My enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss' concept of bricolage can be questioned in the light of the abundancy of discourses emphasizing the agency of our physical environment.
For instance, Actor–Network Theory (ANT) has offered an influential current of thought dispelling traditional subject-object divisions in favor of a relational approach emphasizing networks that comprise human and non-human agents or actors. Stemming from science and technology studies and widely applied in social theory, ANT has given rise to operational discourses and concepts for art. For example, Bruno Latour's "quasi-object" arises from an insightful analysis of hybridity and liminal, multidimensional and networked nature of our material and psychological environment. (Latour 2012). However, as Jaakko Leskinen points out in his account of ANT, the theory's focus is on relational materialism, or, following John Law, theory about agency, knowledge and machines (Leskinen 2000; 184). The theory's fundamental methodological orientation is empirical. As much as I find myself intellectually stimulated by the conceptual structures produced by ANT, and charmed by the masterfully baroque discourse of Latour, I do not find in it much resonance with the world I experience as an artist. ANT remains too system-oriented, analytical, distanciated from the artistic action itself to be operational in my own context of artistic research and the corresponding discourse I wish to weave.
Phenomenological enquiry has been seminal in mending Western thought's connection to the world. The insight of our perceptual entanglement and engagement in our surroundings connect directly with vast areas of artistic practice, as manifested for instance in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1964) pioneering work on Cézanne in "L'oeil et l'esprit" (Eng: Eye and mind). It might be safely asserted that phenomenology has had an influence on the civilizational level, providing the undercurrent force fuelling the emergence of theories of embodiment, post-humanism, and material culture. Its influence on the development of artistic research discourse is colossal, to the extent that I relate to it as a meta-theory; omnipresent, internalised by myself and by the artistic research community to such extent that for me it escapes mobilisation as a theoretical tool.
A third line of thought emphasizing materiality that I wish to bring into the discussion points to the more recent attempts to think culture within the Anthropocene. In this strand, Anna Tsing's hybrid, lively and seemingly incoherent networks presented in her book "The mushroom at the end of the world" constitute an inspiring account where the material entanglement is lived through in a profoundly human and sensitive manner (Tsing 2015). Equally captivating is Timothy Morton's descent into a deep ecological consciousness in a virtuosic language that blows up established disciplinary categories and enables new associations and connections to joyfully emerge. Both theorists share the common project of abolishing the Man – Nature divide: "The time has come for telling true stories without civilizational first principles. Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of parochially imagined rationality". (Tsing 2015; VII). Both Tsing and Morton have been able to forge a discourse that is operational within the complexity and multidimensionality of the current cultural and artistic environment. Beyond horizontal transdisciplinarity, their approach also covers a vertical axis from the individual (or interior) to the collective, bridging vastly heterogeneous entities, events and spaces into a coherent discourse. This exposition's discussion section weaves Tsing's and Morton's approaches into the fabric of bricolage.
So, in regard to the influential lines of thought involving materiality, why would one invoke "bricolage" – a half a century old concept of structural anthropology, which has been famously deconstructed by Derrida (1978) or proposed for universality by Christopher Johnson (2012)?
My personal response stems from a paradox built into Lévi-Straussian bricolage: through a seemingly alchemical process, the thoroughly rational project of analysing mythical thought via the analogy of the bricoleur, Lévi-Strauss manages to touch and express an ineffable, enchanted quality that is at work in artistic practice. Through structure, bricolage captures magic2. Since I came across the rather short passage (16 pages) concerning bricolage a few decades ago, it has continuously haunted me as a background to my artistic practice. It is not an à priori, nor à posteriori, theorization of a practice – it is the conceptual parallel to what I ineffably experience.
The key aspect in this experience is meaning. The artistic praxis is an enterprise, or a manufacture, for meaning. Not necessarily semantic signification, but the experience of a meaningful existence within and in relation to the world. With the concept of bricolage, Lévi-Strauss captures an essential process of meaning-making:
"Mythical thought, that 'bricoleur', builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather remains of events […] which it never tires of ordering and reordering in its search to find them a meaning. But it also acts as a liberator by its protest against the idea that anything can be meaningless with which science at first resigned itself to a compromise." (Lévi-Strauss 1966; 22).