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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 465-482
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History as a Kind of Writing:
Michel de Certeau and the Poetics of Historiography
Over the past ten years, Certeau's work has often been regarded as a "founding charter" (to use Tom Conley's term) for cultural studies.1 Because of its concern with ordinary people and everyday life, as well as with issues of otherness, difference, and exclusion, that work now appears related to the kind of research that developed in England during the 1960s and 1970s, then spread to the United States, where it met with considerable success in the academy. Some of the essays collected in L'invention du quotidien have been anthologized in cultural studies readers, and Certeau is frequently cited in those.2 However, his work's current status in cultural studies should not overshadow the novelty and significance of his contributions to other fields, particularly to what I have elsewhere proposed calling the "poetics of historiography": the rules, codes, and conventions that frame historical writing.3 Indeed, when Certeau's first essays on historiography appeared in the early 1970s, very few French scholars were concerned with the operations of academic writing. Historians were doing "normal" research, striving to accumulate more information about the past and to open [End Page 465] up "new" fields of investigation.4 While ready enough to discuss their methods (the main debates then pertaining to the nature and relevance of quantification), they were less eager to take up issues of epistemology and quite reluctant to reflect on the procedures they used in writing up their data.5 Conversely, literary critics had little interest in historiography. The "structuralists," for example, dealt mostly with fiction or with modes like the press report.6 The journals to which they were contributing, such as Communications and Poétique, published no articles about historiography during the 1960s and 1970s. (Poétique's first issue devoted to the subject, "Le texte de l'histoire," appeared in 1982.) For a long time, the only analysis of history as writing was Roland Barthes's "Discours de l'histoire," and it was no accident that Certeau would frequently quote from this article in his own examination of historiography.7
A central aspect of Certeau's work is its constant attention to "ways of" or "arts of" (manières de, arts de), whether "doing," "saying," "thinking," or "believing." However, that attention is not always directed to the business of everyday life and the "tactics" ordinary people employ to affirm their identity. "Culture," for Certeau, included "academic culture," whose habits, like those of the urban walker, the casual reader, or the teller of folktales, must be dissected. Academic discourse, in particular, must be considered another "way of," consisting in a set of procedures for dealing with specific subjects, and the roles that such procedures play should always be accounted for in the analysis. Thus Certeau accused Raymond Aron of treating the different theories he analyzed in his Introduction á la philosophie de l'histoire as mere "ideas" that respond to one another in a kind of "undefined game."8 Such a conceptualization ignored the fact that ideas are not disembodied and, more generally, that history is also a practice. Historians "do history" as theologians "do theology," an expression Certeau would have us "take seriously," that is, without erasing the verb (the "producing act") in order to privilege the complement (the "object produced").9 In the case of history, "to do" now mostly means "to write"; facing the white page, historians apply themselves to "constructing sentences" with the information they have accumulated. According to Certeau, the task of those who study historical discourse is to analyze such "sentences," specifically, to describe how historians have written them in relation to a certain "place" (e.g., the university), a certain state of the discipline (e.g., the return of the "political"), and certain rules of [End Page 466] textualization (e.g., the use of "the plain style").10 In other words, Certeau's "discourse analysis" does not posit the "closure of the text," as (some) structuralist analyses did during the 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, it assumes that a...