Places in the work of Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau

In his essay ‘Walking in the city’ (1984) Michel de Certeau connects with a series of critiques and viewpoint of planners, the panoptic disciplining of space and the pretensions of social theory. He wants to pen a space to say that pur studies of technologies of power have often led us to believe their own statements of efficacy by looking at consumption situated in the world depicted by the Frankfurt school- a world of mass availability and control at the same time. De Certeau analyses power relations in terms of realms of strategy and tactics. Strategy he sees as the imposition of power through the disciplining and organization of space. Tactics are the ‘ruses’ that take the predisposition of the world and make it over, that convert it to the purposes of ordinary people. In the language he applies to both intellectual and popular fields, he is interested in the relationship of place as a fixed position and space as a realm of practices- counterposing the fixity of the map to the practice of travelling.

A concern with how the unrepresentable punctures symbolic system is not surprising given de Certeau’s Lacanian background. Yet this is a profoundly historicized and spatialised version of Lacan. If for Lacan the unconscious is structured like a language, fro de Certeau language is structured like a city. The way difference fractured the space of western thought was crucial to him. His theories take us beyond binary inversions or stable oppositions like primitive versus civilized. The topology is more complex than this according to him.

De Certeau sees the popular as a remainder defined by exclusion from proper knowledge. H suggested a mode of knowledge through travel to open space to difference since stories about places are makeshift things, composed of the world’s debris (1984: 107). His answer to the advancing ‘rationalisation of society’ is that the ensuing giant order is both vast yet also strangely tenuous when set against the maritime immensity of scattered practices- the city is an ‘order- sieve’ (1984: 143). There is an almost nostalgic feel for western Europe mode of urbanity in his writing. Equally the focus on grand power, on totalisation, means a view of power as singular with no mediating levels where power is one-way flow from a central source (Frown 1991: 57-8). In de Certaeu’s terms, strategic power works by controlling and organizing space to construct proper knowledge. In contrast, tactics use what is there in multiple permutations and according to de Certeau they pass without occupying space.

Walking in the city

Walking in the city

De Certeau prefers, as the title of the analysed work suggests, walking in the city instead of viewing it. He argues that walking in the city has “its own rhetoric” and with people’s limited scope as the move about and write their own course of subjective use of the urban space “the network of these moving, intersecting writings compose and manifold story that has neither author nor spectator”.

For De Certeau, the pedestrians of a city create it through their walking about, as an objective mass made of subjects which escape any planned or regulated scheme of the city. The pedestrian, while walking in the city, has his own style, which is a sort of language which speaks about the city and take part in creating its meaning. In walking in the city, the pedestrian gives new meanings to places and streets which are not the same as those originally assigned to them. Pedestrians, for De Certeau, create the meaning of the urban space by applying their imagination on it through the manner in which they move about the city “linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and wearing away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied”.


Crang, M.; Thrift, N. (2000) “Thinking space”

London: Routledge

The cultural studies reader: <;

(Eva Spirova)


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