The Practice of Everyday Life

The Practice of Everday Life by Michel de Certeau offers a philosophical investigation of a variety of quotidian activities including walking, cooking and reading.  The bulk of the investigation involves ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy,’ two terms which de Certau has poached from military discourse and repurposed to refer to the cultural production of those with and without power.  These twinned ideas have changed the way I look at culture.

Drawing on Foucault’s theory of power, de Certeau argues that strategy is “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from “environment.” A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus serve as the basis for generating relations” (1984, p.xix). Publishing, broadcasting, advertising, product design, scientific claims and urban planning are all strategies. Their defining feature is that they achieve permanence by taking control of space (be it a city block or a page). The ‘proper’ is “a triumph of place over time” (De Certeau, 1984, p.36). A strategy attempts to define the meaning of something by asserting it in a way that will be visible both in the present, but also in the future; they “pin their hopes on the resistance that the establishment of a place offers to the erosion of time” (De Certeau, 1984, p.38-39).

Tactics on the other hand are “the art of the weak” (De Certeau, 1984, p.37). Tactics “cannot count on a “proper” … A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance… “(De Certeau, 1984, p.xix). Tactics include how one truly feels about patriotic symbols, how person reacts to the assertions of political advertisements and the emotional and very personal reaction one has while reading a book or listening to music. Whereas strategies make a mark upon space which persists, tactics are always washed away by time. If I sit on the curb, I am making the sidewalk into a bench, but as soon as I get up it reverts to its ‘authorized’ purpose. “Whatever [a tactic] wins, it does not keep” (De Certeau, 1984, p.xix, p.37). A more significant example is the use of Spanish Christian symbols by native people in South America. The Spanish sought to impose their culture upon the natives, they built churches and forced to partake in their rituals, but the natives simply interpreted them differently; they worshiped their own gods within the cathedrals (De Certeau, 1984, p.xiii).
De Certeau teaches us that ‘culture’ is not always what it seems to be. Documents and monuments from South America after the Spanish conquest indicate a Christian culture was predominant when, in fact, it was the culture of a minority. The strategic culture is not eroded by time, because of the way it has captured different spaces. Those who produce objects and media can control meaning in a way that those who only consume cannot. However, consumption produces culture in its own way. Those who produce objects and text cannot control the culture produced in the minds of their recipients. De Certeau says “”this is a kind of production, … but a hidden one, because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of “production”” (1984, p.xii). De Certeau argues that as culture came to be mass produced, “the steadily increasing expansion of [systems of cultural production] no longer leaves “consumers” any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems” (1984, p.xii). De Certeau implies that, by the 1980s, consumer culture had nearly monopolized the space available for expression. However, because space is effectively unlimited on the internet, it is now much more difficult for cultural industries to obtain a monopoly on space and drive out alternative interpretations of the objects and media they produce. As a result, tactics and strategy begin to interact in new and interesting ways.

The preceding paragraphs were from a paper I recently wrote on de Certeau and the internet, if you’d like to read it, please feel free to send me an email.

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The Practice of Everday Life was published in French in 1980 and translated into English in 1984.  It includes the word ‘spoor’ which I had to look up.

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About Matthew Lie - Paehlke

Matthew Lie-Paehlke is a PhD student in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto.
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