A Practical Science of the Singular


“…not in what is most valued by official representation…”

This morning I finally finished The Practice of Everyday Life, Volume 2: Living and Cooking. I don’t have time to write a commentary, but did want to post some choice quotes from the short essay at the end by de Certeau reflecting on the study of everyday life, “A Practical Science of the Singular.”

In the short essay his emphasis on culture as everyday human practice and creativity is clear—much of it a summary of points he made in the first book.

Culture is not something one has, but something one does individually with others—the individual utterance in a social situation, the individual act made meaningful in its social context. He argues that culture is based in the oral, even when these origins are not immediately evident. Like making a meal from basic ingredients, each of us is the chef of our own “cooked” culture. We take the systems and contexts given to us and make them ours through our ordinary actions.

In making these observations, de Certeau expresses the difficulty of finding appropriate methods and tools to study the culture of the everyday. Of course, if he is correct about everyday practice, the subjects of study will, themselves, attempt to perform their own operations on the operations of the researchers. This is the fundamental wonder of human practice as he thinks of it.

“Considering culture as it is practiced, not in what is most valued by official representation or economic politics, but in what upholds it and organizes it, three priorities stand out: orality, operations, and the ordinary” (251).

“Orality also constitutes the essential space of community…Social exchange demands a correlation of gestures and bodies, a presence of voices and accents, marks of breathing and passions, an entire hierarchy of complementary information necessary for interpreting a message that goes beyond a simple statement—rituals of address and greeting, chosen registers of expression, nuances added by intonation, facial movements” (252).

“Orality thus retains the primary role in our societies of writing and figures; it is more served than thwarted by the media or the resources of electronics” (252).


“…communication is a cuisine of gestures and words…”

“Orality is everywhere, because conversation insinuates itself everywhere, organizing both the family and the street, both work in a business and research in a laboratory. Oceans of communication have infiltrated everywhere, and are always determining, even there where the final product of the activity erases all trace of this relationship to orality” (253).

“A city breathes when places for speech exist within it, regardless of their official function—the neighborhood cafe, the marketplace, the line at the post office, the newspaper stand, or the main door of the school at the end of the day” (253).

“Culture is judged by its operations, not by the possession of products” (254).

“…communication is a cuisine of gestures and words, of ideas and information, with its recipes and its subtleties, its auxiliary instruments and its neighboring effects, its distortions and its failures. It is false to believe henceforth that electronic and computerized objects will do away with the activity of users. From the hi-fi stereo to the VCR, the diffusion of these devices multiplies ruses and provokes the inventiveness of users…and, thus become producers of their own little “cultural industry…In turn, this collection becomes the bartering object in the network of family or friends” (254).

“By itself, culture is not information, but its treatment by a series of operations as a function of objectives and social relations…To appropriate information for oneself, to put it in a series, and to bend its montage to one’s own taste is to take power over a certain knowledge and thereby overturn the imposing power of the ready-made and preorganized” (254).

“Ordinary culture hides a fundamental diversity of situations, interest, and contexts under the apparent repetition of objects that it uses. Pluralization is born from ordinary usage, from the immense reserve that the number and multiple of differences constitute” (256).

“We know poorly the types of operations at stake in ordinary practices, their register and their combination, because our instruments of analysis, modeling, and formalization were constructed for other objects and with other aims” (256).


“Our categories of knowledge are still too rustic…”

“In this sense, ordinary culture is first of all a practical science of the singular, which takes in reverse our thinking habits in which scientific rationality is knowledge of the general, an abstraction made from the circumstantial and the accidental” (256).”

“Our categories of knowledge are still too rustic and our analytic models too little elaborated to allow us to think the inventive proliferation of everyday practices. That is our regret. That there remains so much to understand about the innumerable ruses of the “obscure heroes” of the ephemeral, those walking in the city, inhabitants of neighborhoods, readers and dreamers, the obscure Kitchen Women Nation, fills us with wonder” (256).

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