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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

'Certeau's landscapes: what can images do?'

This piece alternates between a reading of Certeau’s L’Invention du quotidien centred on the practice and the issue of the image, and a wider theoretical reflection on the image’s agency vis-à-vis analytical categories through which we engage with the real of modernity. Certeau, like many of the writers to be addressed in this volume, holds a view of literature in which form is an aspect of a wider agency. Rooted in this understanding of literariness, the image plays a decisive though cryptic part in his work. At a pivotal point in L’Invention du quotidien, Certeau invokes two images: the sea, the night. Thus, the reality of effective social practices is one in perpetual flight, what he figures as the ‘night’ of our societies, or ‘une immensité maritime’. Precisely what’s interesting is how Certeau’s practice amounts also to a theory of the image. His first move is seemingly orthodox in that he concedes an approach via the image to be at best marginal. But then what the image reveals is an insoluble gap — an aspect of the relation with the object that suddenly puts the ‘expert’s’ claim to embody a scientific approach into doubt. The image operates as a ‘rectification’ by means of a holistic rationale of its own — so Certeau’s mention of the therapeutic value of his imaginary detour. What, then, can images do? I offer three perspectives on this question. First, I will pose a further question: what is the form of the form? The issue is that of the set of formal relations in which a specific form — here the image — can be said to be embedded. This connects to the second perspective, in which I will explore the mobility of forms and will compare Certeau’s vindication of the image with that of a number of more recent anthropologists, namely Tim Ingold and Philippe Descola, in whose work it is subsumed into what can be termed an anthropology of sustainability. Third, I shall briefly consider the transmission of Certeau’s model and the transformations which it undergoes as a result. The relationship of the moderns with the real comes to be assumed within a future-oriented trajectory, a shift which we owe here to form. Certeau’s dream — that of conveying to the future some version of our relation with a ‘paysage imaginaire’ — is precariously though joyously reaffirmed and, through the revaluation of the relationship between participant and observer, object and ‘rapporteur’, his ghostly expert is rejuvenated, and newly brought into relation with each of us.

‘Certeau’s landscapes: what can images do?‘, in What Forms Can Do: The Work of Form in 20th- and 21st-Century French Literature and Thought, ed. by Patrick Crowley and Shirley Jordan (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), pp. 255–69