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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 483-500

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Processual Practices

Verena Andermatt Conley

In the mid-1970s Michel de Certeau was part of a group that founded Traverses, an interdisciplinary review aimed at exploring and theorizing transformations of space in contemporary society and culture. It was founded at a time when space was quickly becoming a critical issue in the human sciences. Synchronous with the publication of Henri Lefebvre's La production de l'espace (1974), Traverses showed how orders and edges separating fields of knowledge could be crisscrossed and reconfigured. It showed, too, that when self-contained disciplines were riddled by styles of inquiry of different origin, new critical spaces could welcome the day. Anthropologists made new alliances with historians of religion; art historians enlivened the objects of their inquiry by gazing at them through psychoanalytical lenses; in the person of the historian, the ghost of Marx of the 18 Brumaire returned to haunt the writings of times past.

A reader revisiting the issues of over twenty-five years past quickly discerns that for all its variety and transdisciplinary novelty, the review found a common ground in the analysis of spatial practices. Its editorial board was composed of [End Page 483] major cultural theorists with intellectual affinities that converged on matters of space; included were Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau, Louis Marin, Paul Virilio, and, as an occasional contributor, Marc Augé, the future author of La traversée du Luxembourg [The crossing of the Luxembourg] and Un ethnologue dans le métro [An ethnologist in the subway].1 For these critics the simple assumption of space as a backdrop, as an inert plane, a res extensa, on which living, and especially human beings, as res cogitans, act and move about, was put in question. It came at a time, in the immediate aftermath of 1968, when the "Western project" appeared to approach completion and to be failing.2 From the Renaissance onward, this project consisted in flattening and conquering the world through rational knowledge and instrumental technologies. It appears to have been perfected with the launching of spacecraft—for which World War II had been but a rehearsal—and the information revolution, while at the same time it has run into problems. Mass destruction, soaring demographic pressure, massive migration, and ecological upheavals have put its unmitigated success into question. Little wonder, then, that by 1975 Traverses gave renewed attention to space. Its orientations included natural as well as cultural or urban ecology under the impact of a sudden time-space compression. It became clear for the editors that, at a time of intense transformation, space could no longer be considered simply as a passive background but was something inseparable from human culture and symbolic exchange.

The new discovery bore the trappings of a future past. Collaborators from medieval studies, notably Jacques Le Goff and Paul Zumthor, were arguing that until the early modern era space had been a present, living, and welcoming other, or an animism assuring a coextension of the human and the cosmos.3 On the other end of the spectrum, Virilio was then (and still is) claiming that the only thing left in an intense phase of acceleration of time is space, with the implication, to the contrary, of space disappearing into time. Whatever the case may be, the relation of space to time was and now continues to be undergoing massive scrutiny.

It is in such a climate that we can look at the work of Michel de Certeau, specifically in the context of what he calls "sensitive zones," from which emerge an ethics of spatial practice and process. Officially trained as a historian of religion, Certeau found his increasingly transversal line of inquiry turned in the direction of demarcations between history and psychoanalysis and built much of his work on analyses of mystical behavior of the medieval [End Page 484] and early modern age. Inherent in his research from its beginnings is a keen attention to the spatiality of human relations. Space, in Certeau, is never a given. It is always constructed. As a vector, it opens and defines social dynamics that are in constant transformation. In his early...


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pp. 483-500
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Archived 2004
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