My blog on “The Bricoleur versus Big Data”, written a few months ago, received encouraging responses from many readers. One of the several invitations was to explore how Bricolage as conceived by Claude Levi Levi-Strauss and when worked with as a metaphor deeply resonates with the Indian psyche that has evolved over thousands of years.
This particular blog across two parts, attempts to explore the nature of this resonance between Indianness and Bricolage as a process as well as with the identity of the Bricoleur. Jugaad is the term for a frenetic Indian response towards being innovative – it has much to do with bricolage methinks!
I draw energy and inspiration from Ashok Malhotra, who in his writings, including some on his blogspot – www.gamblingthroughlife.org – has been passionately working on the notion of Indianness, and explicating the nature of its quitessence that has evolved over the centuries in spite of its richly diverse, and discontinuous episodic history.
In the first part, I would be taking the reader back into Claude Levi Strauss’s writings and conversations – Levi Strauss introduced the notion of Bricolage and contrasted it with Western Scientific Thought. Bricolage has been assimilated across various streams of thought – and I had referred to Karl Weick’s interpretations in the earlier blog.
In the second part, I would be looking at how Bricolage and Bricoleur resonates with Indianness and Jugaad.
Bricolage & Bricoleur
Let me begin on a more pontific note …
In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss in his famed work, The Savage Mind, forumulated the concept of bricolage – to describe the process of evolution not as a product of design — the unfolding of a predetermined plan or template — but rather as the makeshift adaptation of existing structures and functions to new ends. Over the past five plus decades, this term – bricolage – has been assimilated even into scientific discourse including evolutionary biology.
In Chapter 1 of this seminal work, while talking about the Science of Concrete, Levi-Strauss argues on behalf of non-western systems of classification and battles the Western characterization of ‘Savage thought’; he shows that non-western knowledge systems are in no way inferior to modern science and go much beyond the immediate gratification of needs and utility. For example, Levi-Strauss offers insights into the American-Indian knowledge systems of nature as evidence, where he counters the functionalist anthropologists who judged all non-western knowledge systems as merely serving a utilitarian need.
Levi-Strauss courageously attacks Modern Science, and its arrogance, by offering the Neolithic paradox – where he compares the relatively short history of modern scientific thought (300 years or so) with the Neolithic times where he states:
“… Man’s mastery of the great arts of civilization – of pottery, weaving, agriculture and the domestication of animals – became firmly established. No one today would any longer think of attributing these enormous advances to the fortuitous accumulation of a series of chance discoveries or believe them to have been revealed by the passive perception of certain natural phenomena. Each of these techniques assumes centuries of active and methodical observation, of bold hypotheses tested by means of endlessly repeated experiments…
… To transform a weed into a cultivated plant, a wild beast into a domestic animal, to produce, in either of these, nutritious or technologically useful properties which were originally completely absent or could only be guessed at; to make stout, water-tight pottery out of clay which is friable and unstable, liable to pulverize or crack (which, however, is possible only if from a large number of organic and inorganic materials, the one most suitable for refining it is selected, and also the appropriate fuel, the temperature and duration of firing and the effective degree of oxidation); to work out techniques, often long and complex, which permit cultivation without soil or alternatively without water; to change toxic roots or seeds into food- stuffs or again to use their poison for hunting, war or ritual – there is no doubt that all these achievements required a genuinely scientific attitude, sustained and … Neolithic or historical man was the heir of a long scientific tradition …”
It is here Levi-Strauss introduces ‘bricolage’ as a type of scientific knowledge compared to modern engineering as the other type of knowledge. Bricolage, by Levi-Strauss, is presented as a survival of ancestral ways of thinking and doing which persists in certain everyday practices of our modern industrial civilization, and it is used as a metaphor for how mythical thought works – as he puts it – “… in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means [des moyens détournés, indirect or roundabout means] compared to those of a craftsman [homme de l’art]…”
Who is the Bricoleur?
- The ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means [des moyens détournés] or indirect or roundabout means compared to those of a craftsman [homme de l’art]. The bricoleur uses ‘odds and ends’ because there is literally nothing else to hand.
The phrase – ‘des moyens detournes’ resonates quite deeply with the notion of Jugaad – an indirect means, not with the aesthetics of a craftsperson that gets deployed.
- The Bricoleur is the agent of Bricolage, He or she is never entirely in control of the means of production … the bricolage operates through the bricoleur rather than the reverse. The notion of being in Control comes from more recent thought order as explained in the consequent pages.
- The Bricoleur prefers a workshop – a specific environment, and works individually on individual objects as opposed to scalable replicable industrial production. The Bricoleur stays away from institutionalized division of labor and specialization.
- The Bricoleur works with tools as opposed to machines, and his materials are taken from the immediate environment – these are ‘ready to hand’. There is a limitation of what is available and this sense of finiteness, deprivation or paucity of resources is critical to understand.
- The gender of the Bricoleur is a man and technology is seen largely as masculine.
The Bricoleur versus the Engineer / the Physicist
Levi-Strauss in the Savage Mind contrasts the Bricoleur / Bricolage (one type of science) to the Engineer– Western Scientific thought (another type of science) and writes …
“ …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 make do with ‘whatever is at hand’ (les ‘moyens du bord’), 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… ”
This definition of what a bricoleur does is extremely important as it contrast to the engineering perspective. Levi-Strauss focuses on the notion of ‘prior’ knowledge and that the Bricoleur faces the debris of past constructions and destructions – and considers these as the starting point.
Contrast it to the leader of modern organizations today, who rather than facing the legacies and baggage of the past including the hubris of failures and disappointments, seeks to endorse a rather ‘transcending transformation agenda’, that does not have to be retrospective but can be deployed ab-initio.
Levi-Strauss continues on the Bricoleur:
“ … Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects [objets hétéroclites] of which his treasury is composed to discover what each of them could ‘signify’ and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts… “ (SM, 18)
This idealized distinction between the Bricoleur and the Engineer by Levi Levi-Strauss is critically important when seen from the lens of Indianness.
The emphasis on limited resources as contrasted to Western Scientific thought assumption of infinite resources is contextually quite meaningful – given what we are doing to our environment.
I must also concede that the distinction between the two has been challenged by many a thinker. Derrida critiqued this distinction by remarking that the Engineer is itself a myth invented by the Bricoleur towards a vision of absolute and immaculate creation.
But as Levi-Strauss puts it –
“ …it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that these are two stages or phases in the evolution of knowledge. Both approaches are equally valid… ’ (SM, 22).
Contextualizing the Engineer Today …
At this point, it is also important to refer to – Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss (1961) which is a transcription of a series of radio interviews with Georges Charbonnier broadcast by Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (France 3) in October, November and December 1959 for it allows us to examine the Engineer / the Scientist / the Physicist identities in modern world, and how it impacts us.
In one of the interviews, Levi-Strauss talks about specialization and the ‘divorce’ between the general public and the specialist:
“ … It is the scientist, who evokes the greatest fear and suspicion in the public, since his or her specialized knowledge seems increasingly to carry with it unprecedented power, a power now even greater than that of politicians. This apprehension vis-à-vis the power of the scientist is accompanied by skepticism concerning his or her intentions.
We used to have doubts about the moral sense of politicians, but that problem has ceased to interest us. What we have doubts about now is the scientist’s moral conscience. We criticize the scientist for pursuing research, which may lead to destructive ends. We criticize him for having succeeded in making pure research coincide with the potential destruction of humanity. In short, for having ensured the advancement of physics through the creation of the atom bomb. We criticize the physicist for having found an alibi, an indestructible alibi, in knowledge… “ (CLS, 10)
Levi-Strauss in the interviews, as was the case of most post modernists, lamented the fact that we are living in a state of civilization that is a ‘made world’ – a world completely invaded by culture and products of culture, an integrally manufactured world – ‘a machine civilization (la civilisation mécanique) that has broken the resistance of nature, ‘ … words that send a shiver down my spine.
Western Scientific Thought and CONTROL principle
While, in the 1960s, the engineer / the scientist / the physicist was associated with Nuclear power, the context in today’s context is even more complex. I had written about Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in my earlier blog – these knowledge systems are enlivened by specialists, and who attract far greater skepticism, fear and doubt today.
I speak for many who are inundated with (infinite) digital data and are actually asking themselves – Is any of this true or more true than what I see around me? Am I getting manipulated or twisted by my search engines? Is what I am seeing the final stage of the Simulacra – irrelevant noise that insulates me mindfulness and oneness with the world.
On any project, there is no end to resources that are available today – every Google search would unleash tons of bytes of data, narratives, and research. The Engineer in you and me would be conflicted, confused, and overwhelmed with the need to CONTROL.
In fact the Engineer and Western Scientific thinking is built around the notion of Control as opposed to how the Bricolage as a process gets deployed. It is perhaps, the arrogance of the Engineer / the Physicist / the AI scientist, that while creating fantastic devices and consumables, is also prone to anxiety over loss of Control.
Most large organizations riding the wave of modernity, scalability and replicability are spending huge energies and resources on Control – so much so organization cultures look down on self-doubt and the notion of ‘surrender’ to the elements. Control mechanisms and control processes imbue the nature of organizations today – most human beings feel controlled and manipulated – alienated from the technology that they specialize in, and psychologically isolated and atomized.
The Indian Context
The more I read of bricolage and the bricoleur the words of Surrender (also fatalism), Finiteness (also deprivation), Retrospection, and Self-doubt (also inner ambivalence) shouting hoarsely at me. These and many other aspects of the bricolage process remind me of the recent writings of Ashok Malhotra on Indianness.
However the India of today seems to co-hold the two mindsets or the two types of sciences in interesting ways… On one hand, we see Jugaad being exhibited in various shades of innovation – artifacts of this Indian innovation process are seen all over the country, proudly owned by the Bricoleurs of diverse gender and communities.
On the other hand, Western Scientific thought, as taught in our schools and universities, as socialized in our organizations and teams, has an equal if not more powerful an imprint on our psyche and our identity and role-taking. Many Indians seem to be at ease with such.
My next part (Part 2) of this blog seeks to explore this co-herence of the two (the Bricoleur and the Engineer / the Physicist) in the Indian context – and how one artifact – the process of Jugaad gives me hope that we can indeed co-hold the opposites within – and this has been the nature of Indianness that I believe in.
While I would be picking up narratives around Jugaad, our work on EUM (Existential Universe Mapper) over the past decade and a half is equally revealing. It would be unwise to explain the EUM framework in this blog, but all I wish to say is that there is precious evidence of co-herence of the Bricoleur within and the Engineer outside in the pattern of high scores for tradition (UBP) and Innovation (UPA) for both Individuals and organizations.
On Bricolage & the Myth
On a slightly divergent note, I would also like to refer to Levi-Strauss’s work on the myths. He introduces a term – ‘mythemes’ – defining it as the gross constitutive unit of all myths, speculating that the underlying logic of bricolage combinations is that of binary oppositions or polarities of such mythemes.
In fact, one of my colleagues – Raghu Ananathanarayanan, in his latest book – “Leadership Dharma”, uses the mythemes of the Pandava identities (of Mahabharata), to work with critical polarities and dilemmas faced by the modern leader.
Reading the book has meant accompanying Raghu in his usage of the elements of the bricolage – the mythemes are ‘heterogeneous’, the English translation of the French word – hétéroclite, which carries the stronger sense of disparate, ill-assorted, sundry, etc., and then witnessing how he has de-constructed and then re-combined the mythemes of Pandava identities. To the traditionalist – the work is a bit of fractal geometry that underlies bricolage, and does not sit well with the original myth.
The Sahadeva identity (a mytheme contrasted with a more popular mytheme of Yudhistara / Rama or that of the Good Son in the Indian context) is first de-constructed and shattered, and from this debris – a new configuration of the identity (Sahadeva mytheme) is built and ‘bricolage’! There have been constant debates and arguments within our circle of how the Sahadeva identity has been re-constructed by Raghu, and how it does not sit well with the traditionalists.
Let me offer you a sample of Raghu’s work on this identity …
“ … Sahadeva gets the symbolic identity of the Hermit, who limits his interaction with the environment to the minimum on his own initiative, who however is a keen observer and is the theoretician of the system.
Sahadeva is committed to observation and insight. He is acutely aware of reality and is a databank of the knowledge resources. However, he does not mpact the world using these resources, unless invited. In this sense, he is not come alive in the situation, but, remains a spectator.
The other person of this type of Role-identity is Vidura, the Kaurava blind king’s Dhrotarsatra’s observer-advisor. He is a person of great wisdom and understanding. However, when the war between the cousins erupts, he refuses to take sides and act, but shuts himself up within his home completely cut off from the action.
Element: Sahadeva is related to the air element. He touches the world ever so lightly and is a dry intellectual. He does not shape nor impact the world visibly. He takes the location of a “witness,” aloof and alone. The self grows inwardly and may be characterized as the self is apart from the system…”
Raghu’s work is testimony perhaps to the Bricoleur within.