The art of bricolage as cultural curation
The engineer creates, the bricoleur curates. At least, this was an early idea in Anthropology. While this notion extended its influence into the world of art and cultural theory, its integration and synergy can be used as a model for new and novel ways of approaching dialogue and learning in an age of social media.
In 1962 Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote The Savage Mind, and his theory of structuralism changed the way this field evolved from colonial dilettantism to scholarly social science. In the opening chapter, he likens the”‘mythic mind” of the pre-modern humans to the jack-of-all-trades and DIY handymen of modern life.
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’… (Levi-Strauss 1962: 11)
Bricolage is the skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining them to create something new, and Levi-Strauss uses this metaphor to explain how pre-modern human societies sought to bring order to their world. He argues that their knowledge wasn’t simply based on whether or not something was immediately useful to them, but that in their own way, these societies also were interested in knowledge in order to understand the nature of reality.
Up until this time, it was common that the knowledge of ‘other’ cultures (non- Western European) was considered ‘magical’ and primitive. It was Levi-Strauss’ work which highlighted the ethnocentrism of this view, with careful and extensive evidence to show this was the case.
He presents a different epistemological state in contrast: the engineer/scientist creates events by means of structures, being able to construct entirely new sets of resources from scratch. He uses the “scientific mind” and can see projects through from start to completion. On the other hand, the bricoleur will utilise anything already in existence and available at hand for purposes that they may not have originally been meant for. In this mode, the various parts can be defined:
only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the bricoleur himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that “they may always come in handy”. (Levi-Strauss 1962: 11)
Mon bric à brac
Mes petits secrets en vrac
Tombés de mon sac
— Priscilla Betti
Meta-Modernism & integrated cultural construction
Structural Anthropology led to Structuralist theory in Literary Criticism. With the advent of the post-modern movement, these and many other ideas from literary and art theory became sources of cultural theory, eventually being used by scholars as a filter of critique for social, cultural, and political conversations.
This was during the immediate post-war period of the 50’s and 60’s. The world as it is today is vastly different to that witnessed by these scholars who for the most part witnessed the horrors of WW2 and the spread of Nazism first-hand (and in many cases, experienced the full brunt of those policies personally). For the first time in the history of human civilisation we are living in a truly global, and polycultural society.
For example, it’s not uncommon for today’s school children to be learning multiple languages. Or that I am as familiar with the history of China as I am of Australia. Or that we have people who are literally ‘citizens of the world’, living and working for several years in one country before moving on to the next.
As such, the plurality of human knowledge, experience, and perception is becoming more and more accepted as ‘normal’. With the advent of the internet and the Information Age we have access to knowledge from all cultures, past and present, irrespective of our educational level and socio-economic status. The old, hegemonic cultural norms are dissipating in favour of eclectic and personal norms that allow for an individual to live according to their Values and true nature.
Whilst there are many vocal conservatives, the reality for most people is that we have the luxury and access to be something like a hybrid of Levi-Strauss’ Engineer and Bricoleur. We can take pieces from various sources – pieces which are different and not for the purpose we intend them to be – and re-create structures and events in a manner that we can use for our (and hopefully for others’) benefit. In many respects, this idea is what is driving the current movement within the technological sphere, especially in regards to peer-to-peer and blockchain technology.
We got all of the pieces
To fix who we are
Many years, I noticed something like this happening in the New Age / Spiritual communities. Like many others, I was craving a spiritual dimension in my life, but was reticent to associate with religious institutions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Buddhism and Hinduism. It didn’t feel right to whole-heartedly embrace just one tradition; at the same time to ignore one would be like “throwing the baby out with the bath-water”.
I explored the spiritual and mystic traditions from all around the world in order to find the language with which I could articulate the meaning of my felt sense and personal experience. Over the last twenty years have come to notice the similarities and the differences between these traditions. But not just these spiritual traditions, but all forms of human knowledge: science, mathematics, biology, philosophy, literary/cultural theory, linguistics, physics, medicine, computer science, anthropology, history, and all the various branches and intersections between them.
Not only in these academic fields, but also in all the cultural forms that humans around the world create: art, literature, music, dance, drama, sculpture, architecture, design, advertising, film, television, games… all these products of human creativity and ingenuity have within them keys and ideas that are expressions of their creators, and of the culture that spawned them.
What has happened in the last decade is that the internet has allowed a massive explosion of creativity to become easily available. In my opinion, we haven’t witnessed anything like this since Florence in the Renaissance era!
At the same time, we as cultural consumers are becoming overwhelmed at the amount that is available for us. We all crave to behold creative enterprise, to enjoy it and love it and share it. So we have emerging the importance of the curator.
The curator’s job is to put together a collection of works, tied together by a single theme. Sometimes they will bring together different works from a single creator; or they will bring together similar works from different creators. This has been an essential role in the Art world, with curators putting together gallery collections and exhibitions.
But this has also bled through into other aspects of our culture – the most obvious being the rise of the DJ, who plays a ‘set’ of other artists’ creations to hordes of loyal listeners.
On the internet also, websites such as Medium bring together articles and stories from different writers into collections based on readers’ interests, while Spotify and Apple Music also put together playlists based on the listener’s plays and likes.
Curation begins to become a type of meta-creation, where the whole content is made up of smaller units of creative content. In many ways, it is indicative of how humans are now requiring to process information so that they can develop their own unique way of articulating their Values and Beliefs.
I have dealt in mysteries and trickery of light to entertain
Looked into the abyss, called it by its nameI have plundered time itself, put the world inside it
I’m the mysteries, day and night, divide it
A plague of wonders, on your knees beside me
Know the secrets, you shall not deride us— Iron Maiden
What also struck me about Levi-Strauss’ bricoleurs is that it is remarkably similar ideologically to what was occurring in China during the Tang and Song dynasties.
The Complete Reality (全真Quán Zhēn) school of Daoism took their name because they embraced the philosophical ideas and terminology of their rival philosophies Confucianism and Buddhism. They ‘alchemically’ blended together the different ideas, themes, and concepts to create a syncretic vision of reality, and a process for people to attain states of enlightenment, longevity, and perfection.
Similarly, the Confucianists and Buddhists at this time also began to borrow from each other’s epistemologies. So this was not a project undertaken by a small group of people, but can be seen to have been of the cultural zeitgeist during these centuries. This is also reflected academically by the medical establishment at the time, with multiple theories being adopted and expanded in clinically.
Great technical and scientific advances were made in China during these periods, as there was no need to slavishly hold to any one theory dogmatically. Syncretism can only happen when people have open cognitive frames. A bricoleur can only bring together seemingly-different parts to repair the object if he keeps an open mind and doesn’t close his mind off from the possibilities of what can be achieved with parts that were not originally designed for the function he seeks to fulfil.
This is also a feature of my Metametheus project. If Metametheus released hope from Pandora’s Jar so that we could use them to deal with the previously-released ills of the world, then what tools would be available to us?
Just like Levi-Strauss (1962: 14) claimed that art “lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought”, so too does curated content become the integration of Reason and Intuition, of Fact and Fiction.
The stories, articles, podcasts (coming soon), and other artefacts to be found on Pandora’s Lost Gift are all commentaries and ideas inspired by ordinary, everyday life as well as complex intellectual theories and deep philosophical ideas.
It is with this frame of reference that this blog, and the companion Email Periodical À Bric Et À Brac, are created (and curated). Because there is no reason that we can’t be both educated and entertained at the same time, and that we can’t find meaning in the mundane.
Dahl, Erik (2018), ‘Information Bricolage’, sourced from Information Bricolage, accessed 2/09/18
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962), ‘Chapter One: the Science of the Concrete’, from The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press, sourced from web.mit.edu, accessed 2/09/18
Mambrol, Nasrullah (2016), ‘Claude Levi-Strauss’ Concept of Bricolage’, from Literary Theory and Criticism Notes, sourced from literariness.org, accessed 2/09/18