In 1980, a curiously polymathic Jesuit priest named Michel de Certeau (1925–86) published a provocative book called, in English translation, The Practice of Everyday Life. (The original and more evocative French title is L’invention du quotidien Vol. 1: Arts de faire.) In the book’s introduction he lays out a simple and yet wonderfully generative opposition between strategy and tactics; and that distinction will be key to what follows.
The terms are of course borrowed from warfare: strategy (the term derives from the Greek strategos, “army leader”) concerns the overall goals and general plans of a military campaign. It is the view from 30,000 feet. But when we speak of tactics we are viewing the situation from ground level: military tactics are the specific ways and means by which the overall strategic goals are pursued. Only strategoi formulate strategy, and they may have a good deal to say about tactics as well, but because conditions on the battlefield may be unexpected or volatile, subordinate leaders will be largely responsible for tactical decisions.
De Certeau looked around him and saw a world determined by the strategoi of multinational corporations, national governments, and what the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses.” (Depending on the country, examples of such apparatuses might be educational and health-care systems – not necessarily directly controlled by the government, but regulated and overseen in ways that serve governmental purposes.) These Powers, as St. Paul might have named them, call the shots. In de Certeau’s terms, they identify an “environment” which they stand outside of and manipulate; they determine what within that environment is “proper” – and propre is a key word for de Certeau. What are the proper activities in environment X? What is the proper environment for activity X? The Powers organize and channel the energies of ordinary people into the proper, and do so according to their strategic purposes.
So what is left for ordinary people to do? Well, they can become mere drones, acting wholly and unthinkingly within the channels set by those Powers. But, de Certeau believed, few human beings are drones. Even in dire circumstances people can prove amazingly resilient and creative:
The ambiguity that subverted from within the Spanish colonizers’ “success” in imposing their own culture on the indigenous Indians is well known. Submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept.
For example, these Indians could not decline to become Christians; but they could interpret the Christianity imposed on them in ways that harmonized with their traditional beliefs and practices – as long as they did not do so in open defiance of the boundaries of the “proper.” They could not defy the powers; but they could “make of” what the Powers imposed on them something other than what the Powers intended. This, de Certeau says, is tactical thinking, tactical practice.
In our own context, then, by employing similar tactics those who are designated as mere “consumers” can become “unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” In describing how this works de Certeau employs a fascinating analogy, which will take some time to explain. He invokes the work of the maverick educator Fernand Deligny (1913–96), an extraordinary figure so completely neglected that, as I write, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. But in addition to providing a key metaphor to de Certeau, Deligny provides also a model for the practices I think essential our moment. Think of what follows not as a digression from my presentation of de Certeau, but of de Certeau’s work as a way into the “Arachnean” (spider-like) thought of Deligny.
Deligny and his colleagues, living and working in the Cévennes Mountains of southern France, intentionally separated from the institutional structures (the strategic structures) of French culture, tried to find new and more humane ways of supporting autistic children – especially those who did not speak, who were hors de parole (outside of speech). Deligny treated this silence as a choice to be respected rather than a disability to be overcome, and paid close attention to what such children did instead of speaking.
Leon Hilton, in a fascinating essay, explains that Deligny and his colleagues
began to follow their autistic counterparts as they made their way through the Cévennes’s rocky terrain, making rudimentary line drawings to indicate their direction of movement across the rural encampment and into surrounding wilderness.
The tracings soon became a central aspect of the group’s activities, and the maps grew steadily more detailed and elaborate. They developed visual systems for designating the various sounds and gestures encountered along their pathways, and started to use transparent wax paper to trace the children’s daily routes. No attempt was made to interfere with their movements, or to explain or interpret them. The focus remained on the process of tracing itself.
Deligny called these drawings lignes d’erre – erre not in the sense of “erroneous” but in the sense of the “knight-errant,” the wandering knight without fixed abode. Lignes d’erre are unstable because in motion, perhaps like a pilgrim’s path, which may have more order than it initially appears to. Wander lines, which precede the regularized and disciplined forms of letters. Hilton: “Yet distinct patterns began to emerge: certain trajectories tended to be repeated from one day to the next, and Deligny noted that some of the wandering lines seem to correspond to the conduits of underground waterways.” The children were wordlessly making their way along the paths of life, and and the adults let them do it. Or: rather than imposing a strategy on the children, they allowed the natural world to form the environment, and this empowered the children to become more than mere consumers, mere drones in the “proper” channels. The children became, to return to de Certeau’s language, “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality,” and though hors de parole they became also documenters of their wayfaring. If I thought it possible to rehabilitate a greatly-abused word, I’d say that they were networking.
One of the most famous moments in all of movies comes at the end of François Truffaut’s first feature, The Four Hundred Blows (1959). Antoine Doinel, a Parisian boy who has repeatedly been in trouble – with his mother, with his teachers, with the law – is sent to an institution for troubled youth, where he is subjected to a series of interviews with a psychologist who wants to excavate the causes of his unhappiness. But one day, when playing with some of the other children, Antoine crawls under a fence and makes his way, running, running, to something he had always wanted to see: the ocean. Truffaut freezes the camera on Antoine as he gazes at the wandering, drifting waves of the sea. As Leon Hilton explains, Truffuat worked out the concluding scene of the movie with the help of Fernand Deligny.
What is the value of Deligny’s work to de Certeau? The “wander lines” of the autistic children exemplify
‘indirect’ or ‘errant’ trajectories obeying their own logic. In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which the consumers move about, their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space.
The autistic children Deligny worked with are admirable improvisers: pens and paper are for writing words, they serve the purpose of bringing people “inside written language,” but these children made something else of the tools, adapted the instruments to their own needs and desires. (This is what in my “Filth Therapy” essay, following yet another French thinker, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, I called bricolage: making do, employing what is to-hand, inventing new purposes for old materials.)
It is vital to de Certau’s argument to insist how commonplace such activity is – we fail to see how much we are like those autistic children in the mountains of France, how we too are tacticians:
Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.) are tactical in character. And so are, more generally, many “ways of operating”: victories of the “weak” over the “strong” (whether the strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, “hunter’s cunning,” maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.
But what de Certau, writing nearly fifty years ago, did not foresee is the rise of a Technopoly, an ever-extending regime that unites the old forces of state and corporation into an unprecedentedly extensive endeavor with a Grand Strategy – a strategy I have called metaphysical capitalism. (See the relevant tag to this post.) Technopoly tells us that we own ourselves, and that everything we need to fulfill our own (unchallengeable) desires is available for sale in the marketplace. But of course this is a system that only works if what we desire can in fact be purchased; and since that cannot in advance be guaranteed, the initial imperative of Technopoly is to train our desires, to channel them towards what the system already has for sale.
And the greatest instruments ever devised for such channeling are our internet-connected devices, especially when we connect to the internet through apps. The reason? Because while pens and paper can be used in extraordinarily varied and unpredictable ways, apps can’t: the ways in which we can interact with them are determined with great specificity and no deviation from the designed user-interface paradigm is permitted. You can use a pen to write a poem in elaborate cursive, sketch a tree, play Hangman, or, in moments of desperation, scratch a mosquito bite or skewer a chunk of watermelon. (I am describing, not recommending.) With TikTok, you can … make TikToks. The app is so far the ultimate extension of what Albert Borgmann called the device paradigm.
In short: in relation to the Grand Strategy of Technopoly, the essential purpose of apps is to eliminate the sphere of the tactical. It is to make the kind of improvisation I celebrated in my essay on Albert Murray impossible. It is to transform us all into drones, and then to make us like it – to make us (a) accept a universal strategic imperative as desirable, and (b) promise that our lines never shall wander.