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Michel de Certeau is certainly one of the most interesting and eclectic cultural theorists of the XX century, in spite of his relatively poor fortune in comparison to some of his contemporaries like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. His wide variety of interests, from historiography to psychoanalysis, makes him an original ad hardly definable scholar. In this contribution, I would like to explore one of the most fruitful concepts by Certeau – the conception of tactics and tactical agency -, and the possibility to interpret tactical agency in the light of a theory of interculturality. Tactics are described by Certeau as a particular “style” (De Certeau 1988) of action, which represent a radical form of alterity facing the panoptical nature of neoliberal power: intercultural encounter, in the hypothesis here assumed, can though be interpreted as a tactical action.
The term interculturality, although widely used in both common language and the one of pedagogical and political research, shows a certain lack of theoretical elaboration. The assumption assumed is that through the concept of tactics is possible to contribute significantly to the discussion about interculturality, moving from a vision of it as a narrow reflection on the encounter of different cultures to a broader educational and political perspective on society.
I will proceed firstly to a reconstruction of the concept of tactics in Certeau’s works, with a specific attention to his social and political thought: starting from his later works, where the definition of tactics comes to a mature elaboration, I will then move on to expose the presence of the concept in earlier works under different forms. Tactical agency, although from different points of view, is in fact a question that goes through almost all Certeau’s production.
Then, a particular perspective on the question of interculturality will be presented. Specifically, among the many different works labelled as “intercultural philosophies”, the vision of Raul Fornet-Betancourt will be presented and made interact whit Certeau’s concept of tactics.
Finally, a proposal will be articulated into three points regarding the contribution of Certeau’s social philosophy to a theory of interculturality.
The word tactic – along with the relative/opposite strategy – is nowadays extensively used in the managerial and economic language. A quick research on Google is sufficient to find out the enormous amount of websites giving advices on the tactics you need to put in practice to develop your business or improve your personal branding. Although the origins of the word are evidently military,1 the managerial use of tactics refers to an ensemble of instruments, actions and short-term plans submitted to a broader and long-term set of goals. Tactics are all those steps – activities, instruments, skills etc. – needed to reach a particular objective, in their reciprocal articulation.
Let us take as an example a hypothetical newly founded apparel brand: the strategy they will elaborate will be represented by the overall plan to sell as much clothes as possible, while the tactics used to achieve it could be the communication plan, the promotion and so forth.
The military sense of the word is not very different: a military tactic is indeed the complex of particular actions planned in order to achieve a bigger objective. The different actions and their structure is tactic, while the strategy is how they combine in a general plan, in order to achieve the goal of gaining the control over a specific territory, for instance.
Nevertheless, we will point to a different notion of tactics, as it was elaborated by Michel de Certeau, historian and anthropologist who died in 1986. Certeau’s use of the term exceeds both the economic and the military fields and refers to tactics and to strategies to describe two opposite ways of acting in the social reality. Tactics and strategies do not represent a particular set of actions, but rather something that we could call a style, a peculiar way of acting in the social space designed by the capitalistic mass production:2
Just as in literature one differentiates “styles” or ways of writing, one can distinguish “ways of operating” – ways of walking, reading, producing, speaking, etc. These styles of action intervene in a field which regulates them at a first level […] but they introduce into a way of turning it to their advantage that obeys other rules and constitutes something like a second level interwoven into the first. (De Certeau 1988:30)
This difference is somewhat important. Discussing about tactics and strategies is a matter of styles, of ways if doing, not of actions strictu sensu: the same action can – as we will discuss further – be undertaken in a tactical and in a strategical way, or, better said, a strategy can be re-signified into a tactic.3 What matters is not what is done but how it is done and how a specific action affects the social environment and the construction of a subjectivity (Lista 2016). We can describe tactics and strategies as guide - concepts that can enlighten two different styles of acting, two ways of living the modern city.
Certeau gives a clear definition of what tactics are in one of his most known book, The practice of everyday life:
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 a 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. It does not have means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection […] 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 the “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it can stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. (De Certeau 1988:36-37)
On the opposite side, strategies are described as:
The calculation (or manipulation) of 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” rationalisation seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will from an “environment”. A Cartesian attitude, if you wish: it is an effort to delimit one’s own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other. It is also the typical attitude of modern science, politics, and military strategy. (De Certeau 1984:35-36)
Two main questions are pointed out in these definitions, which represent also the main differences between strategies and tactics: on one hand, the question of proper/improper space (1), on the other the presence/absence of a position of power (2).
To summarize: while the strategic action is characterised by the propriety of a space and by a clearly stated planning, tactics are spread, non-prepared, not even fully conscious, whose subject is the anonymous everyday-man.5 Tactical agency represents a form of alterity regarding the social reality: tactics are radically other, invisible, spontaneous ways to resist to power structure and assert collective freedom.
One of the most famous passages by Certeau helps clarifying further: in the section entitled “Walking in the city” the author describes poetically two different looks at the city of New York. The first one from the top of the World Trade Center, where your eyes dominate the space and you can reach in a singular vision a total image of the city, while the second look comes from the ground, from walking side by side with the other citizens. This second gaze – we may call it a tactical one– cannot bring to an overall vision of the city, but follows a singular and specific path, draws a journey step by step, making visible all the invisible details of the daily life of the city. The strategic vision from the skyscraper is nothing but a fiction: as a totalizing image, the city is like a dead photograph – recalling the typical western philosophical gesture of the external and impartial observation.6 Walking provides another vision, particular, constantly changing; a vision made through the act of walking, which actually re-designs the city at every step. Two visions, two ways to live the city.
One last remark: as already noted, to different kind of action correspond different kind of actors.7 Strategical power requires a conscious subject, with a recognisable position in the social sphere. Someone who “knows what he is doing” (and who owns a particular space) and who holds sufficient power to realize his plans. In conflict with him acts the anonymous subject of tactics: he is the everyday man,8 whit no particular position or quality, who can virtually be anyone. He does not act sticking to a plan, but rather moment by moment following his needs and moods. Everyday actions – the most creative and free ones, in Certeau’s view – are not consciously made, but follow an unconscious flow, reflect the creativity of life itself rather than the logical continuity of a plan. Therefore, the subject of tactics is indeed a quasi-subject, a general individual human being in search for spaces of individual expression in his/her daily life.
The conception of tactics is just the last step of a reflection that absorbed Certeau for nearly twenty years. Though avoiding a reconstruction of the whole process of elaboration, is nevertheless useful to explore briefly one key figure of the latter in order to have a more complete vision of the question: the nature of the revolution of May’68.
The notion of tactics is rooted in a broader reflection upon marginalised subjects, which is a key figure in almost all Certeau’s production. Starting from his works on mystics and possessions, to the writings on the epistemology of history and finally to the wide article production on different political and social issues, Certeau’s interest has always been attracted by every kind of difference and excluded subjectivities. The ones living on the margins of society are in his vision those who most clearly reveal the nature of society itself, whose mere existence questions the limits of the social reality – so, who can be truly creative. For this reason, the most central figures of the early elaboration of tactical agency are some marginalised groups and their activities of critique to the cultural and political status quo. A predominant place in this reflection is held by the students involved in the May ’68 revolution.
The book La prise de parole was published in 1969 and contains a radical statement, comparing May ’68 riots to the French Revolution:
Last May speech was taken the way, in 1789, the Bastille was taken. The stronghold that was assailed is a knowledge held by the dispensers of culture, a knowledge meant to integrate or enclose student workers and wage earners in a system of assigned duties. From the taking of the Bastille to the taking of the Sourbonne, between these two symbols, an essential difference characterizes the event of May 13, 1968: today, it is imprisoned speech that was freed. (De Certeau 1997:11)
The students are seen by Certeau as a marginalised group, a collective actor whose voice in society is not able to be listened. Students, although they should be the cultural avant-garde of a country, are stuck in a system making then passive receivers of knowledge.9 Consequently, the May ’68 riots are not just meant to ask for a university reform, but for a real “symbolic revolution” (De Certeau 1997:3-11): the students are revolting against a system condemning them to silence, using the words the system itself gave them. Riots are the beginning of a different organisation of the allowance to speak in the public place, held by those without a voice.
Obviously, the students are not inventing a brand-new language to lead their protests. They are “capturing the speech”, it is to say that they are taking the language taught them by the institution of the University and using it for a radically new and different purpose. They are, in some sense, turning the social system and its language upside down from the inside. In addition, the violence of some of the protests is described by Certeau following the same logic: “'I am not a thing'. Violence is the gesture that rejects all identifications, 'I exist'” (De Certeau 1997:12).
The students are, according to Certeau, also truly creative: they are opening new cultural and social possibilities by re-signifying the words they already know. They are “metaphorising” knowledge and words. Their new free self-expression is not driven by the claim of building a new society one day to the other, but rather by the attempt to give a shape to their original desire using the same cultural tools previously used to exploit them. The cultural novelty lies in this re-signification of the world, in the capacity to speak through the culture made to keep them silent.
They are as well acting “in the space of the Other” as they do not have access to power to reform the University or the whole society but nevertheless they are profiting from every occasion to spread their message and to build alternatives.
Certeau does not use explicitly the term tactic to describe the students protest but is quite clear that all the characteristics are already present in nuce. As we noticed, the students protest took place in someone else’s place and in someone else’s language, without any power nor long-term plan: these features allow us to interpret their kind of agency as a tactic. In addition, we write about the protagonist of May ’68 calling them “students”, without identifying them with some charismatic leader nor to a particular institution. The agency of the protests is spread, and the protagonists act with spontaneous creativity.
Along the students, other figures are find out to present the same character in different other works by Certeau: the Latin American communities inspired by the Theology of Liberation (De Certeau 1997:77), the native Americans exploited by the European colonialism (Certeau 1980; Certeau 1986:225-237), the mystic figures of the XVI century oppressed by the institutionalised Catholic Church (Certeau 1992b). All these figures share the same style, a similar reaction to some oppressive institutions characterised by a revolt without power that can lead to a deep renovation of the society they live in. Certeau analysed the actions and especially the language of this kind of communities, in order to show the particularity of their position regarding in society.
Finally, there is a difference we have to underline between the analysis of marginalised groups and the theoretical framework elaborated in The practice of everyday life. Certeau itself states that
Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an activity that is undersigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has become a silent majority. (De Certeau 1984:XVII)
A deep change occurred in European societies, from the ’68 revolts to the ’80s. Cities have grown,10 a first huge wave of immigration has struck France, but more generally a wide spread consumerism culture stood in for the revolutionary climate. Certeau noticed the change and expressed it not by withdrawing his previous analysis, but rather extending them to social life in general. Marginalised groups do not represent anymore a social category with specific characteristics, but marginalisation itself is now a core feature of the everyday life of European people. In consequence, tactical agency should now be ascribed to potentially everyone, no more only to some particular groups. Resistance to the omnipresence of power is now a widespread feature of everyday life, growing along with a more pervasive presence of different new forms of power.
The activity of students protesting against the oppression of an old education system is just alike the everyday attempt of normal people to find a space for creativity and self-expression in a deeply standardised world. Both categories live in a space (material and immaterial) designed by someone else, where someone else holds the power, and where the only possibility of “a step aside” is to take the available language and make something different out of it.
After this short reconstruction of the theme of tactical agency, we will proceed in presenting under which signification the term “interculturality” is assumed, and then finally will be explained in which sense tactics can be seen as a significant contribution to it.
As previously stated, the terms “intercultural” and “interculturality” are extensively used in pedagogical and political research. We can recall some of the leading themes regarding cultural difference such as intercultural competencies, international student exchange programmes, intercultural education and social justice, hospitality, migration studies and so forth. Thence, the field of “intercultural studies” is occupied with urgent issues but it does not include a comprehensive and general concept of what “interculturality” itself is or what can an expression as “intercultural encounter” may signify. More precisely, there are many different interpretations of the terms, referring to different specific issue, but what is lacking is a genuine theoretical elaboration.
One valuable attempt in this direction has been made by a group of scholars, although not organised as an established school, gathered around the question of what interculturality in nowadays societies could represent – according to very different points of view. For instance, Ram Adhar Mall followed the path of philosophical hermeneutics to propose a model of interculturality based on the interpretation of the culturally other, whit a particular attention to the prejudices that can lead to misunderstandings (Mall 2000). Differently, Raymon Panikkar focused more on the question on interreligious dialogue to move on to intercultural dialogue and dealt with issues like religion and epistemological pluralism (Panikkar 1999); furthermore, Bernhard Waldenfels referred directly to the fenomenological tradition to deepen the question of how cultural otherness shows itself (Waldelnfels 1997). Finally, scholars like Giangiorgio Pasqualotto (Pasqualotto 2008), Marcello Ghilardi (Ghilardi 2012) and François Jullien (Jullien 2011) take as a starting point the comparison to one specific philosophical tradition to make a more general model out of it (Chinese philosophy, in this case).
Among this variety of positions, we will assume the one taken by the Cuban philosopher Raul Fornet Betancourt. Referring critically to the tradition of Philosophy of Liberation and to post-colonial studies, Betancourt proposes to think of interculturality as a “project of an alternative humanity” (Fornet-Betancourt 2006), a socio-political and educational perspective aiming not just at managing the issues of cultural difference, but at assuming it as a possibility to re-imagine society. Cultures are, according to Betancourt, “reserves of humanity” (Fornet-Betancourt 2008) and the dialogue among them as a possibility to re-discover the cultural and symbolic authentic needs of humanity. Through intercultural dialogue individuals and groups can re-discover their own traditions under different perspectives, can criticize them if needed, and discover different possibly enriching values and practices.
Intercultural dialogue also represents a meaningful way to critique the neoliberal value system through a re-discover of traditions and symbols, self-contained from the omnipresence of the market. Very briefly, in a neoliberal world subdued to the values of economic exchange, intercultural dialogue can turn into an instrument to re-discover human values and to imagine – through the exercise of dialogue – an other kind of co-existence.
Betancourt also refers to interculturality as an “ethical project of humanisation”, as the encounter of different world-visions can turn into a discovery of the plurality of possibilities to shape the world and to give it a significance. The more cultural traditions one knows, more possibilities of “being human” discovers and can explore.
The project of “humanisation” cannot of course be fostered just on an intellectual or philosophical level. Consequently, the author refers to interculturality as a “popular philosophy” or as a “theoretic-political project”: the research of paths of dialogue and exchange among different cultural visions needs to be promoted by a theoretical reflection, but such a reflection should be accessible to everybody, and be an inspiration for creative political/educational activities. In other words, intercultural philosophy should be intended as a concrete exercise of dialogue and political actvity as well as an academic exercise.
In this section, I will underline some features of the concept of tactics and the relative tactical subjectivity that make them a useful contribution to a theory of interculturality. The analysis will concentrate on three main issues arising from the description given of the tactical agency: 1. The critical nature of tactics and interculturality 2. Cultural marginality 3. Creativity
Interculturality, as described by Betancourt, shows a very similar critical potentiality. Intercultural dialogue can be a form of cultural resistance as long as its practice leads to a reciprocal discover of values and means. The process of getting in touch with another culture can help to rediscover one’s own cultural roots and values, as well as to appreciate the different ones: in this context hides a subtle resistance to a neoliberal view allergic to every kind of non-profitable values. Cultural values, if not taken as absolutes, can represent a good other point of view to look at society.
Such encounters, of every kind they might be, can actually be described as tactical. The intercultural encounters, the meaningful ones, cannot be pre-ordered by any kind of institution or policy (although they might be in some ways promoted) but just happen. Just as meaningful encounters in general, they happen into the normal flow of everyday life, often remaining hidden under normal activities such as walking or cooking. Everyday actions can be suddenly hit by the presence of difference and become instruments of cultural resistance: using a foreign food to cook a traditional recipe, for instance, is affirming tactically the freedom of an intercultural action. The invisible everyday activities can be a precious source of intercultural dialogue as long as it is fostered in its spontaneous creativity. Such a creativity is not individual but shared, arising from those situations where different traditions come together to solve everyday problems or to make a space liveable.
Intercultural dialogue becomes critical when it happens in unexpected and surprising ways; in a tactical sense interculturality should not be constructed because it is already there, hiding behind the “murmuring of the everyday language”. The space of the city is constantly being re-written in a half-breed language where the significance of every step is invented mixing life experience and given spaces. A new – intercultural – language is already at work and it hides a critical potentiality because of its nature of otherness: an event that questions the existing human relationship as well as the use of spaces or the political situation. Critical, as long as it shows a possible way to re-think the social space.
Given this framework, intercultural dialogue can be considered a marginal activity. It is marginal not only because of his processual and in some sense unproductive nature, but also because it is necessarily – as Betancourt describes it - “situated”. Intercultural dialogue is effective only if it is rooted in a particular territory and in a particular experience, in a real everyday environment where real people interact, and cannot be reproduced nor commercialised. The situation (the local, so to speak) is marginal while the globalized, the reproducible and the exportable are central.
In addition, intercultural dialogue always takes place in “the space of the other” and takes advantages of improper objects. Interculturality is prevented from owning a particular space, as it is by definition a space “in between” different tradition; it happens in a space dominated by a commercial logic, and it takes advantage of its products. Intercultural dialogue also does not produce brand new products, but re-signifies already existing objects (as well as tradition, symbols, images, music, dances and so on) in a process of hybridisation and confront. Let us think about what happened with the hip-hop culture in the US: pieces of music produced by a white-American class for a white-American public where taken out of their context and re-combined by the black communities to express artistically their situation of exploitation and submission.13 In someone else’s space something different happened: something new was invented in the margins. Interculturality lives on the margins of society, invisible and creative.
Intercultural dialogue, in a real tactical sense, creates a kind of “third space” between the active role of cultural industry and the supposedly passive position of consumers: it implies assuming that culture is shaped by mass production, but then is possible to “metaphorize” its products and give them a different meaning. Intercultural dialogue holds the potentiality of inventing new significance, new symbols and new practices: dialogue fosters real cultural creativity as it makes room for a process of invention that takes place in normal activities, among normal objects gaining a very different status. Intercultural dialogue means in this perspective renewing our symbolic worlds by adding new meanings to old landscapes. Creativity, finally going back to point 1, is in this sense a source of resistance to the power of cultural mass production: if the prerogative of designing and spreading cultural products is kept by a small elite, on the opposite side the possibility to gather and build new meanings around mass products is within reach of potentially everyone.
In conclusion, resistance, marginality and creativity can represent three useful points to develop further a reflection on what interculturality can mean for today’s societies and how it can be fostered in new and effective ways.
Copyright © 2019 Federico Rovea
Federico Rovea. «Intercultural tactics. A reading of Michel De Certeau from an intercultural perspective. ». Dialegesthai. Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 21 (2019) [inserito il 31 dicembre 2019], disponibile su World Wide Web: <https://mondodomani.org/dialegesthai/>, [38 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.
One famous example is the production of TV programmes: according to Certeau the production and semiotics of the TV images are very clear, while is missing an understanding of the reception of those products. In other words is clear how the production of images work, not what people do with those images (De Certeau 1988:165-177).
It is essential to underline one more time that Certau intends the terms under in an epistemological sense, as the structures of action rather than objects of the latter. What is done is almost indifferent here: what matters is the order of representation under which the action is understood, it is the movement of a practice and not the description of objects that is addressed. If we intend tactics and strategies as objects, we fall into the same objectifying epistemological circle Certeau tried to deconstruct (See Brammer 1992).
In Certeau’s vision there is no space for a strict ontology of subjectivity. He always refers to the question of subjectivity as a question of agency, not as fixed nature: a subject who acts tactically, for instance, can easily turn into a strategic one, and vice versa (See Napoli 2016).
Certeau’s understanding of modernity is based on the idea of the loss of the Universal Reference (God, a comprehensive idea of Humanity and so on) where individual and collective identities could find stability, substituted by a dialectic between institutions (new weak form of stability) and individual desire (anarchic and instable). See De Certeau 1973 ,De Certeau 1992b, Napoli 2016, Gilles 2014.
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