Certeau, Michel de (1925-1986)

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CERTEAU, MICHEL DE (1925-1986)

Michel de Certeau, Jesuit historianhe was a specialist on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and religionwas born in Chambéry in Savoy on May 17, 1925, and died at the age of sixty on January 13, 1986. He was introduced to psychoanalysis by Louis Beirnaert. He was one of the first members of the École Freudienne de Paris in 1964 and remained a member until it was dissolved by Jacques Lacan in 1980. Between 1963 and 1967 he directed the review Christus, together with François Roustang, introducing psychoanalysis to the magazine.

His interest in alterity and the Other led him to study the work of Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit mystic of the seventeenth century who was brought in to exorcize the possessed at Loudun. To understand the mystic priest, Certeau made use of psychoanalysis together with semiotics and ethnology. A historian, like Surin, of impossible speech and the broken subject, Michel de Certeau gave exceptional pertinence to Lacanian concepts. In search of the traces of the absent, attentive to the sites of a Real that was impossible to restore, he anchored historical writing in the relation between the body and language and in the constituent division of the subject between "outside" and "inside."

After 1968 he taught in the Department of Psychoanalysis at the Université de Paris in Vincennes. He later divided his time between the University of California at San Diego and Paris, and was appointed head of research at theÉcole des HautesÉtudes en Sciences Sociales in 1984.

A tireless investigator of ideas and places, Certeau, in his historical work, demonstrated the fecundity of what Freud referred to as the work of mourning. For him historical writing is the equivalent of the "tom-beau," a literary and musical genre practiced in the seventeenth century, which gave voice to the past in order to bury it, that is, to honor and eliminate it.

At a time when the social sciences were deeply influenced by scientism, Michel de Certeau felt that history, like psychoanalysis, was dependent primarily on a hermeneutics of loss. He defined an epistemology of the "in-between," which hovered between science and fiction, and which studied the memory traces inscribed in a present subject to the "uncanny familiarity" of a past that was always ready to rise up to haunt our actions.

FranÇois Dosse

See also: History and psychoanalysis; Religion and psychoanalysis.


Certeau, Michel de (1970). The Possession at Loudun (Michael B. Smith, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

. (1973). L 'absent de l 'histoire. Repères, Paris: Mame.

. (1975). The writing of history (Tom Conley, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

. (1982). The mystic fable (Michael B. Smith, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

. (1987). Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction. Paris: Gallimard, Folio.

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Certeau, Michel de (1925-1986)

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