“Style as Bricolage”

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It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of
dissonant elements. . . . I call ‘monster’ every original,
inexhaustible beauty. (Alfred Jarry)
The subcultures with which we have been dealing share a
common feature apart from the fact that they are all
predominantly working class. They are, as we have seen,
cultures of conspicuous consumption – even when, as with
the skinheads and the punks, certain types of consumption
are conspicuously refused – and it is through the
distinctive rituals of consumption, through style, that the
subculture at once reveals its ‘secret’ identity and
communicates its forbidden meanings. It is basically the
way in which commodities are used in subculture which
mark the subculture off from more orthodox cultural
Discoveries made in the field of anthropology are helpful
here. In particular, the concept of bricolage can be used to
explain how subcultural styles are constructed. In The
Savage Mind Levi-Strauss shows how the magical modes
utilized by primitive peoples (superstition, sorcery, myth)
can be seen as implicitly coherent, though explicitly bewildering,
systems of connection between things which
perfectly equip their users to ‘think’ their own world. These
magical systems of connection have a common feature:
they are capable of infinite extension because basic
elements can be used in a variety of improvised
combinations to generate new meanings within them.
Bricolage has thus been described as a ‘science of the
concrete’ in a recent definition which clarifies the original
anthropological meaning of the term:
[Bricolage] refers to the means by which the non-literate,
non-technical mind of so-called ‘primitive’ man responds
to the world around him. The process involves a ‘science
of the concrete’ (as opposed to our ‘civilised’ science of
the ‘abstract’) which far from lacking logic, in fact
carefully and precisely orders, classifies and arranges into
structures the minutiae of the physical world in all their
profusion by means of a ‘logic’ which is not our own. The
structures, ‘improvised’ or made up (these are rough
translations of the process of bricoler) as ad hoc
responses to an environment, then serve to establish
homologies and analogies between the ordering of nature
and that of society, and so satisfactorily ‘explain’ the
world and make it able to be lived in. (Hawkes, 1977)
The implications of the structured improvisations of
bricolage for a theory of spectacular subculture as a system
of communication have already been explored. For instance,
John Clarke has stressed the way in which prominent forms
of discourse (particularly fashion) are radically adapted,
subverted and extended by the subcultural bricoleur:
Together, object and meaning constitute a sign, and, within
any one culture, such signs are assembled, repeatedly, into
characteristic forms of discourse. However, when the
bricoleur re-locates the significant object in a different
position within that discourse, using the same overall
repertoire of signs, or when that object is placed within a
different total ensemble, a new discourse is constituted, a
different message conveyed. (Clarke, 1976)
In this way the teddy boy’s theft and transformation of the
Edwardian style revived in the early 1950s by Savile Row for
wealthy young men about town can be construed as an act of
bricolage. Similarly, the mods could be said to be functioning
as bricoleurs when they appropriated another range of
commodities by placing them in a symbolic ensemble which
served to erase or subvert their original straight meanings.
Thus pills medically prescribed for the treatment of neuroses
were used as ends-in-themselves, and the motor scooter,
originally an ultra-respectable means of transport, was turned
into a menacing symbol of group solidarity. In the same
improvisatory manner, metal combs, honed to a razor-like
sharpness, turned narcissism into an offensive weapon. Union
jacks were emblazoned on the backs of grubby parka anoraks
or cut up and converted into smartly tailored jackets. More
subtly, the conventional insignia of the business world – the
suit, collar and tie, short hair, etc. – were stripped of their
original connotations – efficiency, ambition, compliance with
authority – and transformed into ‘empty’ fetishes, objects to
be desired, fondled and valued in their own right.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, we could use
Umberto Eco’s phrase ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’ (Eco, 1972) to
describe these subversive practices. The war may be conducted
at a level beneath the consciousness of the individual members
of a spectacular subculture (though the subculture is still, at
another level, an intentional communication (see pp. 100–2))
but with the emergence of such a group, ‘war – and it is
Surrealism’s war – is declared on a world of surfaces’ (Annette
Michelson, quoted Lippard, 1970).
The radical aesthetic practices of Dada and Surrealism –
dream work, collage, ‘ready mades’, etc. – are certainly relevant
here. They are the classic modes of ‘anarchic’ discourse.3
Breton’s manifestos (1924 and 1929) established the basic
premise of surrealism: that a new ‘surreality’ would emerge
through the subversion of common sense, the collapse of
prevalent logical categories and oppositions (e.g. dream/reality,
work/play) and the celebration of the abnormal and the
forbidden. This was to be achieved principally through a
‘juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities’ (Reverdy,
1918) exemplified for Breton in Lautréamont’s bizarre phrase:
‘Beautiful like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing
machine on a dissecting table’ Lautréamont, 1970). In The
Crisis of the Object, Breton further theorized this ‘collage
aesthetic’, arguing rather optimistically that an assault on the
syntax of everyday life which dictates the ways in which the
most mundane objects are used, would instigate
. . . a total revolution of the object: acting to divert the
object from its ends by coupling it to a new name and
signing it. . . . Perturbation and deformation are in
demand here for their own sakes. . . . Objects thus
reassembled have in common the fact that they derive
from and yet succeed in differing from the objects which
surround us, by simple change of role. (Breton, 1936)
Max Ernst (1948) puts the same point more cryptically: ‘He
who says collage says the irrational’.
Obviously, these practices have their corollary in
bricolage. The subcultural bricoleur, like the ‘author’ of a
surrealist collage, typically ‘juxtaposes two apparently
incompatible realities (i.e. “flag”: “jacket”; “hole”:
“teeshirt”; “comb: weapon”) on an apparently unsuitable
scale . . . and . . . it is there that the explosive junction
occurs’ (Ernst, 1948). Punk exemplifies most clearly the
subcultural uses of these anarchic modes. It too attempted
through ‘perturbation and deformation’ to disrupt and
reorganize meaning. It, too, sought the ‘explosive junction’.
But what, if anything, were these subversive practices being
used to signify? How do we ‘read’ them? By singling out
punk for special attention, we can look more closely at
some of the problems raised in a reading of style.



Written by secondcousin

December 27, 2012 at 4:59 AM

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