In 2009, Congressman Joe Wilson famously screamed “you lie!” during one of Obama’s speeches. Well he was an asshole, but this is nonetheless the sort of internal reaction I have when I hear theorists speak of “deductive rigor” in the humanities. There is the claim that thought somehow follows deductively from a single premise or set of premises, or that one maintains fidelity to a particular thinker such as Husserl or Heidegger or Badiou or Derrida or Deleuze or Lacan or whatever. You lie! Oh sure, you might erase the composition you passed through to construct your castle, but at the end of the day– and especially for castles! –there’s only bricolage. As articulated in the context of Levi-Strauss:
To elaborate on his definition of mythical thought, Levi-Strauss drew an analogy to “bricolage”: “Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage'” (p. 17). The French verb, “bricoler,” has no English equivalent, but refers to the kind of activities that are performed by a handy-man. The “bricoleur” performs his tasks with materials and tools that are at hand, from “odds and ends.” He draws from the already existent while the engineer or scientist, according to Levi-Strauss, seeks to exceed the boundaries imposed by society. “The scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the ‘bricoleur’ creating structures by means of events” (p. 22).
There’s only bricolage. This is attested to in all dimensions of nature. The species that manage to survive are products worthy of Frankenstein, cobbled together on the platforms of previous species, as well as sequences of DNA that were exchanged from species to species by viruses. Their parts never quite work together as we can see in the case of human child birth and the appendix. The grape of the wine is a product not simply of DNA or a master-plan, but of other plants growing in the environment, weather conditions, soil nutrients, water contents, insects, and so on. Grape genes of identical genetic stock nonetheless differ significantly from one another from year to year. The brain is a plastic system with neurons that link to one another as a function of thought, experience, encounters, nutrients, and many other things besides.
Why should thought and theory be any different? Your fidelity to a particular thinker as a scholar, your commentary and scholarship? That was the result of countless encounters you had with the work of other thinkers and scholars, your experiences, snippets of things you heard and saw, a text here and there, and so on. You thought you were getting at the truth of Heidegger? Maybe. It’s more likely that you cobbled together odds and ends in your garage as a result of what was available. Your deductive rigor from a single premise according to the laws of logic? The same. You were just Frankenstein sewing together parts of bodies in your lab. That work that describes itself as “rigorous” is not the absence of the sloppiness of the bricoleuer, but rather a failure to recognize the soil within which it grew. It is the grape that says “I, an I alone, in contrast to all other grapes, am the grape that completely grew and defined myself!”
But this is always a lie, even for the mathematician. There’s always an aleatory multiplicity that rumbles beneath any Apollinian order. There is no being, no thought, no theory that isn’t cobbled together from the materials one finds in her garage. We might as well be honest about it. Those of us who aren’t are either assholes or just ridiculously ignorant of themselves. It’s easy to suspect that the people that carp about the purity of their method and rigor are the same people that have trouble asking for directions when they’re lost. We might also suspect that they dream of managerial or administrative positions. Such people love to erase the mess of it all. They detest the contingency of the world and everything in it.
What are the marks of the bricoleur? First, the bricoleur is the person that works with the materials that are available. Cognitively, physically, and affectively they have a pile of odd shaped wood, rusty nails in that wood, some duct tape, and some rocks and clay in their back yard. How could it be any different? This is the only thing anyone has to work with. The ingredients, references, and materials that are there about them. Only the asshole suggests that they should have used this or they should have referenced that. If such a person is an asshole, then that’s because they have some strange assumption of omnipotence and omniscience, forgetting that anything can only work on the infrastructure it has and the materials– cognitive, material, and affective –that were available to it. There are lots of assholes, but they’re bricoleurs too; they just forget. At any rate, the bricoleur does the best she can with what’s available.
And because the bricoleur works with what’s available, she works in an aleatory fashion that lacks assurance of the final project of her work. To be sure, she has an aim, yet strangely that aim changes as she works with the material that’s available. Because she’s only given these cognitive, affective, and material matters to work with, she’s placed in a position of having to fit these heterogeneous materials together in a manner that manages to stand or endure. Her work is a surprise to her and requires a modification of all the materials involved. As she works with the materials available, she gives them new form, cobbles them together in the same way that evolution builds on earlier versions of the stomach, and finds that things don’t quite fit. She’s made a monster. She started with Lacan or Badiou or Braidotti or Hegel, but she had to shave some bits of wood, use some duct tape here, straighten some rusty nails there, and somehow find a way to make Hegel and Deleuze fit together. Somehow she had to make this monster walk upright, even though the gravitational forces created prostate problems because the original structure was designed to walk on all fours and even though child birth was a mess because brains/skulls got too big.
This is one reason bricolage makes something new. The bricoleur creates something new by mashing things together that didn’t fit together. They want Althusser and Derrida and Lacan and Irigaray and Foucault and Luhmann and Brandom and Laruelle. That was the stuff that was in their junk pile. And don’t forget that they also had bad movies and television shows in their junk pile, random conversations at the bar, a slap by one of their parents growing up, and certain time constraints. That’s what they had to work with. Somehow they have to mash it all together. Maybe they got the flu while writing. No matter. Viruses too can be materials in a bricolage. At any rate, through their shaving, fitting, taping, and jamming, they manage to make a monster that can stand… Or maybe not.
And this is the second mark of the bricoleur. Oh sure, they begin with a purpose or aim, but so did Frankenstein. He wanted to show that life could be re-animated. His creature had his own ideas. The bricoleur begins with her own aim, but quickly discovers that the composition she’s participated in has “ideas” of its own. This is another way of saying that the bricoleur is that tinkerer that’s willing to be surprised by her own work and to discover aims and goals that the junk pile she works with dictate, rather than those she envisioned. We’re all bricoleurs, but some of us are more honest and generous about it than others.