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  • The Ethics and Economies of Inquiry: Certeau, Theory, and the Art of Practice
  • Tony Schirato (bio) and Jen Webb (bio)

In this paper we will look at what Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, calls “Theories of the Art of Practice.” Certeau is perhaps best known as a theorist of the ways in which everyday practices inhabit the institutions and sites of power and official culture, while not being in any sense recuperable or explicable to these “proper places.” In “Theories of the Art of Practice” he concerns himself not with cultural practices themselves but, rather, with the specific relationship between theoretical discourse and the object of that discourse. In order to do this he takes as examples certain cultural theorists—most obviously Foucault and Bourdieu—whose work is strongly underpinned by an emphasis on the relation between discourse and practice. He offers a detailed consideration and critique of their theories of practice and the tactics those theorists use to escape the theory/practice dichotomy.

In the first two paragraphs of “Theories of the Art of Practice,” Certeau identifies the two points which, taken together, constitute the broad narrative of this section of Practice. The first relates to the theoretical basis from which we can approach practice. “Everyday practices,” he writes:

depend on a vast ensemble which is difficult to delimit but which we may provisionally designate as an ensemble of procedures. The latter are schemas of operations and of technical manipulations. On the basis of some recent and fundamental analyses (those of Foucault, Bourdieu, Vernant and Détienne, and others) it is possible, if not to define them, at least to clarify their functioning relative to discourse (or to “ideology,” as Foucault puts it), to the acquired (Bourdieu’s habitus), and to the form of time we call an occasion (the kairos discussed by Vernant and Détienne). These are different ways of locating a technicity of a certain type and at the same time situating the study of this technicity with respect to current trends in research.


An important issue here is Certeau’s critique of the extent to which each theorist applies a specific technicity (Foucault’s disciplinary procedures, Bourdieu’s habitus) in an attempt to delimit the field, to reduce the multiplicity of practice—or the theorizing of practice—to a singularity. As he points out in his essay on Nicholas of Cusa [“The Gaze” 6], such “ways of proceeding are subject to a common problematics,” because they inscribe a particular way of thinking and seeing and, in that process, risk excluding other ways of understanding. However, Cusa’s praxis: [End Page 86]

does not presuppose a language proper to theory, an autonomous metalanguage that would provide a distinct linguistic space for speculation. . . . A task related to each singularity liberates, as it were, and develops . . . the “impulsion” which is integral to each and which is revealed to be infinite by the very impossibility of finding a hierarchical unity among singularities.

[“The Gaze” 7]

What Certeau looks for in the work of Bourdieu and Foucault is the moment, or the “impulsion,” which allows a theoretical engagement with practice. If practice can’t be called up, defined, or finally explicated, what can be done is to plot the relationships between power and its structures, logics, places, and discourse and the objects of power (practices) it seeks to identify and regulate. This allows us to identify both how power seeks to exclude the heterogeneity that is practice and the ways in which practice, despite these acts of exclusion and regulation, leaves its mark on official places (discourses, institutions, the objective structures of cultural fields). What Certeau does is to explore how others (Foucault and Bourdieu in particular, Vernant and Détienne) have explored this terrain.

The second move Certeau makes is to contextualize those theories of practice, not so much as metadiscourses or generalized maps but as practices themselves, specific to a time and place and informed both by their theoretical antecedents and by the politics, logics, and discourses of the field(s) within which they operate. This allows Certeau to exemplify both how bodies of theory (as well as intellectual fields) come about and develop and...