The economics of writing (and publishing)

Michel de Certeau, Kunst des Handelns, Berlin 1988

Review for the Digital Humanities

The art of acting, L’Invention du quotidien – Arts de faire, respectively, as the book is originally called, has long been an insider tip. Its author, a french historian and Jesuit, working inter alia in the Americas, tried to translate back to Europe much of what anthropologists have written into the new world. He worked on a mystique that in part can be used for the legend of the Digital Humanities, too:

De Certeau describes the actions of people in everyday life as poaching – a view that fits well to the behavior of users in the network and that has been described by Claude Lévi-Strauss as bricolage. Our practices correspond to what could be called creative consuming. For de Certeau it was important that everyday things should penetrate into the firmly established science. That way, he hoped to overcome the paradox of the authority of experts: That their knowledge would again become credible outside of universities. He used Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice and Claude Lévi-Strauss’ as – albeit fragile – witnesses: The real order of things, de Certeau says, following also Foucault, exists in the popular tactics to convert things to their own purpose. The result is an economy of giving, which undermines the constraints of institutionalized order. With such a reciprocity, a socio-political ethics would come back in the economic system, de Certeau thought extremely optimistic.

Writing history means to build one’s own text with excerpts from sources and pieces of other’s findings. Even though the subject of history is a scientific one, it’s knowledge resembles art, a practical insight and a form that goes beyond knowledge. This corresponds to the “workshop of the historian”, the famous image of Marc Bloch about the production of history.

In this context, writing, naturally, is an important element. It consists of three elements: First, there is the blank page, a field for the activity of the subject. It allows us to retreat, to take a distance to all other activities. Then, a text is designed in this field, the artifact of another world. A man-made world. This play of writing wants to act on the reality. So, the page is a place of passage: what has been recorded, is transformed into a product. Each discourse demonstrates the need to look for a place, from where we can talk. And a language to a field that needs to be opened up. The mastery of the language guarantees a power that expands into a whole territory, a nation. Writing and language help to produce a (territorial) order.

What can we learn from Michel de Certeau for the Digital Humanities? His investigations mainly build on the theory of the speech act. Thus, each expression requires a saying, an implementation of the linguistic system. It follows the introduction of an interlocutor, i.e. the constitution of a contract speech, and finally: the production of a present through the self that speaks. These theoretical steps can be well extended to a theory of the publication act – except for the two last steps. Here, speaking and writing differ from each other. Speaking produces a present, i.e. a presence in the world. Writing can’t do this, or when, then only delayed, when it is adopted after publication and realized in reading. The act of publication does not establish a contract with the other in any case, as the speaking act does. But then only, when the written is being read.

20 years ago, de Certeau said, that writing works completely systematically and automatically; that it transforms subjects into assistants of the typewriter and into a society of computer science. Would he be astonished about what we have establish in the meantime? We are able to leave the production of texts to writing machines – content modeling and distant reading are businesses in the Digital Humanities coming very soon. This will change the work of humanists heavily. To that, see my post about the MIT’s book to the Digital_Humanities.

Post Scriptum:

What became clear reading de Certeau, irrespective of the Digital Humanities: He is a sharp thinker and close observer of the real life and its developments.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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