Monday, May 6, 2013

Meditations on de Certeau

I've been reading the work of the French historian and philosopher Michel de Certeau and realizing how much of an impact he's had on theatre scholars, particularly Stephen Greenblatt. Born in 1925, de Certeau already had degrees in classics and philosophy when he decided to become a Jesuit priest. He spoke of doing missionary work in China, but instead ended up getting a doctorate from the Sorbonne, a secular university. While there, he studied religious figures, Pierre Favre and Jean-Joseph Surin. This mingling of the religious and the secular continued throughout de Certeau's career.

His first major book, The Possession at Loudun, was an attempt to understand history. The piece deals with a specific event from the seventeenth century involving the supposed demonic possession of a group of Ursuline nuns. Numerous authors, from Alexandre Dumas to Aldous Huxley, had already created fictional accounts of the story. In his book, de Certeau specifically linked the possessions and exorcisms in Loudun to the theatre. Both possession and exorcism became in de Certeau's view a "show" that was performed for the public.

The Possession at Loudun had particular impact on Greenblatt, one of the pioneers of New Historicism. Greenblatt's 1988 book Shakespearean Negotiations also delves into the theatrical nature of exorcism, and Greenblatt specifically references de Certeau's work as one of his sources. For Greenblatt and other New Historicists, de Certeau pointed to an approach to history that recognized the past as profoundly strange and alien to us in the present. As a critic of all society, not just history, de Certeau saw the strangeness of history manifest even in the present day. As he wrote in The Possession at Loudun, "strangeness is deeply rooted in the substance of a society."

Images of the possessed crop up repeatedly in de Certeau's writings. In The Writing of History, he again delves into the theatrical nature of possession, showing how in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonic possession paralleled the creation of theatre. In both cases, epistemological, political, and religious questions of the period were acted out on a public stage, whether that stage was metaphorical or literal. His emphasis on possession as performance might seem to anticipate performance studies. However, his name is much more often linked to the discipline of cultural studies, and in particular to ways in which individuals can resist the hegemony of the dominant culture.

Never purely a historian, de Certeau later took his critical analysis of history and applied it to the most mundane actions of the present with his book The Practice of Everyday Life. Like the work of Stuart Hall, The Practice of Everyday Life challenges notions that mass culture is a monolithic force imposed on individuals. The book argues that individuals alter and individualize elements of mass culture to make them their own. In re-using both symbols and physical objects for their own purposes, individuals can challenge and subvert the ideologies a broader culture seeks to impose upon them.

An example he gives in The Practice of Everyday Life is an individual walking through a city that has been laid out by urban planners. In spite of the most thorough designs, individuals always seem to find short cuts and detours that planners never anticipated. He writes about how looking down from the top of the World Trade Center "makes the complexity of the city readable." However, that clarity is only an illusion. According to de Certeau, the people who actually walk through a city "follow the thicks and thins of an urban 'text' they write without being able to read it."

In 1982, de Certeau published the first volume of The Mystic Fable, an unfinished work that explores the history of Christian mysticism. In the published volume, he deals with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, attempting to place the spiritual experiences of mystic writers within a historical framework. In the introduction, de Certeau declines to identify himself as a mystic. Instead, he voices a desire to understand the mystics of the past, even though he admits the project is probably doomed to failure. This attitude exemplifies de Certeau's view of all attempts to write history: It is impossible, yet it must be done.

He died in 1986, and that same year a collection of his essays titled Heterologies came out in English. The collection delves into some of the facets of de Certeau's work that had previously gotten little notice in the English-speaking world. It contains some of de Certeau's writing on psychoanalysis (he closely associated himself with Jacques Lacan) as well as his literary criticism (he writes admiringly of Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas). Lest we forget he was interested in political activism, the collection concludes with an essay in defense of indigenous peoples. The term "heterology" quickly became attached to de Certeau, in spite of the fact he himself does comparatively little theorizing on the term.

Still, it is a word that seems appropriate for a writer so rich and diverse. Passionate priest and secular academic, believer and skeptic, theorist and critic of theory, de Certeau not only embodied contradictions, he relished in them. Unwilling to settle down into one discipline, he used history, theatre, psychoanalysis, and religion to interrogate each other. By using different disciplines to challenge one another, de Certeau sought to obtain a more complete view of the world around us.