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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 323-329
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Michel de Certeau—in the Plural
Pluralism, before becoming at Vatican II a doctrine or a program, was a fact.
—Michel de Certeau, "Is There a Language of Unity?"
Every so often it becomes necessary to try to find the means of rescuing perception from the blind fatalisms of orthodoxy. In 1974, for instance, Jean-François Lyotard, having grown tired of the incessant debates over the proper way to read Marx, announced that it was high time for a whole new way of reading him, one that owed nothing to previous attempts. Somehow, Marx had to be read differently, from the perspective of consumption, not production. As such, it wasn't just a correction of existing interpretations that Lyotard sought but an end to an entire mode of interpreting Marx and the creation of a fresh means of engaging with his texts. "We must come to take Marx as if he were a writer, an author full of affects," and so "take his text as a madness and not as a theory." This would mean treating him as "a work of art" infused with "the desire named Marx."1
Clearly enough, Lyotard's proposed reading strategy is stimulatingly antidogmatic and irreverent. [End Page 323] But more important than that, it makes a specific and "untimely" demand (in Nietzsche's sense) for a recalibration of theoretical inquiry into the conditions of textual consumption and a balancing out of the usual emphasis given to production. It is along these lines that it has been adopted to good effect by Fredric Jameson, among others, in an effort to rethink a subject and topic which—owing to the enormous emotional and intellectual investments made in it—are only too liable to produce (as is any important orthodoxy) willful stupidities and petty obstinacies, namely, Marxism. Jameson suggests that if we accustom ourselves to thinking of philosophical arguments and claims as specific desires rather than determinate stances, "we will be better able to bracket the content of such positions provisionally and to turn to the more historically interesting question of why intellectual or social strata in contemporary society" have found it necessary or useful to elaborate such a doxa in the first place.2 And although the reception of Michel de Certeau's work is arguably approaching the point when one would want to make a similarly exasperated intervention as Lyotard's, that is not going to be my strategy here.3
Instead, what I want to show—while also arguing for the need to interpret Certeau "in the plural"—is that in his writings (from the earliest to the latest) a reading strategy similar in spirit to the one advocated by Lyotard is deployed by Certeau, inasmuch as a new type of rapprochement between the conditions of consumption and production is forged. Although the issue for Certeau was not Marxism but the historically prior problem of orthodoxy in the Christian Church, his solution took the form of an unrelieved contradiction similar to Lyotard's contradiction between Marx as a bearded sage and Marx as a little girl. Orthodoxy, Certeau argued, is a defense mechanism against the threatened fragmentations of pluralism; although its putative aim is to protect unity, it actually destroys it. Any admission of heterodoxy always carries the risk of heterogeneity, and that is something no Christian-thinking scholar can freely tolerate. "No one could call himself [sic] Christian if this term only had meanings which were unrelated to one another. All Christianity would be an illusion if it were unsuccessful in showing forth effective continuity and unity."4 Yet if one is unable to think the unorthodox at all—that is to say, the absolute negative of unity—then one cannot properly think unity either. In a maneuver made famous by Derrida, Certeau therefore concludes that the unresolved tension between the orthodox and the unorthodox is in fact the condition of possibility for unity; thus to relieve the tension between them is to negate them both. [End Page 324]
Unity is not a given, Certeau argued, but an ongoing process—indeed, a revolutionary task.5 "The...