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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 501-517



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Michel de Certeau's "Spiritual Spaces"

Graham Ward


The phrase "spiritual space" is used by Michel de Certeau at the end of his brief analysis of hagiographic material in "A Variant: Hagio-Graphical Edification." The essay is one of three explorations in the production of certain topographies of the other found in The Writing of History. The spiritual space is another of Certeau's nonplaces. Certeau concludes the essay by positing that in hagiography, a "non-place is here a discourse of places."1 What I wish to demonstrate in this essay is the way spiritual topoi govern Certeau's understanding of the production of space in both its heterological and nonheterological forms. These spiritual spaces are profoundly theological in character and liturgical in economy. And yet an awkwardness remains about these topoi with respect to the rest of Certeau's project. This awkwardness reflects a certain folding within the logic of Certeau's historiography. On the one hand, Certeau is caught privileging a space that can have no such place within his secular, modernity-framed, heterological project. On the other, Certeau the historian marginalizes the theological spatiality that haunts and institutes his work. [End Page 501] The direction of my argument will examine this awkwardness and, in doing so, emphasize again the importance among the many secular readings of Certeau's project of giving due regard to his theological thinking.2 "Spiritual spaces" are not at the center of Certeau's work; they make that work possible. Certeau focuses on other forms of space and opens up alternative places by mapping out these spaces. I wish to examine three kinds of space explored—in fact, produced—in Certeau's work. They correspond to three different epochs of time and three kinds of utopia (which, following the work of Louis Marin on Thomas More, needs to be understood as both outopia [no place] and eutopia [a good place]).3 In outlining these three spaces, Certeau's concerns with ethnography, speaking, and texts at the dawn of modernity come more clearly into focus.

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The first space I will term, after Certeau, the "rational utopia." It is the space produced by the closed system, what Certeau will describe as "a bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible production of an order."4 It is the space of the voyeur, the observer, for whom only what is seen is what is valued, and what is seen is valued by locating it in a certain specified place, with its specified identity. Space here is Descartes's extension of what is. It is a body filled with other bodies that constitutes and produces its extension. Space is isomorphic here with place, insofar as space is made up of the sum of all places.5 Each place is composed, in turn, of discrete objects whose predicates (and therefore identities) can be detailed. Analysis of such space focuses upon the atemporal structures and the organization of this sum of all places and its properties.

There are certain presuppositions that such space requires for its rational examination. I will point to three that Certeau himself elucidates and a fourth as examined by Certeau's contemporary Henri Lefebvre. First, that all that is is visible; that there is nothing hidden, occult, or mysterious. All things exist insofar as their properties are perceptible and an account can be made of them; as such, all things are inert. This is a nonmythical form of realized eschatology: the truth of what is is fully present and presenced. The truth and identity of the material order declares itself by the force of its own existence. Second, and concomitant with this reification and immediacy of the thing, as Lefebvre tells us, "The illusion of transparency goes hand in hand with a view of space as innocent, as free of traps or secret places."6 [End Page 502] Spatiality, like the materiality that composes it, is viewed in terms of light and intelligibility. Again, this fully realized space is the eschatological space of Christian theology. It is a transcendental space. Third, and concomitant with the importance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8026
Print ISSN
0038-2876
Pages
pp. 501-517
Launched on MUSE
2001-03-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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