Claude Levi-Strauss

LEVI-STRAUSS: On Bricolage

In his attempt to appreciate the significant achievements of pre-scientific thought — among which may be counted all human civilizations — Claude Levi-Strauss sought to distinguish between modern science and the science of the concrete. To explicate his ideas with a system of examples, he contrasted the methods of the engineer and of the bricoleur
[note 1].

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a 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 “bricoler” applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting, and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the “bricoleur” [note 2] is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman.

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it 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 intellectual “bricolage” – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

The analogy is worth pursuing since it helps us to see the real relations between the two types of scientific knowledge we have distinguished. 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 and procured 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.

The set of the bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project…. It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting it another way and in the language of the bricoleur himself, because the elements are collected and 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…

Consider him (the bricoleur) at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury is composed to discover what each of them could “signifiy” and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts….
The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources…. In his case, his means, power and knowledge are never unlimited and in this negative form he meets resistance with which he has to come to terms. It might be said that THE ENGINEER QUESTIONS THE UNIVERSE, WHILE THE BRICOLEUR ADDRESSES HIMSELF TO A COLLECTION OF ODDMENTS LEFT OVER FROM HUMAN ENDEAVORS, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.

The difference is therefore less absolute than it might appear. It remains a real one, however, in that the engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the bricoleur by inclination or necessity always remains within them.

IN THE CONTINUAL RECONSTRUCTION FROM THE SAME MATERIALS, IT IS ALWAYS EARLIER ENDS WHICH ARE CALLED UPON TO PLAY THE PART OF MEANS…. This formula, which could serve as the definition of ‘BRICOLAGE’, explains how an implicit inventory or conception of the total means available must be made…so that a result can be defined which will always be a compromise between the structure of the instrumental set and that of the project. Once it materializes, the project therefore must be inevitably at a remove from the initial aim (which was moreover a mere sketch),… Further, the bricoleur also, and indeed principally, derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he speaks not only with things, as we have seen, but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between limited possibilities. The bricoleur may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it.

There are several advantages in adopting the image of bricolage as a central characterization of human activity. With respect to the issue of the psychological reality of our descriptions, the first advantage is verisimilitude. The bricoleur is not a dumb engineer; he is a person doing a different thing. If thinking is a form of bricolage, it is more like other natural human activities than is Simon’s descriptions of thought as the serial search within a problem space of an agent whose specification is as a subset of an expert. The second advantage is that bricolage, as a characterization of behavior, is more nearly compatible with a view of mind as a process controlled by the contention of multiple objectives competing for resources than is planning, for example. Most importantly, bricolage can provide us with an image for the process of mind under self construction.

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