Tag Archives: Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau on Strategy and Tactics

I finally got around to reading all of de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I had, of course, before read all that stuff about walking, but there is so much more here for the literary and philosophical geographer. I might have liked the chapter on tactics best of all, even if I disagree with it. I have been thinking about strategy and tactics for the past few weeks, it’s one of the things community organizing is all about, but I was reading this particular book for another project entirely. Interesting. I’ve kept some of his headings because I quite love the breadth of what he writes about, and though I’ve found even of interest for two, maybe three blogs here, I am fairly sure there will be more when I read it again. There are some pieces from the intro in this, blog 1, but it is mostly chapter 3.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the “wandering lines” drawn by autistic children…”indirect” or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic. (xviii)

Though I’d prefer my poetry emerged through something other that my consumption. I kind of like to sit and stare and these sentences that at first sound so good, but then sometimes lose sense as you think about them. Wisps of smoke. The strategy and tactics I found much more clear:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (xix)

Not entirely sure about the environment, mostly disagree with strategy as belonging only to such subjects of will and power and wonder what it means to place a city itself into that category, but interesting.

Chapter 3 “Making Do”: Uses and Tactics

Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix [France] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low—income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.

These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (30)

I love this, both in how it understands the ways in which we inhabit space by making it our own, the ways that that subverts and transforms space, and that a similar process should happen in language. Because of course, you see it everywhere and most places I have lived, this in-between has become a vibrant new place and new way of speaking both.

But on to a deeper explanation of the already stated view of strategy:

A distinction between strategies and tactics appears to provide a more adequate initial schema. I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) or power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country sur­rounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be man­aged. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.”

I love how this manipulation of power is always in a place, always tied to a geography and a here as opposed to a there. But how does a city exert this? I am still pondering that. I cannot tell where agency lies, and that bothers me. It is too vague. But interesting. De Certeau continues about the difference between the two along different axes: That of time, that of sight, that of knowing:

The establishment of a break between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other is accompanied by important effects, some of which we must immediately note:

(I) The “proper” is a triumph of place over time. It allows one to capitalize acquired advantages, to prepare future expansions, and thus to give oneself a certain independence with respect to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time through the foundation of an autonomous place.

These past few weeks — time has mastered me rather than the other way round. It makes sense to think of power as its master, interesting that it (might be) through place.

(2) It is also a mastery of places through sight. The division of space makes possible a panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence the eye can transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and “include” them within its scope of vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by reading a space.

The ability to see gives more control over time, more control over space…

(3) It would be legitimate to define the power of knowledge by this ability to transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces. But it would be more correct to recognize in these “strategies” a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place. Thus military or scientific strategies have always been inaugurated through the constitution of their “own” areas (autonomous cities, “neutral” or “independent” institutions, laboratories pursuing “disinterested” research, etc.). In other words, a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics. It produces itself in and through this knowledge.

Transforming history into a readable ‘space’…another magician’s trick. I am not sold, but oddly fascinated of this way he has of assuming we create spaces through words. This slippage between physical and abstract space intrigues.

I am troubled by ‘masters’ owning space, thereby strategies, while the rest of us are without center, reduced to tactics.

By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

I have trouble moving between physical and abstract space here, trouble working out where we actually stand. But stand we do, I will defend our ability to have strategy, even on someone else turf.

It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.

Doesn’t it?

It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.


It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.

We can keep wins. We can gain ground. It does not mean that we should not search for cracks or go poaching.

In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.

Maybe this is what is wrong with the British left.

Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of “demonstration” is generally useless and “the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game.” One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a “last resort”: “The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception.” I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics. (36-37)

I am strangely drawn to reading Clausewitz, von Bulow. I am all for trickery. But that’s not going to win a fight. Nor will tactics. For all his exploration which at least acknowledges this form of resistance where many do not, de Certeau doesn’t really promise much. He yields a great deal to the enemy from the very beginning.

Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (38)

It’s also a strangely evanescent, individual sort of thing, this tactic. I wonder if it is precisely because he makes this distinction:

strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that the estab­lishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. Even if the methods practiced by the everyday art of war never present themselves in such a clear form, it nevertheless remains the case that the two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time. (38-39)

Many communities are trapped in place, or part of a place and identify with a place and will never leave a place. This collective identity and its connection to a neighborhood or piece of earth is where strength comes from, this is what drives them to make a stand. They cannot not bet on place, they cannot or will not just pick up and move. What then? The difference between Algerian’s ‘making do’ in Paris as opposed to those fighting occupation in Kabylia perhaps.

So given I reject my banishment to the use of tactics only, where does that leave me? Us? Because I am not fighting alone. Turned on its head this means we do need our own places, time and space both to think, to plan. To come together. A place on the heights, to see far. One that draws strength from how this place is transformed by our own culture and value and ways of being in the world. That creates the room for these possibilities, that celebrates hybridity and flexibility while drawing on history and tradition that stand in opposition to capitalism. Somewhere not easily seen (but do those in power ever truly see us?). Somewhere we can move quickly and take advantage of the moment, but in ways that lead us to the transformations we seek. Strategically.