I am trying to finish a book but writing has taken on the life of a half-life: the further I get, the more elusive the end seems to be. Perhaps this is a fear of heights: the further I get, the deeper I want to go. In wanting to delve beneath my own text, I just dig myself into a hole.
The present distraction, the excuse I have this week for not letting go, is Michel de Certeau. I have described him in conservation as a Catholic riposte to Foucault – where the latter, who lost God and found sado-masochism, saw all in terms of repression by the order – Certeau, the Jesuit, discovered human resilience, ways of living that the order can not order or control.
But enough of that. I wished to tell you of Certeau’s definition of a local authority. Here is what he says: ‘a local authority is a crack in the system.’ And: ‘a local authority reduces places so that is impossible to breathe in them.’ He goes on: ‘it is a symptomatic tendency of functionalist totalitarianism that it seeks precisely to eliminate these local authorities.’
OK, so Certeau isn’t providing a disquisition on district councils. Nothing could be further from his mind. He’s got nothing to say on local government. It’s just an accident of phrasing (or of translation). But I still like the idea of a council as a crack in the system (he meant it positively) – and we know that it’s not just totalitarians who go down the route towards crushing local authorities as we know them.
What Certeau actually meant by ‘local authority’ was a ‘discourse’ of identity within and in some ways undermining the order of a city. In other words, a method for the little man to make space for himself within the overwhelming structure of the modern metropolis. I mention this because it has set me asking a question to which we should return another time: is ‘place-shaping’ illiberal?