Social Intersections 05 (strategies/tactics)

I have already mentioned Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics.1 Strategies depend upon a sense of macro-level perspective – they are clearly delineated plans for action. On the contrary, tactics relate to the sphere of ground and micro-level decisions – they are developed in the midst of battle and represent cunning responses to immediate circumstances. Certeau associates strategies with the realm of what Adorno would call “instrumental rationality” – regimes of power and distanced rational analysis that comprehend and manipulate material things and cultural fields in order to attain specific ends. More specifically, Certeau relates strategies to the sphere of production, while tactics evolve within the sphere of consumption. Certeau is interested in the various ways in which consumption eludes determination, escaping a passive and derivative relation to production. Through processes of tactical inflection, consumption demonstrate dimensions of opaque, indirect resistance.

I summarise all of this again to raise the issue of aesthetic tactics. Or should that be aesthetic strategy? The problem is precisely how to conceive the position of aesthetic engagement. Does it represent a space of counter-strategy or of local-level tactical subversion? It quickly becomes evident that these alternatives are too extreme, that the relationship between the strategic and the tactical can be more complex and nuanced. Consider, for instance, Situationism, which appears at one level – perhaps most vividly – as a coherent cultural movement, deliberately (strategically) opposing contemporary consumer society. However the actual aesthetic techniques it advocates have a clearly tactical aspect, or, more accurately, they entail a strange dialogue between the strategic and the tactical.2 The derive, for example, involves re-articulating our relation to urban space – not, however, by a straight-forwardly productive strategy of urban renewal but through the defamiliarisation of existing space. The focus is very much on the terrain of consumption – upon transforming its conditions and diverting it from its proper ends. In this respect, there is a sense of both the strategic and the tactical. Furthermore, within the context of the specific practice of psychogeography, the derive has a double aspect. It combines explicit, deliberately absurd and anti-functional algorithmic strategies (following the knight’s move through a city, navigating the streets of Paris via a map of Rome, etc.) with idiosyncratic, tactical dimensions of choice. Psychogeography plays upon the need to always interpret the algorithmic instructions, to make sense of them within a specific space and to twist them as necessary. Similarly, the technique of detournement represents both a strategy of appropriative reconfiguration and a tactical response to the oppressive weight of existing produced things. It reconfigures production as a parodic form of consumption and consumption as a parodic form of production. Now while the aesthetic techniques of Situationism clearly precede Certeau’s distinction between strategy and tactics, they provide a clear sense of the complex relationship between dimensions of strategy and tactics in critical-aesthetic practice.

Of course, the use of strategy itself – the very deliberate creation and implementation of a strategy – can itself represent a tactic, a ruse for turning strategy against itself, for revealing its limits. In Situationist terms, the development and adherence to an arbitrary aesthetic system works to detourn the force of the systematic and to set it adrift (derive). Take, for example, the system which informed Georges Perec’s unfinished Lieux project. During the course of twelve years, he planned to describe twelve Paris locations that had personal resonance for him. The description would involve two processes – firstly one of fieldwork, in which he would describe whatever it was that he encountered in simple neutral terms, and secondly one of more subjective memory, in which, away from the place itself, he would describe recollections of spatially associated people and events. He planned to write about two places each month and place each finished bit of writing (and documentation) in a numbered envelope. The actual order in which places were to be addressed was to be determined by a mathematical algorithm.

By the end of twelve years Perec anticipated that he would have the contents of 288 envelopes to examine (some containing a few photographs and stray memorabilia such as bills and tickets), and would be in a position to observe a triple ‘vieillissement‘ (ageing): the way the places had ‘aged’, the way his memories had evolved, and the way his manner of writing had changed. Rather than restore lost time the texts would provide concrete evidence that it had passed. 3

This elaborate schema would seem to have two objectives: firstly, to provide an impersonal device, a machine for writing, with the capacity to prompt, precisely through its systematic objectivity, a framework for approaching aspects of memory and the everyday; and secondly, to highlight the artifice of the system, to push it to a point of blindness and collapse – to establish a tension between the perfection of the strategic system and the contingent and unrecoverable character of experience. In this manner, both as perverse productive device and as aporiatic system, the schema appears as a tactical appropriation and reflective engagement with more general social regimes of systematisation.

  1. Certeau, M. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Stephen Rendell), University of California Press, Berkeley
  2. see Knabb, K. (ed.) 1995 Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley California
  3. Sherringham, M. 2006 Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.258
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