In the following essay I will address Lévi-Strauss's use of the terms 'bricolage' and 'engineer'. Concentrating mainly on the first chapter of the book he wrote in 1962, 'The Savage Mind', I will explain my understanding of the use of these terms and the way in which he uses language structure as a basis for his findings. I will also look at the disparity he feels exists between 'myth' and 'science'. The use of the terms of 'bricolage' and 'engineer' can be quite ambiguous as Lévi-Strauss is looking for something which works universally and connects everything.
In chapter one of his book "The Savage Mind", 1962, Claude Lévi-Strauss introduces us to the concept of "bricolage", exploring the difference between the 'bricoleur' and the 'engineer'. In order to try and grasp the meaning of his use of these terms and to illustrate his thoughts on the structure of our societies, I feel it is necessary to try to understand his thoughts on language and its construction, and on the process of scientific knowledge. Lévi-Strauss spent his lifetime studying structure and continually questioned it. He had an interest with the human mind and how it constructed things to give us an understanding of everything around us and wanted to find out what we had in our heads that allows us to learn our culture. It was this interest that lead to the birth of structuralism, as a "method of interpretation and analysis of human cognition, behaviour, culture and experience, which focuses on relationships of contrast between elements in a conceptual system" .
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Lévi-Strauss was interested in how the structure of our language gives things a meaning which is pertinent to our own particular culture, but which one could find in another culture in another part of the world totally unrelated to our own. He also did not believe that 'primitive' was the correct term to use when studying different cultures and people.
But, to begin with, while these cases are cited as evidence of the supposed ineptitude of 'primitive people' for abstract thought, other cases are at the same time ignored which make it plain that richness of abstract words is not a monopoly of civilized languages .
He wished to discover how cultural myths from all over the world had similar structures or undertones, which when broken down, appeared to have basic similarities. He believed that myths were in themselves a language, as a myth can only exist by being told and retold. His interest in the work of Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, in linguistic structures during the early 20th century, leads him to look at the structures of myths.
The concept of 'Binary opposition' was introduced by Saussure. This is the idea that each word has an opposite word and the opposite word is needed to understand the cultural meaning of that word. An example of this would be the words good and bad, or young and old. In order to understand the meaning of good, one must have an understanding of bad. If one takes all the words associated with the word good in our own society, words like, excellent, superior, quality, decent, moral, respectable, all of these words paint a picture of a certain type of thing. We only know that good is positive because of the cultural ideology placed on it within our own culture. Bad is not good and we have a negative ideology placed on it. With most words the quickest way for us to understand it is to use, or think of, it's opposite. The other example of young and old gives young a more positive meaning in our own society than old. However, in some societies the word old would have the more positive slant, with the elderly being held in much higher esteem and revered for their wisdom. The society and culture you live in you will affect the meaning and construction of your own language. An extremely good example of this is the difference between Oxford English and American English, with Oxford English being held in much higher regard than its American cousin. It is through this process placing the structures of language on the structures in any given society that Lévi-Strauss goes on to introduce us to the concept of 'bricolage'. Lévi-Strauss gives us the 'bricoleur' as an opposite of the 'engineer' and the process of 'primitive thought' is in effect 'prior' thought, "The proliferation on concepts, as in the case of technical language, goes with more constant attention to properties of the world..." .
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He believed that the desire for objective knowledge by 'primitive peoples' was ignored by previous anthropologists . Although in modern scientific processes it could not be ignored as irrelevant but this process was different in that, these people were using this thought and knowledge to construct their cultures. Scientific thought has its place and is needed for new discoveries and advancement of society, but the practicality of living also has its place in people's lives, and primal thought has its place alongside scientific thought. People who were studying different cultures were not, as he pointed out, taking the time to understand the people, their habitat and environment, their history and linguistic means, before making assumptions that they were 'primitive'. They were, in fact, using their own cultural beliefs and understandings in their assumptions and were, therefore, unable to make their own sense of the new cultures they were encountering. He gives many examples throughout the first chapter of different tribes and cultures knowledge of their own resources and their uses and goes on to say "animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known". Lévi-Strauss looks at this 'primitive' thinking, or as Sir James Fraser would call it, 'savage thought' and refers to it as magical thinking. This system of thought is independent from scientific thought, as we know it today. The two need to be considered not as comparative methods, but as two parallel approaches to gaining knowledge . Magical thought exists as its own system and has been around longer than today's scientific knowledge, which of course, only goes back a couple of centuries. Lévi Strauss shows us that in its own way, magical thought is in itself, a process of science and a system of trial and error.
This science of the concrete was necessarily restricted by its essence to results other than those destined to be achieved by the exact natural sciences but it was no less scientific and its results no less genuine. They were secured then thousand years earlier and still remain at the basis of our own civilization .
To explain his thoughts on this point he introduces us to the concept of the French term 'bricolage'.
'Bricolage' is a term in French history applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding but became, in modern times, associated with a person who works with his hands and uses cunning ways to build things, compared to the craftsman who is meticulous in his approach and completion of his work. Lévi-Strauss says that mythical thought is a kind of intellectual 'bricolage' as it is a process of mixed repetitive work which is limited because it uses the tools and means at its disposal . He uses it to good effect when wishing to compare the relation between the two types of scientific knowledge he describes as mythical knowledge and scientific knowledge. If a man is confronted with a problem, he only has a certain amount of tools at his disposal to work that problem out. So, he uses and reuses those resources over and over again. The tools and resources at man's disposal do not bear any resemblance to the job in hand, but are there from previous times and are reused to suit the job on this particular occasion. The tools and resources will be deconstructed and constructed again and again, adding and building on the resources each time, changing them to suit the needs at any given time. Consequently, they can be restrictive.
The 'bricoleur's' tools are indefinable, whereas, the 'engineers' tools are specific to the particular job. The engineer thinks about the job beforehand, works out what is required to complete it and gets the specific tools and resources to accomplish the job. I feel that my ability to understand the 'bricoleur' comes from life with my father. His ability to collect stuff over many years in the anticipation that "it will always come in handy" and his refusal to throw anything away, along with the ability to make something fit, or find something to 'do the job' (much to the dismay of my poor mother who can no longer get into the garage at home), to me, sums up the notion of the 'bricoleur' to a tee. My father is no engineer or expert, but can still get the job done with the tools he has available to him. Lévi-Strauss's 'bricoleur' is the collector of all things and will build with these things even if they are limiting. The engineer is the expert.
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The comparison of using the 'bricoleur' and the 'engineer' as an analogy to mythical thinking is in the thought processes. Going back to Saussure's linguistic structures of signs, Lévi-Strauss links these signs and signifiers to images and concepts. Signs can be substituted for something else but are limited and concepts have unlimited capacity to become something else . In the 'bricoleur's' approach, he goes about his job enthusiastically, thinks back on what he has that he can use and then uses material in a way in which it may never have been intended. Take his example of the block of wood for instance. The block of wood can be used at an extension to another piece of wood or, as a pedestal for that other piece, but the pieces are constrained by the particular history of each piece and the features for which they were originally intended. The structure has to be reorganised to fit in with what is already there. Myth works in this way. We have a myth which is told and used to good effect. Subsequently, we need to change a particular part to suit the time, place and parable, but we are restricted by the language and history that already exists. So, we change the structure of the myth to fit the needs of the now. The 'engineer' looks at what is required and finds the exact things required, so a myth to an engineer needs the scientific approach and looks outside the constraints he finds himself in, by creating the means to get the results and overcome the restrictions of the problem. This gives the 'engineer' more freedom to do the job in a more systematic and scientific way, whereas the 'bricoleur' remains constrained. Lévi-Strauss compares the 'engineer' to concepts and the 'bricoleur' to signs. It is by using these opposing analogies for mythical and scientific thought, that he illustrates the difference between them. Mythical thought is imprisoned in the events, ordering and reordering in a search to find meaning and science has the freedom to construct its own meanings.
There is no real classification to the notion of 'bricolage' unlike Boas views that mythical stories are linked to celestial bodies and nature.
"The essential problem regarding the ultimate origin of mythologies remains - why human tales are preferably attached to animals, celestial bodies, and other personified phenomena of nature" .
Nor can it be compared to Malinowski's views on totemism being organised by classification systems that order the world or, that culture and social systems exist to serve particular needs. 'Bricolage' is the human mind at work no matter where in the world we look at it. We will always find the mind operating at the same level somewhere else. Myth is structured like language and linked to language; however, it operates on a much deeper and more complex level as it operates from the construct of the human mind, culture and society and the relationships these have with each other.
In conclusion, I have addressed Lévi-Strauss's use of the terms 'bricolage' and 'engineer', going through his concepts and the reasoning behind these terms. The main focus of my essay was on the first chapter of 'The Savage Mind' (1962), The Science of Concrete. I looked at the relationship between language and myth, while looking at the disparity he feels exists between 'myth' and 'science'. As it is extremely difficult to read the book, 'The Savage Mind' and come away with a full and complete understanding of Lévi-Strauss's thoughts, I have explained my understanding of the use of these terms, and the way in which he uses language structure as a basis for his findings, to be best of my own ability. Lévi-Strauss takes myth and subjects it to structural analysis. He looks at what might be at work if we ignore our own interpretation of it. The human mind at work no matter where in the world that may be.