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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 365-379

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Toward a Psychoanalytics of Historiography:
Michel de Certeau's Early Modern Encounters

Carla Freccero

Michel de Certeau's analyses of the subject of (Western) historiography, outlined in The Writing of History and Heterologies, attribute to that subject's formation an originary encounter, historic and symbolic, which would shape the contours of a "psychoanalytics" of Western historiography as the subject's will to know—to render into writing and thus produce a logos of and on—the "other." Certeau's narrative of the European "discovery" of America is thus an allegory of the relation to the other in all its forms. And yet this particular encounter, articulated through two texts and a period (the Renaissance) that serve as canonical markers of the birth of modernity in anthropological and philosophical fields of inquiry, carries with it an overdetermined resonance in historical as well as symbolic registers. The early modern Franco-American transatlantic journey that inaugurated both an ethnographic and a philosophic discourse on the other produces, in Certeau, a melancholic masculine subject of historiography at the end of modernity, one whose loss is cannibalistically encrypted as the loss of (the/an)other man. The heteronormative repudiation of the lost erotic body of the [End Page 365] other—a "primitive . . . body of pleasure," as Certeau calls it—defines the melancholic subject of humanism.1 Certeau's melancholic textual psychoanalytics of historiography renders this subject legible, even while articulating its ambivalent attachments, as the "lost-body writing" that marks the possibility of an ethics of writing in late (Western) modernity.2

In "Psychoanalysis and Its History," Certeau argues that psychoanalysis and historiography use different strategies of time to confront analogous problems: understanding the relationship of continuities and differences between the past and the present, making the present capable of explaining the past, and transforming temporality into narrative.3 He further compares the practices of Freudian psychoanalysis and historiography "in order to determine the possibilities and limitations of the renewal of historiography promised by its encounter with psychoanalysis." Such a renewal depends in part on the recognition, within the project of historiography, of "the persistence and lingering action of the irrational"; a certain "dynamics of nature" in the form of drives, affects, and the libido; and "the relevance of pleasure, which was repressed by the incredibly ascetic ethic of progress."4 By bringing elements of psychoanalysis into historiography in order to write the history of discourses on the other (heterologies)—by tracking, in part, the unconscious of the discourse of scientific knowledge—Certeau's writing practice seeks to enable this recognition.

The introduction of what might be called a "psychoanalytics" into the writing of history leads Certeau to focus on alterity, that which is other or unknown, within the subject of historiography itself ("it is speaking [ça parle] in the work and in the silences of the historian, but without his knowledge")5 and that which is the other of historiography, the subject matter it silences and displaces in order to produce a discourse. On the one hand, then, inserting subjectivity into historiography (which, notes Tom Conley—paraphrasing Emile Benveniste—"aims at the exclusion of the existential relation with language that would be implied by the seeming presence of an ‘I' or a ‘you'")6 enables Certeau to analyze historical discourse as an institutional practice infused with subjective investments and caught up within networks of power that are themselves available for historical analysis. On the other hand, the historical study of heterologies enables his treatment of Western historiography as an institution engaged in a colonial enterprise of mastery, subjugation, and exploitation: the violent production of the same through the silencing of the other.7 [End Page 366]

As the intersection of "history" and "writing" that "bears within its own name the paradox—almost an oxymoron—of a relation established between two antinomic terms, between the real and discourse,"8 historiography encompasses not only what is commonly referred to as history but scientific discourse in general. Furthermore, this mode of writing, engaged as it is in an economy of knowledge production, is a discourse peculiar to modernity.9 Certeau describes how this transformation...


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