In The Savage Mind (1962), the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the word bricolage to describe the characteristic patterns of mythological thought. Bricolage is the skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining them to create something new. Levi-Strauss compares the working of the bricoleur and the engineer. The bricoleur, who is the “savage mind”, works with his hands in devious ways, puts pre-existing things together in new ways, and makes do with whatever is at hand. What Levi-Strauss points out here is that signs already in existence are used for purposes that they were originally not meant for.
The working of the bricoleur is parallel to the construction of mythological narratives. As opposed to the bricoleur, the engineer, who is the “scientific mind”, is a true craftsman in that he deals with projects in entirety, taking into account the availability of materials, and creating new tools. Drawing a parallel, Levi-Strauss argues that mythology functions more like the bricoleur, whereas modern western science works more like an engineer. He suggests that the engineer creates a holistic totalising system, in which there are elements of permanence.
Derrida in Structure Sign and Play criticises Levi-Strauss’ conception of the engineer’s totalizing narrative, arguing that it is not possible for anyone to be the “absolute origin of his own discourse” or to “construct the totality of his language, syntax and lexicon.” Consequently- he remarks that the engineer is a myth created by the bricoleur, because the bricoleur would not be as exciting and inventive if the engineer were not so dreary and unimaginative. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer is also a bricoleur, then the very difference upon which bricolage took on its meaning breaks down. Derrida argues that, based on bricolage, Levi-Strauss’ discourse on myths attempts to abandon “all reference to a centre, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin”, and that his discourse is decentered.
A bricoleur doesn’t care about the purity or stability or ‘truth’ of a system he or she uses, but rather uses what’s there to get a particular job done. In philosophical terms, I might want to talk about a belief system and refer to God because that’s a useful signifier for something a lot of people believe in; I don’t assume that ‘God’ refers to an actual being, or even to a coherent system of beliefs that situate ‘god’ at the center and then provides a fixed code of interpretation or behavior. That’s why deconstructive readings use a lot of quotation marks; they are a way of indicating that, though you’re using a certain signifier as if it had stable meaning, you’re aware that it doesn’t.
Bricolage doesn’t worry about the coherence of the words or ideas it uses. For example, you are a bricoleur if you talk about penis envy or the Oedipus complex without knowing anything about psychoanalysis; you can use the terms without acknowledging the validity or ‘truth’ of the system that produced these ideas. Bricolage understands meaning not as something eternal and immutable, but as something provisional, something shifting.
Derrida contrasts the bricoleur to the engineer. The engineer designs buildings which have to be solid and have little or no play; the engineer wants to create stable systems or nothing at all. Derrida talks about the engineer as the person who sees himself as the center of his own discourse, the origin of his own language. This guy thinks he speaks language, he originates language, from his own unique existence and experience. The humanist is usually an engineer in this respect.
The idea of bricolage produces a new way to talk about, and think about, systems and structures without falling into the trap of trying to build a new stable system out of the ruins of a deconstructed one. It provides a way to think without establishing a new center, a privileged reference, an origin, a truth. It also inspires creativity and originality, making possible new ways of putting things together.
All systems fall on a continuum between infinite play and eternal stability. Derrida argues that Western culture has always preferred, and desired, systems that seem to be stable, and that promise to always remain the same – to approach what he calls ‘full presence,’ with no play or fluidity or indeterminacy. Such systems are of course impossible; every system contains its own contradictions and instabilities, which deconstruction can uncover.
The system of language, of which every text is made, has no discernible center – there is no ‘God’ of language that determines what every word means. As language users, we want language to work both ways. We want language to be a stable structure, so that words have definitive meanings: when I say ‘Pass the salt,’ I want you to know what I mean without having to interpret my words. And we want language to have lots of play, to be ambiguous, so that we can have multiple meanings for a single word. That’s what makes puns and poetry possible. We might want to distinguish between ‘everyday’ language, where we use words to communicate and hope that those words have a relatively fixed meaning, and ‘literary’ language, where we use words for their fluidity, because the play of words is pleasurable.