The Bricoleur and the Engineer

Verbatim from Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962):

the “bricoleur” is . . . someone who works with his [or her] hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. . . . (16-17)

. . . bricolage being D.I.Y. (Interestingly, L-S always uses scare-quotes about “bricoleur,” to suggest that the term is figurative.)

L-S contrasts the bricoleur and the engineer:

[He or she] is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he [or she] does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His [or her] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his [or her] 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 relationto 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. (17)

This is to say,

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. (19)

Mythical thought is analogous to bricolage:

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.” (16)

But so is the self.

L-S goes on to contrast the “savage” (or mythopoetic) mind with the “scientific” (or conceptual) mind.

  • the “savage” is a bricoleur, assembling patchwork objects by adapting “the means at hand” (by adding, deleting, substituting and transforming them);
  • the “scientist” is an engineer, creating objects “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth.”

The artist is “half-way between” (22).

One last note: Derrida, himself—like most postmoderns—a bricoleur, comments with his characteristic irony that “the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur” (360).


See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1962; Chicago: UCP, 1966) 17ff. (excerpted online at “The Savage Mind“) and Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 2nd rev. ed. (New York; London: Routledge, 2001) 360.


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