From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Theory Corner (1a)—Bricolage

Read the Introduction to the "Theory Corner" series (here).
Click here for the Theory Corner Resource Center
 See key pronunciations used in the Round and Square blog.
Click below for the other posts on bricolage in the Theory Corner series:
Bricolage 1               Bricolage 2               Bricolage 3
Bricolage and the Bricoleur
Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage
[b] A "merkan" translation
[a] La pensée sauvage
There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us a quite good understanding of what a science we prefer to call "prior" rather than "primitive," could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called "bricolage" in French. In its old sense the verb applied to ball games and billiards...And in our own time the "bricoleur" is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic of mythical thought is that is expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of "bricolage"—which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two. [1]  

Explication de texte
[c] Papa Bricoleur
I acknowledge that Lévi-Strauss's account is a mouthful, but it is really not very complicated if we remain calm and just tease out a few key ideas. The "modern-day" (c. 1870-1970) bricoleur was a handyman [2] of sorts who rode around on donkey, bicycle, or little truck with a limited array of tools.  He carried with him various odds-and-ends, such as chunks of wood, a little plaster, some nails from a torn-down shack, and maybe a few shreds of rubber or plastic (depending on the era).  Think of the bricoleur's mindset (you probably have seen a version of this in some part of your own life).  It compels him to accumulate "stuff," even though he may not know what he wants to do with it (this blog is actually an example of the concept of bricolage).
[d] Old tub
The bricoleur, then, traveled around town with a clunky array of tools and "stuff."  Let's imagine that a home down the street was missing le plug and could not get the water to stay in the bathtub (making bath time for eight kids, two parents, and related kin a nightmare—and expensive, to boot). 

Frustrated mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunts wave down Monsieur Bricoleur as he pedals through the neighborhood.   Dirty little ragamuffins stand in front of the house, hoping that he doesn't hear the plaintive parental cries.  The kids like dirt, and don't want adults digging in their ears with washrags and soap.

           "We need to plug the tub," the parents exclaim. "The kids are dirrrrrrrrty!"
           "Let me see what I can do!," he answers. "Yup, they look pretty ragged."

Except for the fact that everyone is speaking (and thinking) in turn-of-the (twentieth) century French, this is not very complicated, and our friend "Bricky" reaches for "his stuff" in the back of his cart.  The tools and supplies are all a tangled mess, but he starts sorting through the possibilities.

               He finds some wood chunks.  Nope.  
               He reaches for a bit of plaster.  The water will wilt it.  
               He wonders if a square of iron might be shaped to fit the drain (but how?)...

Ah, there they are.  In the corner of his stash he finds a few nice chunks of rubber.  Working with limited supplies, he finds a piece that might do the trick.  
[e] Old tools

Stages one and two are now complete (define the problem and find some material).  Now he needs to use his limited toolkit.  First, he takes the measure of the drain he needs to plug (eyeballing it will work here).  Bricky thinks to himself, "this piece of rubber is too big; what should I do?"  He looks through his (limited) tools.

                         Hammer?  No.  
                         Axe?  Too harsh.  
                         Saw?  Overkill.  
                         Penknife?  The tool will break; not optimal.

Hunting knife?  This just might work, even though it is just a bit "more knife" than Bricky needs.  He whittles away at the rubber piece, and then tries to put it over the drain.  Still too big. 
[f] Systematic thought

Bricky now reaches the height of bricolage.  He must use the full powers of his intellect to bridge the gap between his limited tools and his limited resources.  He remembers what his daddy told him many years ago, and abandons the "eyeball" technique, since the downside is disastrous (if he cuts too much, he wastes his only chunk of rubber and has few other options).  Daddy said, "measure twice, cut once" (and daddy wasn't the first person who ever said this).  He does—twice and once.  It fits.  Water stays in the tub.  The family cheers, and parents drag dirty-eared urchins to the flowing waters for thorough cleanings amidst soap, tears, and Oedipal screams.  The elders thank the bricoleur profusely and pay him a little bit for his troubles.
[g] Où va M. Hamster?

That is bricolage.  Its connections to human thought, as Lévi-Strauss notes, are enormous.  It is one of the manners in which we think (even to this day).  Note this blog's format if you need an up-to-the-minute example of using "this and that" for a broader purpose.  Bricolage is the way myth works—both today and in the distant past).  We will return to this concept (it is not especially difficult, but requires a bit of perseverance) a few times before we move to other "theory corner" ideas.

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 16-17.
[2] I have maintained the highly-gendered perspective of this term here in order to reflect the world of the traditional (male) bricoleur.  You may draw your own conclusions as to whether or not we have "ungendered" the idea (think of "Home Depot" if you have illusions of "progress").


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