Literary and Critical Theory Michel de Certeau
Inigo Bocken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0036


Michel de Certeau (b. 1925–d. 9 January 1986), historian, cultural theorist, psychoanalyst, and theologian, was one of the most multifaceted French intellectuals and scholars of the late 20th century. His concept of everyday life practices was of signal importance for the development of cultural studies in the Anglo-Saxon world. His use of space as a key category in the history and analysis of cultural practices has also influenced the later “spatial turn” in history and art history. Finally, his works on early modern mysticism constitute ground-breaking research in religious studies and theology. Interestingly enough, these studies on mysticism were less influential in the Anglo-Saxon world than they were in France or Germany, whence the distinction between the “American” (of the cultural studies) and the “European” Certeau (the historian of mysticism). In spite of the diversity of his oeuvre, Certeau saw his scholarly work as one, integrated, intellectual enterprise. Asked about his scholarly profession, this French Jesuit used to answer that he understood himself in the first place as an historian of spirituality. Understanding the meaning of Christian mysticism in an era in which it started to lose its self-evidence required a broader focus, embracing the most divergent and complex cultural developments up to his own time. The gradual broadening of his interest field also required new methodological directions, which he found in Lacanian psychoanalysis and in semiotics, resulting in his own topographical way of thinking. He became a public intellectual in 1968, after the publication of his La prise de la parole, a book in which he applied his insights on the role of the mystics in the 16th and 17th centuries to the protesting students in the streets of Paris. From that moment onward he started to develop his theory of everyday life practices, resulting in a number of different books, of which L’invention du quotidien 1980 was the most elaborate. As early as 1984, the English translation of this book was an overwhelming success in the United States. The book has often been characterized as the starting point of a new discipline, everyday life studies. In the meanwhile he continued working on his history of early modern mysticism, resulting in the first volume of La fable mystique 1982. Due to his early death in 1986, the second volume could only be published in 2013, finished by his life-long collaborator Luce Giard.

General Overviews

So far, there have not been many general overviews of the “whole” Certeau. There is one intellectual biography in French—Dosse 2002—which is an attempt to understand his scholarly work against the background of intellectual life in the Paris of his time and which also discusses his life-long struggle with the Jesuit order. A more sophisticated interpretation of Certeau’s theoretical enterprises can be found in Ahearne 1995, the first and still most important overview, stressing the meaning of “heterology.” Buchanan 2000 is an important overview of Certeau’s work in cultural studies but excludes the religious and theological dimensions of this oeuvre, connecting it instead with postmodern philosophy. Another way of introducing Certeau for a larger English-speaking readership is Ward 2000. It contains a selection of primary translated texts with extensive commentary. The problem with these “first-generation” interpretations is that the authors were not able to refer to important later books by Certeau, published by Luce Giard. There is one recent monograph, however, which is only available in Dutch, providing an overview of the whole Certeau—Bocken and van Buijtenen 2016—which is so far the only interpretation that includes the works that were published posthumously. Interestingly enough, there are some very well-founded and thoughtful introductory volumes, written by more than one author again in Dutch (Geldof and Laermans 1996) and in German (Fuessel 2007). Finally, there is a special volume dedicated to all aspects of Certeau’s work: Buchanan 2001. All of these volumes deliver various perspectives on this multifaceted oeuvre. Freijomil 2009 offers a key for the reading of the texts of Certeau and helps readers understand the complexity of this oeuvre.

  • Ahearne, Jeremy. Michel de Certeau. Interpretation and Its Other. Malden, MA: Wiley, 1995.

    This is still an important book on Certeau’s central idea of the “other,” its philosophical meaning and its role in cultural studies, departing from the Everyday Life Practices but also referring to the more theological and spiritual studies on mysticism.

  • Bocken, Inigo, and Eveline van Buijtenen. Weerbarstige spiritualiteit. Inleiding in het denken van Michel de Certeau. Heeswijk-Dinther, The Netherlands: Berne media, 2016.

    A monograph attempting to deliver an introduction to the different aspects of Certeau’s scholarship and understanding its unity in his self-understanding as an historian of spirituality. It includes also references to the posthumously published works of Certeau.

  • Buchanan, Ian. Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist. London: SAGE, 2000.

    Clear, focused monograph on Certeau’s theories on culture but starting out from postmodern philosophy. As a consequence of Buchanan’s interpretation Certeau often is seen as a postmodern philosopher.

  • Buchanan, Ian, ed. Special Issue: Michel de Certeau in the Plural. South Atlantic Quarterly 100–102 (2001).

    This special issue offers contributions on all aspects of Certeau—theory of history, everyday life practices, history of mysticism, and even theological contributions. It is a good starting point for further reading, although important works are not considered (e.g., the posthumous second volume of the Mystic Fable).

  • Dosse, François. Michel de Certeau. Le marcheur blessé. Paris: Decouverte, 2002.

    This is an intellectual biography that focuses on the personal development of the Jesuit Michel de Certeau and his intellectual networks in France, Latin America, and the United States. It offers a good image of the motives behind the different works of Certeau. As such it is a standard work.

  • Freijomil, Andrés. “La pratique de la lecture chez Michel de Certeau. La materialité de l’oeuvre.” Varia—Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques 44 (2009): 109–134.

    DOI: 10.4000/ccrh.3533

    This contribution can be seen as a key article for those who intend to read Certeau’s complicated texts. The author reflects on the methods of Certeau and his way of composing articles and books, which is necessary in order to understand the fundamental motivation behind this oeuvre.

  • Fuessel, Marian, ed. Michel de Certeau. Geschichte – Kultur – Religion. Konstanz, Germany: UVK-Verlag, 2007.

    With this volume Michel de Certeau was introduced to the German-speaking world. It stresses Certeau’s importance as an historian and literature scholar, thanks to the excellent contributions of Koen Geldof and Marian Füssel.

  • Geldof, Koen, and Rudi Laermans, eds. Sluipwegen van het denken: Michel de Certeau. Nijmegen, The Netherlands: SUN Uitgeverij, 1996.

    One of the earliest overviews of Certeau’s thought, unfortunately only available in Dutch. It contains amazingly sophisticated interpretations, for example, by the late Koen Geldof and Marc de Kesel, offering a deep insight into the intellectual sources of Certeau. In this volume the role of Lacanian psychoanalysis is of particular importance.

  • Ward, Graham, ed. The Certeau Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    This is at once a collection of translated texts by Michel de Certeau and a book of commentary. Every text is introduced by a well-known specialist. Again in this book Certeau is presented as a postmodern philosopher and literature scholar.

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