The Tactic

Of the numerous concepts that have emerged from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), few have had more productive afterlives than his formulation of the tactic: “a way of operating,” of “making do” practiced by the urban masses he describes as “invisible.” For de Certeau, the tactic both corresponds to and allows for an “art of the weak,” a mode of momentarily subverting the hegemonic authority that defines the spaces—real and immaterial—in which we operate. By “stealing time” and otherwise redirecting the resources that fuel what de Certeau defines as the “strategies” of the strong, the weak engender new systems of representation and interference. As a structural effect of every social order, the tactic is at once highly contingent and effectively “ageless,” so that its function can be located in any number of contexts, whether, for example, on the 19th-century American slave plantation, as shown by Saidiya Hartman, or in millennial anti-capitalist demonstrations, as argued by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.

Portrait of Huey Copeland. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Meta Rose Torchia.
Portrait of Hannah Feldman. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Meta Rose Torchia.

What, then, might be the tactics—and the conditions determining their adoption and appearance—that matter most to art, culture, and politics in our digitally mediated present? Given the rapaciousness of the neoliberal culture industry and the accelerating proliferation of public violence in the visual field, it would seem that the strategies of the powerful have outpaced, perhaps even out-placed, the tactics of the weak. Forms of resistance are made over into techniques for the intensification of control as our cultures encourage us to give up our tactical engagements to a world-system that tracks habits of consumption and patterns of movement in order to capitalize upon the fleeting nature of our communications, desires, and narratives. In these conditions, we wonder if, and how, the tactic might retain its purchase as a critical framework? More to the point, how might we begin to define its contemporary politics as well as begin to identify emergent cultural, artistic, and institutional ways of “making do” given the constant risks of capture and effacement?

We posed these questions to a group of thinkers whose work in and on the field of culture—and its tactical horizons—variously provokes and inspires, but always provides productive points of departure for thinking practice. The positions the four contributors occupy here are as varied as the problematics they tackle: the rise of new political mobilizations in Beirut in response to infrastructural failures born of the ineffectual governance of a nominally post-war state; possibilities for collective life that emerge from mimicking and multiplying the capitalist marketing strategies of religious and institutional formations in Mumbai and Jakarta; the challenge and compromise of both aesthetic and vocational mark-making in the studio and in the “hood” on Chicago’s South Side; and the paradoxical proposition of creating embodied communities in New York’s over-determined galleries and gridded streets through the visual withdrawal of those bodies on which collectivities are often thought to depend.

What forcefully connects the approaches outlined by these analyses is a commitment to maintaining the speed and mutability of the tactic, but doing so now with full knowledge of its contamination by the status quo. Such awareness challenges de Certeau’s original framework, which, in hindsight, risks proffering the tactic as one more strategy of the powerful due to a tendency to re-inscribe the binaries that position resistance as alternative. The blurred and ad hoc propositions our writers locate evidence models that might make possible lives lived otherwise—even if only until those models must once more shift shape, alternately growing and retreating, conceding and corrupting.

* The question of the tactical not only guides this dossier, but also informs its production. The Brooklyn Rail’s standard practice for Guest Critics pages has been to pay the commissioning editor(s) a $1000 honorarium funded by a dedicated grant from a donor. Writers, however, have received little or no remuneration for their work, as is often the case at not-for-profit journals such as the Rail, and increasingly, among for-profit organizations as well. As a demonstration of our own commitments, we have divided our payment equally between ourselves and our contributors so as to avoid, in some measure, letting cultural capital stand in the stead of those tangible economies in which we are all entangled.


Huey Copeland

Hannah Feldman

HUEY COPELAND and HANNAH FELDMAN live in Chicago and work at Northwestern University.