Systematic Improvization

My teacher, and mental-spiritual-martial art mentor, dr. Ronald ‘Back Horse’ Chavers taught me, between 1980 and 1990, a lot of stuff.

Among the most memorable were: ‘systematically getting lost‘ (in order to discover new things) and ‘systematic improvization’ (all human action is recursive improvising).

Systematic Improvization is similar to totemistic thinking as the Claude Levi-Strauus outlined in his studies on Wild (undomesticated) Thinking (1969 le Pensee Sauvage) and Totemism (1669).

In my MA thesis (full text 1988 in Dutch) on Arts & Craftsmanhip in Ancient Egyptian and Inuit culture I quoted Levi-Strauss on Wild Thinnking and Systematic Improvisation at length:

………There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. 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. *

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

* The ‘bricoleur’ has no precise equivalent in English. He is a man who undertakes odd jobs and is a Jack of all trades or a kind of professional do-it-yourself man, but, as the text makes clear, he is of a different standing from, for instance, the English ‘odd job man’ or handyman (trans. note).

Like ‘bricolage’ on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane. Conversely, attention has often been drawn to the mytho-poetical nature of ‘bricolage’ on the plane of so-called ‘raw’ or ‘naive’ art, in architectural follies like the villa of Cheval the postman or the stage sets of Georges Méliès, or, again, in the case immortalized by Dickens in Great Expectations but no doubt originally inspired by observation, of Mr Wemmick’s suburban ‘castle’ with its miniature drawbridge, its cannon firing at nine o’clock, its bed of salad and cucumbers, thanks to which its occupants could withstand a siege if necessary . . .

The analogy is worth pursueing since it helps us to see the real relations between the two types of scientific knowledge we have distinguished. 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’, 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. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s’ means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specializedup to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type……..