Bricolage: A keyword in remix studies
Summary: Remix and bricolage are often used synonymously. In this post, I work through the concept of bricolage to help build some future etymological distinctions. I offer the draft version of my forthcoming contribution for the edited collection, Keywords in Remix Studies. In this piece, I provide a selective history of ‘bricolage’ as used to describe various post-X approaches in the social and humanistic sciences. Basically, i’m arguing that not only is bricolage an epistemology, an action, and a product, it is also an approach built (and/or well-suited) for political resistance. I write this entry in first person and as an academic scholar who has used bricolage and other terms to teach qualitative research methods and to describe my own ethnographic work in digital culture contexts. Readers will therefore notice it contains mostly academic research examples and as much as I try otherwise, ends up being most accessible for other scholars. Still, the examples can be shifted away from using bricolage in contemporary humanities and social sciences inquiry to other arenas where the term seems appropriate to describe what is happening.
Bricolage can be characterized as an action one takes (as a bricoleur), an attitude (or epistemology), and the resulting product (or outcome) of both. Associated concepts include pastiche, collage, remix. Bricolage is used mostly in art, organizational studies, and interpretive sociology to describe a particular type of knowledge and artistic production.
Bricolage is a French term that roughly translates to tinkerer or handyman. Its contemporary usage is traced to French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who used the term in The Savage Mind (La Pensee Sauvage, 1962, translated to English in 1966):
In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ’bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman (p. 11).
When considered as a keyword in remix studies, it is the use of any available means or whatever is at hand that makes bricolage relevant to us. Even more specifically, according to Louridas (1999), the key element in the above conceptualization by Levi-Strauss is that the available materials for thought or action are finite, heterogeneous, and limited to those which are incidental or un mouvement incident (‘extraneous’ in the English translation above). The following passage from Levi Strauss clarifies that:
The bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to always make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 17)
Levi-Strauss uses bricolage analogically to compare mythological or magical ways of knowing to scientific. The difference, he articulates at one point, is that science “uses structures, in the form of its underlying theories and hypotheses, to arrive at its results, which take the form of events. Bricolage works the opposite way: it creates structures, in the form of its artefacts, by means of contingent events.” Bricolage, then, is the process and product of using what is ready at hand to get the job done, whether that job is philosophy, art, architecture, design, management, or video mashups.
After Levi-Strauss brings the word to anthropologists in the 1960s, it gets taken up by many others to discuss knowledge production more generally within the radicalization of the sciences of the epoch. Derrida, for example, discusses the concept at length in a 1966 lecture, both praising and critiquing Levi-Strauss’s concept, saying: “If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur” (1978, p. 285).
In the 1970s, cultural theorists associated with the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) “used the concept to describe the aesthetic practices of working-class subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s,” focusing on the ways these “subcultural practitioners challenge the hegemony of the dominant (read bourgeois) culture not through explicit acts of resistance, but ‘obliquely’ through style (Luvaas, p. 110-111, drawing on Hebdige, 1979, p. 17).
Bricolage emerges in qualitative sociology and communication studies during the interpretive turn of the 1990s to encapsulate various processes of interpretive methods. During the 2000s, as cut/copy/paste practices associated with digital media get easier, bricolage joins many other concepts as ways to describe various practices and products associated with remix culture.
Below, I discuss bricolage as epistemology, action, and product. This is a deliberate choice to tie the concept more closely to the academic process of sensemaking, where we scholars spend a great deal of time thinking about how we come to know things and then telling the world what we know. More precisely, this entry emerges from my own use of bricolage, pastiche, fragmented narrative, and remix as inspirations for experimenting with tools and techniques that better resonate with the complexity of 21st century cultural formations. One might notice my strong tendency to talk about interpretive research methods as a way of working through the concept, which is a direct result of my own bricolage of my own educational background and consequent ready-at-hand resources. For a different breakdown of the bricoleur as agent and bricolage as action, I refer readers to Johnson’s excellent Bricoleur and Bricolage: From metaphor to universal concept (2012).
Bricolage as an epistemology
Bricolage both reflects and reifies a way of knowing that many of us in the late 20th and early 21st century take for granted. I’m by no means the first to notice “we comprehend the world in moments, fragments, glimpses. I might see something one way one day and completely revise my understanding of it another day based on any number of things that happen: conversations I have that spark new ideas, scents on the wind that provoke particular memories, movies I watch, parks I meander through to collect thoughts and leaves” (Markham, 2005, p. 17). McCoy (2012) provides a list of approaches that have long challenged “simplistic realist ontology, the rational knowing subject, and the transparency of language, and so forth” (p. 763). Her tip-of-the-iceberg list includes such terms as deconstruction, Foucauldian genealogy, rhizomatics, diffraction, troubling, praxiography, method assemblage, and posthumanist performativity (for more, plus citations, see McCoy, 2012, pp. 763-4). We could add many to this list, but the key point is that there is now a long legacy of scholarship built from what Kincheloe calls “an epistemology of complexity” (2005, p. 324). There is a widespread and still growing acknowledgment that objective or “god’s eye” approaches to understanding and representing the social are deeply flawed in that they are, for the most part, reductionist. While abstraction may be inevitable for humans, as Mol & Law note (2003), there are ways to go about it without simplification. However, this requires a significant shift in one’s stance or attitude. Since the 1960s, bricolage has been a primary term to facilitate and articulate this theoretical reorientation.
Bricolage brings serendipity to the foreground. Serendipity, in this sense, is not accidental but incidental. In distinguishing accident from serendipity, Meyers (2007) notes that accident implies mindlessness, whereas “accidental discoveries would be nothing without keen, creative minds knowing what to do with them” (p. 6). In his book Happy Accidents, Meyers argues that scientific and specifically medical discoveries come through recognition of, rather than stumbling across. This implies a state of readiness for shifting one’s perception so as to see what is already there in a different or new way.
In the field of qualitative inquiry, Kincheloe (2001, 2005), following Denzin & Lincoln (2000), links this state of readiness to the development of a critical consciousness that allows researchers to acknowledge and work within situations and relations of complexity. As Kincheloe refines his argument over time, we can note a shift from an emphasis on serendipity that comes from multidisciplinarity (2001) to one that actively resists monological knowledge. In his later argument (2005), Kincheloe describes: “In its hard labours in the domain of complexity the bricolage views research methods actively rather than passively, meaning that we actively construct our research methods from the tools at hand rather than passively receiving the ‘correct’, universally applicable methodologies” (p. 324). Tinkering, in the Levi-Straussian sense, then, is not just about using whatever is at hand, but involves a critically oriented, multiperspectival, and reflexive cognition.
Kincheloe goes further to develop ‘the bricolage’ as not only an epistemological but also an ontological shift toward a relational understanding of the world, noting “bricoleurs act on the concept that theory is not an explanation of nature—it is more an explanation of our relation to nature” (2005, p. 324). With attention on both complexity and relationality, the basic foundations of knowledge production necessarily change. Here, it is worth quoting Kincheloe at length:
What the bricolage is dealing with in this context is a double ontology of complexity: first, the complexity of objects of inquiry and their being-in-the-world; second, the nature of the social construction of human subjectivity, the production of human “being”. Such understanding opens a new era of social research where the process of becoming human agents is appreciated with a new level of sophistication. The complex feedback loop between an unstable social structure and the individual can be charted in a way that grants human beings insight into the means by which power operates and the democratic process is subverted. In this complex ontological view, bricoleurs understand that social structures do not determine individual subjectivity but constrain it in remarkably intricate ways. The bricolage is acutely interested in developing and employing a variety of strategies to help specify these ways subjectivity is shaped. (2005, p. 334)
Bricolage situates well as an epistemology of how we come to know the world. It also fits well and has been used within most if not all the “post” stances emerging in and after the 1960s. Yet as I run across this term in the vernacular setting, as it’s used in hundreds of texts to discuss art, remix, literature, poetic forms, music, fashion, subcultural movements, leadership, research methods, and so forth. I don’t get a sense that most usage is epistemological. In a more everyday sense, it is a description or even a justification for a particular patchwork approach that involves patching stuff together, pasting and layering to find meaning, and reusing what we’ve used before in new ways, all terms that fit well with remix. There is a persistent notion that bricolage also involves using what is ready at hand, which we might associate with but is not limited to practices of DIY (see entry in this volume). Referring again to Derrida, if we accept how culture and knowledge is enacted, understood, or made sense of, everything could be considered bricolage (1978, p. 365). Let us look more closely at the idea of bricolage as action.
Bricolage as an action
As organizational theorist Weick writes in 1995, “the defining characteristic of a bricoleur is that this person makes do with whatever tools and materials are at hand”. Drawing from Levi Strauss, Weick adds, “these resources are always heterogeneous because, unlike the materials available to the engineer, the bricoleur’s materials have no relation to any particular project. Elements are collected and retained on the principle that they may come in handy” (Weick, 1995, p. 352).
This “making do” has remained a persistent characteristic of bricolage since the 1960s, no matter where and how the term is used. Importantly, this “making do” is neither random nor unskilled. Rather, it is the power to use what is immediately or perhaps even incidentally at hand to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Thayer (1988) uses bricolage to describe the fundamental actions of strong leaders to “make things work by ingeniously using whatever is at hand” or “fixing things on the spot through a creative vision of what is available and what might be done with it” (p. 239).
If we follow this interpretation, bricolage is similar but different from closely associated actions of remix and improvisation. Weick (1995) explains:
“If there is a key to success as a bricoleur it is buried in Levi-Strauss’s statement that objects “are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known” (Weick, p. 353, citing Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 9).
In other words, bricolage depends at least in part on the accidental, incidental, and contingent. When materials are at hand, we will tend to use these as a form of action. Thus bricolage is also about limits. There is an intriguing notion that the materials are situated proximally–whether physically or psychologically–to the problem at hand. I take this to mean that within a bricolage, it is quite possible that knowledge making is less about seeing everything as a nail because we only have a hammer and more about using a hammer as a steering wheel since it’s both available and it works. In this way, the action of the bricoleur may be distinct from other types of creative sensemaking actions, such as remix or improvisation.
This element of limitations leads us to consider where these limitations come from, or who is more likely to engage in what we might call bricolage. Johnson’s (2012) work emphasizes the importance of considering the ideological situation within which the term arose in anthropology, as a term to describe the savage, the non-engineer, the ‘Other’ of the so-called rational (read, colonialist) world. In my reading of postcolonialist theorist Maria Belen Martin (1997), there is a strong connection between the activities common to bricolage and the limitations of being a woman in traditional patriarchal societies. She begins with Virginia Woolf’s writing in 1929, which is worth repeating here:
Who shall say that even now ‘the novel’ … this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use? No doubt we shall find her knocking that into shape for herself when she has the free use of her limbs; and providing sorne new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. … The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be. (Wolf, 1929, pp. 80-81)
This adaptation of the book to the body gives us, Martin (1997) argues, a “new concept of narrative which we currently nominate ‘body writing’ (p. 239). One variation on this, emerging among communities of Canadian writers, is the ‘short story cycle’: “The distinctive characteristics of this genre are the recurrence of characters, settings, events, and or symbols; interdependence between the stories in the cycle; sequential development of the events by a process of accumulation of details; re-construction of the narrative in each new story; and fragmentation of the chronological line” (p. 240). The action of bricolage is not only within, but across stories as imagined and enacted by others in the community.
In the case of short story cycles as a particular instance or type of activity, one can notice how the bricoleur doesn’t simply use external objects at hand but includes embodied time and space, her situation, her interruptions, her multiple roles, as material knowing. This enables us to blur and strengthen the connection between the method or action and the active and critical consciousness, or epistemology (Kincheloe, 2005, Denzin & Lincoln, 2000).
I use this example from postcolonial scholar María Belén Martín Lucas deliberately, to point to the longer history of the bricoleur as an actor, or the action of bricolage as “cultural counterpractice” (Foster, 1985, p. 200). We need not look far to find many crafts particular to or emerging from women’s social experiences, such as quilting, which provide a slightly different historical trajectory for bricolage than Levi-Strauss’s definitions. In the lives of the so-called savage, we can see the bodies of those who are most likely to engage in bricolage. These ‘Others’ are presumed to have a special way of knowing (mythical or magical), and act accordingly. As Johnson suggests, our Levi-Straussian bricoleur “may be a marginal figure, and bricolage a ‘survival’ of older practices which are now tolerated only as hobbies or pastimes in modern industrial societies” (p. 367).
By looking at bricolage as action in its historical and everyday practice, especially in this example by women in traditional patriarchal societies, we can notice those elements of bricolage that resist linearity, universality, monologic, and reductionism by reclaiming fragmentation, multiplicity, fluidity, and complexity.
Bricolage has become a model and perhaps a metonym for how resistance (cultural, structural, political, etc) is built into certain ways of knowing and not others. The concept might broadly include any attempt to make meaning by “drawing on available material, cognitive, affective, and social resources” (Cunha, Cunha, & Kamoche, 2002, p. 103).
Bricolage as product
Bricolage encompasses a potentially endless array of activities, only some of which end up being bricolage in form or even visibly bricolage. The outcome of quilting or mashing up internet memes would be clearly noticed as bricolage. The outcome of fragmented or deconstructionist analysis might be less visible as bricolage, since it may or may not exhibit the characteristic patchwork or assemblage we associate with bricolage. If we zoom in on social research and methodologies that use or refer to bricolage, we can see a strong emphasis on multiplicity and non-linearity. The product, therefore, is not so easily separated from the process or epistemology.
The bricoleur, if we look back to Levi-Strauss’s conceptualizations and borrow from Johnson’s excellent in depth history, works in a constrained space whereby the tools and knowledge are limited to the immediate past present. Levi-Strauss’s depiction contrasts the bricoleur to the engineer. Whereas the rationale for the latter is to go beyond what is available, the former stays within the limits of what is already there. But when it comes to the actual product of bricolage, this is less obviously developed in Levi-Strauss’s description. Since the 1960s, we see many uses of the term that simply state that the outcome of the bricoleur’s action is bricolage, which we can say is a combination of elements chosen because they are readily at hand. Whatever that might look like.
Weick’s later development of the concept helps us see that a bricoleur’s materials and tools are chosen by their proximity to the thinker, the situation, or the problem. As one example, Weick uses Harper’s detailed study of a craftsman in upper New York state who makes tractors out of various parts of other things. This is not because the bricoleur is seeking to make art but because, within a limited access model, he is able to creatively combine existing elements into a structure that later, others and perhaps he himself, take to be novel. Martin (1997) uses the example of story cycles to illustrate how bricolage emerges as a mosaic from different fragments of stories, over time, created recursively and reflexively by Canadian female writers.
The product of academic work differs from other types of bricolage. Although Kincheloe discusses bricolage as a characteristic element of interpretive qualitative research (2001, 2005), most of what we recognize as bricolage is only visible as genre or format of presenting research to others. In this sense, bricolage as product is the unique collage, montage, composite, fragmented, or layered account that comes out of the process of interpretive or postmodern inquiry. Otherwise, bricolage becomes an explanation, whereby it is not bricolage in itself. This is an important distinction.
As exemplary transformation of academic texts in the internet era, we can look to hypertext. Michael Joyce (1991), Shelley Jackson (1999), Jill Walker Rettberg (1999), and other hypertext scholars in the 1980s and 1990s experimented with texts that highlight how our cognitive processing functions by association. It worked well in experimental formats–hypertext as experienced on the web reflects this associative thinking very well. In peer reviewed journals or books it was very difficult to replicate this in writing. John December built a strong model for hypertext articles in CMC Magazine, which was, for a time, adopted by the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (JCMC), but this quickly fell out of fashion. Many of us felt it was just too disconcerting. This aligns well with Fisher’s notion (1985) that as homo-narrans, or storytelling animals, we are somewhat locked into our linear narrative ways.
In my own work, I have been working to find a vocabulary that effectively disrupts the predominance of traditional textbook models for social research methods, to find visual tools for unlearning linearity and an orientation toward individuals and objects. In my own academic ethnographic writing, I have produced fragmented narratives, used multiple fonts to highlight different voices, presented alternate endings, and presented texts in nonlinear format. This is actually a common practice in interpretive qualitative inquiry circles. Still, I’m struck by how, even now, “linear arguments constructed in traditional forms give us a false sense of security about the solidity or unity of our interpretations as well as the ways we arrive at those interpretations” (Markham, 2005, p. 17). The internet provides the capacity to enact bricolage in ways that were not possible before. I, and perhaps others, have been more likely to call this remix rather than bricolage, although this is not universal. However, it is an interesting ending point to conclude with, as there might be a reason to more fully combine these terms conceptually to parse out their singularities and overlaps.
Bricolage and/vs remix
As noted above, bricolage is often conflated with other similar terms. In this discussion, we can see many connections between concepts of bricolage and remix, especially if we think of the basic processes of using pre-existing materials, combining disparate elements, and making something new. I found it useful, in being challenged to distinguish between bricolage and remix (Kammer, 2011), to focus on the purpose of doing either.
In examining more closely the apparent rationale, we can get a sense of the underlying epistemological and ontological frameworks that direct, guide, or prompt one’s decisions or habits. Here, we can begin to see some interesting distinctions, if perhaps only theoretically: bricolage is a label more often granted than chosen, whereas remix tends to be the opposite. There is also an ideological distinction when we look at where the term appears. Following Levi-Strauss, the term bricolage was taken up in organizational theory, sociology, and surprisingly, in the medical and hard sciences, whereas remix grew out of marginalized practices and has only recently gained momentum as a viable academic practice or product (as represented well by the edited collection by Navas, Gallagher, & Burrough, 2014). Of course, remix is also a newer term, so the distinctions are only now being made, as for example, in this article.
The difference may be in the output of one’s efforts, which is a direct connection to one’s purpose. The bricoleur, if we take the strict sense of Levi-Strauss, is making something–a product or a thing, such as a quilt or a painting or a tractor. Following and extending from his work, organizational theorists like Thayer (1988) and Weick (1993) talk about leaders as bricoleurs, whereby the product is not object but subject, intangible and social. Whether in initial or later usage, bricolage as a concept seems to values most highly the outcome or product of the bricoleur. We can conceptualize and use bricolage as an attitude and process, of course, but the outcome is where the value and impact of bricolage lies.
I see this more clearly when I compare bricolage to remix, where the focus is on the ongoing and inherently unfinished process of remixing. If we look to the work of contemporary remix theorists, the attention on products and outcomes notwithstanding, there is a temporary quality that renders remix powerful. A meme is not a meme unless it morphs into something else and travels beyond its original conception. “Remix focuses our attention on the way temporally situated arguments are assembled and reassembled as they traverse various audiences” (Markham, 2013).
If we see remix as extending or enacting bricolage, we can envision the product as it lives, in motion. The social life of, say, a mashup video, as experienced, passed along, upvoted or downvoted, and remixed by others, provides a form that illustrates complexity but resists encapsulation as a final story. Each subsequent rendering has meaning for someone. The purpose is not to come to a conclusion or solve a problem, but to provoke, raise questions, and by doing so, start conversation (Markham, 2013).
Bricolage, on the other hand, is not a term associated with synonyms such as incomplete, unfinished, or partial. It is an assemblage that emerges from the combination of serendipity, proximity, and contingency. This distinguishes it from the science of engineering. To engage in bricolage, one must have both a willingness to be open to different ways of perceiving and a readiness to put that willingness into action. In the end, if we look to the more classic notions of bricolage, something is finished and the project has a sense of finality, as when we can knot the last thread and lay the quilt out for inspection and use.
I end this keyword with a quote and some questions. In my previous work on Remix culture, remix methods, I write:
Remix is not something we do in addition to our everyday lives, it is the way we make sense of our world, by transforming the bombardment of stimuli into a seamless experience. If we take seriously the idea that everything we take to be ‘real’ is a constant negotiation of relationships between people and things, and that culture is ‘habit writ large’, remix as a form of sensemaking embraces this framework” (2013).
Could bricolage be substituted for remix throughout this quotation? Would it be appropriate in the last sentence, to say that “bricolage as a form of sensemaking embraces this framework?” Is bricolage a synonym to remix? A smaller concept? An umbrella concept? A parallel development? As I end with these questions, of course, I hope for more conversation to follow.
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