Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 33, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Writing the wrongs of history: de Certeau and post-colonialism

Ian Buchanan

What we initially call history is nothing more than narrative. de Certeau, The Writing of History

In the past decade the mode of analysis calling itself post-colonialism has begun to flourish. Prompted by a need to redress a number of imbalances and oversights within the field of cultural and literary studies, post-colonialism takes as a major goal the writing of history's colonial wrongs. The aim of this paper will be to introduce some ideas, provoked by Michel de Certeau, that critics engaging with post-colonial discourse may find useful.

His work "all but defies definition. History, sociology, economics, literature and literary criticism, philosophy and anthropology all come within de Certeau's ken." 1 so it is unfortunate that only a fraction of his prodigious output (he has produced over a dozen books plus numerous articles) has been translated from the original French into English. The English-only reader is thus limited to three works: The Writing of History (1988), Heterologies: Discourse of the Other (1986), The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).

The Writing of History is probably the least known. While the more well- known Practice of Everyday Life is able to stand on its own, it is probably best read in conjunction with the other two as the three works are inextricably linked. The Practice of Everyday Life is devoted to uncovering the various 'ways of making do' that people employ in their everyday lives, the other two are concerned with unveiling the 'ways of making a theory' that historians employ - and by extension the ways in which all analyses are prefigured by their theoretical models. "Producing the texts amounts to making a theory." 2 The text produces the theory just as surely as the theory produces the text.

"The Writing of History is" de Certeau states in the preface, "the study of writing as historical practice." 3 By this it is meant that writing as praxis is active in its construction of history, it does not merely record history by putting events into words, the words themselves manufacture history. There is a mechanics of writing that must be investigated if the content of the writing is to be interrogated. "Procedures are not merely the objects of a theory. They organise the very construction of theory itself. Far from being external to theory, or from staying on its doorstep, ... procedures provide a field of operations within which theory itself is produced." (emphasis in original) 4

His analysis of historiography focuses on the theoretical underpinnings of text (his focus is always texts, not authors). Refusing to accept anything at face value, he asks why certain elements were included and others excluded, why this conclusion was reached in place of another equally acceptable one, and so on. Always the emphasis is placed on the practice of writing as practice, not on what has been written.

Although his writing is not principally concerned with literary analysis, it does theorise texts and textuality, and for that reason it is significant. Most importantly de Certeau challenges the theoretical underpinnings of all strategies of analysis; his work demonstrates that all forms of analysis, particularly that which calls itself scientific, are not blameless and innocent. The very notion of analysis is questioned. "The Bororos of Brazil sink slowly into their collective death, and Levi-Strauss takes his seat in the French Academy. Even if this injustice disturbs him, the facts remain unchanged. This story is ours as much as his. In this one respect (which is an index of others that are more important), the intellectuals are still borne on the backs of the common people."5

The common people, the ordinary and the everyday people, the people who do not make policy nor history but must participate in the making of history and policy are de Certeau's subjects. His aim is to show how the little people 'make-do', how they escape without leaving. The danger with this approach is, of course, vulgarisation and over simplification, easily done because his analysis is generally very subtle. This is especially true of his understanding of power and the machinations of power. For example:

Nowhere in his work is there anything other than a polar model of domination, according to which sovereign power is exercised by a ruling class (or, more often, by an 'elite'; or else by a technocracy or a technocratic rationality defined without reference to class) over a mass of oppressed popular subjects who lack all power. It is true that these subject groups exercise an art of the weak which modifies or deflects the power of the dominant order, but the flow of power is nevertheless all in one direction and from a singular source. 6

I would argue that de Certeau's discourse does anything but describe power relations in terms of a top-down polar model similar to that commonly employed by some Marxist critics. He takes great pains to show that such representations of society are products of particular theories, and are not necessarily representative of what actually occurs in society. The very concepts, strategy and tactics, taken from The Practice of Everyday Life, make impossible any suggestion that de Certeau regards power as emanating from a single source only. They are designed to counter precisely this kind of portrayal of power.

Briefly, strategic power is ascribed to institutions, and operates in places which are environments circumscribed to facilitate the control of the distribution of meaning. Foucault's concept of the panopticon is perhaps the most clear-cut example. The prison is, in de Certeau's terms, an example par excellence of place. Tactics on the other hand does not have a place of its own, it is the power of the people caught in the web of institutions. Moreover, curbing this power, this mode of operating, is the raison d'etre of strategy: tactics produce strategy to the same extent that strategy produces tactics. "It is as though delimitation itself were the bridge that opens the inside to the other."7 The relationship between the two is symbiotic rather than oppositional. The fact of the prison and its rules makes possible their circumvention.

For de Certeau the dominant order is limited in its exercise of power by the very fact that it operates strategically; the dominated order however, exercises its power anywhere it chooses because it operates tactically. To the extent that strategic power manifests itself in symbolic terms only - all power is tactical and therefore has no single source. "Carried to its limits, this order would be the equivalent of the rules of metre and rhyme for the poets of earlier times: a body of constraints stimulating new discoveries, a set of rules with which improvisation plays."8

Added to this is de Certeau's own vigorous denouncement of all academic practices that engage in, and privilege 'the problematics of repression' for the sake of preserving their prestige.9 "The question," he argues, "is not one of ideologies, or of options, but that of the relations of an object and its associated scientific methods to the society that sanctions them. And if the procedures of science are not innocent, if their objectives depend upon a political structure, then the discourse of science itself should acknowledge the function allotted it by society: to conceal what it claims to show."10

De Certeau's investigations into the mechanics of power, a central concern to post-colonialism, leads him to devote considerable space in his various works to the plight of the Indian people in both North and South America. Colonisation is a presiding metaphor in his books; it is what is meant by the practice of writing:

This is writing that conquers. It will use the New World as if it were a blank, 'savage' page on which Western desire will be written. It will transform the space of the other into a field of expansion for a system of production. From the moment of a rupture between a subject and an object of the operation, between a will to write and a written body (or a body to be written), this writing fabricates Western History. (emphasis in original)11

History, he writes, is a method not a truth. History is not a faithful record. It is writing. Therefore, in de Certeau's terms there can be no such thing as post colonial writing, or post colonialism, as all writing as praxis is already a colonisation of a terrain not its own. Writing is, for de Certeau, the very symbol of rationality - an imposed rationality - and is rationalities' symbol. Writing orders the world, composes it in terms of its own grammar, making itself the only means through which the world can be made intelligible. It is a practice of othering. Those peoples not possessing writing are understood only by writers in terms of writing: without discourse they are without power.

The project entailed by de Certeau's concept of heterology is to illuminate the discourse of the other. To illustrate that writing's authority is by no means absolute, that always there is a space (a hole) through which the repressed can return, a gap in the blanket of power which enable the repressed to remain, to evade without exit. The return of the repressed means precisely this: shining lights on the fissures within the fabric of power in order to demonstrate that despite appearances to the contrary the exercise of power is never absolute. Thus, he claims, the indigenous people of South America were never completely dominated.

They metaphorized the dominant order: they made it function in another register. They remained other within the system which they assimilated and which assimilated them externally. They diverted it without leaving it. Procedures of consumption maintained their difference in the very space that the occupier was organizing. 12

Another concern is the organisation of time. History written in the present pretends to operate in the domain of the past, but in reality it fabricates that past in its own present. "Thus the past is the fiction of the present."13 Clearly this perspective has important ramifications. Considering all history as always already a fiction justifies a literary analysis of historical records; it allows the historical document to be read as a novel, thereby making its machinations more visible and its content less verifiable (or unverifiable). His design is to raise doubts about the very validity of writing itself. Like Derrida in "White Mythology",14 de Certeau removes the grounds upon which an absolute notion of the literal, and hence truth, might stand. For de Certeau, all writing is fiction. He does this by showing that writing despite having the appearance of being strategic, is tactical. In other words it hides its reason for being; the motive that underlies its production; the method which belies its content.

"Understanding [a text, history] means having to discover through the very stuff of historical information what allows it to be conceived."15 In other words, understanding history entails understanding how it was written. On whose authority was it written?; what documents were used?; who guarantees the status of the documents as documents?; how does a particular book relate to other books within the same scriptural economy?; were its conclusions predictable considering the political climate at the time of writing?

In history everything begins with the gesture of setting aside, of putting together, of transforming certain classified objects into 'documents'. This new cultural distribution is the first task. In reality it consists in producing such documents by dint of copying, transcribing, or photographing these objects, simultaneously changing their locus and status. (emphasis in original)16

De Certeau's criticism of history interrogates documents: that which supports certain conclusions by playing the part of evidence. Principally, from the perspective of methodology, his quarrel is with the selection of documents. Selection involves an act of isolation, demarcating the present from the past. "Breakage is therefore the postulate of interpretation (which is constructed as of present time) and its object (divisions organizing representations that must be reinterpreted)." (1988: 4) This enables a new understanding, or intelligibility, of the past to be constructed and it is in interrogating this new understanding that de Certeau's most important concerns come to the fore. He writes that "whatever this new understanding of the past holds to be irrelevant - shards created by the selection of materials, remainders left aside by an explication - comes back despite everything, on the edges of discourse or in its rifts and crannies: 'resistances', 'survivals', or delays discreetly perturb the pretty order of a line of 'progress' or a system of interpretation." (1988: 4) This 'coming back' he labels the 'return of the repressed' and uncovering the routes taken back into the text by these purposely forgotten shards, how they manage to maintain a toehold, is de Certeau's central concern.

It is precisely on these grounds of document selection that de Certeau is most critical of Foucault, of whom he writes: "Foucault has specified himself a 'reader'. His reading is poaching. Hunting through the forests of history and through our present plains, Foucault traps strange things which he discovers in a past literature and uses these for disturbing our fragile present securities."17 By poaching de Certeau implies not only a taking-out-of-context of a document, but also a transformation of its meaning, a turning of its meaning to the user's own ends, in short the document depends for its meaning on the manner in which it is used. This represents a very serious charge against the practice of historians. Paradoxically, it is also something of a backhanded compliment. In de Certeau's terms, poaching is the means by which we all survive, it is our way of operating, in short it is his term for consumption. More significantly, however, it presents a methodology that post-colonialism can put to good use.

By turning attention toward the very process of historical writing a more complete picture of how certain histories were produced might be arrived at. And in so doing the holes in the text might be more fully exposed. By engaging with historical texts from the angle of procedure it will become possible to say why certain conclusions were reached, their necessity will become apparent. This, perhaps, more so than a direct assault on content alone, will enable post-colonialism to write the wrongs of history. "The relation of procedures to the fields of force in which they act must therefore lead to a polemological analysis of culture."18

By ptolemological de Certeau means conflictual - amid the indeterminacy of texts there rage battles for the control of meaning, and it is precisely who controls meaning that he aims to discover. Emphasising the writing of history rather than history itself, de Certeau calls into question all histories: the trajectory of this inquisition runs parallel to Lyotard's own investigations into the writing of history in "The Differend, The Referent and The Proper Name." (1984)19 The absence of the plaintiff provokes de Certeau to comment that "the problem facing historians [is] what can be apprehended from the discourse of an absent being?"20 This problematic is further complicated by the fact that the absent being's discourse is written.

Subject to a variety of manipulations, many of which are unavoidable in the act of writing itself, history is the past as the fiction of the present21 but more importantly it is the product of a place.22 This realization is particularly significant to post-colonialist theory since it questions the motives of the text and assumes that all texts are written from a certain stance that will figure in the writing of the text.

De Certeau maintains that it is impossible to utterly repress; always the repressed finds a manner in which to affect a return, if only by the conspicuousness of its absence. This however, does not mean that he regards it as possible to speak the silence of the repressed as Foucault presumes to do in Madness and Civilization.23 "In a word, historians always create absences."24 By recognizing this de Certeau opens a space for the return of the repressed in the place controlled by the oppressing party. For this reason - alone, perhaps - de Certeau's work should be considered vital to the on-going process of post-colonialism's recuperation of the past. His writing offers a fresh view of history and writing, one that is positive without being idealistic. He offers the means by which post-colonialism can demonstrate both the repression of certain peoples in the present and the past, and at the same time show how they have coped with that repression. How they have made do, escaped without leaving, how they have in fact resisted repression, deflected and deformed it by operating within it. The day-to-day procedures of the repressed transform the place of the dominant into a habitable space for the dominated.


I would like to thank two people: David Birch for encouraging me to write this paper and Wojciech Kalaga for the time and consideration he gave to the various drafts of this paper.

1 P. Clark, "Book Review: The Practice of Everyday Life" Journal of Modern History, 58 (3), p.704 - 7.

2 Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History trans. T. Conley (New York: Columbia Uni. Press, 1988), p. 330.

3 de Certeau, (1988), p.xxvi.

4 Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other trans. B. Massumi (Manchester: Manchester Uni. Press, 1986), p. 192.

5 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life trans. S. Rendall (Berkeley: Californian Uni. Press, 1984), p.25.

6 John Frow, "Michel de Certeau and the Problem of Representation" Cultural Studies, 5 (1), p.57 - 58.

7 de Certeau, (1984), p. 129.

8 de Certeau, (1984), p. xxii.

9 de Certeau, (1984), p. 41.

10 de Certeau, (1986), p. 121.

11 de Certeau, (1988), p. xxv - xxvi.

12 de Certeau, (1984), p. 32.

13 de Certeau, (1988), p. 10.

14 Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy" in Margins of Philosophy trans. A. Bass (Chicago: Chicago Uni. Press, 1982)

15 de Certeau, (1988), p.117.

16 de Certeau, (1988), p. 72.

17 de Certeau, (1986), p. 191.

18 de Certeau, (1984), p. xxii.

19 J-F. Lyotard, "The Differend, The Referent, and The Proper Name" trans. G. Van Den Abbeels Diacritics, 14, (3), 4 - 14.

20 de Certeau, (1988(, p. 244.

21 de Certeau, (1988), p. 10.

22 de Certeau, (1988), p. 64.

23 Derrida, (1978)

24 de Certeau, (1988), p. 288.

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