Nathalie Zemon Davis has given a very effective description of Certeau’s underlying intellectual and existential focus:
“Whether writing about madness and mysticism in the seventeenth century, South American resistance movements in the past and present, or the practice of everyday life in the twentieth century, Certeau developed a distinctive way of interpreting social and personal relations. … Certeau wanted to identify the creative and disruptive presence of "the other"—the outsider, the stranger, the alien, the subversive, the radically different—in systems of power and thought. … To be sure, notions of ‘otherness’ were cropping up in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Certeau was gaining prominence, but he was original in the multiple ways he conceived figures of the ‘other’ and how they functioned in many settings. He coined the term "heterologies" to describe disciplines in which we examine ourselves in relation to otherness; history and ethnography, for instance, could be ‘sciences of the other’ if they confront the often disfiguring assumptions we bring to our understanding of different times and places.”
Reflecting on the forms, expressions and meaning of “Experience” was at the core of Certeau’s research: what language do men shape and develop to give an account of what is impossible to express and yet cannot but be said, sung or cried out? How does “experience” coalesce into “institutions” that want to make it perennial and yet are prone to disfigure the initial intuition of the founder? How does our creativity in everyday life, regardless of the constraints to which we are submitted, flow from the roots of our inner experience and create new social configurations? As Marcel Mauss had done before him, Certeau was somehow looking for “total social facts” (fait social total), the study of which reconciles and transcends sociology, psychology and anthropology. Certeau’s quest has a strong epistemological dimension: it wants to restore the unity of all knowledge presently divided into different social sciences and humanities according to the way separate fields of study or “disciplines” are defined and organized by the academic world.
As it had been partly the case for Marcel Mauss some forty years before, Certeau entered the “linguistic turn” because of such epistemological concerns: paying attention to the logic of language was the key for reconciling the study of the individual and the collective into one. “Mystical” language was Certeau’s special topic. He studied mysticism not only as an individual phenomenon, but also as a collective adventure. He did it through the deciphering of the Mystical School which flourished in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, especially in Spain and in southwest France. His encounter on the one hand with Jacques Lacan and a certain type of psychoanalysis, on the other hand with Wittgenstein and his philosophy of language helped Certeau to center his thought on the formal linguistic study of speech and writing. That study provided him with an organizing thread which was instrumental in linking his investigations through many disciplines. No wonder that Certeau was so quick to produce an insightful analysis of the 1968 movement: right on the spot he understood it as a major event concerning people’s language and speech.
Making Sense of Everyday Life
In L'Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) of 1980, Certeau brought attention to all kinds of daily practices. For instance, the way people are walking into the city according to their own whims creates a "walking rhetoric”; we read books in ways we are not supposed to do it, somehow reshaping and giving new meaning to the material at hand. In the same way, cooking rituals organize our own space and ways of living together, with families and friends. Somehow, the “trajectories” developed by ordinary people can be seen as “tactics” they devise to build up their own markers, paths and spaces across settings to which they have to get adapted. By so doing, they “poach upon” the territories controlled by political and social powers. Paying special attention to the “ways of proceeding” of the silent majority therefore leads to a “polemological analysis of culture.” Culture articulates conflicts and develops in an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides temporary balances, contracts and compromises. “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” concludes Certeau.
As developed by Certeau, the notion of “trajectory” or “wandering line” is especially thought-provoking: “In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which the consumers move about, their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space. Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences) … the trajectories trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop.” Note here the way the tactics of everyday life are compared to sentences, in which we use as we deem it best specific sets of vocabulary and grammatical resources.
Certeau’s line of analysis has been developed well beyond its original setting. The concepts developed in The Practice of Everyday Life have been used for explaining how people “create” ancestors for instance through representations and stories. In modern megalopolises, urban-dwellers’ inventiveness is now taken into account by the ethnographic literature when describing how they make use of the places designed for mass consumption or how they carve out places for religious or recreational purposes.
History, Practices and Writing
Certeau’s epistemological acuteness took shape through his study of the mystical and spiritual literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It made him aware that believers had been continuously adapting their faith to new social contexts and giving new meanings to words, ideas and rituals coming from the past. Even for a 20th century historian who is a Catholic believer, any 16th century Catholic was really a “Stranger.”
According to Certeau, we cannot just project on the past our current vision and languages – and, at the same time, we cannot content ourselves with a learned, “objective” accumulation of data. There is an “absence”, a “lack”, a tension that truly opens up a way towards “historical knowledge.” It is the “otherness” of the one we first thought was “close” to us that gives birth to the risk of writing history. Certeau says that he started to write really about Jean-Joseph Surin, when he discovered how far away he was from this 17th century French Jesuit whose texts he was studying.
The reflection led by Certeau on the status of the historical text was inspired by his own historical practice, and at the same time it was influencing his historical practice. His own research style has been well characterized by Roger Chartier: “’All of Certeau’s work as a historian was centered on the precise, careful analysis of the practices by which men and women of past times, appropriated, each in his or her own way, the codes and the places that were imposed on them, or else subverted the accepted rules to create new formalities.”
Belief and Weakness: Entering the Mystic Path
As his historical research leads him to reflect on the nature of “belief’, Certeau also renews Christian theology. He sees Christ as the figure of the Other, of the “Stranger’, he describes “belief” as a way of experiencing one’s weakness (La Faiblesse de croire, 1987 – English translation in preparation in London, Spanish translation available in Buenos Aires). Such existential weakness, he noted, needs also to mark the institution that conveys and gives social expression to faith. A “weak Church” is the only institutional model that can be fully loyal to the particular nature of Christian faith. Only in weakness can spiritual fecundity be experienced. Christianity had to be “scattered” (Le Christianisme éclaté, Paris, Seuil, 1974) in order to be reborn. “One can say that the mystical is a reaction against the appropriation of truth by the clerics, who started to become professionalized in the thirteenth century. It favored the illumination of the illiterate, the experience of women, the wisdom of fools, the silence of the child: it opted for the vernacular languages against the Latin of the schools. It maintained that the ignorant have competence in matter of faith. … The mystical is the authority of the crowd, a figure of the anonymous.”
Chartier has said that, for Michel de Certeau, “History was a place of experimentation.” The same can be asserted of all intellectual practices to which Certeau dedicated his thought and time. For him, a field of research was never actually defined and limited by its subject matter. His careful exploration of any issue, in any field of study, would rather turn it into a place, a laboratory : there he would link together insights, hypotheses and methodologies into an ever-evolving intellectual synthesis. The discovery of the “Stranger” – located in us or outside of us – was the driving force which inspired his insatiable curiosity. In a special way, Certeau tells us that mysticism and its study allow us to explore the very “strangeness” which always is within and outside our own being, such exploration will draw us farther away from our familiar ground.
Maybe when we embark into any research of our own, do we similarly need to nurture a “mystical drive” that brings us away from our comfort zone. Thirty years after his death, Certeau’s works still challenge our intellectual habits and bring us towards grounds where we may be reluctant to be involved. As he would say so often, to fully live one’s life, everyone has to take some major risk.
 “The Quest of Michel de Certeau”, The New York Review of Books, 55 (8), May 15 2008.
 See Grégory Deleplace, 2009, L’invention des morts, sépultures, fantômes et photographie en Mongolie contemporaine, Paris, Centre d’Etudes Mongoles et Sibériennes- Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, « Nord-Asie I ».
 Roger Chartier, op. cit., pp.45-46.
 Interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 September 1982, pp.118-121; quoted in Chartier, op. cit., p.46.
 Op. cit., p.47.
Illustration by Bendu
Luce Giard is a senior fellow researcher at the CNRS and the EHESS. She is the depositary and editor of Michel de Certeau's works. She is the director and organizer of the international conference "Michel de Certeau, le voyage de l'oeuvre" (Paris, March 2016).
- Could you introduce to us the colloquium you are presently organising, and which will be taking place in March 2016 in Paris?
The Conference in March 2016 in Paris will allow readers of Certeau's works to encounter and compare their analysis of his works. Invited speakers will come from all over the world. Generally they have never met one another, many of them are neither aware of other kinds of interpretation about Certeau's works nor have been able of reading papers published in many other languages.
- This colloquium seems to be very much focused on the reception of Michel de Certeau abroad. What are the countries in which Certeau's thought exercised most influence, and for which reason?
Certeau's books have been translated into 20 different languages, which shows how broad is the reception of his thought. Not all books are circulated in every country. Selections according to topics and/or related to circumstances and intellectual settings in different countries explain the choices made here or there about topics, issues, historical periods in which a local or regional readership got attracted to Certeau's thought.
There were also and there are still differences in time about Certeau's reception in different countries. For instance, in the USA Certeau was first known for his cultural studies, but in Great Britain more attention was given to his theological output. In Latin America his political insights were very influential at the time of dictatorship and social violent struggles
- Could you tell us more about the way Certeau's insights, concerns and methodologies are now received in Asia?
In Asia Certeau was first read in Japan thanks to some Japanese intellectuals who had studied in France in the semiotic and linguistic milieu with Greimas and Roland Barthes. Then his works started to be translated into Chinese, and in the last few years it was the same in Korea.
It seems that in Japan his analysis of the question of "time", "time-periods", and historiography attracts much attention. In China what concerns the practices of everyday life and also anthropology is at the center of the picture. In Korea the issues about possession, spirits, and the like are highly regarded in his works: the first translation to appear in Korea was "The possession at Loudun".
Illustration by Bendu
Some writings by Michel de Certeau have been translated into Chinese. Chinese translations of "History and Psychoanalysis" (2010) and volume 2 of "The Practice of Everyday Life" (2014) have appeared, and "The Writing of History"(2012) and "The Practice of Everyday Life" (volume 1, 2009) have attracted the attention of anthropologists and historians. The other dimensions of Certeau's thought remain practically unknown. Much remains to be done in order to foster the impact that the thought of Certeau may potentially exercise on Chinese social and human sciences.
In October-November 2014, the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University invited Luce Giard, editor of the works of Certeau, to come to Shanghai. Three lessons introduced the audience to Certeau's thought and methodology in the field of historiography, anthropology and spirituality. And, most important, a one-day faculty seminar organized around some texts of Certeau, attended by 15 young professors from four different universities, discussed the methodology and meaning of social research in today's China.
Different initiatives are now taking shape in order to translate, disseminate and cross-fertilize the thought of Certeau in the context of contemporary China.
Luce Giard, her editor, has offered an excellent and inspiring English biography of Michel de Certeau, available online at http://www.jesuites.com/histoire/certeau.htm#bio
Luce Giard's essay can be complemented by the reading of François Dosse, Michel de Certeau le marcheur blessé, Paris, La Découverte, 2002 and a Spanish translation is available thanks to Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
The sketch that follows is mainly based on Luce Giard's text.
Michel de Certeau was born in 1925, in Chambéry (Savoie). He studied at the universities of Grenoble, Paris, and Lyons from 1944 to 1950, receiving degrees in Classics and Philosophy. He also studied at the "Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice" at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a Paris suburb, for two academic years and then at the Catholic University of Lyons, which had a strong program in biblical studies. In 1950 he decides to join the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), following the usual curriculum of philosophy and theology studies, with special focus on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. He was ordained a priest in 1956.
He first started a dissertation on Saint Augustine, aiming to analyze how the latter had reshaped Christian theology into a pessimistic legalist doctrine by selectively adopting elements of the Greek Church fathers and readapting them for people shaped by Roman legal concepts. Certeau would always be fascinated by the circulation and transformation of concepts, codes and practices. This unachieved study of Augustine already encapsulates his travels from theology to history, from anthropology to sociology
However, he was soon asked to rather invest on the study of the first spiritual authors of the Jesuit Order, including Ignatius of Loyola. Certeau thus received a Doctorate in religious history with a dissertation on Pierre Favre's spiritual diary in 1960. Favre (1506-1546), a Savoyard (canonized by Pope Francis in December 2013) encountered Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris, he was among the first companions who joined Loyola to found the Society of Jesus in 1543. Certeau moved soon to the figure of Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit from Bordeaux, contemporary of Descartes, who had been involved in difficult cases of demonic possession (see Certeau's The Possession at Loudun, University of Chicago Press, 2000). Certeau provided editions of Surin's Guide spirituel (1963) and of his Letters (1966). His desire to better understand Surin's destiny and mystical writings brought him to the active psychoanalytical milieu in Paris and he became close to Jacques Lacan (see Certeau's Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction, Gallimard, 1987, partly translated in Heterologies, University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Full Chinese translation published in 2010).
During those years, Certeau steadily worked for French Jesuit journals: the influential monthly Études, the quarterly Christus specialized in spirituality and two scholarly journals on religious history and theology, Revue d'ascétique et de mystique, and Recherches de science religieuse. He underwent a life-threatening car accident in 1967, in which he lost one eye The other turning-point in his life was brought by the events of May 1968 (see his book The Capture of Speech, University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
His analysis of the cultural and social changes taking place then brought him much fame in France, and from this time onwards he was asked to participate in endless cultural and media events. From 1970 on, he would publish book after book: on demonic possession (1970), on historiography (1973, 1975), on linguistic policy and social hierarchy (1975), on mass media, consumption and daily life (1980), on mystics (1982). At the same time, he would regularly teach graduate programs in different research fields at various universities: theology (Catholic University, Paris), anthropology and psychoanalysis (Université de Paris-Vincennes), then anthropology and history (Université de Paris VII), as well as literature and cultural studies at University of California at San Diego in 1978-1984. His Californian experience in San Diego ended when he accepted a new position at EHESS in Paris on "the historical anthropology of beliefs (16th -18th centuries)." He opened his teaching there in Fall 1984 but died from cancer in January 1986.
In an interview given to the Jesuit cultural journals in August 2014 Pope Francis mentioned two thinkers he particularly likes: Henri de Lubac and Michel de Certeau. He has mentioned the latter several other times, particularly for his edition of the "Journal" of St Pierre Fabre, which inspired the Spanish edition he asked two Jesuits of his province to undertake.
The mention of Henri de Lubac might not be very surprising, as the author of 'Meditations on the Church" is certainly a Jesuit theologian universally respected and admired. The one he made of Michel de Certeau raises other questions. Famous among anthropologists and historians, Michel de Certeau may be a little less popular among Jesuits, and his style and thought have made him less consensual an author. But an exception to this rule should be made for... Latin America. Michel de Certeau taught on this continent many times, and several of his books were translated into Spanish at an early stage.
Michel de Certeau (1925 – 1986) wrote on history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the social sciences. He started by studying Jesuit mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries (especially Jean-Joseph Surin, and went on exploring the formation of history as an academic discipline, mobilizing his professional experience as a trained archive historian. He also tried to interpret the mystical authors he had been studying in historical perspective. The experience of the "night of the senses" or of "ecstasy" cannot be repeated or understood in the same way as in the past, but we are still experiencing the "departures' and "coming back" of God through the filter provided by social sciences, by psychoanalysis and by the institutional changes affecting the Church and society. In other words, we are still "travelers" and "migrants', but we travel through new landscapes and uncharted territories. Michel de Certeau was very sensitive to the inventiveness deployed by ordinary people in their everyday life (a dominant theme of The Practice of Everyday Life, probably his most influential book), and was thus able to speak about spiritual experience in its diversity and contrasts.
One can guess and feel what Pope Francis appreciates in Michel de Certeau's thought and works: a deep knowledge of Ignatian spirituality associated with a desire not to repeat the past but rather to be creatively inspired by it; a special attention given to the resources and ways of life of ordinary people; a deep sense of the crisis affecting Church institutions; and a love for cultural diversity and artistic sensitivity.
So far, four books of Michel de Certeau have been published into Chinese. An academic program is presently under construction for more and (better) translations. Several present-day thinkers consider that the resource offered by Michel de Certeau are nowadays more useful for understanding cultural and social patterns than the ones provided by more well known authors like, say, Michel Foucault. Here is a Jesuit author whose thought can and probably will grow influential in China during the years to come.
Actually, the influence of Michel de Certeau could be detected early in the words of Pope Francis. In 2012, in an interview to an Italian newspaper, the then-cardinal Bergoglio was declaring: "We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of self-referential church. It's true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that's sick because it's self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former." The word "self-referential" often comes in the words spoken by Francis, and it refers to something that he perceives as a specific temptation within the Church. In my view, the risk-taking attitude is the only one that can connect into a meaningful dialogue 'culture' - or "cultures" – and faith(s).
"Culture" is not a luxury product, is not something like paintings or flowers that we would hang on the walls or put on the table after everything else is ready. "Culture" refers to the worldviews, languages, ways of translating emotions, identities and insights that are developed and perpetually transformed by individuals and communities. Cultures are one with the "languages" (oral, written, artistic, emotional) that shape communication among peoples, and also communication between peoples and the Church. The Word took flesh within a given culture, expressed Himself with the resources of this culture while He was also challenging it, and He asked us to continue the "translation work" that He started when He was "explaining" to us (literally: "making the exegesis" cf John 1,18) of the mystery of the Father. By doing so, by asking us to continue this "exegesis" of the divine mystery in various languages and contexts, Jesus encourages us to go from the "scattered diversity" of Babel to the "unitive diversity" of Pentecost. When we close on our own "clerical culture" we refuse to open up the walls of our house, we refuse to surrender ourselves to the fire, the wind and the diversity of tongues that constitute the Pentecostal gift. This is the perspective from which I propose to consider not only our "cultural apostolic works" but also our mission among cultures in its totality.
For a Jesuit, the intuition according to which we are evangelizers only if we are "evangelized' by the people with whom we meet remains a basic one. Reflecting on Church history teaches us that building up a position of "superiority' from which to preach without ourselves begin changed ultimately produces rotten fruits. I am often reminded for myself of the words of Jesus: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Mt 23, 15) In a context where Jesus reproaches the Pharisees to impose on people burdens impossible to bear, it certainly requires from us to examine whether we make our teaching, our living and our understanding of human situations one and the same endeavor. It happens that zealous "converts" generate more negative than positive energies. Preaching the faith and fostering a process of human growth need to be two interrelated endeavors. 'Pulling on the shoots to help the rice to grow" ruins the harvest.
A more personal note: when I include in a textbook of Latin and Roman Religion, as I did recently in Beijing, excerpts and commentaries of Tertullianus, Augustine, Minucius Felix, etc..., showing how their intellectual and spiritual elaboration was closely linked to the developments happening in the Roman Empire I may contribute in my very modest way to an "understanding of the faith" which is not direct evangelization but attempts to nurture a rooting of Christianity into sound intellectual and spiritual insights. The same could be said of what we do in a variety of fields. While not hesitating to be counter-cultural, we also try to make the Christian worldview better understood by contemporary culture, while trying to make the Church emerge from what is presently a kind of cultural ghetto.
Going one step further, I have no problem either in the fact of devoting - as I do - a large part of my time to the study of Chinese religions - as we could also invest in paleontology of biology. The Jesuit charisma should remain to be at the frontiers of knowledge, with a sense of gratuitousness - the very gratuitousness through which God created us - for it is the way we "praise God" by marveling at the work that his Spirit accomplishes throughout the course of natural and human history - a praise that remains on our lips even when we are confronted to realities that seemingly challenge our faith and introduce us into an 'intellectual dark night."
Thanks to Francis and to Michel de Certeau for helping us to become more sensitive, in everything we undertake and we reflect upon, to the wonderful gratuitousness of a God who delights in dwelling among us.
Illustration by Bendu.
A Spiritual Treasure Map 給心靈的藏寶圖
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Fr. Matteo Ricci. To commemorate his contribution to East-West cultural exchange and reinforce its commitment to its public service ideals, the National Central Library of Taiwan along with the Taipei Ricci Institute invite you to attend the conference of Professor Nicolas Standaert, S.J. (Leuven University): "Sino-European Displacements: The Circulation of Prints between Europe and China". The conference will be held on April 16th in Taipei, at the briefing room of the National Central Library. Professor Standaert is one of the world’s foremost experts on cultural exchanges between Europe and China during the Late Ming and Early Qing dynasties, and will give a richly illustrated conference – do not miss it!
Also, by attending this conference you will have the opportunity to be among the first to visit the exhibit around Matteo Ricci held at the aforesaid Library: The Jesuits’ Encounter with Chinese Scholars: A Meeting of East and West -- An Exhibition Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Matteo Ricci. The Institute has been associating with Taiwan National Central Library and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for organizing this exhibit which includes images of pieces held in the treasured collections of the Vatican Library, the headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Rome, the Archives of the Society of Jesus, and the Pontificia Università Gregoriana. The exhibit takes place in a new research room into which the library of the Institute has now been transferred. This research room is also dedicated to the new research focus of the Institute: the development of Pacific studies in Taiwan. (More information here).
Also, on April 20 at 2.30pm, Gjon Kolndrekaj, the director of the documentary film “Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit in the Realm of the Dragon,” and Prof. Antonella Tulli of the Department of Italian Language and Literature at Fu Jen Catholic University have been invited to hold a symposium on the film.
Focus: The Legacy of Matteo Ricci
In this and similar conferences, we are in the process of being reintroduced to one another–like a gathering of a long-lost family. Not just Taiwanese, especially the aboriginal population, and the Island peoples–who are joined by ancient linguistic and cultural ties; but Westerners, Europeans and Americans as well.
Focus: Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific
In this two-part interview, Barnabe Hounguevou tells us the story of how he gradually decided to join the Jesuits, how was assigned to Taiwan by the society, and what he likes most about the island.
Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界
Father Jacques Duraud made this reflection on his own faith in response to the eRenlai focus on faith and god in April this year. How do you conceive of faith and god, or even of a world without belief? Feel free to share with us!
Focus: My God?
The Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies (TBC) opened in 1998 and is located on the campus of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
In this interview with Father Thierry Meynard SJ, director of TBC, we learn of his story leading up to being named director, his thoughts on the importance of learning about China, and a detailed explanation of the services that the Centre provides.
Programs and contact: http://www.thebeijingcenter.org/
Beacons of hope 亞洲的人文引擎
There are extraordinary moments in life. Moments of deep, soul-shaking happiness, moments of tremendous discovery, moments where the mountain we climb during the entirety of our existence suddenly offers us a glance of the richness of its landscape – valleys, clouds, streams and lofty peaks... There are also moments of extraordinary misery, when a beloved one disappears, when one's love is betrayed, when sickness is diagnosed, or when goals and dreams prove impossible to fulfill.
Daring to Take Risks 勇於冒險
This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the experience of people from different cultures of faith or lack of faith in Taiwan is explored.
Focus: My God?
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