History as Bricolage; or, What the Hell Is Bricolage?


THE “PEOPLE IN TUBES” MOTIF | Gregg Williard. 

The Collagist.

⇒This marvelous piece by Gregg Williard, “The ‘People in Tubes’ Motif,” contains a slew of great vocab words, among them bricolage. I happen to like the word; I love the term’s three-syllable journey from hard to soft, but it’s often misused by people who want to sound smart and really just mean collage, which more common term has essentially the same meaning (not quite, but as far as most people will be concerned, collage and bricolage are the same thing; look them up). So bricolage is sort of like its cousin in misuse, leitmotif, which is another term where people tack on an extra syllable for the sake of pretense.

But bricolage does in fact fit quite well in Williard’s piece, which features, among many other things, the lecture of a high-falootin’ but totally-out-there film and history professor, who describes his course as

a seeming bricolage of fact and fantasy, historical record and personal recollection, memory real, imagined, and confabulated, in an alternating valence of personal/political oppositions posed before this, our project of “history” . . . 

Told ya he was high-falootin’.

And like the college course around which this story centers, the piece itself relies heavily on one of the great tools of modern experimental prose, which is to say, collage/bricolage. Let’s not call this piece a mash-up–that would imply blending or simultaneity; this piece relies on juxtaposition. This piece is certainly a story–its development is linear, it does have a subtle arc–but the piece is not really driven by the internal energy of plot so much as the external structure of textual/intellectual arrangement.

This is some high-level stuff, ya’ll.

Here are some of the basic elements this story and its author play with:

  • We have two major characters, Bridey and her professor, Denys DeGref
  • Spliced into the piece here and there are quotes primarily on the nature of history, including some big-time literary heros like DeLillo and Bolano and Seamus Heaney (whose quote was my favorite, darkly)
  • Then we have the discursive lectures, which are really the core of the story, in which DeGref waxes exegetical on classic cinema (all real) including SF classic Forbidden Planet. These meandering, heady passages remind me of the hypnotic word-music of the “Madame Psychosis” radio show in Infinite Jest.
  • We also have a really cool two-column journal entry by Bridey, each column composed of very different language and content.
  • What else… oh yeah, there are these spam-ish emails from the professor to Bridey, which are weird and word-salady and also deeply inappropriate for a prof to send to his student.

So basically, this multi-textual story has two core narratives (1: the experience of Bridey in DeGraf’s class; and 2: the lectures, which have recurrent themes and frequently loop back to earlier elements and characters, which are as vivid as Bridey and DeGraf).

And then there’s the concept of the cryo-tube and its related SF set pieces–the idea that history is a creature within this tube, its substance stripped away as a necessary step in preserving it.

I’m not entirely sure how to unpack this story beyond what I said in the previous sentence (I’ve read the piece three times and a lot of its implications allude me, to be honest). I’ll let you do some poking and prodding of your own, right after I make these two observations about the story.

Observation #1: there is a lot of tension between wholeness and fragmentation in this story, which as a text is structurally unstable (intentionally), unable to decide if it wants to explore or implode (thus does neither/both).

Observation #2: the story plays with the idea of history as violence, which is certainly not a novel concept but which is spun in such a way that the analysis of history becomes a kind of violence, too (the way the glass tube both preserves and destroys its specimen). We see this violence mirrored in the aggression of DeGref’s scary/weird late-night emails to his student.

There are many other observations to be made about this fascinating, challenging piece. I encourage you to make some of your own.

Read “The ‘People in Tubes’ Motif” @ The Collagist (appropriately enough).

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