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.


Writing as Slavery

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss considers the status of writing in the history of civilizations, by which, as Dan Visel suggests, “Gutenberg’s invention of movable type leads directly to the excesses of European colonialism” (“This Progress” at if:book):

The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied [writing] is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals, and the distribution of those individuals into a hierarchy of castes or classes. Such is, as any rate, the type of development which we find, from Egypt right across to China, at the time when writing makes its débuts: it seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of humanity. This exploitation makes it possible to assemble workers by the thousand and set them to tasks that taxed the limits of their strength: to this, surely, we must attribute the beginnings of architecture as we know it. If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use of writing for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind either in the fields of science or the arts, is a secondary result of its invention—and may even be no more than a means of reinforcing, justifying or dissimulating its primary function. (C. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell [NY: Criterion, 1961] 292 [silently edited])

The primary function of writing is slavery. Its secondary functions—in science or art—are more or less disguised slavery.

. . . because it is a sword in disguise.

Or, as seminal communicologist Harold Innis puts it, “The sword [power] and pen [knowledge] worked together” (30). Innis’s discussion of the space-binding media like newspapers and books that facilitate empire-building is apposite (see Empire and Communications [1950; Toronto, Ont.: Dundurn P, 2007] and Wikipedia).

Innis offers a suggestive binary model of social “biases”:

  • time-bound society: oral, narrative/mythic/mnemonic, tribal, hierarchical/communal
  • space-bound society: written, conceptual/rational/calculative, imperial, egalitarian/individual

For him, Classical Greek civilisation (surprise!) balances the two—embodied, presumably, in Plato’s dialogues, which unite the oral and the written, and the mythic and the rational. Modern Western civilisation, especially in the USA (but now globally), has tipped the balance toward the latter: it is entirely space-bound and thus obsessively present-minded.

The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and magazine has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity. The emphasis on change is the only permanent characteristic. (Changing Concepts of Time [1952; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004] 11)

It could be argued, though, that the technology that has usurped pen and paper—the personal computer and the Web—reverses this trend: it has given voice to a new orality, opened and expanded the archive and its mythopoetic possibilities, fostered virtual and glocal tribes, etc. But all this takes place within the horizon of transcendental capitalism, which renders groundless and ephemeral any competitor for its monopoly on permanence. The Last Trump has blown; we live in the End Times.