Antonio Spadaro’s interview launched Pope Francis to the world back in 2013. Many commentators jumped upon any cultural clues that would help us quickly navigate the words and actions of this charismatic leader. Seven years later I find myself reflecting on Michel de Certeau (1925-86), cited by Francis in that deeply mined interview, because through his insight he has become a practical lockdown companion.
Also a Jesuit, de Certeau was ordained priest in 1956 but he is more widely appreciated within literary and sociological circles rather than in theological schools. I first encountered his writings while studying Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry about movement across urban spaces, especially in The Man-Moth (L’Uomo-Falena) whose words from 1935 resonate as we tentatively emerge from our domestic cocoons:
«But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings»
«Ma quando l’Uomo-Falena
fa la sua rara visita di circostanza in superficie,
vede una luna un po’ diversa. Eccolo emergere
da un’apertura sotto il bordo di un marciapiede
per poi nervosamente dare la scalata alle facciate delle case»
Bishop is writing figuratively, yet de Certeau invites us to perceive cityscapes from new angles. His contribution takes on a richer meaning given our experience of restricted movement. As we begin to come to «the surface» maybe «the moon» and much more besides will begin to look «rather different» to us. Whether we are attentive or not will make the difference.
This is where de Certeau is crucial. His text The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invenzione del quotidiano) offers a way of interpreting urban spaces from our pedestrian view. He analyses the way we manoeuvre through cities such that the paths we take reveal narratives: how planners etch out sidewalks and squares where people meet (or do not), how we take shortcuts, choose certain streets but not others, change our mind again, interact with a stranger, bump into someone, or where some public spaces are frequented by them and not by us.
Looking at culture in this way tells us something powerful: that culture is ordinary. Frequently we need reminding because some would rather that culture remain utterly other. Continually, de Certeau explains that scientific discourses tend to be closed circuits that need bringing «back toward their native land, everyday life». We understand this practically in our own days of pandemic.
Government broadcasts and daily updates, with a panel of experts, whether contradicted or supported, advise us on how we must move and operate outside our domestic setting. The movement of our bodies, how we greet, interact, mourn, worship, consume, eat, and drink, are all the material of culture. The true significance of the ordinary, which de Certeau already recognised, is suddenly upon us.
De Certeau is arguably most convincing when articulating the gap between models that attempt to codify reality and reality itself. Looking to our use of products he challenges the way specialised applications of technical knowledge do not acknowledge us – «the silent majority» – who consume products, and in our consumption are also producers. Our activity of consumption as production remains «unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized» even though it is culturally meaningful.
A pertinent example is how viewing platforms such as Netflix manage profiles based on inscriptions where an algorithmic logic is programmed to suggest visual content. We all know how much we increased our viewing during lockdown! What does it mean that a film is 94% a match for me? Another is 95%. How is that difference measured?
Within algorithmic logic there is a form of feedback (clients watch recommended content) that invites other feedback (further recommended content), whereby we are all caught in a web of recommendations.
I have been watching Netflix with de Certeau because he would argue that this feedback is partial. Algorithmic logic is only ever part of the story because our stories are fuller, more complex, contradictory, and changeable. Netflix’s suggestions, however successfully algorithms operate, remain suggestions.
An algorithmic logic cannot report the ways we use products or how products interact with other aspects of our lives. Whether we cry, laugh, pause to drink, hold the hands of a lover, consume other products, receive other media, multitask, and so on are part of the way we use services like Netflix that escape the notice of algorithms. This is cultural consumption as production.
When we have finished binge watching and take steps back to a new normal let us take those steps knowing that we are producers as well as consumers of culture. Everyday life is ordinary, but as we witness at this time of pandemic: the ordinary never looked so new.