Michel de Certeau and the limits of historical representation
Faculty of Law
History and theory: studies in the philosophy of history. - Middletown, Conn.
, p. 161-178
The polymath Michel de Certeau is traditionally seen as one of a group of French post-structuralist thinkers who reject constructs in the social sciences in favor of the diversity of the everyday or the past. However, in this paper I will show that, as a historian, Certeau did not discard these constructs, but rather valued them as a means of doing justice to the "strangeness" of the past. The position that Certeau adopts can be seen most clearly from his theoretical debate with Paul Veyne, which is the starting point of this article. I then show how Certeau's first major historical work, The Possession at Loudun, exemplifies his theoretical position. An analysis of this work demonstrates how the historian's active reconstruction of interactions between exorcists, medical doctors, state officers, and possessed nuns helps us to perceive the complexity of the past in a way that can be seen as a microhistory avant la lettre. I will suggest that during his writing of the history of Loudun, Certeau implicitly raises more theoretical and epistemological problems, and in so doing he "practices" a theory of history. The most elusive aspect of the story at Loudun turns out to be the drama around the priest Grandier. This article demonstrates how Certeau pays tribute to Grandier by using "scientific" methods, thus showing the "limits of representation" through disciplinary means. Finally, the article explores the implications of Certeau's theory and practice of the writing of history for understanding historiography at large. The historian not only appears as a tramp who looks for remains that are forever lost to us, but is also a "scientist" who uses both models and concepts in order to put them to the test.