Michel de Certeau

By: Erik Davis
May 17, 2014


A French Jesuit scholar influenced by psychoanalysis and the study of mysticism, de Certeau wins his hilobrow badge of honor for his totally boss book The Practice of Everyday Life, which was published in 1980 and came out in English in 1984. Using striking analogies as well as concepts drawn from sociology and politics, de Certeau investigates how relatively powerless actors within the labyrinths of modern society, and below the surface of conventional politics, creatively and resourcefully negotiate with our compromised quotidian existence. He offers two contrasting views of New York City: one, the top-down perspective of the strategist, visually masters the city from the eagle-eyed heights of the World Trade Center; the other, the bottom-up perspective of the tactician, finds and makes its way through a street-level immersion in signs, local knowledge, and potentially repurposed detritus. One of the tactics employed in everyday practice is what de Certeau describes as poaching, a term deriving from medieval times, when serfs practiced resistance, and enjoyment, by skimming off the master’s bounty, appropriating things they did not own but were nonetheless part of their lives. So too, de Certeau argued, do contemporary people practice a micropolitics of creative resistance and psychological survival by poaching things and meanings owned and coded by capitalist institutions. We are not talking about lifting post-it notes from the office, but about hacking the belly of the beast that has swallowed us up. De Certeau helped establish the fan-focus of cultural studies, but even if the entertainment industry now micromanages (and depletes) fandom, the new technological order has turned us all into tenant farmers of cultural capitalism. The days of desperate and creative poaching, we can only hope, are hardly done.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Maureen O’Sullivan, Erik Satie, J.E. Spingarn.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Philosophy