Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Conflict or Union in Difference: Institution, Belief, and Heresy

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Conflict or Union in Difference: Institution, Belief, and Heresy

Article excerpt

This essay presents the following thesis: Michel de Certeau's entire oeuvre explores the problem of belief. While this thesis might seem exaggerated to many, I begin with a statement made by Luce Giard in an interview about Certeau that was published in the magazine Esprit:

The issue of religious belief and belief in a more general sense is treated in a reduced number of texts, about a third of his published work, if one confines oneself to a thematic and superficial reading. But if one reads more deeply, one finds the problem everywhere, he weaves his text below the surface, he is the bearer of his thought's dynamic. (Ahearne et al. 150)

Once one accepts that Certeau's work focuses on issues involving the structure and modalities of belief, it is essential to explain what this Jesuit intellectual refers to by the word belief. As I try to demonstrate throughout this piece, Certeau considers that belief is the emptiness or, better yet, the abyss, where all social life begins.

Belief is the environment that makes social life possible. Always already one is plunged into a borderland of authorities and truths, but these are only the expression of an individual itinerary inscribed into a singular collectivity. For Certeau, no lived or intellectual experience can approximate the universal. As he pointed out in many of his works, an individual will never produce his or her statements from within a global language, no matter how much he or she has read. All speech is a tribal "dialect," and it is the recognition of this that allows us to open ourselves up to heterodoxy. Even further, for Certeau, as for Michel Foucault, human sciences should be called "heterologic knowledge." I prefer to call it heterodox knowledge, knowledge whose purpose is to alter orthodoxy itself. The title of Certeau's most recently published anthology--The Place of the Other--makes this explicit. The figures that haunt his work--characters like Jean-Joseph Surin, the Jesuit who patiently talked with the possessed Jeanne des Anges in Loudun--are always altered by the other. One could say that as travelers, they always pass across limits or borders, their own limits and borders. To cross them, however, they must first be recognized.

Yet one does not cross over to deny oneself or to accept what is different in order to forget oneself. Nothing is more contrary to Certeau. Instead, in Certeau, the encounter with the other can happen only when both recognize each other as different. To recognize another as different means assuming conflict. This conflict consists in encountering the other at the place where both are transformed. There is no apology here for harmony. One is changed by affective discourse, not by objectifying and neutral discourse. In other words, the alteration--how and in what direction will I be affected by the other--is not controllable. It happens within the discourse of desire. Finally, the encounter with heterodoxy happens in a world of ambiguity, the world of passion.

As can be inferred from the above, heresy can become something positive. Heresy stops being about power, which denies and excludes. Heresy is what resides in me when I understand that my experiences are the radical expression of finitude. For Certeau, heresy is not what is outside my belief system but what constitutes my own world. As I hope to make clear by the end of this essay, death does not come from outside but is always already present inside, as it is for Foucault in The Order of Things. The act of belief is being possessed by death. What Michel the Jesuit will insist on in opposition to the other Michel is the following: a rupture or discontinuity in historic time is not something that is discovered when a new "episteme" appears; rather, it exists already in the present "episteme" in which one lives. What is incommensurable is not discovered when a taxonomy stops functioning or stops being understood, but is already in one's own existence. …

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