The Practice of Everyday Life  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
The Practice of Everyday Life is a book by Michel de Certeau which examines the ways in which people individualise mass culture, altering things, from utilitarian objects to street plans to rituals, laws and language, in order to make them their own. It was originally published in French as L'invention du quotidien. Vol. 1, Arts de faire' (1980). The 1984 English translation is by Steven Rendall. The book is one of the key texts in the study of everyday life.

The Practice of Everyday Life re-examines related fragments and theories from Kant and Wittgenstein to Bourdieu, Foucault and Détienne, in the light of a proposed theoretical model. Some consider it as being enormously influential in pushing cultural studies away from producer/product to the consumer.

Introductory Chapter

The Practice of Everyday Life begins by pointing out that while social science possesses the ability to study the traditions, language, symbols, art and articles of exchange that make up a culture, it lacks a formal means by which to examine the ways in which people reappropriate them in everyday situations.

This is a dangerous omission, Certeau argues, because in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.

With no clear understanding of such activity, social science is bound to create nothing other than a picture of people who are non-artists (meaning non-creators and non-producers), passive and heavily subject to received culture. Indeed, such a misinterpretation is borne out in the term "consumer". In the book, the word "user" is offered instead; the concept of "consumption" is expanded in the phrase "procedures of consumption" which then further transforms to "tactics of consumption".

In the book, ordinary life is depicted as a constant, subconscious struggle against the institutions competing to assimilate the everyday man [person]. The chief aim of Practice is to compile a vocabulary of concepts, questions, and perspectives that would make possible the formal discussion of the everyday "tactical" activities which lie hidden behind the cloak of conformity.

The Main Concepts

Certeau defines two kinds of behaviour, the strategic and the tactical. He takes the terms out of their military context and injects them with new meaning. He describes institutions in general as "strategic" and everyday people who are non-producers as "tactical".

A strategy is an entity that is recognised as an authority – it may be anything from an institution or a commercial outfit to an individual whose behaviour coincides with the author's proposed definition of "strategic". A strategy may enjoy status as the dominant order, or be sanctioned by the powers that be. It manifests itself physically in its site/s of operations (offices/headquarters) and in its products (laws, language, rituals, commercial goods, literature, art, inventions, discourse). It has use of dedicated resources, and is expected to incur considerable overheads. Because it represents an enormous investment in space (actual buildings and assets) and time (its own history, traditions), its ways are set. It cannot be expected to be capable of breaking up and regrouping easily, something which a tactical model does naturally. In other words, a strategy is relatively inflexible because it is embedded in its "proper", its "spatial or institutional localization".

The goal of a strategy is to perpetuate itself through the things that it makes. Maximum efficiency means being able to sell the narrowest array of products to the widest possible market. Thus its concerns are mass production and the homogenising of its audience. Besides creating its products, it may work by creating its market (by creating uniformity and need). Uniformity is of benefit to a strategy. Therefore, it is engaged in the work of systematising, of imposing order.

The strategy is capable of defining itself as producer/manufacturer as opposed to user, and has only indirect contact with its audience. Its input from users may come from polls, focus groups, and case studies while its contact with the outside world might come in the form of advertising and public relations campaigns.

Certeau’s tactical model describes individuals or groups which are fragmented in terms of space and maintain no specific site of operation (no headquarters), but who are capable of swiftly combining according to a current necessity. Therefore, necessity spurs a tactic into existence, while with a strategy, need is a thing that might have to be created after the product.

With no ownership of dedicated resources, a tactic manages to be lean compared to a strategy. It is essentially makeshift in nature and cannot rely on a proper; instead, it depends on a gift economy, on time (it waits for resources it does not own or did not make to go idle), and on loopholes; it will infiltrate but will not try to take over. The last detail is a feature that distinguishes it from guerrilla warfare. A tactic does not seek to win or take over. It does not engage in sabotage. Alert to its status as the weak, it makes no attempt to take a strategy on, but seeks to fulfill its needs behind an appearance of conformity.

Aware that the things around it have been created to cater to the lowest common denominator, it expects to have to work on things in order to make them its own, or to make them "habitable". Its products are not necessarily objects (e.g. they may be as invisible and personal as the alteration of a story during the process of reading, or of a recipe while cooking). The tactic manifests itself not in its products but in its methodology. It might be performed by an individual or a transient grouping that does not last long enough to require a label. Unlike the strategy, it lacks the centralised structure and permanence that would enable it to set itself up as a competitor to some other entity.

Certeau says that the tactic’s diffuse form does two things: it effectively deflects a strategy’s influence, and it renders its own activities an "unmappable" form of subversion. He pointed out that in its slipperiness lies a good deal of its power. This occurs through the unconscious ways people try to make things like books and city street systems "habitable" in their minds. Social science, or science in general, cannot hope to be able to map tactical activity, but it can try at least to make its formal discussion possible.

Bibliography

  • de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984
  • Cummings, Neil. Reading Things, Chance Books, London 1993
  • Giard, Luce. Keynote Speech at Victoria and Albert Museum for Civiccentre, 15 April 2003


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Practice of Everyday Life" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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