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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 381-398
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The Moving Ground:
Locating Everyday Life
I want to ask here about what Michel de Certeau calls "the place from which one deals with culture" in an essay of that title, considering both his deployment within cultural studies and his understanding of "everyday life," which is still the most influential focus for that deployment. Certeau begins his essay by claiming that "nothing authorizes me to speak of culture," and yet "a field of inquiry and its borders need to be staked out. I would like to devote a few sentences to a site of reflection on culture."1 The volume of translations in which this essay is included, Culture in the Plural, is explicitly addressed to cultural studies and its interest in Certeau's model of the everyday. As a result, it is opposed to the "authorized" organization of life, along with those who "speak of" or "deal with" culture, until "the everyday" becomes "the marginality of a majority," at which point "practice ceases to have its own language."2 What seems imperative, then, is placing Certeau's thought on the everyday within the broader frame of his work.
Certeau specifies the everyday as the "cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an [End Page 381] activity that is unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolized."3 Thus, as I will argue here, this cultural activity is opposed, first and foremost, to cultural analysis, or, "the place from which one deals with culture." Underlying this opposition, however, is Certeau's place from which analysis proceeds and the gap between it and the (unorganized) un-placed everyday that is nevertheless positioned by that analysis as an organized object. Accordingly, the everyday is already arguably organized (placed) by either its exclusion from "cultural analysis" or its placement as an object for cultural studies. The relations between this place and this order in Certeau might serve to address some of the assumptions involved in speaking about "everyday life" in cultural studies, particularly the tendency to position it as other to any proper organization of culture and thus as the unknowable cultural substratum identified with "unconscious" processes of meaning production.
The Practice of Everyday Life has influenced debates over whether cultural studies has a specific object and method of study, that is, one not already covered by any of the disciplines that have helped to constitute it. What cultural studies designates as everyday life in its nascent canon of methods and objects has proved a useful alternative to "popular culture" as the object of cultural studies. Although recent utilizations of Certeau have tended to include references to his other influential texts—The Writing of History or Heterologies, in particular—The Practice of Everyday Life remains the core Certeau work for cultural studies. Because everyday life constitutes a field of analysis that is not directly covered by any discipline other than cultural studies, that text's predominance seems entirely justifiable. What its applications generally miss, however, is equally relevant to the diverse practices of cultural studies. In particular, his critiques of history as a discipline and the importance of psychoanalysis to his work, each of which helped to shape Certeau's understanding of the location of everyday life, are often neglected even in cultural studies work on everyday life per se.
As with all of his texts, The Practice of Everyday Life reflects the psychoanalytic foundations of Certeau's cultural analyses, which consistently turn on a process of differential recognition and on a figure of unknowable but constitutive difference that, following Jacques Lacan, might be called the Other. Certeau's disciplinary and methodological critiques, like his very methods, rely on that differential recognition: you understand your culture by knowing a culture different from—in fact, other than—your own. Furthermore, Certeau's work consistently supports the idea that culture, in terms of the way [End Page 382] it is understood and lived, contains a fundamentally unknowable content. He quotes Lacan (Seminar III) to the effect that speech becomes possible only with the presumption of an Other: "there precisely as it is recognized, but as it is not known."4