The Quest of Michel de Certeau

Culture in the Plural

translated from the French and with an afterword by Tom Conley, edited and with an introduction by Luce Giard
University of Minnesota Press, 180 pp., $20.00 (paper)

The Possession at Loudun

translated from the French by Michael B. Smith, with a foreword by Stephen Greenblatt
University of Chicago Press, 251 pp., $23.00 (paper)

The Writing of History

translated from the French by Tom Conley
Columbia University Press, 367 pp., $25.95 (paper)


Though in North America Michel de Certeau is known only in the university world, in France he was a celebrity, viewed as a major cultural critic, an innovative historian of early modern religion, and a religious thinker who in his life and work pursued a particularly engaged, open, and generous form of Catholicism. At his funeral in Paris in 1986, the strains of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”—“No, I regret nothing”—wafted over the pews in the Jesuit Church of Saint Ignatius in Paris, and through loudspeakers to the hundreds of mourners crowded in the square outside. The song followed a reading of I Corinthians, where Paul says that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” and a poem by a seventeenth-century mystic about a “vagabond soul” seeking divine love throughout the world. These verses, requested by Michel de Certeau himself, suggest the unorthodoxy of his spiritual and scholarly vision.

Whether writing about madness and mysticism in the seventeenth century, South American resistance movements in the past and present, or the practice of everyday life in the twentieth century, Certeau developed a distinctive way of interpreting social and personal relations. In contrast to those who described societies by evoking what he called their homogeneities and hegemonies—what unified and controlled them—Certeau wanted to identify the creative and disruptive presence of “the other”—the outsider, the stranger, the alien, the subversive, the radically different—in systems of power and thought. He found it not only in the ways people imagined figures distant from themselves (as in Michel de Montaigne’s famous essay on the “Cannibals” of the Amazon), but also in behaviors and groups close to home, in the ever-present tensions at the heart of all social life, whether in schools, religious institutions, or the mass media.

To be sure, notions of “otherness” were cropping up in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Certeau was gaining prominence, but he was original in the multiple ways he conceived figures of the “other” and how they functioned in many settings. He coined the term “heterologies” to describe disciplines in which we examine ourselves in relation to otherness; history and ethnography, for instance, could be “sciences of the other” if they confront the often disfiguring assumptions we bring to our understanding of different times and places. He wrote about centralizing institutions of the past so as to show how they defined themselves either by excluding divergent voices and beliefs or by swallowing them up.

And yet the state and church were never the sole source of power and authority in medieval and modern times. Certeau always saw vital alternatives to their rule, as in religious movements like mysticism or in stubborn popular knowledge born of local experience. His heroes are often wanderers, pilgrims, missionaries, and nomads, such as the seventeenth-century visionary Jean de Labadie, who began as a Jesuit, then preached his radical brand of Reformed religion across France and Switzerland, and ended up founding a…

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