Tuesday, March 01, 2016


Just a week from now, I'll be in Paris gearing up for a big international gathering marking the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of the polymath Michel de Certeau. I was invited because his collaborator and literary executor visited Fudan last year to lead some seminars around his thought, and I had the privilege of showing her around Shanghai a bit. I met the great man himself when a teenager - his last teaching job was at UCSD - and I vaguely recall playing chess, and his letting me undo some improvident moves. But before last year's seminar I hadn't really engaged very intensively with his oeuvre. I've still barely scratched the surface (apparently he penned more than five hundred works, many still unpublished), but I've crossed some kind of threshold: I led the students in "Lived Religion in New York" in a discussion of two widely-cited sections from The Practice of Everyday Life (the misleading English name for L'invention du quotidien I: arts de faire). It's not easy, for several good reasons: his writing is, perhaps intentionally, difficult. The kinds of "tactical" practices he's drawing attention to are hard to describe in words, and flourish without such articulation - and may even depend on this unarticulability. I felt in at least some of the students the sense that this can be revelatory for understanding the life of cities, and of religion (and of course for urban religion). It goes beyond the analyses of the American theorists we've been reading. Merci, Michel!

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