Paper Heroes

Cover of Paper Heroes

Witold Rybczynski’s 1980 book fills in some gaps in understanding the rhetoric of utopian technological movements of the 60s and 70s. The second edition, from 1991, includes and epilogue which attempts to connect that rhetoric to the latest flavor of its time, sustainable development. It’s a cynical book, perhaps, but it is the kindest of critiques– I suspect that he, and every technological nerd of these times truly wants there to be a solution to useful deployments of technology for a common good.

The problem is that most of this literature is long on promises, and short on well thought out and executed examples. In  short, it’s a game primarily played by upper class white people to assuage their guilt over rampant overconsumption. I’m looking at you, professors at Cornell with six figure salaries tooling around in expensive SUVs with “Save the Whales” stickers.

AT (either unpacked as “alternative technology” or “appropriate technology”) is a cluster of ideas/technologies that are long on slogans and boosters but short on rational discussion– such as wind power, solar energy, etc. The roots trace to E.F. Shumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, and proceed through ideas like Green Revolution. Rybczynski rightfully points out the cult-like “true believer” culture that emerged from these napkin sketch level ideas. Ideas deserve more rigorous consideration. Little has changed. The world is full of paper heroes whose contributions are slogans and empty persuasion; it’s interesting to me to follow younger people in the newer craft moments discovering these books, thinking that the concepts and slogans can be simply transported to the present to some effect. Fact is, they were pretty ineffectual then and would be now if adopted wholesale. It has to be noted that critiquing those ideas is even less popular, and probably the reason Rybczynski’s book is sadly out of print.

He thought then, and I must agree, that there is much to be learned from these old utopian technology movements– largely to avoid the same sort of mistakes of sloganeering and assumptions of white, frequently male, privilege. I’m impressed that Rybczynski spotted it in 1980:

Perhaps the most important role that the AT movement has played in international development has not been as the inventor of a new approach, but rather as a reminder to the international development establishment that a large number of people have been left out of the development process and that technological options do exist which could begin to rectify the situation. However, as an attempt to demodernize technology and take an alternative path, Appropriate Technology is doomed to failure. It is a pretentious, romantic, even poignant attempt to stop the ocean with a child’s beach shovel and play bucket. (166)

As a woodworker, I have really enjoyed dealing with technology at a very up close and personal level. There was a trend, when I was growing up (as exemplified by Norm Abram, and shows like Home Improvement) to look to new small scale power tool technologies as a solution to building things. In the last decade or so, human powered tools are making a comeback with an equal amount of sloganeering. On either side, there haven’t been a shortage of “guru” type figures like Roy Underhill. It isn’t that the technologies being evangelized are inherently superior or inferior, but rather that the majority of people who lack the means, training, or space are left out.

The message shouldn’t be taken to be that “woodworking is a bourgeois activity” but rather that there is a problem with the cultish, elitist pronouncements that the problem is “solved” by these approaches. The problem is rather that effort must be made to bring education and technology to everyone in a more equitable fashion, rather than concentrating on those who have the means/dollars to deploy them.

For me, Saint Roy’s most powerful message is that historical technologies (wedge & edge) are not quaint ways of doing things but meaningful tools for the future. Technology does offer the means to solving our problems. But we’ve got to look for the complications posed by accessibility. Not everyone can build a geothermal or solar powered home, or even a log cabin– but these technologies must stay in our field for vision as potential solutions.

The Bricoleur


Never do we achieve a satisfactory performance. Things are simply not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery, and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose yet. Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But even at that we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance we will have it in appearance.

David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (1978, 1964) p.14

I knew that I had run across this concept before, and it finally dawned on me where: Claude Lévi-Strauss. It’s curious, because his discussion of the bricoleur occurs in The Savage Mind, first published in French in 1962, and then translated into English in 1966. It’s certainly possible that Pye’s colleagues at the Royal College of Art were talking about it, but he didn’t arrive there until 1964; but it’s more likely that it’s just the case that there was “something in the air” that drove very smart people to think about the contingencies of human existence in similar ways. Different fields, different languages, and completely different ends in sight.

Lévi-Strauss conceived of bricoleur as a way of contrasting underdeveloped civilizations derivations and deployments of myths. Throughout, he used craft metaphors that I’m just now remembering. I think it really puts a finer point on Pye’s contributions and deviances from the anthropological theorizations  of craft as a model/metaphor for human society. The bricoleur, or as footnoted in the English translation, handyman, is contrasted with the engineer. While much of what Pye is describing and attempting to theorize is closer to engineering than tinkering about like a handyman, it has a curious similarity to Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur.

I’m not sure if that’s just a coincidence; the time-line is just too close to call. For Lévi-Strauss, the designer or craftsman, particularly of modern scientific products, wouldn’t have much in common with the bricoleur, only the “repairman” would. Revisiting The Savage Mind has reminded me why I though his treatment was interesting all those years ago.

Attempting a summary of some key points, it is important to note that bricoleur has the overtone of extraneous motion (not unlike Pye’s assessment of decoration as ‘useless labor’). The label is deployed by Lévi-Strauss to try to quantify differences between the “scientific” and “savage” mind; the savage mind consists of a limited and heterogeneous set of resources that are deployed to meet various needs, whereas the scientific mind has at its disposal groups of tools specifically gathered and grouped to meet human needs.

Pye might argue that the scientific tools are just as arbitrary and haphazard as the savage’s tools; indeed, that’s pretty much Paul Feyerabend’s contribution. Against Method was published in 1975 so it’s fair to say that such questioning was not unusual at that time. I’m not sure if the Pye’s “castaway” passage is present in the 1964 edition, or is added to the 1978. But, accepting for the moment that at least the bricoleur/castaway side of Lévi-Strauss’s formulation has merit, just what does the opposition illuminate?

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 the 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. (17)

This reminds me greatly of Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest; Schwarz went so far as to analyze the tool lists across the ages to give a sort of historical weight to his tool selections within a tradition. The “finite and heterogeneous” tool set is contingent, but not arbitrary. Lévi-Strauss’s unusual turn from here is extruding it into a linguistic framework.

He gets there by calling a bricoleur’s tools and materials objects “a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type” [emphasis mine]. Defining tools and materials in this way, as relations, means that they can be used and reused only within limits. In short, their uses are finite, and they are intermediates in a potential transformation, in other words, signs:

Signs resemble images in being concrete entities but the resemble concepts in their powers of reference. Neither concepts nor signs relate exclusively to themselves; either may be substituted for something else. Concepts, however, have an unlimited capacity in this respect while signs have not. (18)

Lévi-Strauss proceeds from here to deploy his argument from analogy with a craft example:

A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal— which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as an extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already posses a sense which sets a limit for their freedom of manoeuvre. (18-19)

I’m not interested here in the argument that Lévi-Strauss is making as much as I am the way that he’s making it. Tools and materials for a bricoleur are constrained; the tools of the engineer/scientist are not because he has access to the concepts behind the situation. A bricoleur/handyman is force to deal with things by using a system of predefined symbolic relations—as Roy Underhill would have it, regarding woodworking, it’s all wedge and edge. The set of tools we have at our fingertips as craftsman are defined by custom, tradition, materials, and physics.

In short, like David Pye, Claude Lévi-Strauss is looking to define the function of societies and practices by identifying their constraints. That’s really quite remarkable, given the contemporaneous nature of all this. I missed this the first time that I read it, but then I wasn’t a woodworker then. Instead, I was a photographer looking at the semiotic dimensions of this argument, which are equally fascinating:

Images cannot be ideas but they can play the part of signs or to be more precise, co-exist with ideas in signs and, if ideas are not yet present, they can keep their future place open for them and make its contours apparent negatively. Images are fixed, linked in a single way to the mental act which accompanies them. Signs, and images which have acquired significance, may still lack comprehension; unlike concepts, they do not yet possess simultaneous and theoretically unlimited relationships with entities of the same kind. (20)

In its own way, this excursus on images is also about constraints; One might argue that an image, say Dorothea Lange’s image of Florence Thompson, must sever its fixed link to the person it references to become an open concept: “The Migrant Mother” which is then able to be set in unlimited relationship with other madonna class images. Only by defining itself as not Florence Thompson can the image acquire symbolic currency.