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Society & Reason

Bricolage: Natural Epistemology

D.E. Tarkington picks up ways of gaining truth, with inspiration from Deleuze, Guattari, and other continentals.

Bricolage: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also: something constructed in this way.” – from the Merriam Webster Dictionary

“Throughout my description of the bricoleur, the figure of the artist is never far away.” Claude Levi-Strauss

The term ‘bricolage’ was first bought to popularity in the early 1960s by Claude Levi-Strauss in his book The Savage Mind. Since then it has found application in many fields from the arts to the social sciences, architecture, and, of course, philosophy. This is probably due to many thinkers, especially creative ones, seeing something of themselves, or rather their working methods, in the concept. Take Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Anti-Oedipus (1972). It equates bricolage with desiring, or with ‘schizophrenic production’: that which creates at the level of impulse by discarding the conscious subject and opening itself up to the various subsystems available to the human mind. ‘Connect and forget’ as Deleuze put it. This approach culminates in What is Philosophy? (1991), in which Deleuze and Guattari distinguish philosophy from art and science, as being that which creates concepts. However, I would argue that given Deleuze’s embrace of creative play and chance, what they were getting at was a kind of conceptual play or bricolage for the sake of creating yet more concepts. This is never explicitly said, but it can be inferred from the way they themselves merge concepts from many different fields and writers, seemingly just for the sake of seeing what happens.

This kind of postmodern play and pastiche is typical of the continental approach to philosophy, especially of the French kind in the period running from mid-twentieth century poststructuralism, through the postmodern, to now. It can be traced back to the earlier poetic approach of Sartre and Heidegger, and even back to Nietzsche. In fact, a somewhat random constructiveness is what distinguishes continental philosophy from analytic philosophy. (There is also, of course, the matter of location: the continental approach is mainly associated with continental Europe, while the analytic mainly worked out of Britain and America.) But it is also an issue of style and approach. To shamelessly bowdlerize a well known quote of Bertrand Russell’s: in the no-man’s land between science and art, continental philosophy leans to the art side of the spectrum, while the analytic approach leans towards science. The exception would be the German philosopher Husserl, who wanted philosophy to act like a science. But including him in the continental team is about his location, as well as his influence, via phenomenology, on Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger.

However, we depart from Levi-Strauss’s original intent for the term ‘bricolage’. For instance, he distinguished engineering from bricolage by the fact that engineering employs concepts while bricolage employs signs. His focus as an anthropologist was on more primitive creative acts, which he contrasted with modern engineering. Those who adopted the term ‘bricolage’ after him applied it to far more advanced activities.

In fact, Levi-Strauss did not invent the term. It actually came from the French verb bricoler, which means ‘to tinker’ (to be distinguished from bricoleur, which is, ‘someone who tinkers’). It seems to me that most creative endeavors involve some element of tinkering, as well as the chance and spontaneous aspects that Levi-Strauss also associated with bricolage. Therefore I would assert that even our most evolved and modern forms of engineering retain a residue of bricolage.

It is in this more expansive spirit that I will attempt to show how bricolage is deeply embedded in our culture, via our brains, via the evolutionary process. I wish to show that no matter what models we may develop for what we can know and how we know it, bricolage has always been and will always be our default epistemology. That is to say, putting together what we randomly find has always been our primary way of gaining knowledge.

Illustration © Jaime Raposo 2023. To see more of his art, please visit jaimeraposo.com

Semi-Random Constructions

I start with a simple and obvious observation, that there is something about the human mind that likes to juxtapose one thing with another. Given what we know from neuroscience, we can confidently assume this compulsion to be wired into the brain.

Take our dreams. They are the result of particular brain activity during sleep, and we’re reasonably sure about the mechanics. It’s the why that still eludes. Freud’s take on dreams as ‘the royal road to the subconscious’ has pretty much been relegated to the status of a metaphor, thanks to neuroscience. But this demotion stands to reason. Look at the primal, unruly, and impulsive nature of the subconscious and peripheral brain systems. Look at the underlying pings, grunts, and silences in the meat of the brain. Doesn’t it seems a little optimistic to think that such activity, independent of conscious control, could construct elaborate and articulate symbolic systems – especially to the extent claimed by those dream dictionaries popular in the Seventies? Nor do our dreams bear out Freud’s systematic sexual symbolism. Mine tend to consist of a lot of brief and shifting narratives. One minute I’m embracing a young woman who threw herself in my arms; the next thing I know, I’m wandering through some amusement park trying to find her while wanting to ride the rides; then I’m in a car, trying to get to work, for which I’m late. And while there is a common theme of frustration to dreams (research shows that 70% to 80% of dreams are negative in tone), any meaning to be extracted can only come from a more thorough understanding of the brain, such as how it processes emotions and the like. Generally, I would say that dreams are the end product of psychic bricolage, working at a primal level.

So why do we dream? I would point to a theory proposed by dream researchers concerning the role dreams play in neuroplasticity. Every time our mind changes through the day’s experience, our brain must as well; especially in terms of what we store in memory. Now imagine the brain doing a kind of mental inventory, randomly sifting through its vast mental contents. Imagine it taking a mental unit from the past day’s experience, and juxtaposing it randomly with another unit already in memory, achieving some kind of hybrid. It is these hybrids that underlie the weird images we tend to encounter in dreams. Now imagine the brain finding certain combinations of ideas or experiences that for some reason or other happen to resonate with and seduce it. Hence those dream narratives that tend to repeat.

We can easily align this sort of bricolage dream-making process with the creative process – as Levi-Strauss did. For me at least, and from testimonies of other creative people I know, I know that a work of art can be formed by accumulating basic units of experience that bring pleasure (riffs and melodies for the musician; phrases and lines for the poet; colors and brushstrokes for the artist, etc) and juxtaposing them in chance and experimental ways until they collect into bigger and bigger units. The same could also be said for the process of philosophy. But whichever creative endeavour we’re talking about, it’s always about going into the world, gathering information, and carrying it back to our mental labs where we can play mix and match until we find some combination that resonates with us. Then it’s a matter of playing it against reality, and adjusting accordingly.

But then, isn’t this just what everyone does in their thinking? So it stands to reason that we would see a similar dynamic in the way we accumulate knowledge. In this case, we start with the individual facts we pick up, which we collect into data, which accumulate into truths. Like dreams, this tends be a chance process of picking out and juxtaposing various units of information and data, seeing how they play (or don’t play), and revising accordingly. But to truly appreciate this, we need to elaborate on what we mean by the three crucial terms.

Concerning the first thing that comes to hand in our construction of knowledge, by ‘fact’, we may mean any individual unit of confirmable information which we can put into a matrix of data. We are not referring only to science here: it could be something as obvious as the cat being on the mat. Or it may be a guesstimate. Facts can also take less formal expressions – such as me saying ‘I wrote this piece in several hours and revised it many times’. But I can pose this as a fact since I, myself, experienced the writing of this piece. My reporting it makes it a fact – assuming I’m not trying to lie. And even if I cannot offer an exact count of the time spent writing this article, or the number of revisions, I can still be confident that there were several.

In short, what distinguishes our more inclusive sense of ‘fact’ from the more formal use of ‘fact’ in science, is that the informal use allows for individual experiences, even feelings or beliefs. But we should note that when it comes to facts, they should, in theory at least, always be confirmable by observation.

The problem starts with ‘data’. Data, for our purposes, is an accumulation of facts brought together to give a bigger picture than the individual facts can offer. Data shows how the facts hang together. The formal expressions of data are statistics and scientific research. But even there, we see a problem: that the bigger picture is always up against the risk of being undermined by some yet-to-be-discovered fact.

This is why data is as interesting for what it excludes as what it includes: it’s never complete. Consider the Truman vs Dewey US presidential campaign of the late 1940s. Phone surveys showed Dewey, the Republican candidate, well ahead of Truman, the Democrat. But Truman won. What the statisticians failed to recognize was that by using phone surveys they were only addressing those voters who could afford phones, which in those days generally meant well-to-do Republicans.

Alternatively, as a smoker myself, I take some solace from the gaps in the stats concerning smoking. One can, of course, count the number of smokers that contract certain diseases, or die, as compared to non-smokers. But what one can’t provide is a count of those smokers who might have contracted those same diseases or died had they not smoked, or quit. Of course, most smokers know better, because there is the cumulative effect of the number of studies that say pretty much the same thing, as well as the personal, anecdotal, and informal facts concerning smokers we know who have died horrible deaths. And there is always the smoker’s hack: a personal experience for me.

With truth, we can take the approach of calling true what seems sufficiently justified when we reach the end of all this accumulation and juxtaposition of picked-up facts and data. Or to put it in more pragmatic terms: the truth is that which simply works.

Points need to be made here. First, given the process we’re talking about, of fact to data, then data to truth, I would admit that the term ‘truth’ as we’re using it now seems interchangeable with a ‘belief system’ or even ‘grand narrative’. Next, it’s easy to see how an individual belief system will tend to collect facts and data that support it. This also allows for the notion that everyone has their own ‘truth’ – a ‘truth’ that seems justified for the individual. But before my critics start moving in for the kill, I would point out that any individual ‘truth’ is still subject to being compared with reality. It still has to address the data and facts of which it is composed. This is what determines its position in a spectrum that runs from a strong truth to a weak one – that is, weak even to the point of being not true.

Many critics of Jacques Derrida’s structuralist approach to truth, as well as of Stanley Fish’s ‘interpretive community’, have derided their view of the interpretation of texts as it being some kind of free-for-all. But while the individual’s interpretation of a text is always their own, in social circles the interpretation is always obliged to play itself against the reality of the text as well as the interpretations of others (this is called intersubjectivity). And in the postmodern sense of a text as being ‘anything to be interpreted’, we can say the same thing about the ‘text’ of reality itself and those who seek to interpret or understand it. Interpret reality all you want, your interpretation must fit your experience.

Before we move on, we can anchor this in the evolutionary process by recognizing its compatibility with a model brought to my attention by Arthur Lupia in Uninformed: Why People Know so Little About Politics and What We Can Do About It (2015), which runs from information, to knowledge, to competence. Like Lupia, we can begin to see that our movement, from facts, to data, to truths is, at bottom, an evolutionary adaption to the environment, with some kind of responsive competence as the endgame.

To Take Away

The signature of bricolage is everywhere in our thinking. Our minds are always working with what is at hand, always tinkering, putting in and taking out, and putting back yet again. It’s in the way we fill our spaces. We find what works (resonates and seduces), and hang it on our walls or sit it on our floor; and then, when something new comes along, or when what we’re doing stalls, we rearrange it. And what is cyberspace but a vast communal bricolage of code playing off code and programs off programs?

While other ways of thinking seek to contain, bricolage embraces the outside, and the random. But then why not? Why not in the development of thought reflect the chance nature of our evolution? Why not follow the cue of neuroplasticity, as expressed in our dreams, and be eclectic in the facts we pick up? And finally, why shouldn’t our culture follow suit? It is, after all, the product of our minds and brains. The human world is the natural extension of our evolutionary process, and of the bricolage that got us here.

© D.E. Tarkington 2023

D.E. Tarkington works as a maintenance tech on a major healthcare campus in Omaha, Nebraska (which shall not be named as to relieve them of any responsibility in this) and pursues the self-creation of philosophy and theory like a daily meditation in his free time.

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