Michel de Certeau (d. 1986) was Jesuit monk, historian and philosopher whose work is essential for conceptualizing religion within everyday life. His scholarship on mysticism and religious polemics offers some of the most fruitful for understanding of Hasidism, Mitnagdim, and Neo-Hasidism, or the in-between groups within Orthodoxy. I will limit my discussion here to those points important for the understanding of popular culture.
In one of his talks given to an intellectual group of clergy debating ideological issues of the age, a European Catholic version of the Orthodox Forum, where the debate was how much pluralism can the unified teachings of the Church bear? As in the Jewish community, the papers addressed the matter from the perspective of liberal and conservative, specifically how to increase pluralism within the Church or how to set limits to the pluralism? Certeau undercut the discussion of the forum by arguing that pluralism is everywhere. Everything that goes on in the practice of everyday life is interpreted differently by everyone—the fishmonger and the lawyer, the bishop and the doctor, all people hear things differently. The average person, the teenager, the householder, the senior citizen, the high school teacher, the doctor, and the lawyer each create their own version of the Church’s teaching.
To apply this to the case of the Orthodoxy, Certeau would emphasize how Rav Soloveitchik means different things to different people. Most of us are used to the debates about Rav Soloveitchik and revisionism, situating the diversity on a left and right spectrum. Certeau would undercut this and looks at the reception of Rav Soloveitchik from a real life perspective.
To illustrate, I will take a real life example, a local New York high school gave its students a short essay written by Rav Soloveitchik on the axiological importance of Torah study in our lives. As homework, they had to answer questions about how to apply that essay within their lives. So, one student, showing commitment to Torah study, started to paint signs for his youth group, another spent time each day on AskMoses the Chabad question and answer site, another studied with diligence Akiva Tatz’s books, another read frum message boards on the web, one downloaded Torah shiurim on mp3’s, and another worked on a video for their NCSY region, others spent extra time on their Navi class where literary approaches to the chapter were emphasized. None of this plurality relates to the left-right divide or can be directly found in Rav Soloveitchik’s words.
According to Certeau, the religious person can cull the products of the community and adapt it to her own life and worldview, thereby Rav Soloveitchik can be combined with the twelve steps, kiruv, neo-hasidism, sports, and be seen to support Artscroll, Hatam Sofer, Kahanaism, and the internet.
For Certeau, the understanding of culture is the understanding of consumers and how they poach. Culture is also about the operational logic of disguise and survival against a background of obligation and orthodoxy. Certeau is interested in how we use objects—not how the original intent for which they were created for to us. For instance, Certeau is interested in how people buy books just to have them on the shelf, or to make a polemic point, or to show allegiance. How people misquote them just as much as what it says in the book. Do we give the object privileged space? Do they subvert their meanings? A common practice is to harmonize the given book with whatever a person is actually interested in or actually uses in her life.
When Certeau looks at everyday life, he looks at activities of resistance and evasion and how people resist under the radar by means of tactics. An example of a tactic might be something as mundane as using office supplies for personal purposes or IMing at work. They are committed to work but their heart and mind are elsewhere.
In Certeau’s gaze, he would see students who may be committed to study Talmud yet are successful at evasion of the very activity to which they claim to be devoting their efforts. They may start the morning learning by talking about their dates, the entertainment they recently attended, and sports scores. They also know that if they play along enough to cover the Gemara, they will be left alone to deal with their own path where they can concentrate on Neo-Haisdut, kiruv, current events, the seforim sale, or the MCATS. They can spend seder uploading to the web reverential pictures of the roshei yeshiva, sending Twitter messages about what they are currently learning, or collecting all the political and polemical comments made by the Rosh Yeshiva. They can reminisce about the popular culture experience of the gap year in Israel. Or they can enter into a language weave of steig and stark by focusing on how they dress, their props, and the books on their shelves, rather than the content of the Talmud. Each of these is a tactic of evasion that simultaneously evades and supports the system.
These activities have no clear authority or no proper location. Rather, they are opportunistic moments that we use to construct our days that let us survive. According to Certeau, all institutions, books, and ideas are now conversations and everyday practices. Certeau focus on space, not time or ideas, to explain everyday life. He uses the metaphor of the fishwife going to market and walking through the streets of Paris in order to opt out of the grand metaphors about history, ideas, and social change. For Certeau, everything is a network and everything has potential to contradict everything else without upsetting the public confession.
There are a variety of sources of knowledge that continuously undercut the main narrative. Certeau makes the point that the ideas get played out so radically different in the real life that it becomes hard to talk about the ideas. Every work has multiple receptions in society that are incorrigible. Storytellers have no power in the hierarchical religious system, but they gain authority that people use in their personal narratives. Other tactics to undermine include calling something a “secret” because secret knowledge gives us status, this works also for religious experience. Singularity is also a good tactic—if you make something “different” then you can opt out as well. Mystics and pietists are masters of this. Hecklers have amazing authority without power.
In his theory, it is important to note when the personal overrides the supposed orthodoxy. Someone may have heard a rabbi give a proper lecture on a topic but a story by lay preacher or a Neo-Hasidic tale may speak to their personal narrative in a stronger way and the religious person lets the story overrides the formal teaching. If asked if one followers a Rosh Yeshivah, a person can give a resounding 100% “yes” answer of obedience. But Certeau would observe when you discuss the details with the person they may give complete deference to the personal meanderings including what he reads on a blog, a weird singular halakhic opinion they once heard, his high school rebbe, Artscroll, his NCSY advisor, or something in the name of Rav Moshe Wolfson. In all of these cases, there was no rationalization for the contradictory harmonization but natural evasions that create their own authority. In addition, Certeau shows that when a religious person is asked about compliance with a religious principle they may also refer to a different question, the way he is dressed, a class he attended, an event in the news, something he just read, tell a story and never return to the original question.
From Certeau’s ground level vantage point, high culture reveals itself as subject to the same cultural forces as popular culture. Ideological products become excorporated into daily life, meaning incorporated along with the distortions and evasions generated by fears, desires, distortions, pragmatic decisions, and misreadings of daily life. Popular culture is the paradigm by which people can deal with high culture products that are out-dated, oppressive, or out of touch with experiences or aspirations.