Michel de Certeau and His Time Featured

by on Monday, 05 October 2015 Comments

Names such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida or Jean-François Lyotard are usually mentioned in any description of the “French Theory” landscape (the intellectual climate that took shape towards the end of the 1960s and developed in the 1970s and in most of the 1980). It was their works which exercised most influence abroad, especially in the United States, where the term “French Theory” was ultimately coined. The name of Michel de Certeau is not usually quoted in this context. Several reasons might explain this situation:

-     Certeau was an independent thinker, who never tried to attach his name to a school or a given theory. “Michel de Certeau was not fond of defining who he was, nor did he like hemming in what he did to fit within the sort of disciplinary categories that university professors, as to reassure themselves, claim as their own.”[1]

-        At the same time, he remained a Jesuit till his death: though he certainly developed a very peculiar intellectual style compared to the majority of Jesuit intellectuals, this affiliation seems to be at odds with an intellectual movement that, at first glance, had no religious consonance at all and is often described as “anti-humanist.”[2]

-        Thirdly, if Certeau was very influential in France the echo met by his work was for long rather limited abroad. Nowadays, the situation has drastically changed: during the last thirty years, translations of his works have been published in more than 20 languages. Certeau has found an audience on which he has exercised an influence that may be deeper than it has been the case for Foucault or Derrida, even if the readership of the two latter is more widespread.

Certeau was an active member of the French intellectual scene at the period considered. He participated in the same debates and circles as well-known historians and philosophers did, such asPierre Nora, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roger Chartier or Louis Marin, among others. At the same time he developed studies on topics of his own that progressively became very influential. He was a risk-taker, or yet, as writes his biographer François Dosse, a “wounded walker.” In a text he wrote as a homage, Jacques Derrida has described Michel de Certeau as living and writing under a “Yes”: Certeau, he says, had reflected upon the way all mystical experiences and discourses start by risking a “Yes”[3], a “Yes” that makes the ones who pronounce it able to depart from well-known ground so as to embark into unknown territories. Saying “yes’ means at the same time to mark a breaking point and to enter into a promise. And Certeau, continues Derrida, thanks to the unconditional “Yes” under which he was placing himself, was living intellectual exploration as both danger and promise.[4]


[1] Roger Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff, Baltimore, John Hopkins U.P., 1997.p.39.

[2] Such appreciation should actually be qualified: a thinker like Lacan cannot be understood outside his relationship to the Catholic tradition. More generally, the relationship of “French Theory” to the topic of religious faith and even religious institutions would require a careful appraisal.

[3] Both Certeau and Derrida meditate over a well-known sentence from Angelius Silesius (1624-1677): “God never says anything else than a ‘Yes’ ” (Gott spricht nur immer Ja).

[4] Jacques Derrida, “Nombre de Oui”, in Luce Giard (ed.) Michel de Certeau, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, “Cahiers pour un temps”, 1987, pp.193-205.

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