Michel de Certeau: The Practice of Everyday Life

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:52 pm)


The generalized aim of this book is to look at everyday life. DeCerteau’s aim is to examine ordinary people and uncover how the practice of living can be seen as a subversive activity. At a distance, this work can be seen to counter notions of technological determinism and promote the emergence of unpredicted behavior in controlled systems. Abstractly, popular culture exists in spite of constraints and limitations imposed upon it. This can be seen a guide to understanding the simulation of agents within a system, but also as a guide to seeing how humans might take ownership of products (such as software) and manipulate them to their own ends. This is important to consider in the sense of simulation or adaptation culture.


This may be a personal thing, but I need to state it somewhere, and the notes may be the best place for it: I find DeCerteau’s opening to sound rather pejorative. Also extremely ironic in his discussion of Wittgenstein and his claims that we must use common language to understand common people, when his language is anything but. On first read, it really seems like he is speaking in terms of objective examination of those prole “nobody”s who are strange anonymous beings who slink and hide within the shadows, unknown to all, even themselves. This may be an unreasonable interpretation, but it’s hard to see it within his language. It may just be the translation, or the fact that he comes from a line of obtuse French humanists, but it is nonetheless immensely strange given his aim to use popular language and uncover popular resistance.

DeCerteau opens by discussing the “everyman” or the “nobody” which is a kind of other. The philosophy of this is anonymity, a sort of being nothing. Simultaneously, the “everyman” is an omnipresent force since it is ubiquitous. There seems to be some mixed feeling towards this everyman, both exalting and pejorative. The ordinary man is noble in the struggle of existence against hostile systems, yet is base and ironic in vulgar simplicity. (p. 1-2)

DeCerteau turns to Freud and his analysis of the “ordinary man” in Civilization and its Discontents. It is tricky to generalize about the “ordinary man”, which seems to idolize ignorance and passivity. (p. 4) Who is an “ordinary man”? Is it you or me, the man in the street? etc?

Turning to “Experts”: These *seem* to be a kind of “ordinary man”, at least in DeCerteau’s supreme generalization of “experts”, in that they are anybody, nobody, just like the ordinary man. I think here he means to indicate them as oppressive forces. Experts use specialized knowledge and language to justify a position of superiority. The expert is a case of mistaken identity, who “confuses social place with technical discourse”. Experts are philosophers and scientists who attempt to explain common experience with specialized knowledge, that is not well suited for the task. Specialized knowledge is used to grant authority to experts. (p. 8)

On Wittgenstein: treats language from a perspective that is not compromised by historicity. We are constrained to language, without the ability to identify in it: “We are subject to, but not identified with, ordinary language. As in the ship of fools, we are embarked, without the possibility of aerial view or any sort of totalization.” In other words, we are bound to our understanding of the world via language. (p. 11) There is some concern about the ability to objectively discuss language while operating within a language. This is interesting, since this has been an element of mathematical logic for some time.

A theory of the ordinary is suggested: “The critical return of the ordinary, as Wittgenstein understands it, must destroy all the varieties of rhetorical brilliance associated with powers that heirarchize and with nonsense that enjoys authority.” thus, to understand ordinary language, we must approach it from within, using ordinary language? This makes us foreigners within our span of ordinary life. Ostensibly the objective of this is to make a critical science of the ordinary. That is meant to abstract and understand the ordinary in some cohesive terms. (p. 13)

DeCerteau turns to looking at history: Describing history in terms of facts and laws. The two mix and mingle, and become confused. One can influence the other in oppressive or subversive ways. (p. 16) An example is voodoo culture in Brazil, which uses superstition to subvert the fatality of the established order. “A (‘popular’) use of religion modifies its functioning.” But, popular culture is opaque, so it is hard to see just how. (p. 17-18)

Starting with proverbs, moving towards games, and then legends. These are all products of a society. In a sense, they are tools of a society, for education, and the promotion and maintenance of values. DeCerteau seems to be weaving a complex thread between social practices and their uses. Namely that the practices are sort of documents for their historical occurrences. (p. 20)

“To be memorized as well as memorable, they [games] are repertoires of schemas of action between partners. With the attraction that the element of surprise introduces, these mementos teach the tactics possible within a given (social) system.” This sounds a lot like role-learning, and relates to Barthes’ mythology. “Tales and legends seem to have the same role. They are deployed, like games, in a space outside of and isolated from daily competition, that of the past, the marvelous, the original. In that space can thus be revealed, dressed as gods or heroes, the models of good or bad ruses that can be used every day. Moves, not truths are recounted.” Tales and games are both used for this learning. In a developmental perspective, it is a form of education and practice. In a social perspective, it is a means of continuing and persisting social knowledge, tradition, and mythology. Often times, these operate not just within one culture, but in context of multiple cultures, with games and traditions of one designed to differentiate and protect against the influence of the other culture. (p. 23)
How does this instrumentalization occur?

DeCerteau transitions to analyzing the “art” of practicing speech, or practicing being in general. DeCerteau is wondering how this art is different, and how to study it. He then goes to talk at great length about the practice of “la perruque”, which is the French term for doing personal work on an employer’s time. This concept is fundamental to his later arguments, which use this idea of la perruque to explain how individuals use existing systems and infrastructure to carve out personal spaces within them. Popular practices, such as la perruque, are devices for turning the social order of a system towards popular ends. (p. 25)

La perruque “introduces artistic tricks and competitions of accomplices into a system that reproduces and partitions through work or leisure.” Essentially, it blurs the line between work and pleasure. La perruque can be applied to not only work, or imposed structures, but consumer infrastructure. (p. 29)

On using products, and looking at consumers: products are visible, but the use and actual interaction with products is much harder to understand. By transgressing onto the product, the consumer can carve out a niche of personal space and territory. (p. 31) DeCerteau is doing something interesting here, shifting the focus from a matter of what people consume, to rather what people make with what they consume. He implies that this reappropriation of things occurs at a significant scale. (p. 31)

On Sassure: The difference between langue and parole is that of system versus act. Langue is the system of language, but parole is the occurrence of speech, which uses language, but also hijacks language in many occasions. (p. 32) It is interesting to note that langue is not really an imposed structure, but it evolved and formed out of parole. It is less flexible, though, so acts as a lattice around which parole grows.

On Strategies and tactics: Strategy is a *calculation* of power relationships that become possible when a “subject with will and power” can be isolated. This implies a place where this subject and its power operate. (p. 36) A tactic is a calculated action that lacks a proper location. It operates in the space imposed from outside. “A tactic is an art of the weak.” (p. 37) Strategies are formations of planning, while tactics are the arts of emergence.

Strategy is essentially rule based and derived from patterns of logic, it equates very well with simulation. A simulation is a strategic instrument, since it imposes a creator’s will and an ordered rule based model onto a simulated world, promoting the model of the simulation cognitively. Simultaneously, tactics could be seen as emergent properties, generally exhibited by players, but potentially could be found within simulated agents themselves. Games like SimCity offer new perspectives, uncovering the strategies and infrastructures (which are normally concealed) that are present in everyday life.

A social simulation system would uncover the social strategies that are persistent in everday life, but also encourage tactical exploration for players. It would also make more transparent the various philosophical models of human interaction and cognition that could be expressed by such a system.

Reading Info:
Author/Editorde Certeau, Michel
TitleThe Practice of Everyday Life
Tagsdms, embodiment, marxism
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.