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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Theory Corner (1c)—Bricolage and Change

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

[a] Truck change (see below)
Bricolage, Time, and Change
We have spent some time the last few days in our little Theory Corner examining a(n) historical form (le bricoleur) and a cultural pattern (bricolage).  As Lévi-Strauss noted, the concepts have been shaped by—and even embedded in—history.  Anthropologists have struggled since the beginning of the discipline with ways to show both how cultures "work" and how they change.  This is not a simple matter for historians, either.  Today I wish to show a few examples of how we might think of history, culture, and change. Our new companion Bricky the Bricoleur will be our guide through time and change.
[b] Æthelthryth's Tawdries

Let's take a look at how we might start to "historicize" Lévi-Strauss's account of the bricoleur.  He himself gives a bit of historical context, if you think back to our first bricolage entry, by saying that the word bricoler was related to ball games, hunting, shooting and riding.  It referred to "extraneous movement," such as a ball angling off the side of the table or a rider swerving to avoid something in its path. [1]  Here, culture meets etymology, and we can see that the "modern" word bricoleur has roots in an earlier concept.  So far, so good.  English speakers might think of an example such as "tawdry," which has gone through several meaning changes over time, beginning with a kind of lace.
[c] Bricky c. 1970 (more stuff; still limited)

What Lévi-Strauss does not do in his account of bricolage is give a nuanced "reading" of the artisan we have named "Bricky" over the course of the last hundred years.  If you recall, I gave the approximate years of 1870-1970 for the kind of bricoleur (our "Bricky") of whom Lévi-Strauss writes.  I have my own interpretive reasons for those dates, but that isn't central to the point here. [2]

Let's break down that century in a straightforward manner that nonetheless will give us a sense of change even during the period to which Lévi-Strauss alluded. 

Changing Times
[c] Donkey cart
[d] Bicycle cart
Imagine Bricky, his tools, and his "stuff" in three different eras.  In 1870, he rides a donkey, and his things are loaded onto the back of a donkey cart.  All over France, roads are being built in and around cities and towns; many of the streets are wider and grander than before. In short, great change is afoot, even as Bricky continues to fit rubber plugs into drain holes.

[f] O-rings (the precise kind)
[f] Milk carton meets O-ring (sort of)
Now, let's skip ahead to 1920.  The Great War has ended, and Europe is going through an uneasy rebuilding (and rethinking) process.  For Bricky, though, tubs still need drain plugs, and he still carries his tools and supplies. The only major difference is that now he rides a bicycle—the vehicle that transformed Europe in the early twentieth century. [3]  The cart is behind it, and he goes about his business in much the way that his father did before him and his sons would do after him. He finds a "problem," sorts through his "stuff," and fashions new from old.

Now let's skip ahead fifty more years to about the time that Lévi-Strauss wrote about bricolage.  It is 1970.  Bricky is a rarity, much like a typewriter repairman in 2011.  He and a handful of others are still working, though—making O-rings and drain plugs out of milk cartons and rubber tubes. [4]  He may have a few more tools than "Great Grandpa Bricky" had in 1870, but the biggest difference is that he is driving around in a little diesel-powered truck...with all of his "stuff" still in the back, just like grandpa (bicycle) and great-grandpa (donkey).
[h] The changing face of bricolage

Times change, and that never changes.  Historians are good at the kind of account that I have just given.  They describe with ease various slices of time as they have piled over one another like so many dishes after a Knights of Columbus picnic.  Anthropologist have gotten pretty good at this kind of explanation, too (it wasn't always this way).  It is hard, for example, for an anthropologist to avoid the realization that her own fieldwork is "historical" when she goes back and reads her notes from, say, 1960, 1980, 2000, and yesterday.  The same kind of historical consciousness as I described above with donkeys, bicycles, and trucks is at work when we read our fieldnotes. [5]  What is much more difficult to explain, however, is how things are changing right now, like a swirling bundle of fireflies that don't emit quite enough light to see exactly where we are going.  And bricolage is nothing if not changing—before our eyes, and beyond our comprehension.
[i] Gendered tools and fuel

Think back to what Lévi-Strauss wrote of the bricoleur, and of my examples of bricolage, bathtub drains, and thought (American Pie, in particular).  It is a "fashioning" of new meaning, in new "narrative form, from elements ("stuff") that is lying "out there" in the culture (or the garbage heap).  The bricoleur picks it up and makes something from it.  As we saw, this is the opposite of the engineer, who seeks a precise tool for a precise operation.  One uses a fly-swatter instead of a sledgehammer to complete a common, though cruel, operation.  Think for a moment of a time in which you sought to complete the same operation without a flyswatter available.  You know what I mean; don't pretend you haven't at least thought about it. You were a bricoleur. So, bricolage is as opposed to absolute precision of instruments as cream is to skim (sort of). 
[j] Jacques of all trades

Times Changing
Little did Professor Lévi-Strauss realize that he was an agent of historical and cultural change.  He was as responsible as anyone for popularizing the word bricolage during the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.  He did not do it alone, of course.  A bunch of us who read him liked the concept and applied it in every possible situation where it might even remotely seem to fit (I spoke of Chinese historiography as bricolage back in my undergraduate thesis—and I still think I'm right). It connected in popular culture, as well. And then, as though through some kind of enveloping economic force, it flowed into thriving, entrepreneurial channels.  Before long, we rubbed our eyes, and bricolage was everywhere.
 [k] A Homespun Depot of Engineering Possibilities

We had the home improvement superstore, Mr. Bricolage.

I was unaware of this until, one sunny early autumn afternoon on a trip through southern France, I spied a sight similar to the one below.  I was struck by the oddity of the concept.  It was a place with "all the right tools" named after its clunky, tool-limited sidekick "Bricky."  I also thought that the honorific "Mr." was a little funny (whatever happened to Monsieur Bricolage?), considering the seriousness with which the French Ministry of Education has always taken these matters.

So engineer and bricoleur are compelled to meet—down at the store.  In yesterday's entry, we thought that never those twain would do this, but history works in powerful ways—making a concept, at least here, into its opposite.
[l] A British game—globalized and (re)translated

And there is more.  We have video games, and two words that anthropologists today adore (and can't seem to avoid for more than a paragraph at a time)—commodification and globalization.  I'll have more to say about those concepts in a later "corner," but it should not be lost on you that bricolage has "gone global" and become very much an idea that can be sold.

You will note that "Bob" has many technological advantages over our "Bricky" and his donkey cart (or bicycle, or truck).  He has specific tools for specific tasks.  We might ask if he is not (in Lévi-Strauss's terms)  Eddie l'Ingénieur rather than Bobric(oleur).  In any case, we have a concept that, like St. Audrey's tawdry lace, is in flux right before us.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même choseexcept when they don't, which is the whole point. [6]

And, finally, there is MacGyver—a fifth generation "Bricky."  Draw your own conclusions.
[m] MacGyver et le nouveau bricolage
[n] MacGyver, paper clip, alles.

[o] Patty and Selma get goosebumps in Theory Corner
[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 16-17.
[2] I am thinking of a hundred years of change that cemented a kind of national consciousness in France, during which earlier eras were transformed by larger, "linking" (and alienating) institutions.  There are several excellent books on the topic, including the very accessible The Discovery of France and the absolutely magisterial historical work Peasants into Frenchmen.
[3] The bicycle changed everything (for a while).  See, in particular, Steven Kern's The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.
[4] A good friend of mine in Maine—he sells and maintains pools, and is the quintessential professional—told me an elaborate story about creating an O-ring out of a milk carton that allowed a family to fill the hot tub and have a weekend party (before he was able to get the precise part the next week). Engineer meets bricoleur.
[5] The "Fieldnotes from History" entries on the Round and Square blog are an example of this process. 
[6] The more things change, the more they stay the same—except when they don't, which is the whole point.

Click below for the other posts on bricolage in the Theory Corner series:
Bricolage 1               Bricolage 2               Bricolage 3

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