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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Origins of Bricolage

David L. Miller (1996, online), in an article entitled “The Bricoleur On The Tennis Court” tells us of bricolage’s origins: “The word ‘bricoleur’ and its cognate ‘bricolage’ come from bricole, a corruption of which is the English word ‘brickwall,’ like the brickwall of the tennis court in David’s sketch. The root word means ‘redound’ or ‘rebound.’” Bricolage, therefore refers to shots in billiards or tennis where the ball rebounds off the wall or cushion. The Oxford English Dictionary (2003, online) defines bricole:

in Tennis: the rebound of a ball from the wall of a tennis court, ‘a side-stroake at Tennis wherein the ball goes not right forward, but hits one of the walls of the court, and thence bounds towards the aduerse partie’ (cotgr. 1611); also fig. An indirect, unexpected stroke or actions. Similarly in Billiards.

The concept of bricolage comes to us from Lévi-Strauss (1962/1966). He uses it his book The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage) while discussing the difference between mythical thought and science. For Lévi-Strauss, mythical thought expresses what he calls “the science of the concrete,” which is a separate mode of knowing from science, and to which I will return later in detail. Lévi-Strauss says that the activity of bricolage, on “the technical plane,” is comparable to this science of the concrete, and describes bricolage and mythical thinking:

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” 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. (pp. 16-17)

The translator notes that the word bricoleur “has no precise equivalent in English. He is a man who undertakes odd jobs and is a Jack-of-all-trades or a kind of professional do-it-yourself man,” (p. 17) and is different than a “handyman.”

From the above, we can see that bricolage and play are joined from the beginning, and as these beginnings show, dealing with bricolage may perhaps be challenging. Bricolage, by its nature does not proceed in a straightforward manner; it seems to stray or wander from one thing to another with concepts bouncing this way and that, as interrelations and connections abound. In this way, bricolage’s nonlinear, irrational, fragmented nature reflects its affinity with play. As Derrida (1966, online) observes, there is an inverse relation between play and structure. As play increases, the center or structure decreases. Giving structure to play is thus difficult, because the bouncing ball will undoubtedly hit a few brickwalls, and veering off-course becomes inevitable. So, even if one begins to feel like a knight errant haphazardly crossing the countryside, in the end, there really will be a method to the madness, in fact the method is part of the message.

Lévi-Strauss’s “myth of mythology” is a mythomorphic episteme—it takes the form of what it speaks (Booker, 1991, p. 392), like the Mouse’s tale in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll, 1975, p. 49), Similarly this bricolage method, mirroring my subject matter, play, will take on this same bricolage form.

As the man who brought us bricolage, Lévi-Strauss’s (1988) description of how he works on a project is insightful:

I have a Neolithic mind . . . I keep moving along an endlessly shifting boundary . . . I get by when I work by accumulating notes—a bit about everything, ideas captured on the fly, summaries of what I have read, references, quotations . . . . and when I want to start a project, I pull a packet of notes out of their pigeonhole and deal them out like a deck of cards. This kind of operation, where chance plays a role, helps me revive my failing memory. (p. 35)

Lévi-Strauss recounts that his brioleur techniques were inspired by artist Max Ernst’s collages “which built personal myths out of images borrowed from another culture . . . making these images say more than when viewed by an innocent eye . . . I cut up a mythological subject and recombined the fragments to bring out more meaning” (Lévi-Strauss, 1988, p. vii-viii).

So, if it does occasionally feel at times as if I am rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it is good to keep in mind what Ben Vereen, lead player in Pippin (Schwartz, 2000, television production), sang: “Easy baby, you’re on the right track!” After all, Lévi-Strauss (1962/1966) notes that mythical thought (bricolage) “for its part is imprisoned in the events and experiences which it never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning” (p. 22).

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