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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Post-Modern Bricolage or Bricolage in Po-Mo Era


In the “Bricoleur in the Tennis Court,” D. L. Miller (1996, online) discusses bricoleurs and play at some length in the context of postmodern pedagogy. D. L. Miller takes his title from a sketch of the French revolution entitled Tennis Court Oath. In that picture they were improvising a nation, while D. L. Miller is improvising education, and I am improvising a methodology. D. L. Miller notes that the bricoleur is a person of unspecialized artistry who makes do with what is at hand, and that in today’s postmodern world we are all bricoleurs. Indeed the notion of bricolage is found in many different disciplines. It has been cropping up in many places in postmodern discourse since its beginnings in the 60s—you might say bricolage became the “Po Mo” way to go. D. L. Miller follows the bouncing bricolage ball, beginning with Derrida, and includes some particularly notable side shots as well from James Hillman and Mark C. Taylor among others.


Jacques Derrida (1966, online) rebounds from Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of bricolage in The Savage Mind with a lecture entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play,” and so begins Deconstruction. Derrida uses the notion of play to give us decentered discourse and deconstructed Lévi-Strauss’s dichotomy of the bricoleur and engineer to demonstrate how texts don’t mean what they say, but that “texts subvert, exceed, or even overturn their author’s stated purposes” (Hedges, 1998, online). This deconstruction of the bricoleur/engineer dichotomy produced a difference without a distinction or maybe it is vice versa; in any event the dichotomy was destroyed and it seems that the engineer was a myth, quite probably made up by the bricoleur—“which was very likely true!”


By now, it is getting very Alice in Wonderland-like—and makes one wonder whether the caterpillar’s name was Jacques? Nevertheless, this bricoleur/engineer dichotomy, although perhaps meaningless, was still a useful notion. Derrida’s deconstruction effectively kept bricolage center-stage and in play, ironically using play and decentering as a method. Derrida (1966, online) also shows that all discourse is bricolage: “if one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the texts of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.” Derrida’s own method of composition is bricolage, his texts are, “quite literally ‘assembled’ ” as Booker (1991) notes, quoting Derrida himself:


I insist on the word “assemblage” here . . . . The word “assemblage” seems more apt for suggesting that the kind of bringing-together proposed here has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a web, which would allow different threads and different lines of sense or force to bring others together (Speech & Phenomena 132). (p. 86)

D. L. Miller (1996, online) recounts that the term bricolage “did not remain only in the field of cultural anthropology. It redounded—itself a bit of bricolage—to other discourses: postmodern philosophy, theology, depth psychology, and literary theory.” The postmodern situation, where image has displaced text as the primary medium of discourse has made bricoleurs of us all. It seems that at least psychologically, everyone is liminal and there are no more specialists.


D. L. Miller (1996, online) shows that bricolage has even bounced around in our own backyard of Archetypal Psychology. Most recently, T. Moore (2000, online) confesses to be a “spiritual bricoleur,” but Hillman (1975) it seems, was bitten by the bricoleur bug early on. In Re-visioning Psychology, too, after a discussion of Knight Errant, where he discusses the wandering nature of the soul, Hillman (1992) cryptically mentions the bricoleur at the end of his chapter on psychologizing—in a “parting shot” if you will. This sly bricoleur doesn’t develop the concept any further, instead he leaves us hanging, brilliantly leaving the sentence, and paragraph, and chapter unfinished:


Psychological reflections always catch light from a peculiar angle; they are annoying at the same time as they are perceptive. Psychologizing sees things peculiarly, a deviant perspective reflecting the deviance in the world around. The psychological mirror that walks down the road, the Knight Errant on his adventure, the scrounging rogue, is also an odd-job man, like Eros the Carpenter who joins this bit with that, a handyman, a bricoleur—like “a ball rebounding or a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course” –psychologizing upon and about what is at hand; not a systems-architect, a planner with directions. And leaving before completion, suggestion hanging in the air, an indirection, an open phrase . . . (p. 164)

As Mary Poppins would say, “well begun is half done” (Stevenson, 1964, motion picture), and I shall develop the concept further later. But first, let me follow the course of bricolage a bit further. The 1990s were big for bricolage—everyone was jumping on the bricolage bandwagon—especially after the Internet began to take off. Bricolage has bounded its way into many other diverse realms, from cultural studies and computing to business. In the realm of cultural studies, Weinstein and Weinstein (1991) discuss the concept at great length in regard to Georg Simmel, “an astute wanderer [who] can connect seemingly isolated fragments with other apparently isolated fragments” (p. 160). They say the bricoleur


is practical and gets the job done, but it is not always or even usually the same job that was initially undertaken and is uniquely structured by the set of “preconstrained” elements that are selected from the treasury. A substitution of one element for another would change the form of the construction. The bricoleur works and plays with the stock. His parts are not standardized or invented; they are appropriated for new uses. (pp. 161-162)

Hellerstein (2003, online) turns to bricolage in information retrieval/database discussions where he used the bricoleur/engineer notions to show that this dichotomy was “simultaneously meaningless and useful” to understand the difference between information retrieval systems, which are based on “found” structure, that is bricolage, and database systems which are “engineered, stable” structures.


Weick (1993) in the area of organizational design sees design as improvisation versus architecture. He notes that improvisation could be considered a kind of bricolage and the improviser a kind of bricoleur. To the bricoleur, the materials at hand are not project-specific, but, instead, are associated with all the ways in which the materials were used before, and they are retained on the principle that they might come in handy. The materials, in other words, mean whatever they have been used for in the past. The more diverse these uses, and the more fully the materials themselves are understood, the more a bricoleur is able to develop a richer understanding of the object. Consequently, the bricoleur is able to develop innovative uses for the object, by always being open to and in the process of trying out new ways to use an object (p. 353). Along these lines, Thayer (2003, online) notes we should be investing in the bricoleur.


Fonstad (2001, online) in discussing the roles of information systems technology in improvising, likens bricolage to jazz improvisation:


A core element of improvising is that improvisers rely principally on features of the situation (e.g., local norms, available artifacts, and audience feedback) and their memories to develop their innovations. Barrett (1998, p. 616) notes: Jazz players, junkyard collectors and technical reps find themselves in the middle of messes, having to solve problems in situ, creating interpretations out of potentially incoherent materials, piecing together other musicians’ playing, their own memories of musical patterns, interweaving general concepts with the particulars of the current situation, creating coherent, composite stories.

Bricolage has also played a big role in computer science and education where Papert (1980, 1984) and Turkel (1984, 1995) use the concept extensively in the context of soft-mastery, Internet identity and imaginings. Turkel (1984) describes how the soft-master works by feeling his way; he does not follow an exact plan, but has a goal, and allowed the work to evolve. The goal is allowed to evolve too, “he used what he found at hand and took pleasure in using something made for altogether different purpose, showing elements of improvisation and negotiating with the work in progress” (p. 131). Shih (2003, online), influenced by Turkel, uses bricolage to conceptualize consumer experience in cyberspace.


Bricolage has also made inroads in the realm of media philosophy (Taylor & Saarinen, 1994), and their book, Imagologies is bricolage at its text-based best. D. L. Miller (1996, online) further notes:


A postmodern theologian of culture, Mark C. Taylor . . . points out that cultural “imagology insists that the word is never simply a word but is always also an image” (styles) . . . . The audio-visual trace of the word involves an inescapable materiality that can be thought only if it is figured . . . . I have alluded already to the essay in which Derrida writes that “every abstract concept hides a sensible figure” (1982: 210).

D. L. Miller (1996, online) also quotes Guggenbühl-Craig (1995) who writes elegantly about how he sees the world and the paradoxical nature of it:


The paradoxical approach to psychology offers still more. It helps us to play in the most profound sense of the word. Aside from many other things, psychology is also play . . . . Psychology is play for the glory of the soul. We psychologists try playfully to comprehend the soul with images and fables. The paradox of the images reminds us continually that we are playing as if with a kaleidoscope. We shake or turn the images lightly, revealing ever new configurations. (p. 130)

Guggenbühl-Craig (1995) sees “the world as an iridescent sphere whose thousands of colors continually transform into other colors” (p. i). Lévi-Strauss (1962/1966) also likens the material of the bricoleur and the images of myth to the bits and pieces in a kaleidoscope. Earlier these materials were associated with “other coherent sets,” a past use, and now they form new patterns in a new use (p. 37). D. L. Miller (1998, cassette) calls therapy “the jiggle of the kaleidoscope.”


Qualitative researchers use other metaphors to capture these multivalent, multiperspectival qualities of the research process, such as quiltmaking, montage, pentimento, and improvisation to give a feel for bricolage. Denzin and Lincoln (2000) also liken bricolage to the notion of a crystal which reflects and refracts differently depending upon how it is held and viewed. “Researchers have used multiple voices, different textual formats and various typefaces to capture these different voices, perspectives, points of view angles of vision . . . they create spaces for give and take between reader and writer” (p, 5). Turkel (1984) discusses the privilege and responsibility that an anthropologist has “to see the world through a prism not available to members, (and this is the part that is often the most difficult) and use a new lens to see one’s own world differently as well” (p. 17). I, too, believe that looking at the world through different lenses is central to the bricoleur’s task.


Before going on to discuss the methodological allusions in Lévi-Strauss and the Bollingen stone, I should note that many bricoleurs existed prior to Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term. James Joyce comes to mind as perhaps the “most formidable bricoleur in modern literature.” Acknowledging his bricoleur nature, Joyce wrote that he was “quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man, for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description” (Booker, 1991, p. 87). Freud, Jung, and Bateson, other twentieth century bricoleur heavyweights, whose work is important to play, will be discussed later.


But it is Hermes himself who may have been the original Western bricoleur. He practiced bricolage as a child, when as his first act after leaving the cave, he made a lyre out of tortoise’s shell and its intestines. He is said to have shouted “Eureka!” when he got the idea for the tortoise shell lyre (N. O. Brown, 1990, p. 75-76). In Kerényi’s (1976/2003) translation of the “Hymn to Hermes,” Hermes remarked to the turtle, “Your shell is a kaleidoscope” (p. 61). In this way, he saw through the turtle! Later, Hermes fashions a pair of sandals for himself and for Apollo’s cattle to hide their tracks, because Hermes stole them and then lied about it. Thus, it is no surprise that for the bricoleur the truth value of things is not overly important. Hermes was not known for telling the truth, at least not the whole truth. Kincheloe (2001, online) and McLeod (2000, online) both implicate Hermes when they point out the devious means in Lévi-Strauss’s definition, and McLeod intimates that bricoleur hints at “trickery, cunning and even a small-time crook.”


Lévi-Strauss himself does not accept the truth of some of the notions he uses, such as the nature/culture dichotomy, but uses them anyway. Likewise, Turkel (1984), herself a bricoleur, is not concerned with the truth of theories, but with how they capture the popular imagination. As Klages (2001, online) tells us, the bricoleur can incorporate other things into the system and use terms and ideas without having to acknowledge the whole system of thought they come from as valid and true. A bricoleur doesn’t care about the “truth” as long as the terms and ideas are useful. Hellerstein (2003, online) notes “that juxtaposition without requiring rationality enables what Derrida calls ‘play’ addressing and affirming provisional truths.” Klages (2001, online) also points out that bricolage is not rational, but mythopoetic, which brings us to reverie and the methodological implications of bricolage.

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