Michel de Certeau: To the ordinary man.

Michel de Certeau’s original version of his book “The Practice of Everyday Life” (1984) has a “for-forword” that dedicates it to the “ordinary man.” This ordinary man is the remnant of humanity in an age that moves from the name to the number, from titles to bar codes. We can fill in the blanks: refugees, prisoners, stateless people, migrants, slum-dwellers, people who live in some kind of no-mans-land, or simply the crowds in public spaces. In Certeau’s view, what is left of humanity is an impossible object of desire, the longing for a subject of history, or for a meaningful reality before its representation. The “murmuring voice of society” exists today in the soap operas on TV, in endless movies with happy or tragic endings, in the daily drumbeat of news that are disconnected from their contexts, in the blind faith that technological progress and even better gadgets will save us all. The faster our society changes, the closer it comes to the realization that it exists on the edge of an abysmal emptiness.

We like everything in story-format, and every story should be uplifting, inspiring, or true. But what if we reached the end of the story? It is like sitting in a movie theater when the movie has ended. What comes next? Certeau tries to say something in this kind of silence. His text was written in 1984, and the question is, does it still apply to us in 2013?

“To the ordinary man.

To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets. In invoking here at the outset of my narratives the absent figure who provides both their beginning and their necessity, I inquire into the desire whose impossible object he represents. What are we asking this oracle whose voice is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of   history to license us, to authorize us to say, when we dedicate to him the writing that one formerly offered in praise of the gods or the inspiring muses?

This anonymous hero is very ancient. He is the murmuring voice of societies. In all ages, he comes before texts. He does not expect representations. He squats now at the center of our scientific stages. The floodlights have moved away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience. The increasingly sociological and anthropological perspective of’ inquiry privileges the anonymous and the everyday in which zoom lenses cut out metonymic details — parts taken for the whole. Slowly the representatives that formerly symbolized families. groups. and orders disappear from the stage they dominated during the epoch of the name. We witness the advent of the number. It comes along with democracy, the large city, administrations, cybernetics. It is a flexible and continuous mass, woven tight like a fabric with neither rips nor darned patches, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one.”


Certeau, M. de, & Rendall, S. F. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life (2 edition.). University of California Press.

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