De Certeau, M. (1984): The Practice of Everyday Life


Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

Undoubtedly Michel de Certeau as one of the most important intellectuals and cultural theorists is largely known for his two-volume work L’Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) on contemporary popular cultural practices. In this remarkable work, de Certeau attempts to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society is concealed through the term ‘consumers’. By making explicit the systems of operational combination which also compose a culture, he claims those status do not necessarily mean that they are either passive or docile.

Throughout his work, de Certeau openly criticizes Foucault’s instrumental power relations, presenting an account of individuals (agents) and seeking to shadow Foucault’s analysis of the microphysics of power. For Foucault power relations spread within society and power can be found in everywhere unexpectedly, as mechanized actions, knowledge and practices in daily life. On this basis, Foucault focuses precisely on details of social practices in order for analyzing power.  Whilst Foucault sees merely passive consumers at the mercy of structural forces and necessarily portrays power as absolutely productive and repressive, which allow no possibility for individuals to resist it, de Certeau wants consumers to be active users who ‘make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules.’ (de Certeau, xiv). Thus de Certeau brought focus on complexity of power relations through criticizing Foucauldian one dimensional flow of power.

Further, de Certeau analyzes the procedures, effects, bases and possibilities that individuals use everyday in order to overthrow the disciplining powers. And he presents clandestine forms taken through the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of individuals or groups who seek to destroy structural forms of discipline and compose the network of an anti-discipline. On this basis, de Certeau makes a distinction between tactics and strategies. He explains strategy as the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power can be isolated from an environment. Strategies are actions which elaborate theoretical places capable of articulating an ensemble of physical places in which forces distributed. Tactics, on the other hand, is explained by de Certeau, as a calculus which cannot count on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. Whilst strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that establishment of a place offers to the erosion of time, tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. In this respect, the difference between these two historical options made regarding action and security (de Certeau, xvii).

Among the anti-disciplinary everyday practices (talking, cooking, walking, dwelling, etc.) analyzed by de Certeau, reading is considered as particularly significant. As noted by de Certeau, reading seems to constitute the maximal development of passivity assumed to characterize the consumer. In essence, the activity of reading, for de Certeau, is a silent production without capitalizing and without taking control over time. Further de Certeau use the rented apartment metaphor (renters make changes in an apartment they furnish it with their memories and acts) in order to show how individuals have ability to interpret the text beyond its dominant meaning which has been decided by ones (such as the author) who create and monopolize the readings.

Additionally, in the 1980s and 1990s, de Certeau’s works gained fame in a number of fields, particularly in media and popular culture studies, most notably the notion of ‘consumers’ engaged in ‘cultural and textual poaching’ later developed in the highly influential work of Henry Jenkins and John Fiske. By demonstrating various ways in which poaching shifts from a tactic of reading to a tactic of time and calling these as ‘clever tricks of the weak’, de Certeau influences Fiske’s discussions upon poaching as a resistance strategy for the individual in Understanding Popular Culture.

Significantly, too, de Certeau has also analyzed theoretically the issue that of individuals or audiences are not merely passive and manipulated consumers since they have power either through accepting or resisting the power relations. This analysis follows Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication (1980) which explains that the dominant ideology is usually inscribed as the preferred reading within a text, but the readers do not adopt them automatically. By proposing a model of mass communication which emphasized the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes, Hall demonstrated that the social situations of readers may lead them to adopt different stances toward media texts. In this context, he came up with there ways to read the mass media text. The first one is dominant readings in which the reader completely favors preferred reading in a way the author intended, making the code transparent and natural. The second one is negotiated readings that of the reader partly believes the code and broadly accepts the preferred reading. Lastly, oppositional readings are produced by the readers whose social position places them into direct conflict or oppositional relation with the preferred reading and the dominant code, thus readers do not necessarily accept such codes but they reject the reading.


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