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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 447-463

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Questions of Cultural Policy in the Thought of Michel de Certeau (1968–1972)

Jeremy Ahearne

Michel de Certeau's ongoing engagement with the issues raised by the vicissitudes of French cultural policy shaped the development of his reflection on the forms of contemporary cultural practice. Indeed, the circumstances under which his writings in this area were produced indicate that his reflection was, to some extent, generated by this engagement. Having established his reputation as a cultural analyst with the publication in 1968 of La prise de parole, Certeau was asked to write a preparatory report and an introductory presentation for a colloquium on the future of cultural development held at Arc-et-Senans in April 1972.1 The work for this colloquium, organized by French and European governmental bodies in order to help generate strategies for cultural development, constituted "a decisive stage in the crystallization of his reflection on cultural practices."2 The very problems thrown up at this colloquium—in particular the hazily conceived but insistently felt rift between official cultural policy and most people's cultural experience—provided the impetus for further elucidation. Hence Augustin Girard, present at the colloquium and head of the research department [End Page 447] at the Ministry for Cultural Affairs, was able to secure funding, in the context of preparations for the Seventh Plan, for a research project in which Certeau would explore more probingly some of the key questions raised at Arc-et-Senans. The report he finally produced on what became a three-year research project (1974–77) comprises the two volumes of L'invention du quotidien. Following from this, Certeau and Luce Giard were asked in 1982 to direct a working group on the "contents and tools of communication" and to write a report on it that was expected to inform the then inchoate cultural policy of France's new Socialist government.3

Such political-administrative considerations may seem to have limited relevance for the analysis of Certeau's ideas as such. It is important to address them, however, if we are to take seriously Certeau's 1972 contention that "words float, they are vacant, as long as they are not directed to specific ears. Such is the case for many texts and statements about culture in general. It seems to me that an analysis or a discourse fits into the ‘nowhere' [non-lieu] of utopia if it does not define the field of its addressees and, in that very way, its own status."4 Thus, to take an obvious example, underlying the repeated emphases on the disseminated power of ordinary creativity that mark L'invention du quotidien, there lies what one might call a pragmatic rhetorical ambition: Certeau is seeking through a process of persuasion directed at his report's initial adressees at the Ministry of Culture to overturn the frames of reference then dictating national cultural policy. Indeed, some of his interventions did have a far-reaching impact on the terms of debate in cultural policy. Philippe Urfalino notes, for example, how from the late 1970s onward, influential networks of cultural administrators, activists, and local Socialist politicians took up Certeau's idea of "culture in the plural" in order to pursue a notion of local cultural development.5 Likewise, his work on processes of appropriation has constituted an enduring reference point for the conceptualization of cultural practices. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that, as Certeau himself observed, history is not shaped directly by reports and conference papers.6 There were, most notably, powerful economic forces at work that would make support for the cultural industries central to French cultural policy in the 1980s and would thereby somewhat eclipse, at least at the national level, the kinds of considerations espoused by Certeau. But this is not to say that his arguments failed to resonate powerfully among those concerned precisely with the deleterious effects of such economic forces. Indeed, it is by exploring the context in which Certeau's [End Page 448] arguments were first designed to operate that the key vectors of their force (where they were coming from, what they were directed toward) may be...


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