- Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture
Michel de Certeau is undoubtedly one of the postwar era's most important intellectuals and cultural theorists. Yet to date, his contributions have not been as widely recognized as those of other leading contemporary thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, or Jacques Derrida, to name but a few of his most prominent peers. Currently, scholarship on de Certeau's work remains scarce. Even in the U.S. academy, where "French theory" has been more fully institutionalized than anywhere else (including France), the corpus of de Certeau's work has not been sufficiently read or studied. As a consequence, he is still largely known only for his groundbreaking ethnographic work on contemporary popular cultural practices, which he introduced in 1980 in his two-volume work L'Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life).
More often than not, de Certeau's work has been reduced to several interpretative schemas (for instance, the notion of "consumers" engaged in "cultural poaching" that takes the form of "hijacking," "re-appropriating," or "re-tooling" commodities and media objects produced in mainstream "hegemonic" culture; the valorizing of "tactics" over "strategy" and "resistance" over "power"). In the 1980s and 1990s, these largely reified concepts gained wide currency in a number of fields, especially media studies (particularly for the proponents of the "active audience") and in popular culture studies (most notably in the highly influential work of John Fiske and Henry Jenkins). Given that his thought equals in stature and significance that of the far more recognized intellectuals cited above, this very limited understanding of de Certeau's work is, to say the least, problematic. Ben Highmore's recent book Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture will go far in filling this knowledge gap. Highmore's contribution is not a general presentation of de Certeau's thought.1 Rather, it is a complex, ambitious, and important study that requires some prior knowledge of de Certeau's major works and a familiarity with the discourses, disciplines, and fields of inquiry that have emerged over the past several decades in the wake of post-structuralism and deconstruction. In fact, Highmore's reflection does not focus solely on de Certeau. His book can best be described as critical re-evaluation of the entire field of Cultural Studies and an ambitious effort to introduce a new methodology, practice, and ethics for pursuing "cultural studies." De Certeau offers Highmore an inspiring model and [End Page 164] roadmap for rethinking and reinventing the study of culture as it is pursued in the arts and humanities. His larger objective is to create a "science of singularity" (1), that is, a new way of analyzing culture that allows silent, invisible, or subjugated lives, voices, practices, and forms of concrete and situated knowledge to be heard, felt, and genuinely understood without being reified, reduced, pacified or altered in order to fit some established interpretative theoretical mould.
Highmore's first order of business is to debunk the flattering portraits and "false heroics" (1) that the practitioners of Cultural Studies have fashioned for themselves, most notably those that tout the field's "radicalism" and "subversive powers," parade its status as a wily academic counter-culture, and claim always to act as champions of the oppressed. He devotes his first chapter ("Ways of Operating: Introducing Michel de Certeau's Methodological Imagination") to explaining de Certeau's methodology. For Highmore, de Certeau's entire oeuvre is a "science of singularity" which resolutely rejects "applied theory" in which the world, or "the real," is made and sometimes re-made in ways that fit the analyst's pre-existing interpretative framework. In this mode of analysis, the alterity and singularity of the object that practitioners of Cultural Studies purport to study is effaced, becoming simply a pretext for illustrating the analyst's own theoretical concerns. De Certeau, on the contrary, lets the specificity, the otherness of his objects (be they 16th-century mystics, 17th-century witches, or contemporary consumers) emerge and assert itself. This requires that his axioms and conceptual frameworks allow themselves be altered, in turn, by...