Steps toward a Pedagogy of Tactics

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel

Keynote paper prepared for the National Council of English Teachers’ Assembly for Research Mid-Winter Conference.

New York, February 22-24, 2002


Having never said anything especially new or original in our academic lives, we don’t propose to try and do so today. One of us is too old and, besides, it is too late in the day. On the other hand, there are many things other people have said that once were new and original, and that are worth remembering today. We want to gather some of them here. These are ideas relevant to describing a broad orientation toward curriculum and pedagogy we think has come into its time (again). We will try to provide as many concrete and detailed examples as we can of the kinds of specific ideas and practices we have in mind, although our main concern today is with the broad orientation. This is an orientation that draws on what Michel de Certeau (1984) calls uses and tactics of consumers.

As a crude paraphrasing it has been said that ‘history is written by the winners’. So, for the most part, are curriculum and pedagogy so far as they pertain to the formal educational work of schools. They are designed and written from the standpoint of what counts as succeeding within dominant Discourses – as we all know. But while we all know this, it is easy to forget it in the hurly burly of classroom life. Although we have it paraded before us almost constantly, it is also easy to forget that most of the world’s population live outside the representations of what it is to know and do and be (in effective and successful ways) that are peddled by curriculum designers and pedagogical experts. This is true whether ‘success’ and ‘effectiveness’ are seen in terms of individual benefit and advancement/development, or from the standpoint of benefits to private and public corporations moved by performativity and profit, or, as in the case of social and economic elites, from the standpoint of both.

The evidence being amassed daily is that in a world increasingly moved by forces from Washington DC and other client capitals and centres toward global corporate christian capitalism, the ranks of ‘Winners’ (defined in ‘official’ terms) will continue to shrink. This means that from the standpoint of individuals, ‘success’ and ‘effectiveness’ will increasingly be defined, by default, in terms of the capacity to serve their (global, corporate, christian) interests, by performing in ways that benefit these interests—albeit, with whatever social rewards may trickle down to the performers. Of course, there is nothing new in this. It is just that the scale is becoming increasingly global, the scene is becoming more obscenely militaristic, classrooms are becoming more culturally diverse than ever before, and policymakers and Ed Inc. are turning the screws harder and tighter than ever before. And all the while we are informed and encouraged by a model that asks us to ‘put in’ to learners the things deemed constitutive of success.

The broad orientation we want to take today is that we should by looking ever more intently to find ways of ‘drawing out’ and encouraging the development of certain things learners already know and enact. These are things that have the capacity to resist and subvert, to prey upon, spoof and exploit, and – en masse – to gradually wear away at the world according to those whom de Certeau calls ‘Producers’. This is the world that is incorporated within ‘state interventions’ like the disciplined order of compulsory mass schooling.

The dedication of educational work, mediated by curriculum and pedagogy, to the predilections of winners is often very well understood by the young, in ways we can easily forget as we climb various ladders associated with winning. In the words of Dishwasher Pete'; return true" OnMouseOut="window.status=' '; return true">Dishwasher Pete, the first among the motley cast of characters and ‘bad examples’ we want to draw upon today:

No matter how poor you are, you’re expected to pretend that someday you’ll be a doctor. Every year the nuns at our school would ask, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ Destitute kids would get up and crow about how they were going to be some great lawyer—this is what you were supposed to say. I would always say I wanted to be a house painter, because I remembered watching one with a paintbrush in one hand, a sandwich in the other, his transistor radio playing while he sat on a plank brushing away in the sun. I thought, ‘That’s the job for me—I could do that!’ The nuns were never happy when they heard this: ‘A house painter?! Are you sure you don’t want to be a doctor?’ No, ma’am’ (original emphasis; in conversation with Vale 1997: 8).

We will return briefly a little later to Dishwasher Pete, but in the meantime we just want to note that he embodies in many ways the logic of tactics and uses that we want to dwell on. Here we have someone whose counter-cultural work was so off beat and became so well known that he was invited to be a guest on the David Letterman show. In this capacity he was able to score a direct hit on the show’s credibility by having a friend impersonate him as the guest – to the chagrin of Pete supporters who beset Letterman’s staff with letters of derision and complaint. This, however, is by no means his major achievement. Rather, it is merely symptomatic of it.

Two sides of power

In volume 1 of The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau introduces his interest in the uses and tactics of consumers in relation to Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish on the microphysics of power. He notes (1984: xiv) that Foucault takes a different approach to analyzing institutional power from the then prevailing approach, which focused on ‘the apparatus exercising power’. Rather, Foucault investigated the ‘microphysics of power’: minute, detailed technical mechanisms and procedures through which discursive spaces are redistributed as a ‘generalized "discipline" (surveillance)’ that regulated those subject to it (ibid). de Certeau makes two points that from which he can distinguish his own approach from Foucault’s.

First, in terms we will look at in more depth shortly, de Certeau observes that Foucault’s approach, like its predecessors, maintains a focus on ‘the productive apparatus’ that ‘produces the discipline’ (ibid: italics mine). That is, he investigates power from the perspective of its production – as effected by Producers. Foucault’s approach examines what those who, in myriad ways, shape, manipulate, reinforce and maintain sociotechnical means of diffusing power through a system as ‘discipline’ do, and how they do it (even if the ‘theys’ are to a large extent anonymous and heavily disguised in their day to day enactments). Foucault’s is not an analysis from the point or perspective of reception, and of how people respond to the techniques of discipline to which they are subjected. Second, de Certeau claims that under contemporary conditions, when the grid of discipline is ‘everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive’, it becomes increasingly urgent to explore ‘how an entire society resists being reduced to it’. What are the equally minute and everyday procedures used by ordinary people that ‘manipulate the mechanisms of discipline’ and that conform to these mechanisms ‘only in order to evade them’? (ibid).

On this basis, de Certeau identifies his own approach as being simultaneously ‘analogous’ and ‘contrary’ to Foucault’s. It is analogous in the sense that it aims to identify and analyze the minute operations of consumers that ‘proliferate within technocratic structures and [deflect] their functioning by means of a multitude of "tactics" articulated in the details of everyday life’ (ibid). Importantly, de Certeau’s approach is contrary to Foucault’s in the sense that he does not aim to show how ‘the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology’ through the machinations of Producers. Instead, he wants to uncover ‘the clandestine forms’ that are taken by the ‘dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity’ of people who are already ‘caught in the nets of "discipline" ’ (ibid: xiv-xv). He sees these as ultimately composing ‘the network of an antidiscipline’, wherein ordinary people evade the sociotechnical mechanisms of disciplinary regimes in their efforts to ‘make do’: to get the best ‘wins’ they can.

We think it is easy enough to see why de Certeau’s approach has been overshadowed by Foucault’s and, to the same extent, needs to be given a longer look. Our view here is that the people who get to take up Foucault and apply the theory to education (and beyond) are themselves typically Producers in de Certeau’s sense of the term. They/we are interested in how power works from the standpoint of operating power – even if, in many cases, this is with a will to try and help orchestrate a few ‘wins’ on the part of others. Producers, by definition, are less directly acquainted with the responses of Consumers, and are too involved in Producing for the option of looking at Consumer operations to be seriously ‘available’ to them. This is parallel to a tendency within, say, critical literacy, for literacy theorists to spend time and energy developing techniques to be used to analyse texts critically, as distinct from concentrating on what consumers of texts actually do with the artifacts they consume and how they do it.

Producers and consumers: Classes and logics

de Certeau develops a conceptual framework based on distinctions between producers and consumers, and strategies, uses and tactics. Producers (the strong) are those who create and maintain and impose disciplined spaces. They have the position and power to prescribe social orders and syntactical forms (discourses, timetables, procedures, the organization of space and things within it, etc.). Producers include governments, urban planners, corporations, professional associations, legislatures, private utilities companies, scholarly and academic leaders, executives, and so on. Producers, in effect, shape dominant social structures. Consumers, on the other hand, are constrained to operate within these disciplined spaces or structures. (Of course, producers in one context are to some extent consumers in others, albeit typically consumers with greater power to negotiate these spaces than ‘everyday people’). Thus, for example, inhabitants of government housing consume what has been produced for them—as do users of public transport and road networks, students, prisoners, and purchasers of diverse goods and services and media available on the market. Consumers are always and inevitably constrained by what producers serve up as disciplined discursive spaces, and the commodities attaching to these. In the final analysis, the ‘productions’ of producers are not ultimately the commodities they serve up (although they include these) so much as discursive orders that define, regulate, and constrain forms of social practice. The commodities per se are embodied representations or instantiations of the defined and regulated spaces, in which people do and be.

In the case of education as disciplined space, learners are Consumers. So are their families and, to a large extent, the communities schools serve. And so, in many ways, are teachers, although they are enlisted in the disciplinary operations of the Producers. They mediate surveillance and, at the same time, are themselves ‘surveilled’. For this reason they have divided and complicated interests. Like learners, however, they also have to find ways to smooth out the habitat with respect to how the disciplinary order imposes itself on them as well. This divided interest and ambiguity in the location of teachers lends force, we would suggest, to the significance of developing a pedagogy of tactics as a viable response to contemporary and (foreseeable) future politics of education.

Strategies, Uses and Tactics

The distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘uses and tactics’ aligns with that between producers and consumers. Strategy, according to de Certeau, is an art of the powerful – of producers. These ‘subjects of will and power’ operate from their own place (a ‘proper’) which they have defined as their base for controlling and managing relations. This place (or ‘proper’) is an enclosed institutional space within which producers regulate distributions and procedures, and which has ‘an exteriority comprised of targets or threats’ (de Certeau 1984: 36). For example, professional scientists define what counts as doing science, build science faculties to police apprenticeships to science, and regulate who can receive qualifications and tickets to practise as scientists. The justice system defines the conditions under which convicted prisoners will live. Education departments regulate what students may and must acquire as formal education and how they must perform in order to be certified as successful, and so on. Strategy operates on the basis of a logic of closure and internal administration (Buchanan 1993 ReadingRoom/litserv/SPAN/36/Jabba.html ). ‘Strategy equals the institutional’, says Ian Buchanan, and is the force ‘institutions must exact in order to remain institutions’ (1993: n.p.). Hence, the strategic ‘can never relax its vigilance, the surveillance of its parameters must be ceaseless. The strong must protect themselves and their institutions from the weak’ (ibid.).

For de Certeau (1984), ‘uses’ and ‘tactics’ are arts of the weak, by means of which the weak make disciplined spaces ‘smooth’ and ‘habitable’ through forms of occupancy. Through uses and tactics consumers obtain ‘wins’ within their practices of everyday life. de Certeau illustrates ‘uses’ by reference to North African migrants being obliged to live in a low-income housing estate in France and to use the French of, say, Paris or Robaix. They may insinuate into the system imposed on them ‘the ways of "dwelling" (in a house or in a language) peculiar to [their] native Kabylia’ (ibid.: 30). This introduces a degree of plurality into the system. Similarly, the indigenous peoples of Latin America often used

the laws, practices, and representations imposed on them … to ends other than those of their conquerors … subverting them from within … by many different ways of using them in the service of rules, customs or convictions foreign to the colonization which they could not escape (de Certeau 1984: 32).

‘Tactics’, on the other hand, involve the art of ‘pulling tricks’ through having a sense of opportunities presented by a particular occasion – possibly only a literal moment – within a repressive context created strategically by the powerful. Through uses and tactics ‘the place of the dominant is made available to the dominated’ (Buchanan 1993: n.p.). According to de Certeau, a tactic is

a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus ...The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver "within the enemy's field of vision" ... and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the option of planning, general strategy ... It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of opportunities and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids ... This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of proprietary powers. It poaches them. It creates surprises in them ... It is a guileful ruse (original emphasis; 1984: 37).

Buchanan helps clarify what is at stake here by distinguishing between ‘place’ and ‘space.’ Buchanan construes ‘place’ as the ‘proper’ of the strategy of the powerful. Place is ‘dominated space’ (Lefevbre) or ‘disciplined space’ (Foucault). Space, on the other hand, is used by Buchanan to refer to appropriated space. Tactics, says Buchanan, are means by which consumers convert places into spaces. In this, consumers employ tactics like ‘bricolage’ and ‘perruque’ to ‘make do’ by ‘constantly manipulating events in order to turn them into "opportunities" ’ (de Certeau 1984: xviii). Very ordinary examples of tactics include stretching one’s pay packet to allow for a few ‘luxuries’ every now and then, producing a dinner party out of a few simple and available ingredients, inventing words on the spur of the moment, and so on.

de Certeau’s description of a tactic he calls ‘la perruque’ (as it is known in France) is useful for helping us to capture the operating logic of ‘tactics’ in concrete ways that can help us identify and respond creatively and constructively to learner tactics employed under classroom conditions. This is a worker’s own work disguised as work for the employer. The person is ‘on the job’ and they are not stealing or pilfering in any legal sense. Examples include a secretary ‘writing a love letter on "company time" or …. [a cabinet maker] "borrowing" a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room’ (ibid: 25).

The worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time [and not goods since, at most, scraps are used] … for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit. In the very place where the machine [s/he] must serve reigns supreme, [s/he] cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify [her or] his own capabilities through … work and to confirm …. solidarity with other workers or … family through spending [her or] his time in this way. With the complicity of other workers (who thus defeat the competition the factory tries to instill among them, [s/he] succeeds in "putting one over" on the established order on its home ground (ibid: 25-26).

de Certeau thinks of consumers’ everyday creativity in terms of trajectories that can be mapped as a dynamic tracing of temporal events and acts (the precise obverse of passive receiving and absorbing). ‘In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which consumers move about [i.e., the place of producers and their productions], their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space’ (1984: xviii). These trajectories, or transcriptions of everyday ways of operating, ‘trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop’ (ibid.).

On ‘state interventions’ and ‘bricolage’

Bricolage refers to the ‘artisan-like inventiveness’ of consumers’ everyday practices whereby they use whatever comes to hand in carrying out these practices. de Certeau refers to bricolage as ‘poetic ways of "making do" ’ (ibid: xv, 66), and as ‘mixtures of rituals and makeshifts’ (ibid: xvi). He celebrates the bricolage-like practices of consumers as they go about their everyday lives. Such bricolages are often extraordinarily ordinary, yet underwrite effective modes of living and being on unfriendly terrain.

The life of a community, for example, is made from the harvest of miniscule observations, a sum of microinformation being compared, verified, and exchanged in daily conversations among the inhabitants who refer to both the past and to the future of this space. As an old lady who lives in the center of Paris leads her life:

Every afternoon she goes out for a walk that ends at sunset and that never goes beyond the boundaries of her universe: the Seine in the south, the stock market to the west, the Place de la R¾ publique to the east … She knows everything about the caf¾ s on the boulevard, the comparative prices, the age of the clients and the time that they spend there, the lives of the waiters, the rhythm and style of people circulating and meeting each other. She knows the price and the quality of the restaurants in which she will never lift a fork [P¾ tonnet 1982; see also Mayol 1994].

The daily murmur of this secret creativity furnishes her necessary foundation and is her only chance of success in any state intervention (de Certeau et al 1997: 96).

If we think here in terms of official forms of curriculum and pedagogy, we can view them as integral components of the educational order as a state intervention. For the increasing majority of learners compulsorily enrolled in our schools, their prospects of ‘success’ in terms that equate to lifting a fork in the restaurant resemble those of the old lady on her walk.

The potential of tactical logic

Buchanan notes that theorists often see strategy and tactics as oppositional terms, and thereby assume that de Certeau’s approach belongs to a weaker category of resistance (Buchanan 1993). In other words, it is often thought that tactics are merely ‘reactive forces, a practice of response’ (ibid.: n.p.). Buchanan notes that, on the contrary, tactics ‘define the limits of strategy’ and force ‘the strategic to respond to the tactical.’ Hence, tactics contain an active as well as a reactive dimension. So, for example, prisoners (what they do and how they be) determine the level of security required in a given prison. Users of non-standard Englishes determine the degree of policing needed on behalf of standard English. Zinesters help to determine the degree of diversity required in establishment publisher lists. In a context where tactics are strong, healthy, many and pervasive, the fact that the strategic machines are always one step behind when they need to be one step ahead becomes apparent (ibid.). The situation could become stressful for producers. Could ‘armies’ of tacticians up the ante to the point where strategies pop? Our hunch is that it is worth testing this out.

There are classic historical examples of the potential efficacy of tactics with respect to wearing down a much more powerful enemy. Most dramatically and graphically, perhaps, these examples include the Vietcong under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. With their homeland reduced to the status of enemy terrain, and up against the most sophisticated and costly military hardware and training available on the planet, homegrown local knowledge and tactical savvy were most of what the Vietcong had to work with. Perhaps more readily accessible examples of classic historical cases of cumulative tactics forcing some change on the part of Producers include tactical movements associated with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Given the current and foreseeable stakes involved in compulsory formal education and the everyday worlds beyond, we believe educators have a duty to attend to learners’ tactics and uses. Educators should respond to the tactics and uses employed by the learners in their care. They should do this in ways that will serve young people well in negotiating and, perhaps, gradually wearing down strategically produced orders of social practice they face in their everyday lives as learners now and will face as citizens later.

Two sides of uses and tactics

de Certeau’s accounts of uses and tactics reveal two sides, although these are not necessarily both present in each instance. One side is captured by his concept of ‘making do’. This is the idea of employing makeshift creativity to get sufficient small wins to smooth out the habitat and make it more livable. It is about obtaining some satisfactions, pleasures, and ‘peace’ that help to infuse meaning into everyday experiences and routines. This is the sustaining side of uses and tactics. The other side is captured in de Certeau’s notions of resistance and of ‘putting one over on the established order on its home ground’. This is a more active or, in some cases, activist, side of uses and tactics. It is about resisting, tackling, wearing away at Producer culture. Both sides are important for the broad orientation we are concerned with here.

From an educational standpoint, there is more to tactics and uses, however, than these two sides might immediately suggest. There is also the manifestation of ‘smartness’, of forms of intelligent behaviour that can be understood in terms ranging from Postman and Weingartner’s (1969) notion of having an efficient ‘crap detector’ – an oldie, but a goodie – to more mainstream concepts of kinds of ‘higher order’ logics appropriate to a ‘meta age’ that values originality, innovation, capacity to make quick shifts, and so on. It is a fair bet that ‘getting by’ in the world that awaits today’s learners will have a lot more to do with honing tactical ‘smarts’ than with submitting to technical mechanisms that promote what Donaldo Macedo (1994) has magnificently referred to as ‘stupidification’. The kind of orientation we are arguing for here is one that would involve privileging in every recognizable instance, a learner/student tactic over a Producer ‘technique’ or value that would tend to stupidify that learner.

Having spoken far too long in abstract terms without very much in the way of examples, let us now consider some concrete instances of people operating tactically to get a better idea of what might be involved in developing a pedagogy of tactics.

Some exemplary ‘bad examples’

(a) Culture jamming

At Adbusters Culture Jamming Headquarters ( an array of elegantly designed and technically polished pages presents information about the organization and its purposes. The pages also describe various culture jamming campaigns, describe the Adbusters paper-based magazine, and target worthy media events and advertising, cultural practices, and overblown corporate globalisation with knife-sharp critiques in the form of parodies, exposés of corporate wheelings and dealings, and/or online information tours focussing on social issues. By turning media images in upon themselves, or by writing texts that critique the effects of transnational companies, the Adbusters ‘culture jamming’ campaigns provide classic examples of tactics. They poach on the cultural artifacts of Producers, and all that these artifacts embody as institutionalised forms of discipline, regulation and coercion. They essay raids in broad daylight on enemy terrain and in full view.

An early Adbusters ‘anti ad’ (from a critique of a past trend to claim an ‘equality’ ethic in the fashion world) shows how combining familiar images and tweaking texts can produce bitingly honest social commentaries that everyone everywhere is able to read—a kind of global tactical literacy (

The nature of culture jamming and the philosophy that underlies it, together with many practical examples of how to enact culture-jamming literacies, are described in a recent book. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—And Why We Must, is written by Kalle Lasn (1999), publisher of Adbusters magazine and founder of the Adbuster Media Foundation. The potential effectiveness of culture jamming as tactics has been evident in recent months. A email posting in January 2002 to the Culture Jammers Network () informed recipients that Adbusters’ activities had come under increased scrutiny following September 11. According to the posting,

    Recently, our Corporate America Flag billboard in Times Square, New York, attracted the attention of the federal Department of Defense, and a visit by an agent who asked a lot of pointed questions about our motivations and intent. We wondered: What gives? "Just following up a lead from a tip line," the agent admitted.

Adbusters were clearly worrying people in high places. They observed that any campaign daring to question ‘U.S. economic, military or foreign policy in these delicate times’, or any negative evaluation of how the US is handling its ‘War on terrorism,’ runs the risk of being cast as ‘a kind of enemy of the state, if not an outright terrorist’.

Adbusters’ response was to mobilise Internet space to engage in a classic act of cyberactivist literacy. The posting asked other Culture Jammers whether their activities had received similar attention, noting that they had received messages from other activist organisations that had found themselves under investigation ‘in a political climate that's starting to take on shades of McCarthyism’. Noting that they could live with vigilance, but that intimidation amounting to persecution is ‘another bucket of fish’, Adbusters established it own ‘rat line’ and invited others to publicise instances of state persecution public within a medium which has immediate global reach.

    If you know of social marketing campaigns or protest actions that are being suppressed, or if you come across any other story of overzealous government "information management," please tell us your story. Go to <>.

The following slides show exactly what has transpired from Adbusters’ invitation to the public to engage in their own tactical maneuvers on Producer terrain. They are stunningly good in terms of a critical aesthetics, and wonderfully subversive. Adbusters’ commentary on their response to the Producers who have tried to silence them – Disney (owners of Times Square) and the Department of Defence (much the same people, really) – is the quintessence of the kind of open tactical resistance – defiance – we believe will be needed on a global scale in the decades ahead. (see the slides from )

(b) Girlswirl : I did it my way

In the world of zines (Lankshear and Knobel 2002; Lankshear and Knobel forthcoming), tactics are regularly employed to poach and prey upon strategic productions – or enacted strategies on the part of producers – in the form of ‘official’ versions of how we should be and do. Zines are very much about turning place into space by tactical means. For example, Taryn Hipp writes in the online version of her zine Girlswirl: ‘Being an "overweight" girl is not easy. When I look around all I see are these pictures of skinny women in revealing clothes standing next to a handsome man’ (Hipp 1999 ). Taryn uses her zine as a personal space: she critiques images of women in the media; candidly discusses her relationship with her boyfriend, Josh; openly describes being a member of a rather unconventional family; and so on. While not a direct ‘attack’ on or resistance to popular media, Girlswirl is the product of Taryn’s ‘making space’ in the niches and crevices of institutions such as mainstream magazines and television by thumbing her nose at the formal structures and strategies of these institutions. Her hand crafted paper zine sits nicely alongside her website, which in addition to showcasing excerpts from her zine, also includes a weblog (similar in concept to a diary, and can be added to at will) and is often asynchronously interactive thanks to email responses from readers etc. Her online zine and social commentaries are further supported by an email discussion list. Taryn is not out to change the world. She seems content to declare her position within it and to make the world of image habitable:

    I am happy with the way I am. I am happy with the way I look. I am happy being ‘overweight’. I used to worry about what other people thought of me. I have pretty much gotten over that. It wasn’t easy. It never is (Hipp 1999).

(c) ‘Down the sink’: Dishwasher Pete on tactical employment

In his inimitable way, Dishwasher Pete deftly creates his own ‘space’ within the formal world of work and communicates this for a wider audience in his zine Dishwasher. Using texts, images and his own experiences, Pete critiques mainstream mindsets about what young people ‘should’ do and be. Dishwasher is not just about dishwashing in countless restaurants across the U.S. It is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking critique of work and economic inequality. Dishwasher Pete himself actively side-steps ‘baby-boomer’ work ethics and turns the proliferation of ‘McJobs’ to his own ends (cf., Howe and Strauss 1993). As he puts it:

I’m addicted to that feeling of quitting; walking out the door, yelling "Hurrah!" and running through the streets. Maybe I need to have jobs in order to appreciate my free leisure time or just life in general. … Nowadays, I can’t believe how personally employers take it when I quit. I think, "What did you expect? Did you expect me to grow old and die here in your restaurant?" There seems to be a growing obsession with job security, a feeling that if you have a job you’d better stick with it and ‘count your blessings’ (op. cit.: 5, 6; see also Duncombe 1997).

By no means all zines employ tactics in such ways. Many, however, reflect sophisticated expertise in the use of tactics in the sense that their author-producers ‘[pinch] the meanings they need from the cultural commodities … offered to them’ (Underwood 2000: n.p.). Zinesters are often highly adept at appropriating spaces of dominant culture for their own uses, or of otherwise making these spaces ‘habitable.’ They will prove an indispensable resource for informing the development of pedagogies of tactics on the part of English teachers.

Some ‘ordinary’ everyday educational examples

The following examples have been chosen as much to illustrate different available teacher positions with respect to tactics as for the character of the tactics concerned in the particular cases.

(a) A ‘powerful language curriculum’ as fair game

One of our favorite examples of classroom tactics concerns a Year 7 student, Jacques, who told us ‘I'm not keen on language and that. I hate reading. I'm like my Dad, I'm not a pencil man’ (Knobel 1999, 2001). His teacher concurred, describing Jacques as ‘having serious difficulties with literacy.’ Jacques did all he could to avoid reading and writing in class, although he collaborated with family members to engage successfully in a range of challenging literate practices outside school. These included producing fliers to attract customers to his lucrative holiday lawn mowing round, and participating in Theocratic School each week, where Jacques regularly had to read and explain and give commentaries on texts from the Bible to groups of up to 100 people.

Jacques’s literacy avoidance behavior in class produced a very effective use of tactics with respect to the Writers Center his teacher had established in one corner of the classroom, where students could work on the narratives they had to produce for their teacher. (The Writers Centre was designed to integrate to components of the state’s English Syllabus, which aimed to promote ‘powerful language uses’ on the part of learners. In the case involving Jacques, the pedagogical elements of the Producer strategy for shaping powerful language learning comprised explicit teaching of genres – e.g., narrative – and components of a ‘growth and development’ model of language education – specifically, a version of process writing.) During a two-week period we observed Jacques spending several hours at the Writing Center making a tiny book (6cm by 4 cm) containing several stapled pages. On each page he wrote 2 or 3 words which made up a ‘narrative’ of 15 to 20 words (for example: ‘This is J.P.’s truck. J.P. is going on holiday in his truck. J.P. likes holidays in his truck. The End’). Other students found these hilarious when he read them out loud to them, and he eventually produced a series of six ‘J. P. Stories.’

His teacher’s response was negative and highly critical. She was not impressed and saw his activities as ‘very childish’ and as a means of avoiding writing and of not taking too seriously something he could not do. Yet Jacques’ tactical approach to making this literacy learning context ‘habitable’ showed precisely the kind of ‘spark’ that could serve him well in all kinds of real world contexts. It also inchoately contains a critique of much classroom activity (what’s the point of it? How is it relevant?) that is consistent with formal research-based critiques of non-efficacious learning (cf. Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: ch 1). A teacher who could appreciate and celebrate tactics might have been able to reward the potentially fruitful and creatively subversive element of Jacques’ ‘trick’ and extend them pedagogically.

(b) Doom or Mortal Kombat?’

Tony was a 13 years old student in Year 7, the final year of primary school. He had migrated with his parents migrated from Taiwan six years previously. Tony was the only ESL learner in the case. His teacher was a very conscientious teacher who worried about the absence of support for ESL learners in the school. She worried about having Tony in her class, on the grounds that his English was inadequate and she did not know how to help him. To illustrate her concerns she pulled out of a drawer a fat wad of A4-sized paper, covered in handwriting and stapled in one corner. She dropped on the desk, sighed, and asked rhetorically: "What do you do with that? It doesn’t even make sense!"

Tony had been working on this text – a narrative – for more than a month at the time he handed it in. His teacher said by the time she first saw it as a draft it was far too long for her to ‘conference’ properly (i.e., to give him feedback about his text, identify its strengths, and suggest how to improve it as a basis for subsequent work in class). She had filed it in his assessment portfolio, and said she was not going to mark it because it was too long and the time was now too close to the end of the year to find time for marking it and giving feedback. She felt she just didn’t have time to correct his English and explain what was wrong with his turn of phrase.

We made a copy of Tony’s narrative for analysis. The following fragment, which is representative of the quality and character of the text as a whole, comprises the Orientation to his narrative: Orientation, Conflict, Resolution, and Coda being the four main generic structural features of narrative as defined in the Syllabus.

Doom: Part 1

In the dark Ages, Europe was broke into many different countries.

In the Kingdom of Khimmur, King Little, the ruler of Khimmur gave a mission to one of the brave warriors, Jake Simpson.

His mission was to defeat Shang-Tsung. Shang-Tsung was an evil person. He tried to rule the whole china, but he never did it, so he went to Europe. Now he is planning to take over the whole Europe. And he has three warriors.

Kung-Lao, before he was a dragon, then Shang-Tsung made him \into a/ human Raiden, God of Thunder.

Gora, a 2000 year old giant with four hands.

Shang-Tsung also took control of lots of things. He has a vast number of soldiers.

Snow Witch, Lizard King and Baron Sukumvit were also Shang-Tsung’s helpers, because Shang-Tsung promised to Share the power with them.

And the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was the guard for Shang-Tsung’s Rich.

"So, I will send you to attack Shang-Tsung" said King Little.

"Isn’t there anyone going with me?" asked Jim.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about this" said King Little "There will be two Martial Arts Master from the great Empire of Han, Chung-Hi-San-Wu and Lee-Quan-Lin will go with you. They were send by the Emperor of China."

There are many ways in which Tony’s narrative might be construed. We would argue, however, that one useful way of approaching it is as a form of use in de Certeau’s sense. In the challenging context of producing a narrative he had tried to smooth out the terrain and make it habitable in a manner analogous to the Robaix migrants mentioned by de Certeau. There is nothing oppositional or resistant about his work. It was simply an exercise in ‘making do’.

Ironically, the teacher’s refusal to engage with his text can be seen as uninformed and misguided even in terms of the official purposes of the curriculum and her own very serious attempts to develop a pedagogy equal to these purposes (Lankshear and Knobel 2002). The excerpt cited above is sufficient on its own to reveal much about Tony’s literacy proficiency. At the surface level it is evident that he has an excellent grasp of a range of important writing conventions. These include compiling lists, paragraphing, direct speech conventions, punctuation, and controlling the genre structure of a narrative. His use of ‘\ /’ marks show that he has mastered the convention for inserting text into a sentence already handwritten. Likewise, a word he was not sure how to spell is underlined – another ‘school’ writing practice. His vocabulary belied our interpretation of his teacher’s assessment of his command of English, which had indicated he had minimal of English in his writing. His text as contained some systematic errors in tense, with plurals and some prepositions, etc. By the same token, our investigation of the class suggested that, in terms of conventional print literacy indicators, Tony’s literacy ‘competence’ was considerably greater than several of his native English-speaking classmates (see ibid).

A first glance at Tony’s text reveals to anyone with relevant insider knowledge that he has produced a complex intertextual narrative. For example, the characters "Shang-Tsung", "Raiden" and "Kung Lao" are both characters in Mortal Kombat, an adventure game from the early 1990s produced originally by Nintendo (and now available as a computer game as well). King Loa is described on the Mortal Kombat official website as: "a troubled young warrior from the Order of Light Temple. He is a skilled Mortal Kombat fighter with incomparable focus and strength. Kung Lao was raised alongside other children from the temple and trained from birth to fight in the Mortal Kombat wars…" (see <>). Similarly, the character "Gora-Gora" can be found in the Nintendo game, The Ultimate Evil. And so on.

Tony’s text builds on his insider status within the ‘Video Action Games’ Discourse. At one level he has done the equivalent of de Certeau’s cook making do with what is in the kitchen to create a dinner for guests. At another level he has produced a legitimate, indeed sophisticated, exemplar of the genre under instruction at the time. What we have here is a case of a teacher failing to recognise a consumer use, and to probe it for its inherent ‘intelligence’ as a basis for building on it pedagogically. A default mode that is on the look out for learners employing uses and tactics with a view to building productively on them will give teachers at least a fighting chance in cases like Tony’s. In doing so, they will play out of the hands of Producer constructions of difference and disadvantage – even well-intentioned ones – that subtract value from learners’ ‘walks at sunset’.

(c) Reclaiming the ’hood symbolically: Virtual Valley 1

Our two previous examples have been of cases where learner tactics have not been recognised and built upon pedagogically in ways that could promote useful forms of learning, and further enhance ‘ways’ that are already ‘smart’ and encourage others to emulate these in productive interest-serving ways.

By contrast, this third example is of a sophisticated pedagogy of tactics being employed from the outset of a learning project. It involves a project based in the tactical logic of culture jamming, and of ‘making place’ by turning ‘place’ into ‘space’. Virtual Valley 1 was a community arts project located in an inner city metropolitan area known locally as The Valley.

Prior to the 1990s the Valley had been synonymous with marginal life and activities. It had for decades been a magnet for displaced, homeless, drifting folk, many of whom had addictions or histories of substance abuse, and many of whom were members of indigenous groups. It was formerly a well-known site of ‘vice’: prostitution, graft, and various forms of racketeering. On the other hand, the Valley is also home to the city’s Chinatown, a bustling thriving centre of businesses and restaurants serving the long-established Chinese community. More recently, other Asian ethnic groups have also established a cultural presence there, and different Asian communities find in the Valley a zone of ethnic familiarity and comfort.

During the 1990s the heart of the Valley underwent a dramatic facelift. Its mall was upgraded, new shopping centres established, and existing businesses revitalised. The mall became home to many outdoor cafés, sidewalk bars, tourist-related businesses, and trendy nightclubs. This catered in part to a new clientele of tourists as well as to more affluent social groups who like somewhere to go that is a little exotic and ‘on the edge’. At the same time the Valley retained its traditional gritty base. Street kids, aged alcoholics, young unemployed men hanging out in video game parlours, bag ladies, lingering Mafia-like groups, and the like maintained a visible presence, albeit a less conspicuous one than previously.

One consequence of these changes had been a ‘rewriting’ and ‘sanitising’ of the Valley for sale as a tourist destination and yuppie playground. As a result, the long-standing marginal youth users of the Valley – many of whom were among the traditional ‘owners’ of this space and its activities – had been pushed still further to the margins.

A community arts project was developed by a project consortium (CONTACT-GRUNT) to provide a safe and welcoming space for young people in the Valley area. It also aimed to help equip youth with skills relevant to earning a living, and to offer activities that would promote a sense of self-identity and interconnectedness with other youth identities. Virtual Valley 1 was a project with an online (or ‘virtual’) component based on the Valley. It addressed the theme of young people who had strong affinities with the Valley and whose identities were bound up with the Valley, being pushed out of the process of its redefinition and re-‘development’. It aimed to produce ‘an alternative user’s guide’ to the Valley that would provide different readings and writings of the Valley from those found in official municipal promotions and tourist brochures, particularly the sepia-inked ‘historical walk’ guides that listed a range of ‘must-see’ sites and landmarks connected with the colonisation of the Valley area by Europeans in the 1800s.

As an oppositional cultural response, Virtual Valley 1 presented work by nine young people who used the Valley on a daily basis for work and recreational purposes. The project was funded by state government and community arts grants. The young people involved all ‘held strong opinions about the valley’s role’ in the life of the city, then being promoted by the state government as the country’s most livable city. Participants’ work was presented in two formats. One was a web site. The other was a booklet to help guide visitors through a number of interesting sites using maps and postcard images. The latter could be pulled out and used as real postcards. The maps and images were based on these young people’s identities, values, worldviews, experiences, and ways of locating themselves personally and collectively in time and space within the Valley. The project focus was on encouraging young people to map the Valley areas in ways that were culturally relevant to themselves and their peers.

Places of interest presented in the Virtual Valley web site included the location of a large clock (used by youth who do not have or wear watches), and favourite places for dancing, eating, getting coffee, finding bargains, and meeting friends. These were incorporated into web pages built around an online street map that contrasted graphically with tourist maps, such as the official ‘heritage trail’ that mapped landmarks from the standpoint of colonialist history. The hard-copy booklet produced a picture postcard collage of images, including some from the web site. These ranged from snapshots of a gutter and a tidy line of garbage bins to a crowded Saturday market scene in the Mall.

The project enacted the tactical logic of turning place into space. It poached on resources of the dominant order – economic resources, promotional materials, colonialist history, etc. – to create a physical space for young people to meet and engage in leisure and learning pursuits, as well as to re-appropriate cultural space for alternative representations and meanings. The project also operated under the cover of a ‘community arts’ identity to produce countercultural meanings and to reinforce countercultural values and group identities. In the process, people who had largely been relegated to the ranks of the ‘scholastically uncredentialled’ and unemployed by the education and labour markets respectively obtained well-grounded, robust, and usable capabilities. In a number of cases led directly to legitimate earning opportunities, in the form of jobs, via public exhibitions at which they sold their work, and so on. Other projects in the same mould followed, with similar results (see de Alba et al 2000: Ch 8).

A part of the whole: redressing a balance

It is important to state that we are not advocating the orientation toward a pedagogy of tactics as the only desirable pedagogical orientation. Rather, our concern is to redress a balance in pedagogy that will enable learners and teachers to smooth out the strategically produced order of compulsory education. We recognise, of course, that it is important for learners to elements of strategically defined knowledge and competence to the extent that this is possible. The most effective tacticians often have high quality knowledge of Producer culture and ways. This is especially apparent in the Adbuster tactical productions we have referred to. Indeed, any kind of broad-based movements committed to resisting the will to a global capitalist christian corporate order will depend on people being able to complement excellent tactical capacity with sound knowledge of Producer ways. It will also require the capacity to command sufficient strategic ground (enough of a ‘proper’) to transform antidiscipline into permanent counterdiscipline. To realise these conditions presupposes honouring and building constructively upon the cultural stocks of tactics and uses borne by learners. This has to be a democratic pedagogical bottom line. In this, of course, learners will not be the sole beneficiaries of small wins. As the terrain on which they teach becomes increasingly in need of smoothing out, teachers themselves will gain from enhanced capacity to employ tactics and enact consumer uses.

At the same time, de Certeau’s theory of tactics reminds us that there will never and can never be such a thing as a monolithic triumph of globalisatiuon. At the very least the diverse peoples and groups will maintain their equivalents of the perruque of workers, the uses of the colonised indios of México, and the bricolaged walks of old ladies in Paris. A pedagogy of tactics can only work in the direction of making such an antidiscipline more rather than less robust. By the same token, the examples set by great tactical leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh and those who stood with them, keep alive the hope for somewhat more substantial wins in the long run.


There is no blueprint for developing the orientation we have called a ‘pedagogy of tactics’. Minimally, it involves the ability and willingness to recognise learner tactics where they occur and to build creatively and constructively upon them. This is no easy task. On the other hand, once one understands what tactics are, in de Certeau’s sense, and appreciates their existential, cultural and political significance in relation to Production and Consumption, it becomes easier to recognise and built upon them. Likewise, when one understands the logic of tactics in this way it becomes easier to identify one’s own tactical operations, and to recall endless instances of tactics that have been part of one’s own experience. From this base it is possible to consciously refine one’s own tactics in solidarity with those of others. We hope the examples provided here at least suggest places from which to start developing a pedagogy of tactics as a necessary orientation for teachers under contemporary conditions.

In the end, however, the more difficult demand may be cultivating and harnessing the willingness to embrace the kind of identity as an educator within which nurturing and employing tactics is not merely significant but is an absolutely necessary element.



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