the tactics of the ‘consumers’ impact upon the strategies of the ‘producers.’ If they inhabit the same terrain, do they share a dialogic relation as opposed to the linear one suggested by de Certeau? Moreover, I had a hard time in understanding the relation between ‘tactics’ and ‘discourse.’ Are the ‘tactics’ of the consumers without any discourse?


De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

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