From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Theory Corner (1b)—Bricolage and Thought (and American Pie)

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 Thought (and American Pie)
In this entry I expand upon the picture of our bricoleur from yesterday. I have provided further reflections on bricolage from Claude Lévi-Strauss, followed by my own explication...employing the greatest of recent myths, American Pie (the song). 华

Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage
[a] MacGyver starter kit
Like "bricolage" on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane...The "bricoleur" is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with "whatever is at hand," that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. 
[b] Potential
The set of the "bricoleur's" means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or "instrumental sets," as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the "bricoleur" himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that "they may always come in handy." Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the "bricoleur" not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are "operators" but they can be used for any operations of the same type...[1]
[c] Handy

Mythical thought, that "bricoleur," builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather the remains of events, while science, "in operation" simply by virtue of coming into being, creates its means and results in the form of events, thanks to the structures which it is constantly elaborating and which are its hypotheses and theories. But it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that these are two stages or phases in the evolution of knowledge. Both approaches are equally valid....Mythical thought for its part is imprisoned in the events and experiences which it never tires of ordering and reordering in its search to find them a meaning. But it also acts as a liberator by its protest against the idea that anything can be meaningless with which science at first resigned itself to a compromise. [2]

American Myth-pie
[d] The first three volumes of Mythologiques
As with household repairs, so it is with thought—the intellectual "bricoleur" crafts new messages from a limited repertoire of shared ideas. Lest anyone think that Lévi-Strauss created small wisps of insight only to move quickly toward other ideas, it might be useful to consider the four volumes (2,200 pages in English translation) of his Mythologiques—a painstaking analytical and literary monument to the idea of bricolage. There, he builds a complex portrait of the mythmaking process that examines both the structural categories of South (and North) American myth and various aspects of their narration.
[e] Structural categories in myth

Let's look at a quick example that parallels the story of Bricky and the bathtub plug in our first Theory Corner entry. We shall explore the myth of American Pie—an epic "telling" that blends disparate elements of shared history and culture in a narrative that could easily be retold in countless satisfying ways.  The only "difference" between the song "American Pie" and what might well have been a myth (in a preliterate culture that depended on many Don McLeans to entertain and shape our thinking) is that the one was fixed and carved into vinyl, while myth is ever-changing and ever retold). 

Please repress Madonna memories here.  

Take a listen to an American myth (now or later). It will take about ten minutes, so be careful with your schedule
[e] Myth etched into vinyl

American Pie begins with stock elements of shared cultural and temporal values, as well as contingent fragments of individual narration (stuff that just happened to happen to the singer). 

A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they'd be happy for a while.

It calls to mind a wide variety of cultural forms with powerful, shared qualities—especially the quality of a good beginning. 

            Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns 
            driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
            the hallowed heights of Troy.

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. 

            Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

            Call me Ishmael. 
[d] Writing culture

The tale is sung by the poet following the narrative progression ("beginning" to "end" with satisfying chunks of "stuff" in-between) that is expected in virtually all human verbal interaction. Think of Don McLean as a bricoleur, now.  He links key elements of shared experience as though they were plucked from the back of his intellectual donkey cart.  He reshapes them (axe, saw, penknife, and hunting knife—employed by the mind) into an elaborate, story-form...bathtub plug.  As though starting from the question/problem "how might we think about this turbulent decade?"—instead of "how might I plug this tub?"—the poet grasps his tools and begins to sort through his "stuff" as he contrives to craft an answer.  McLean's retro-fitted "plug" fits beautifully for many listeners, and we achieve a kind of satisfaction from the "myth" that "answers" many aspects of the core question (what do we make of this turbulent decade?).  We do all of this without really "knowing" precisely what it all of the elements "mean."  And without having a "core" question. It was just a device for moving us along in our thinking; now we must abandon it.

Myth is like that. 

             But February made me shiver
             With every paper I'd deliver.
             Bad news on the doorstep;
             I couldn't take one more step.

             I can't remember if I cried
             When I read about his widowed bride,
             But something touched me deep inside

             The day the music died. 
[e] Quests for "the" meaning

This is the "engineer's" flaw when dealing with myth (or "American Pie").  People who attempt to master the lyrics, to tame them with literalism, end up frustrated, ludicrous, or (usually) both. They make the fundamental error of which  Lévi-Strauss warned—substituting the scientific for the mythical, the engineer's approach for the bricoleur's.  The consequences of this mismatch range from silliness ("was 'Lennon' or 'Lenin' reading a book on Marx...or Mark's...Marcus, or marks?)... Running to printed versions of the lyrics will only further confuse the "reading engineer."  For example, I always "hear" the lyrics in a way not rendered in the text (you may well do this, too).  You see, the force of the song/myth is verbal, and chasing written text will only mire a person further in messy issues of authorial intent and intentional authority.  The sensible mythographer (and listener) will follow the flow of the narrative, the "shape" of the images, and the musicality of the telling.  It is as much about rhyme and cadence as it is about details. 

            So bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
            Drove my Chevy to the levee,
            But the levee was dry.
            And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
            Singin', "this'll be the day that I die...

            this'll be the day that I die."
[g] Engineer meets bricoleur

We all know the kind of mind that seeks to track down every reference in the quest to find the "real" meaning (often arguing in a superior tone with those who "just want to enjoy the song").  Many pleasant repasts have been ruined by such conduct.  People spend vast amounts of time arguing "which one is right."  For Lévi-Strauss, it is a false question.  They are fundamentally different.  They are two kinds of thought, each amenable to its own kinds of questions—and quite clunky when dealing with the others.  Ask a bricoleur to "fix" a computer's circuitry; ask an engineer to make a bike wheel from a tree stump.  The former is incapable of meeting the challenge; the latter is capable, but perhaps disdainful.  There is an almost perfect analogy here to the perception that we have today—in literate, "modern" societies—to intellect, thought, education, and knowledge.

Engineer and bricoleur...rarely the twain do meet.

Theory Corner 1c—History and Change 

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 17-18. Italics mine.
[2] The Savage Mind, 22. Italics mine.
Click below for the other posts on bricolage in the Theory Corner series:
Bricolage 1               Bricolage 2               Bricolage 3

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