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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 399-421

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The Marginality of Michel de Certeau

Richard Terdiman

The resistance of others is the condition of our own development [progrès].

—Michel de Certeau, L'étranger; ou, L'union dans la différence

Out of the endless and overwhelming flux, we conjure epiphanies as if by miracle. We make meanings. But the condition for doing so is an experience of ends. For meaning is the consequence of a limit; meaning is an effect of margins. The border where we materialize such meaning is what makes meanings possible. We perceive and conceive and construct and learn on this frontier.

The margin or frontier or border is where something is divided from something else. That something can be anything, but the margin makes it what it is. On the border, through division, its definition and its relation to what differs from it become conceivable. Heraclitean projections of ceaseless change then metamorphose into a topology and begin to frame a temporality. In this sense, continuities are meaningless. Out of the flux, it is difference that crystallizes signification. This paradigm has a fundamental seduction [End Page 399] for the historical and interpretive sensibility. In contemporary understanding, it is only through the marking of a difference—through the projection of a border—that the notions of history and interpretation make sense. This power of the liminary thus resituates the margin as cardinal. We navigate our meanings across these borders. They always materialize from elsewhere.

Michel de Certeau made this principle fundamental to his understanding of history as of culture. Consider his 1980 preface to The Writing of History, which begins this way: "Amerigo Vespucci the Discoverer arrives from the sea."1 This narrative is not innocent. Geographically and temporally, it enfolds and exposes the mystery by which meanings arise and interpretations become possible. Politically, it projects the potential for violence—or at least the constituting incursion—that accompanies the framing of any signification.

It would be difficult to write an account in which Certeau's thinking about borders was not powerfully overdetermined by the circumstances of his own biography. Repeatedly, regularly, he sought the margin. It was as distinctive a feature of his life as of his thought. By way of comparison, we might consider the series of eminent Parisians who, during the 1970s and 1980s, repeatedly visited the United States—colonizing America for theory, so to speak. Nearly every one of them remained firmly based in Paris. Among this period's remarkable group of theory jetsetters, the lone geographic exception was Certeau, who left Paris to take up a full-time teaching position at the University of California, San Diego, from 1978 to 1984. Before then he had regularly traveled to South America, Mexico, and Canada for periods of teaching and research.2 In part, these displacements reflected a native sense of adventure; in part, however, they also translated the fact that for a long period Certeau was effectively an outsider in Paris. As an ordained Jesuit in a resolutely secularized academy (one whose anticlericalism had long been a fundamental ideological tenet), Certeau did not have—and when he accepted his U.S. position he could not have had—a regular post at a French university.3 It is difficult to imagine that this kind of professional disqualification (to consider just one resonance of marginality arising from his biography) was unrelated to Certeau's sensitivity to problems of difference, disadvantage, and subordination.

As translated at the level of theory and methodology, the forms and logic of this sensitivity to the marginal will be my focus here. I want to examine those models and modes of social understanding that Certeau would root [End Page 400] in heterology, in what might be called the constancy of difference or the centrality of the marginal. But we need to bear in mind that, while theory informs practice, the two registers cannot simply be conflated. Language and bodies diverge in fundamental ways. Consequently, the reality of marginalization is not just a theoretical counter or an intellectual effect; with its roots always in the political, marginalization inevitably embodies the cruel reality of power. Theorize about marginality all...


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pp. 399-421
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