It seems that sleep is not finding me this evening, despite the fact that I am exhausted. On occasion I have been criticized for describing my own philosophical “methodology” as a work of bricolage. The criticism seems to revolve around the idea that somehow bricolage lacks unity or organization, but is a hodgepodge of things put together in an ad hoc way that ultimately fails to cohere or hold together. Thus, if I draw concepts or lines of arguments from other thinkers, I am creating a sort of Frankenstein– and on occasion I’ve described myself as doing just this –that creates a poorly formed monster rather than anything that resembles philosophy in the exalted sense of a self-contained system that issues from first principles.
It seems to me that this line of criticism and the accompanying view that bricolage is an instance of the ad hoc represents a profound failure to understand the nature of bricolage and the work of the bricoleur. Bricolage refers to a way of working that draws on available materials in the solution of a particular problem. In clarifying this idea, we can compare two types of producers: the Bricoleur and the Ideal Engineer. The ideal engineer is someone who exists in a smooth space without any sort of constraints whatsoever, and who has unlimited power to select among the matters from which they can build and to give form to these matters in any way they might like. Indeed, we can even imagine that the Ideal Engineer even has in his possession something called Ideal Matter. Ideal Matter is truly amazing stuff. It is perfectly conductive, allowing whatever it might like to pass through it. It is gossamer and elastic, such that it can equally form flowing drapes or take on shape and return to its original form. It is absolutely pliable and plastic so that it can be imprinted in any way that we might like. But it is also stronger than diamond or steel and rigid like a Bucky tube. Armed with such an Ideal Matter, a matter with no singularities of its own, the Ideal Engineer can create truly marvelous things indeed.
The Bricoleur is not so lucky, for the Bricoleur— that is, everyone else –is situated in a world and, in producing, must contend with the local singularities of the available materials in solving the problems she wishes to solve. The consequence of this situatedness is that the product of production is not strictly what the Bricoleur envisioned because the singularities embodied in available materials must be contended with in putting these materials together. We get a sense of the Bricoleur’s mode of engagement in Jackie Chan’s film First Strike:
The pleasure of watching Jackie Chan fight, despite the generally poor quality of the plots in his films, lies in watching a bricoleur in action. Like Fred Astaire before him, Chan’s environment becomes a field of singularities both defining a problem and providing avenues towards the solution to that problem. Unlike the smooth space of the Ideal Engineer, the materiality of the field is not a matter without singularities, but rather possesses real constraints with which he must contend. On the one hand, of course, there are the very obvious constraints of the unusual jungle like environments he must navigate as he engages with his assailants. However, more interestingly, the constraints become opportunities for all sorts of surprising maneuvers. The table and ladder, for instance, become both forms of defense and weapons in their own right. In being engaged in this way, the table and ladder become something other than they were.
The biologists have a word for this: exaptation. Exaptation is a process of evolution whereby a trait that once served one function comes to serve another function. Thus, for example, it is likely that feathers first served the function of insulation. However, through processes of exaptation they took on the function of flight. Similary, in the Jackie Chan clip, the function of the table and ladder are exapted to serve another function. They come to function in a new way and pose a whole set of new problems resulting from the shift in function that must be fitted with other things in the environment.
As I was growing up one of my favorite shows on the Discovery Channel was James Burke’s Connections. What made Burke’s show so brilliant was that it read history as a series of aleatory exaptations where one type of technology would undergo a shift in function as a result of being brought into a new assemblage. Thus, for example, he shows how the fuel-injected engine was based on technology derived from perfume bottles. Clearly perfume bottles were not designed for fuel injected engines. This is the process of bricolage.
Bricolage, as a philosophical “methodology”, does not represent an ad hoc approach to philosophy, but is rather a performative enactment of a set of object-oriented theses. On the one hand, it is a methodology that recognizes situatedness in the world. Ideal Engineering philosophies that present themselves as self-contained systems are simply, as Derrida pointed out in his famous “Structure, Sign, and Play”, disguised works of bricolage. Spinoza, for example, was a bricoleur who drew together elements of the thought of the Stoics, the new physics, perhaps Plotinus, a host of medieval thinkers, Hobbes, and so on. The deductive nature of his system was a structure imposed ex post facto on the bricolage he had performed– and certainly this too had a morphogenetic role –and not something from which the system emerged like a new head from a hydra. On the other hand, bricolage as a methodology is the recognition that every object is an assemblage or that every object is born of other objects that it enlists and exapts in the production of its own endo-consistency.
To criticize a philosophy for drawing concepts from other philosophies, to insist that in borrowing concepts a philosophy must somehow endorse all the elements of the philosophy from which it is drawn, is to dream of being Baron von Münchhausen (the dream of every obsessional) and to ignore the phenomenon of exaptation common throughout the world of biology, technology, and all culture. The relevant question isn’t whether a philosophy remains true to the philosophy from which it lifts, like a pick-pocket, its concepts, but whether in lifting concepts and exapting them, it manages to form an endo-consistency that hangs together, can function, and sustain itself.