LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media 9781501354045, 9781501354076, 9781501354069

LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media offers a multi-faceted exploration of LEGO fandom, addressing a blindspot in current

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LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media
 9781501354045, 9781501354076, 9781501354069

Table of contents :
Title Page
Copyright Page
Note about the Cover Image
Foreword: An Imaginary System
Introduction: Clickable Media in a Plastic World
How Does LEGO Matter?
The Worlds of LEGO
Modular Media in the Making
Mapping the (Brick)Universe
Connections and Diffractions
Technicities of the Brick
LEGO Scholarship
Book Organization and Objectives
Part One
Chapter 1: Palpable Pixels
LEGO and a Digital Episteme
1 The Digital Is Discrete
2 The Digital Is Non-Semantic
3 The Digital Is Intended for Making and Remaking. Thus the Digital Makes Us into Makers
Digital Making as Knowing: LEGO Educational Materials as an Extended Example
Looking Forward
Part Two
Chapter 2: The Aesthetic Work of LEGO
Mimesis and Play
The Visual Textures of LEGO Architecture
Irony and Satire in LEGO Art
(Not) Playing It Safe
Chapter 3: Band of Builders
Bringing the Band (of Builders) Together
Military Play and Display: The Niche Market and Supply and Demand
Capitalism and Community Legitimacy: Parts, Instructions, Packaging
The Logics of Militarized LEGOfication
Capital and Commodifiable Labor
Remediation, Nostalgia, and Discomfort
Community Legitimacy and Materiality
The Band of Builders
Chapter 4: Reassembling Gender
Gender Constructions
Finally! LEGO *FOR* Girls
Scala, Paradisa, and Belville
Let’s Be Friends
The Politics of Pink
Building (and Banking on) Gender Inclusivity
Pink Bricks, Masculine MOCs: Three Case Studies of Gender Remediation
Gallows Humor
Insert Brick Joke Here
Heartlake City Is Now (Unofficially) Open Carry
Conclusion: Some Reassembly Required
Part Three
Chapter 5: Fake Plastic Trees
LEGO and Its Materials
The Art of Plastic
Plants, Plastic, and Artifice
Hylomorphism and Becoming Brick
Sensorial Sustainability
Chapter 6: Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging
How Does LEGO Feel? Why Does This Matter?
Keeping It Clean
“Boundaries Do Not Sit Still”
Making and Breaking Boundaries
Beer, Bacteria, and Bricks
LEGO versus Lepin
The “Fake LEGO Gang”
You’ve Lost That LEGO Feeling
Chemical and Cultural Contamination
Custom LEGO and the Margins of Purity
Customizing LEGO
EclipseGrafx and the Custom Minifig Scene
“One Purist at a Time”
Makin’ Bacon
Play and Dis-play
Working On, With, and for LEGO
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

Citation preview



LEGOfied Building Blocks as Media


BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Inc 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in the United States of America 2020 Volume Editor’s Part of the Work © Nicholas Taylor and Chris Ingraham Each chapter © of Contributors For legal purposes the Acknowledgments on p. vii constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover image © Nathan Sawaya and Dean West All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Inc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data ISBN: HB: 978-1-5013-5404-5 ePDF: 978-1-5013-5406-9 eBook: 978-1-5013-5405-2 Typeset by Deanta Global Publishing Services, Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit and sign up for our newsletters.

Contents Note about the Cover Image  vi Acknowledgments vii Foreword: An Imaginary System  Seth Giddings ix Glossary xvi

Introduction: Clickable Media in a Plastic World  Nicholas Taylor and Chris Ingraham  1

PART ONE  1 Palpable Pixels  Kate Maddalena  23

PART TWO  2 The Aesthetic Work of LEGO  Eddie Lohmeyer  43 3 Band of Builders  Jessica Elam  68 4 Reassembling Gender  Sarah Evans and Nicholas Taylor  87

PART THREE  5 Fake Plastic Trees  Chris Ingraham  109 6 Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging  Nicholas Taylor  137 Notes 165 List of Contributors  171 Index  174

Note about the Cover Image T

he cloud is a central motif in contemporary media studies. Both embraced and derided as a metaphor for a networked infrastructure’s invisible, offsite storage, clouds are meant to seem ephemeral and boundless but are, in practice, anything but. Clouds also figure powerfully in John Durham Peters’s book about media, The Marvelous Clouds, but in this case referring literally to clouds floating in the sky. For Peters, media aren’t just technologies to transmit and circulate messages. The very elemental material of nature—sea to sky, fire to clouds—can itself be understood as media. “Media,” Peters writes, “are modes of being.” And clouds in particular challenge the difference between media as vehicle and media as mode because their “vapory being tests the outer limits of representation.” This challenge is what LEGOfied is about—as the marvelous clouds gracing its cover attests. The cover image is a detail from an artwork called Hotel, by LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya and photographer Dean West, who combined their respective artistic media to offer an illusion in which the artificial and atomistic seems right at home, and almost indistinguishable, among the elemental and ephemeral. It is a testament to LEGO as a medium, and to Sawaya as an artist, that something so defined, so pixelated as LEGO can be used to communicate buoyancy and ephemerality. And yet, the playfulness of West and Sawaya’s art lies in trying to pick out the LEGO from the not-LEGO, to see if you can spot the subtle pixelation, the giveaway saturation, that reminds us that even the most lifelike LEGO sculpture is still LEGO. This is LEGOfication in its most rarefied and elemental form.

Acknowledgments Nick I would like to thank Danielle, first and foremost, for her love, patience and insight, and for allowing our house (not to mention endless conversations) to be steadily invaded by LEGO ever since I began this project in earnest; and Ben, my co-builder and inspiration, who represents so much of what is best about LEGO. This work would simply not have been possible without the effort of the countless LEGO enthusiasts, artists, craftspeople, vendors, and more, whom we encountered at conventions and on social media. Their creativity and passion have served as both the impetus and the material for this book. I would also like to thank Steve and Grant, for leaving their office doors ajar, and for their sage insights into how the pieces of this project might make this all fit together conceptually. Finally, I would like to acknowledge my incredible co-LEGOfiers: Sarah, Eddie, and Jess, for the “research” trip to San Diego; Kate, for providing the foundation; and Chris, for his limitless wisdom, enthusiasm, and warmth. You’ve each helped transform what could have been a frustrating and alienating exercise into a source of continual insight and delight. Leg Godt!

Chris Because this book would not exist without Nick’s singular ability to take a personal interest and make it contagious by revealing its many fascinations and complexities, my heartiest thanks goes to Nick. If the highest purpose of art is to inspire, you’re the consummate artist—and a model friend and researcher alike. It’s also been an honor to work with such exceptional contributors. Eddie and Jess, I’ve been learning from you since we were at NC State, where all this LEGOfying began. Kate and Sarah, I’d always heard you were brilliant, but I didn’t know you were this brilliant. Having Seth on board was the blessing


and kindness that pulled it all together. I’d also like to thank Scott Rettberg and Jill Walker Rettberg for hosting me at the University of Bergen as I worked on this project and traveled to Billund. Most of all, though, my gratitude is due to Caroline, for indulging my newfound LEGO fandom (and the takeover of pieces across our home) that came with developing this book. What also came was lots of joyous hours playing and building LEGO and Duplo with my children, Mayer and Naomi. “Det Bedste Er Ikke For Godt”—and you all are the best.

Foreword: An Imaginary System Seth Giddings


EGO occupies a unique place within toy, play, and media culture. A hugely successful product line that is universally recognized, it has weathered, in over half a century, the turbulent seas of commercial children’s culture— the fads and crazes, the rise of competitors for attention, at first broadcast media, then the encroachment of digital culture—first computer games, then networked social media. Along the way, the company’s strategy picked up on the transmedial trajectory and occupied it emphatically. The characteristic studs, patented in the 1950s, are instantly recognizable, as much a sign or logo as they are a technical feature of the construction toy. Since the 1970s, LEGO minifigures have risen to prominence in a cluttered cultural economy of attention, intellectual property as familiar as the Disney Princesses or the Super Mario pantheon. Studs and minifigures are found now in films, TV animation, videogames, their chunky modularity endlessly flexible across franchises and storyworlds as well as across bedroom and living room floors. The LEGO Group’s own self-presentation and publicity, its longevity, and of course the toy’s distinct design and material characteristics have fed into a persistent sense of the toy as more than just another plastic product. Though appeals to and critiques of LEGO (and its changes over recent decades) are varied and often contradictory, they are near-universally underpinned by assumptions that LEGO is (or was) a unique toy or system, distinct in its flexibility and open-endedness in play. LEGO is scaffolded by a popular imaginary, of an educational or imaginative toy that promotes creativity in ways closed off in other toys. It has—like Disney, that other persistent staple of commodified children’s culture in the late twentieth century—a set of moral expectations. Both have been entrusted with the imaginations of generations of children, wholesome fantasy from Disney, educative fun from LEGO, each exploiting the assumption of an extra-commercial responsibility for children’s development.


Like Disney, LEGO has had to carefully negotiate these expectations of their contribution to an idealized children’s culture with hard-nosed industrial strategies of licensing, transmedial franchises, and extensive merchandising in a rapidly changing technocultural economy. From the late twentieth century, both media empires have embraced and hypercharged transmedial tactics, breaking down the walls of their ethico-symbolic storyworlds, abandoning corporate-cosmological purism for the cross-pollination of proprietorial supersystems. Though changes to the packaging and media positioning of the toy, and its spreading out into other media and digital forms, have generated popular hostility and journalistic claims of betrayal, LEGO (or rather the LEGO System) has over the decades gathered about itself an imaginary: a set of implicit and explicit concepts of its transcendence over other ordinary toys and children’s media. It is an imaginary that privileges an idealized imagination: the design and dissemination of LEGO, its proponents assert, engenders creative, openended play; its flexibility drives productive engagement in the moment of play, and the development of cognitive skills and creative aptitudes over time. Its near-mythic status as an ur-toy has been consistently invoked as an ideal from which every incremental change in design and marketing since the 1950s has been perceived as a fall from grace. The remarkable and promiscuous franchising of recent years, culminating in LEGO Dimensions games mixing up characters from Lord of the Rings, Batman, and the like, back to the introduction of LEGO Friends targeted at girls, to themed sets with specialized bricks, the inclusion of instructions, back even to the illustration of possible constructions on the lid of early boxes in the 1960s, and so on. Generations of LEGO critics have and continue to hark back to a prelapsarian idyll (usually of their own childhood) when the toy was “more creative.” While the cultural, representational, ideological, and economic assumptions that feed and are fed by imaginaries can be uncovered and subject to critique, imaginaries are no mere whimsy, but obdurate and operational phenomena—they have their own reality and agency. LEGO’s privileged status is nothing if not a technological imaginary, predicated on and sustained by the technics of the toy’s design and manufacture and the techniques of its use. While all media entertainment and play objects have a material basis but circulate through intangible fields of signification, discourse, and imaginative engagement, there is something particularly salient about the technical and material characteristics of LEGO and its semiotic and symbolic operations, something key to grasping its particular appeal, and the claims made for it. Unlike Disney, for instance, all LEGO products—plastic bricks, digital worlds, animated characters—are characterized, and linked, by the tube-and-stud technology and style of the LEGO System of Play. It requires specific materials,


thermoplastic that affords the durability and hardness needed, and very precise engineering to provide the robust and satisfying click between bricks. It is this system on which LEGO rhetoric is built and with which play is undertaken. The products’ famed interoperability and modularity lends a coherence across the technics of platforms and the symbolic regimes of themes and franchises that is simultaneously and inseparably material-discursive, engendering both visual and tactile aesthetics and technical infrastructure. It also acts as emblem and metonym for the LEGO corporate ethos. According to the LEGO Foundation, the educational and charitable arm of the LEGO Group, play should be open, free, and imaginative, and as such is a vital force for good in the world, building children’s imaginations and confidence, hands-on dexterity, and constructing future entrepreneurialism. For both LEGO critics and evangelists the LEGO imaginary is facilitated by the System of Play but seems magically unconstrained by it. The system is open and flexible, its engineering and design a neutral conduit through which imagination and creativity flow into open-ended play. If the playful imagination is impeded in any way, the LEGO purists insist, it is by the franchises, themes and mediatization of the toys, the consumerist and gendered scenarios of LEGO Friends for instance, or the commercial tie-ins of LEGO Batman, Star Wars, and all the rest. Themes, characters, scenarios as presented on the packaging and instructions of LEGO sets interfere with or negate the system’s infinite plasticities of play. This position is open to challenge by LEGO anthropologists and ethologists in two main ways, each of which requires a critical and descriptive attention to the materiality of the system along with its symbolic and narrative instantiations. Each suggests a more complex relationship between technology, media images, and imaginative play. First, in their attention to themes, instructions, franchising, and narrative settings, LEGO critics persistently ignore the widespread, near-universal technics of everyday LEGO play in which discrete sets are broken down, added to the child or family’s box of existing bricks, and from which new drama, action, and exposition are engineered. In this sense the System of Play lives up to its corporate billing and popular image as an imaginative and open system. The illustrated packaging, instructions, and specialized bricks of course invite the construction of particular models and suggest modes of technical or imaginative play, but the capability to make different models or to mix up the bricks with others underpins much, if not most, everyday play, and has done so for generations. The LEGO pessimists would only have to spend a few minutes watching children rummaging in the box, clicking together, and talking into existence a phantasmagorical world to realize their fears are unfounded. Second, however, LEGO as a “materially digital” medium, to use the phrasing offered by Kate Maddalena’s chapter in this volume, has its distinct


material characteristics and possibilities. Its technics do not so much “free” the playful imagination as channel or articulate it. The system scaffolds a particular kind of open-ended play, the material scope of the studs and tubes is finite and hence presses in and extends imaginative processes in distinct, albeit nonlinear ways. While the paracosmic stories and actions fabricated by playing children are infinite in their detail and variety, the broad forms and archetypes through which they are constructed and enacted are extremely limited, rarely departing from buildings, townscapes, vehicles, the occasional robot. Infinite poesis at the micro-semiotic level, rigid determination at the meso-mechanical. In this regard, recognition of LEGO’s origins in the history of toys, and particularly building blocks and architectural toys, is salient. The first construction toys could make solid walls and little else. A simple mechanic of stacking, an engineering rooted in preindustrial construction, then modeled and commodified in wooden block toy sets in the eighteenth century. Even the later advances of the LEGO Technic sets tend toward the construction of discrete and rectilinear objects rather than, say, the open frameworks and spans of Meccano and K’nex. Thus, LEGO’s underlying architectonic structure has its own technocultural history and ideological tendencies: it was developed in a crowded market of building block and construction toys that developed over a hundred years. While recent LEGO evangelism concentrates on the incursion of narrative and symbolic suggestions for construction and play, early concerns for the erosion of LEGO imagination were predicated on its status as an architectonic toy. This early engineering aspect of the LEGO imaginary has by and large disappeared, though residual traces can be spotted in more educational products such as the various robotics sets. Along with its early competitors in the pre-mediatized construction toy market, LEGO was animated by an imaginary that extolled problem-solving and mechanical operations as its prime motive for play. A mode of imaginative thinking that explored physical and mechanical relationships, structures and forces, systems and possibilities. The invitation to play was “how could we span this gap with a bridge?” or “what arrangement of bricks best support a tall building?” If in the (later) conjuring of dynamic or dream-like microworlds with toys, children are playing as-if the toys were streets, people, adventures, then the player exercising their engineering imagination with the construction toy asks what if?—What-would-happen-if an extra floor were added to an experimental building? What if a particular set of gear ratios were connected?, and so on. An archaeology of LEGO’s engineering-play might follow lines of material and imaginary descent back to the building toys of the interwar Bauhaus or Froebel’s “gifts” in the early nineteenth century. These elegant objects offered an aesthetic and kinaesthetic system, a pedagogy of abstract combination,


a prosthetic and haptic extension of imaginative processes, driven by the material potential of the blocks to combine and suggest, rather than by any directly instrumental training for actual construction methods. An aesthetic lineage has been traced between the “gifts” and the ethos and style of modernist designers and architects who played with them in their infancy. And the modularity of LEGO is of course intertwined with modernist design throughout the twentieth century. Less clear, but just as significant, is the persistence of construction toys to inculcate the imaginative processes of systems-thinking, of playing with objects, their capacities and their relationships to address capacities and relationships in the abstract: substructures of scientific enquiry, hands-on engineering, the poesis of shape and space professionalized by sculptors and architects. In more ambivalent celebrations, a LEGO imaginary is the baseplate for ways of thinking about (and being trained for, from an early age) a modular and prefabricated modernity, model-building for technocracy, even a plan for a plug-and-play neoliberal economics of fragmentation and outsourcing: break the model apart and click it back together. This engineering dimension of the LEGO imaginary has largely disappeared in the marketing of and response to the standard bricks and sets, though it persists in the more specialized robotic and educational lines. It is evident, however, in a markedly simulacral form, in playful and pedagogical software more widely, from SimCity to object-oriented and didactic systems such as StarLogo and Scratch. In the terminology offered by this volume, we might think of these as LEGOfied micro-cities and microworlds, albeit in non-LEGO form: modeled and snapped together, modular, colorful, and systematic, abstract yet hands-on. These are abstract yet fundamentally instrumental modes of cognitive plasticity that aim to grasp and link dynamic and complex relationships rather than modeling in detail actual world systems. It surfaces too, transformed and mutated, in LEGO videogames, which demand of their players an imaginative engagement that is at least as processual as it is narrative: the cognitive mapping of toyetic architectonics, the what-if imaginative acts of construction and puzzle solving, the manipulation of bricks that is at once familiar from actual toy play and utterly different in its virtual animation. While any clear distinction between the symbolic imagination and the engineering imagination is only evident in the rhetoric, actual LEGO play is always conducted through a shuffling of them both. What-if technics are fully immanent to actual building with the toy, a phenomenological and tactile inevitability: any construction with the bricks necessitates working within the physical parameters of the System of Play. My own ethnographic work on LEGO play demonstrates the interplay between technical construction and the phantasmagorical in which the former is by necessity an imaginative process of mechanical experimentation and testing. Dragons, castles, and futuristic vehicles


are fashioned through the selection and speaking of elements technically defined: dimensions counted out in studs (2 x 6s, 8 x 1s) and mechanically specific components (hinges, axles). Indeed, the blurring of technical and symbolic imagination is central to one particular mode of LEGO play for children and adults that is surprisingly absent from commentaries and claims for the toy, or held implicitly accountable for the death of LEGO imaginative play: following the instructions of a playset to create the model as presented on the set’s packaging. Making a LEGO model is a significant technical and imaginative achievement demanding dexterity, hands-on technicity, and the ability to follow sequential directions, interpreting wordless two-dimensional diagrams into three-dimensional constructions. What are the pleasures in this play? Something like puzzle solving in its fiddly three-dimensional parameters, a hands-on engagement and appreciation of often ingenious and witty designs, aesthetic pleasure in the emergence of a scene or vehicle from a pile of modular abstract elements, maybe sometimes the realizing and appreciation of the beautiful engineering and plastic imagination of the designers. We are closer here to kit constructions of Airfix, a UK-based scale model-maker and another genealogical artifact of construction play. The technically adept and obedient manufacture required here, and its performative and exhibitionary pleasures, resonate with much adult play with LEGO. While for adult constructors the immersive and phantasmagorical mindset of early childhood is now beyond reach, expert, experimental, and artistic LEGO practices that demand a clear design and coherent process are some substitute. None of these imaginative processes and imaginary constructions can be reduced entirely to the material and mechanic character of LEGO bricks and the System of Play, but neither would they be possible without it. The technical operation of the tubes and studs, and the commercial decision to standardize and universalize them, clicks everything else together, including in digital and virtual domains. In children’s play there are no rigid boundaries between actual and virtual LEGO, or between LEGO and not-LEGO. The flow between actual plastic construction and digital manipulation recently systematized in LEGO Dimensions is only an echo of vernacular everyday activities that were evident in the first moments of children’s play in and around LEGO-themed videogames. Characters and action transferred in the flow of play, kinaesthetic and agential engagement transducted, metamorphosed as hands are separated from and connected to toys by the keyboard or joypad. The characters, vehicles, and structures are brought to life by the program rather than immediately by the embodied and tactile imagination. In the games, the acrylic of the minifigures flexes, the decalled faces animate, the studs are a proprietorial residue—their grip redundant in an environment free of actual gravity and friction. As I have noted, there is a trace of the engineering imagi-


nation in LEGO’s highly mediated and narrative-driven virtual worlds: puzzles to be solved, spaces to map and traverse, explicit instructions and implicit yet rigid procedures coded into the gameworld, all pieced together brick by brick. Or smashed apart in an audiovisual spectacle—an intangible transduction of the flip side of creative play with blocks: physical destruction and symbolic violence, a phantasmagorical “dark play” built into LEGO but repressed in its bright rhetoric. In all the above, the material and the semiotic, play and engineering, the fabulatory and the machinic, the tactile and the simulacral are inseparable, intertwined. The persistence of the System of Play as a technological phenomenon secures the LEGO legacy of flexible creativity as well as its new modular extensions through transmediality and hypermediality. Engineering imagination, free-play and phantasmagorical construction overlap and co-constitute each other, facilitated by the System of Play but unlike the system and its acrylic medium they are profoundly non-modular. LEGO can’t be understood without an appeal to imagination and a critical grasp of the imaginary, but “imagination” itself is not the settled positivist term of LEGO’s own mythmaking; it is itself constructed according to the materials (and immaterials) at hand and the models we wish to make. The research and analysis in this book charts ways in which the global economic, historical, and imaginary LEGOscape is realized, challenged, and transformed in everyday play and creative practice. The authors’ “connective ethnography” approach describes the surprising ways in which adult LEGO enthusiasts build, break down, and rebuild the System of Play’s material-discursive, haptic-visual, and machinic-imaginative possibilities and constraints. The book captures small events of everyday playful technics, events that are illuminating in their own right and their own momentary idiosyncrasies. But it builds up from this empirical attention with a rigorous theorization of the physical, economic, sensuous, aesthetic, and plastic character of LEGO play and production. In itself the book is a model or system of the significance of contemporary popular and playful culture as epitomized by LEGO—a colorful posthuman construction that clicks together culture, nature, technology, aesthetics, postdigital media, the embodied, the cognitive, and the virtual.

Glossary ABS

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, the petroleum-based polymer used to manufacture the majority of LEGO pieces.


“Adult Fan of LEGO,” an adult-aged LEGO enthusiast.


A generic term for LEGO pieces, sometimes specifically those with block-like shapes.

BrickUniverse One among several regularly held conventions for LEGO fandom, not officially endorsed by LEGO; the key research site for contributors to this volume.


A noun to describe the structure created through LEGO construction; a verb to describe the process of its creation.


“Computer-aided Design,” referring to a number of programs for digitally designing LEGO builds and producing instructions for their construction. Notable among these are LDraw, a freeware program created by and for LEGO enthusiast communities; and LEGO Digital Designer (LDD), a freeware program created by the LEGO Group, by which users can upload builds to be considered as LEGO Ideas sets.


A term used by enthusiasts to describe the (unique) capacity of LEGO pieces to click together until snapped apart.


Any of the many different functions and shape of LEGO pieces.

Leg Godt

The Danish words for “play well”; their combination forms “LEGO.”

LEGOfication The process of translating material—a photograph, a sentiment, an architectural diagram, a cultural icon, an idea, and so on—into LEGO form.


“LEGO User Group,” a local community of LEGO users.



“My Own Creation,” a build created by an enthusiast rather than using instructions.


Abbreviated from “minifigure,” the figurine first produced in 1978 for use in LEGO sets. Though LEGO has developed a range of other figurines (including squat Duplo figures, minidolls for the Friends line, larger Technics figurines, etc.), the minifig is by far the most ubiquitous and appears across most LEGO sets, games, movies, and so on.


A term for stud that uses less explicitly gendered language.

Pad Printing

The technique for imprinting colored designs onto LEGO bricks (among other three-dimensional surfaces), used by the LEGO Group and several custom LEGO artists.


A generic term for a single LEGO piece, marking no distinction.


A LEGO product, typically sold in a box containing pieces and instructions for building.


“Stud not on top,” the name given by LEGO enthusiasts to classes of pieces that feature studs on multiple sides of the brick. These allow for more inventive and complex builds.


The conventional term for the homogeneous cylindrical bumps found on most LEGO pieces that allow other pieces to attach to it. Also used as a unit of measurement. The LEGO imprint on each stud is one of the more immediate ways to identify authentic LEGO pieces.


“The LEGO Group,” the privately owned company (based in Billund, Denmark) which produces LEGO, owns the LEGO brand, and operates LEGO’s transmedia empire.

UV Printing

An alternative to pad printing, UV (ultraviolet) printing is a technique for imprinting designs on LEGO bricks that leaves minute textures.


Introduction Clickable Media in a Plastic World Nicholas Taylor and Chris Ingraham

How Does LEGO Matter?


EGO pieces are plastic. The modular building toy’s success is rooted in the LEGO Group’s ability to fashion a chemical medium—in most cases, an oil-based plastic called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)—into a massive array of shapes that not only interlock but do so with a satisfying synthetic click. LEGO’s status as the world’s preeminent construction toy can be attributed to its insistent branding as a medium for personal expression, pure play, and unbridled creativity, not to mention its aggressive pursuit of transmedia licensing arrangements. But at the same time, the sensuous dimensions of LEGO pieces—the feel of the hard but slightly yielding polymer as we stack pieces together, the slight indentations its studs make on the flesh of our fingertips (or feet), the clatter made when a box of pieces is spilled on the floor—are what quite literally matter to our experiences of it. In this book, we think through what follows from treating LEGO in these terms, as material media—and not only as a global transmedia phenomenon that has had enormous cultural impacts the world over (Wolf 2014). LEGO is a modular and recombinatory medium people engage first and foremost with their fingers, experienced as a clicking together and snapping apart of an increasingly vast array of small, hard, interlocking elements. In this immediate and embodied sense, LEGO’s vaunted manufacturing process for creating stacking plastic bricks makes it one of the first, or at least one of the foremost,


clickable media. Indeed, part of LEGO’s resilience in the face of competitors offering cheaper alternatives—even (and particularly) toy systems capable of interlocking with LEGO bricks—is in the material resilience of its bricks. LEGO elements not only come together with a click but also come apart with a snap. A sometimes satisfying, sometimes surprising, amount of physical effort is required to separate them, whether supplied by fingers, walls, floors, feet, teeth, or, as LEGO would prefer it, the patented bright orange “brick separators” that come with larger sets. Indeed, it is this grip, remarkably consistent across a tremendous array of pieces—its distinctive “clutch,” as LEGO aficionados call it—that offers a quality more primarily felt than seen, setting it apart from other toy construction systems. Tactility matters greatly to the LEGO Group. They have spent tremendous amounts of time and resources perfecting, and attempting to legally protect, the tactile and material qualities of their brick. The presumed inviolability of LEGO blocks was the subject of the LEGO Group’s multiyear legal battle with Canada’s Mega Brands, creator of Mega Bloks and, at that point, one of LEGO’s largest competitors. In 1999, the European Union ruled in favor of Mega Brand’s claim that, because the technical functions of the brick (its interoperability) could not be considered a trademark, the LEGO brand effectively had an illegal monopoly over similar brick construction toys. As a result, other entities may now legally produce objects that interact with LEGO products, leading to a whole host of construction toys that materially connect to LEGO bricks as well as to a related and vibrant market of LEGO-compatible paraphernalia: tape, books, and clothing, to name a few. At the same time, the inviolability of the LEGO brick has transformed from a legal to a discursive and, in some instances, moral imperative. Of all the ways to play with LEGO, the implicit assumption is that you’ll play nice, that is, not scrape, deface, modify, or otherwise manipulate individual bricks. The very plot and moral of The LEGO Movie makes just this claim: creativity and endless recreation are to be celebrated, so long as the physical integrity of the bricks is maintained. In this material, tactile sense, LEGO is plastic both in terms of its recombinatory potential and in the “brute facticity” (Packer 2013, 7) of its atomized elements.

The Worlds of LEGO Long regarded as paradigmatic artifacts of (predominantly privileged, white) childhood, LEGO is having a moment. The explosion of LEGO across multiple media speaks to another kind of plasticity, one which has been aggressively



exploited in recent years by the LEGO Group, which is now very much a transmedia empire. Movie-goers and serious critics alike heap praise on recent films set in the “LEGO universe.” LEGO video games continue to attract players of all ages, a decade since the release of LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, the first entry in the widely popular, multiply licensed series published by Traveller’s Tales (and over twenty years since the release of LEGO Island, the first LEGO game; Aldred 2014). There are similar appetites for LEGO-themed children’s TV shows, coffee table books, novelty gifts, and so on. This activity collectively represents a global corporation that employs more than 17,000 employees across 70 nations (The LEGO Group 2018), and remains the most prosperous toy company worldwide, far outpacing other toy manufacturers (Handley 2019). The LEGO Group’s near-collapse in the late 1990s and subsequent rebound in the early 2000s has become a popular and well-circulated story of the power of bold, innovative corporate leadership (Delingpole 2009). In 1999, the company was floundering, beset by expensively manufactured products and an inability to develop its own successful intellectual property. Under new management beginning in 2003, the company underwent drastic corporate restructuring, and began aggressively expanding their franchise licensing arrangements. These started, most formidably, with Star Wars, before moving on to countless others. Its semiotic plasticity—the capacity for LEGO to become anything and to mean anything—has been exploited through a dizzying array of licensing deals and product lines. Beginning with Star Wars in the late 1990s, LEGO now produces licensed sets for (among others) Harry Potter, Disney princesses, both the Marvel and DC comic universes, SpongeBob Squarepants, Minecraft, and Lord of the Rings. No longer just a children’s toy, LEGO now brands itself variably as an educational product, a corporate communications tool, a transmedia content creator, an artistic medium, and a collectible hobby for adult enthusiasts. It produces specialized kits for wedding cakes, birthday parties, classrooms, corporate team-building exercises, architecture nerds, car buffs, and so on. And as a medium that invites endless reappropriation and expression, LEGO bricks are the focal point of numerous hobbyist practices, from stop-motion animation to amateur building events, from robotics competitions to art shows. We might therefore point to LEGO’s plasticity in our cultural imaginary, its capacity as a material, recombinatory, and digital medium to communicate almost anything. LEGO evokes both nostalgia and futurity; it is associated as much with do-it-yourself creativity as with hyper-consumerism; it generates pleasure and frustration, surprise and repetition; and it is at once ubiquitous in our everyday lives and near-invisible in terms of scholarly attention.1 The well-trodden narrative of a corporation coming back from the brink through a combination of managerial restructuring,


savvy marketing, and aggressive pursuit of niche audiences (supported by transmedia product tie-ins), only scratches the surface of LEGO’s current spike in popularity. It does not fully account for the increasing presence of unofficial LEGO-related products and creations, not just in our bedrooms and living rooms but in amateur craft and hobbyist retail platforms like Etsy, throughout social media feeds for various maker and DIY communities, and in art galleries and public spaces. LEGO’s ongoing expansion occurred in the wake of the company’s 1999 loss of exclusivity rights to its interlocking brick, which has allowed the LEGO Group to maintain a near-monopoly, both in the marketplace and in our cultural imaginary, on toy building blocks. And crucially, LEGO has managed to cultivate a network of artists, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, and content creators, through a combination of benign neglect and outright encouragement. LEGO retail stores around the country increasingly host meet-ups for LEGO User Groups (LUGs) to collaborate on builds and share expertise, and the company has developed a whole line—LEGO Ideas—that solicits proposals for sets from hobbyist builders, which are then voted on by the community and, when/ if they reach 10,000 endorsements, subjected to LEGO’s own vetting and revision process before being released as new LEGO products. At the same time, LEGO takes a relatively lax stance toward the many small-scale entrepreneurs, artists, and serious hobbyists who sell their own LEGO creations, from jewelry to commissioned artworks to large-scale, highly detailed Second World War models.

Modular Media in the Making There is a further sense in which it is salient to think of LEGO in terms of plasticity, malleability, and modularity. Posthumanist theorists talk of our continual “becoming” in relation to the objects, people, systems, ideas, places, and so on that constitute our day-to-day lives. Think about the child who spends her entire birthday playing with one LEGO set; or the adult collectors who dedicate multiple rooms in their home (and perhaps most of their discretionary spending) to their hobby; or the artists who express themselves exclusively in LEGO pieces, by the hundreds of thousands. Insofar as our wants, pleasures, abilities, and habits of mind and body are themselves malleable and mutable—plastic—could we not say that those who intensively engage with LEGO are assembled by as much as assemblers of the construction toy? For us, this is more than a pithy provocation. Working very much as a kind of modular construction system of our own (albeit of ideas, not of plastic



bricks), this book presents an understanding of LEGO as a material medium that quite literally constructs the worlds of those who work and play closely with it. From the start, we have conceived this volume as more of a multiauthored book than an edited collection, each chapter working intentionally with the others to advance a more cohesive project when read front to back. Though the cover presents LEGOfied as an edited collection, its conception and execution has been far more collaborative, and we hope it will be read that way. Rather than a consignment store of discrete chapters from different contributors with their own agendas, we think LEGOfied will be most productively engaged as a book composed by (and comprised of) six researchers piecing together multiple, disparate, and most often interlocking observations, theories, conversations, and engagements with LEGO across multiple media and contexts. If our shared conceptual starting point is that LEGO is a material medium, our common empirical starting point is the vibrant but thus far understudied culture of adult LEGO builders and enthusiasts. The mantle of Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs) designates a key demographic, a vital and heterogeneous community encompassing a broad range of identities, activities, events, and practices, all of which are characterized by a serious, passionate, and often quite professional engagement with what is conventionally regarded as a children’s toy. The AFOL community is responsible for the large majority of aftermarket activities—fan expos, LUGs, and so on—that extend LEGO well beyond its conventional place in children’s bedrooms (and floors). This community is also intensely loyal to LEGO and protective of its vaunted, if in some ways precarious, status among building toys. But while we acknowledge the vibrancy and vitality of this community, our work is keenly interested in documenting and making sense of forms of adults’ engagements with LEGO that are often separate from, and even in tension with, the kinds of fandom practiced by AFOLs. The chapters in this collection pay particular attention to the practices and perspectives of LEGO artists, vendors, builders, and makers who often position themselves as AFOL-adjacent: in contact with AFOLs, but not always in agreement with them. These craftspeople work with and on LEGO as their medium, and their creations circulate in varied and often surprising places and contexts, including museums, gun shows, art galleries, and comic expos. Constituting a shared ground for AFOLs and LEGO craftspeople is a burgeoning convention scene, where artists, vendors, makers, and enthusiasts share their masterful creations and sell LEGO products to thousands of fans. These conventions span internationally. In the United States, the biggest conventions include Brickworld and BrickUniverse, each with multiple American tour sites, as well as BrickFair, which regularly gets over 20,000 attendees at its annual Virginia convention.


Mapping the (Brick)Universe BrickUniverse is one of the more popular touring conventions for communities of US-based LEGO enthusiasts to showcase their builds (termed “My Own Creations” in LEGO fandom speak, or MOCs), sell their LEGO paraphernalia, and interact both with one another and with interested publics across the country. Much of the research done for this book was undertaken out in the “field” of BrickUniverse’s annual stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, between 2011 and 2017.2 The Raleigh event, held annually in the city’s convention center over three days, draws thousands of people and offers something for everyone: the collector, the kid, the artist, the fan, the curious, the coder, the entrepreneur, the historian, and so many more. To enter for the first time is either to have found, finally, your people, the otherwise scattered and invisible universe of others who relish LEGO as much as you, or to be taken slightly aback, astonished really, at the sheer breadth of investment, devotion, and intensity of a culture that you may find hard to believe exists at such a scale. At times, each of us felt a little of both. Visiting BrickUniverse Raleigh, you enter the event from above to behold a bird’s-eye vantage of a massive, 150,000 square foot showroom. It’s teeming with people of all ages (see Figure I.1). Men, women, and otherwise. They’re mostly (but far from only) white. Families and soloists, vendors, and builders, security guards. At the back of the room an inflatable corral, big enough to park three cars, is filled nearly a foot deep with miscellaneous bricks. Children tramp through and build and play. There’s a similar corral filled with the larger Duplo bricks for younger kids and their parents. Near the entrance there’s a place for folding chairs and round tables to sit down and rest while flipping through dozens of LEGO-centric books. There’s a snack bar. There are several long tables covered in LEGO pieces of all one color: one with red bricks, another with white, another with blue. It’s somehow part-patriotic and part-holiday spirit. Some people stop at these tables to build, usually adding on to a structure someone else had only started before something else caught their eye. Around the perimeter are dozens of booths, some with music or flashing lights, most with large banners bearing names like “Citizen Brick” or “Brickmania.” Some sell custom minifigs: Hillary Clinton in prison clothes, Walter White from TV’s Breaking Bad, and many other famous politicians, characters, athletes, and celebrities besides. Other booths sell single bricks, some rare and collectible, some vintage, some custom-made by entrepreneurs and hobbyists, some perhaps just that one last piece you need but can’t manage to find for that build you’ve been doing for weeks now at home. There are booths promoting programs that use LEGO for teaching or team building. There are booths that do printing, some that do molding, some that do modifying. None



FIGURE I.1  Descending to the floor of the 2017 BrickUniverse Raleigh. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Taylor. of them are staffed by official LEGO representatives, but rather by LEGO enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and artists who, in the spirit of fandom or profit (often both), are creating new ways for people to engage their idiosyncratic and creative passion. And all that’s just the perimeter. The molten core of BrickUniverse is the builds. Rows and rows of them. Architectural reproductions of the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building. Entire skylines are there. Now-and-then builds of row houses in a pre- and post-gentrified Brooklyn. Cars and airplanes. There are fantasy worlds, too: a whole section devoted to Star Wars and other franchised LEGO product lines, but also an invented land of castles and dales and rivers and flowers, countless tiny flowers, done with such detail that builders will distinguish not just between their colors but also between their types. Many of these builders are from LUGs in the area. Others have followed BrickUniverse across the country, some from as far afield as Europe or Canada. For each event, they disassemble, pack, and load their builds in chunks—these masterful creations that took months, sometimes years, to realize—and then unload, unpack, and reassemble them all over again for the next event in another state. It’s got to be tedious and meticulous work. Some of their builds are the size of an icebox, others a refrigerator; some are the size of pool-table, others a swimming pool. Many have incorporated moving parts and lights into diorama-like displays: circus


tents, burlesque shows, movie scenes, superhero hideouts. The historical recreations may be the biggest draw. There’s a famous battle in Vietnam, a Second World War aircraft carrier, an enormous recreation of D-Day, and the beach at Normandy. The detail is staggering: fallen soldiers, blood splatter, huge divots from bombs, underground tunnels visible through a fiberglass window, and so on. As we noticed across our field notes, any attempt to write “thick description” (Geertz 1973) of this scene devolves quickly into incomplete lists. There’s just too much. It’s too rich, too dynamic, too manifold. The excess is of a kind with a crate of LEGO dumped out on a kitchen table: amid the variable array, where to begin? Just as the networks of people, practices, technologies, and so many bricks that constitute and coalesce into BrickUniverse are so much more vast than the “field” itself (Burrell 2009), the ways and places in which we can approach LEGO as a world-building medium far exceed even the convention hall where we spent so many dazzled hours making sense of the scene. At different times, after all, and often together, we have also enjoyed LEGOLAND parks, shopped for LEGO sets, used LEGO pieces as teaching tools in our classrooms, and of course played with bricks on the floors of our homes or offices.

Connections and Diffractions How, then, do we hope to make sense of this dizzying multitude of builds and bodies? Our strategy has been to embrace a multiplicity of approaches to building knowledge, and to resist a single perspective. Of the numerous methodological traditions we are indebted to here, probably the most important are “connective ethnography” and “diffractive analysis.” Insisting on the insight that things are never so easily contained as the conventional anthropological construct of “the field site” would have us believe, connective ethnography is the practice of following actors—whether people, organizations, ideas, or even individual LEGO bricks—as they appear across multiple interconnected sites, both offline and online (Hine 2007; Marcus 1995). In a world in which we inhabit multiple spaces, often simultaneously (think of the online gamer in her dorm room or study; of the foodie Instagramming his every bite), and in which physical spaces become places, in part, by the flows of data that pass through them and are produced by them, it becomes increasingly untenable for research with a given community to be contained by physical boundaries. Instead of thinking of the “field site” as a singular, bound place—for instance, the floor of the BrickUniverse convention—we can think instead of our



excursions to these annual conventions as nodes, albeit very central ones, in a network of relations that also include social media forums, theme parks, archives, stores, classrooms, and our own living rooms and dens. At the 2016 and 2017 BrickUniverse events, we conducted IRB-approved, audiotaped interviews with over a dozen content creators and vendors, ranging from Duplo artists to retailers of custom-made weaponry for LEGO minifigs. These interviews were most often conducted with two of us interviewing a single participant, and unfolded as conversations about their craft, their experiences in various LEGO enthusiast and artist communities, and their histories with LEGO. We also recorded our own individual impressions, interactions, and observations as field notes, which we shared with each other to understand how we experienced and interpreted the conventions. As our first among multiple research sites, BrickUniverse figures largely in our collective exploration of the artists and enthusiasts who work with LEGO as a material medium, but like them, we do not stay put for very long; each chapter follows them and their creations along the multiple networks of activity and meaning that they introduced us to at BrickUniverse. Some routes led us to consider the histories of plastic, as in Chris’s chapter; others led us through the complicated process of generating LEGO set instructions, as in Jessica’s contribution. In order to do justice to the complexity and dynamism of these brick universes, we have tried to maintain a “diffractive” understanding of these phenomena. Diffractive analysis, as articulated primarily through the work of feminist scholars of science and technology (Barad 2007; Taguchi 2012), is a strategy for approaching and describing phenomena that resists any singular, authoritative reading. Like a beam of light passing through a prism and splitting into multiple colors, diffraction is a “mapping of interference” (Haraway 1992, 300): it is a practice of understanding how differences are made and why they matter. For us, a diffractive understanding of LEGO as material medium has meant attending to the multiple, complicated, and often contradictory ways in which communities of adult enthusiasts, artists, and entrepreneurs work with it. Diffraction, for these communities of plastic world-builders, means recognizing rather than erasing the tensions and disconnects within and across them: for instance how “purity” can mean something vastly different for a LEGO collector than for a LEGO artist, or how “sustainability,” in practice, involves a very different relation to land for a plastic toy company than it does for an environmental activist. A crucial element of our diffractive analysis is acknowledging that the instruments we use to examine phenomena have a hand in producing them as well—and those instruments also certainly include ourselves (Haraway 1988), and own unique histories and commitments as scholars, builders, collectors,


partners, parents. Through offering multiple takes on the same set of phenomena—on the work adult LEGO enthusiasts do alongside (but more often distinct from) what we imagine as children’s play with LEGO, and centered around (though by no means contained by) the BrickUniverse event—we hope to offer a diffractive mapping of a complex subculture that has yet to be directly engaged by academics. Over these years of research, a panel presentation at an academic conference, a series of group meetings, and many less formal conversations, we bounced ideas off of each other, we revisited interview transcripts, and we returned to our own and others’ field notes. We followed the actors (Latour 2005), people, ideas, infrastructures, and of course, LEGO bricks, sets, and MOCs, starting on the floor of the BrickUniverse events we attended, but ending up in quite different places. Much like the kind of children’s LEGO play Seth Giddings has described in his important work on the toy (2014), we dumped all of our pieces on the floor, sat around the mess, and began puzzling out its potentialities by simply seeing how things might stick together. We swapped stories and ideas; we occasionally argued about what should go where; and we incorporated elements of our own individual (conceptual and linguistic) collections into ours and others’ builds. For adult LEGO artists and enthusiasts themselves, the sites of LEGO are multiple. They constitute online fora and paratexts, LEGO sets, works of art, MOCs, LUGs, archives, books, flagship stores, amusement parks, movies, video games, clothes, factories, shopping malls, schools, and so much more besides. If all of this is somehow embodied and distilled in microcosm at BrickUniverse, that only makes it a site of copious potential and multifarious interest—a potential and interest we have both sought to contain (to make it manageable) and to set loose (to maintain its allure). This tension is what being “LEGOfied” is all about.

LEGOfication Our qualitative observations at BrickUniverse—and, more informally, at trips to LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, California and Billund, Denmark—were guided both by the whim of experiential immersion and by more deliberate methods of data collection through informal conversations and recorded interviews. In the course of this work, one conversation stood out for us in particular, and it’s what gave rise to this book’s title. Late in the second day of the 2016 BrickUniverse convention, Nick and Jessica had the chance to talk to the entrepreneur behind “Clone Army Customs.” Like a handful of other businesses we encountered, Clone Army Customs sells LEGO minifigs that have been transformed, via



sophisticated printing techniques, from their nondescript factory form into any of a number of unlicensed cultural referents. One example here is a LEGO Iron Man minifig (available from any number of sets in LEGO’s licensed Marvel Universe theme) imprinted with the palette of Buzz Lightyear. In our interview, the owner/creator repeatedly referred to his work as “LEGOfying,” at one point stating, “When you LEGOfy some things you really turn something that LEGO theoretically would never make into something that instantly is identifiable or enjoyable” (Custom Minifig Maker 2016). When we asked if this was “kind of a process of translation,” he responded, “Exactly. That’s really a good description of that. We’re basically translating products and things that we love into a LEGO type thing.” LEGOfication—the playful process of translating something using the recombinatory grammars and material dimensions of LEGO—is at the core of how we understand LEGO as media. Like all media, LEGO is transformative; LEGOfication describes how those transformations are shaped as much by the physical properties of LEGO bricks as by LEGO’s status as an influential transmedia empire. Building from this, we can see how LEGOfication might not only describe how to turn bricks into “something that LEGO theoretically would never make” but also account for the processes by which such transformations are possible: the “conditions of possibility” (Packer 2013, 13) through which LEGO creations can communicate. In keeping with a productive strain of media studies work that looks to the infrastructures, platforms, and materials required to create, send, and receive messages (Packer and Wiley 2012), what if we looked at the entire apparatus required to produce, say, the Iron Man-Buzz Lightyear minifig as a LEGOfication machine—a set of techniques that produces not only minifigs but also new relations between and among people and things, new ideas, new careers and sources of capital, and new kinds of people? As the owner/creator of Clone Army Customs explained to us, the work required to enact this transformation involves his training in image manipulation software; his business arrangements with printing facilities in Taiwan, imbricating him into global manufacturing networks; his precarious legal relationship to LEGO; his insistence on using LEGO minifigs, rather than much cheaper knockoffs; and so on. His work—his world—is LEGOfied: it has been configured to make use of the material and semiotic properties of LEGO. In our effort to think through such cases with an eye for what LEGOfication might be and how it might work, we searched for an analogous term from the extant scholarly record as a guide. What we found instead of analogies to help us understand LEGO was that LEGO has the metaphorical richness to help us understand so much else. LEGOfication accordingly denotes the reciprocal phenomenon whereby LEGO can be translated into material worlds and material worlds can be translated into LEGO.


Technicities of the Brick When we began thinking critically and then writing about LEGOficiation, we noticed right away how rich LEGO is with metaphorical implication. As modular media, LEGO bricks suggest a world-making process that is aggregative and assembled, consisting of discrete parts that, together, add up to a completed whole. They also imply a recombinatory logic: the supposition that all world-making is provisional and capable of revision, deconstruction, multiple configurations. Moreover, and more materially, as bricks with both “female” and “male” parts, the generative and regenerative affordances they offer lend to a metaphorical implicature that invites interesting and sometimes provocative ways of thinking through concepts from critical media theory. In our view, understanding LEGO-as-media offers us both a “freedom to” act in certain creative ways and a “freedom from” more constrained modes of power with their forceful, often patriarchal relations. Far from wishing to trace the long-standing distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as it’s played out in social and political theory for decades, however, we read LEGO and the fan cultures it has spawned to offer both types of freedom. Yet, it is the freedom to make worlds that, we suggest, invites a tacitly feminist approach to thinking about the role of LEGO in social behavior and play. As Elizabeth Grosz asks, “Is feminist theory best served through its traditional focus on women’s attainment of a freedom from patriarchal, racist, colonialist, and heteronormative constraint? Or by exploring what the female—or feminist—subject is and is capable of making and doing?” (Grosz 2010, 141). For Grosz, the more urgent question is the latter, particularly insofar as it leads to “exploring the subject’s freedom through its immersion in materiality” (141). The materiality of LEGO is nothing if not immersive. Consider the reach of the LEGO empire—its amusement parks, movies, television shows, video games, clothing lines, books, keychains, boxed sets, trading cards, and countless other products and partnerships—and the immersive materiality of LEGO should be self-evident. Play of any kind offers (or purports to offer) its own immersive freedom from the obligations of work and daily life. Those who engage with LEGO bricks or other artifacts also express their own freedom to explore their own sense of invention and creative capability. We are therefore interested in the ways that conceiving of LEGO-as-media invite us also to acknowledge the oscillation between “freedom from” and “freedom to” that LEGO bricks are always enacting when people build worlds with them, or build fandoms and communities around them. What this enables us to do is to recognize that, while LEGO play can be a mode of world-making, it can also be a valuable mode of subject formation. For this reason, although



we are driven by a general interest in LEGO-as-media, this book is organized conceptually around a more particular interest in LEGO-as-technicity—or, what we think of as technicities of the brick. Because technicity is central to our thinking, we would like to say more about what it means to us and why we find the concept so generative. To do so, it’s been helpful for us to engage with Gilbert Simondon’s important work on the subject. Gilbert Simondon was a French scholar in the phenomenological tradition who cast his interest upon the question of how things, human and not, come to be what they are through an ongoing and interconnected process. If ontology is the study of being, of what things are, Simondon’s work was invested in ontogenesis, the study of becoming, of how things come into being. Among his many insights, the one that particularly compels our thinking is his understanding of technicity. For Simondon, humans and machines (the latter of which would include tools, technologies, and media such as LEGO) are ontologically equivalent. From such a standpoint, it neither makes sense to see the human as master of technology, nor to see technology as enslaving the human—the respective tenets of modernism and cyborg futurism. Instead, we should recognize a kind of “technical equality” between humans and machines, whereby each is constituted and comes into being with the other. It’s this equality, this coming into being with the machinic that, as Thomas LaMarre has observed, is what Simondon means by “technicity” (Combes 2013, 92). We see LEGO as illustrative of this notion of technicity because, as we observed firsthand during our time with the AFOL scene, both people and LEGO alike can become what they are capable of becoming—an artist, an entrepreneur; a castle, a historical recreation—when they do so with one another. Simondon wanted to study not just technical objects, but “the technicity of these objects as mode of relation between human and world,” a mode that, he realized, could not be understood in isolation, but must rather be known “in its relation to other modes of being in the world” (60). Similarly, our materialist approach to LEGO-as-media acknowledges that LEGO bricks are objects, but it also endeavors to emphasize those special technicities that make LEGO powerful for so many people as a freeing mode of relation with the world.

LEGO Scholarship None of the extant scholarship on LEGO takes an approach quite like ours. That may be because LEGOfied is as much a book about media materialism


as it is about LEGO themselves. Readers would be as justified in seeing this volume as a study of LEGO from the standpoint of media theory as they would be in reading this as a study of media materiality that uses LEGO as a running example. While scholarship in the growing field of media studies is old and vast enough that even specifically materialist approaches to media constitute too large a domain of literature to review here, academic attention to LEGO has been comparatively nonexistent until recently. LEGOfied seeks in part to engage this nascent interest in LEGO as a topic of academic attention while steering it toward what, from our standpoint, is a generative emphasis on the material capacities of the brick and the technicities it makes possible. The landmark edited volume, LEGO Studies (edited by Mark Wolf in 2014) accordingly serves as a point of discussion and departure for our work. The volume is framed as an examination of LEGO’s transmedia empire, with the exigence being the company’s concerted efforts to engage in licensing arrangements with other transmedia franchises, and to expand from plastic bricks into other media platforms such as games, books, and most recently, blockbuster movies. These concerns locate the volume and the majority of its contributions largely within traditions of American cultural studies and media studies, characterized broadly by their attention to questions of representation. The volume illuminates the complex processes of remediation as LEGO expands to include not just physical components, but virtual bricks, and as it exploits its modularity and malleability in its licensing agreements with other transmedia content creators. This vital project of critically engaging with LEGO’s transmedia empire by analyzing its associated texts is further carried out by the forthcoming volume Cultural Studies of LEGO, edited by Sharon Mazzarella and Rebecca Hains.3 But LEGOfied does something different. As we have indicated thus far, we think there is an opportunity to understand LEGO from the perspective of theoretical traditions that are less concerned with questions of representation and more concerned with questions of materiality and embodiment: with the physical, sensory, and affective dimensions of our relations to LEGO. Like Wolf does in LEGO Studies, we begin this book by asserting that LEGO is a medium (Wolf 2014, xxii); but, we are invested in a slightly different understanding of media or, more accurately, of how media matter. We follow other invocations of “materialist” media studies which do not ignore or reject questions of representation, but instead seek to reassert the importance of media in their physical properties and material manifestations: that is, not just in the messages they carry, but in the infrastructures, platforms, energies, and bodily and sensory capabilities that make such messages possible, that give them shape and form and motion (see Packer and Wiley 2012, for an overview of these positions).



Of all the rich approaches to studying LEGO thus far, we are perhaps most inspired by Seth Giddings’ considerations of the material capacities of LEGO as a medium. Drawing on interviews with colleagues and peers recollecting their childhood experiences with LEGO play, Giddings documents aspects of children’s everyday physical interactions with LEGO bricks, from the sound of rummaging through a box of pieces to the incorporation of other toys into narrativized play. A passage in which he reports on his interviewees’ emphasis on the material qualities of LEGO almost perfectly aligns with our own fascination for these aspects of it: Even in a transmedia landscape with images and stories flowing across books, films, TV, and video games, LEGO bricks remain technological. The way they click together, the amount of pieces available, all shape possible constructions and play events at least as much as instructions, box illustrations, and media narrative frames. These material characteristics and affordances are also, the respondents evince, inseparable from the tactile pleasures and intense memories of LEGO play. (Giddings 2014, 255) We accordingly see LEGOfied situated somewhere in between LEGO Studies and the other edited volume of scholarly work on LEGO currently available, LEGO and Philosophy (Cook and Bacharach 2017), while also operating as a substantial departure from them. Like LEGO Studies, we are interested in LEGO as a medium that encompasses multiple modes of expression and creation, while also approaching it as LEGO and Philosophy does, as a tool for constructing theory. At the same time, though, we are less concerned, as both these volumes are, with the cultural significance of LEGO, and more concerned with exploring its cultural politics: the ways its capacities as a material medium allow for certain forms of activity, communication, and identity construction, and how these are, in turn, shaped by LEGO’s connections to various domains and institutions, including the worlds of professional art, design, science, environmentalism, the military, entrepreneurship, and the Maker movement.

Book Organization and Objectives LEGOfied is organized into three parts. Part One consists in a single chapter so essential to laying out how we understand LEGO that it gets its own section. Kate’s chapter articulates the concept of LEGO as a “materially digital medium,” that is, a medium that embodies and expresses the fundamental characteristics of digitality: a process that is remaking our world in recombinatory, atomistic,


and plastic ways. Part Two includes a triad of chapters that each engages a different theme discovered through their author’s investigations. The triad of chapters by Eddie, Jessica, and Sarah and Nick are concise explorations of particular topics encountered through our shared fieldwork and extrapolated further through their individual research. Respectively, they explore the practices of LEGO artists (Lohmeyer); the cultural politics of instructionmaking (and selling) among the vibrant communities of LEGO enthusiasts who make, sell, and buy aftermarket LEGO themed around twentieth-century wars (Elam); and the surprising gender dynamics involved in the use of pinkcolored pieces, both in official LEGO sets and in fans’ MOCs (Evans and Taylor). Part Three presents a pair of longer chapters that draw the book to a close by engaging bigger questions about the ramifications of LEGO in a globalized world undergoing climate collapse. These exploratory chapters by Chris and Nick concern, broadly, notions of sustainability and purity as they relate to LEGO: the ways that the production of LEGO impacts our capacity to exist on this planet (sustainability), and, inversely, the ways that LEGO enthusiasts protect their collections from threats of outside contamination (purity), particularly as LEGO goes increasingly global in its manufacturing and marketing. Like any decent LEGO collection, this one integrates different themes of different sizes. At least that’s the idea behind how we’ve structured the chapters. We like to think that Part One resembles a big box of loose LEGO pieces that provide the foundation for any serious building project. Part Two resembles the medium-sized LEGO sets you get because you love the theme. And Part Three is like the enormous LEGO sets with thousands of pieces and umpteen numbered bags: the ones that when you start building, you may not be sure how all the various sections fit together. Though we don’t claim to have the ingenuity of the designers that built “Welcome to Apocalypseburg!” (no. 70840) or “Ninjago City” (no. 70620)—two of our personal favorites—we hope that like those sets, the end result of each of our chapters will be an edifice that hangs together reasonably well. Perhaps, as with your own favorite sets, when you’re done you can step back from these chapters and appreciate something that you maybe hadn’t seen before. And what that might be? What, in other words, does thinking about the cultural politics and technicities of LEGOfication enable us to do? To begin with, we hope it will open a vantage onto aspects of our realities that are typically unexamined, though consequential for how we live and how we understand our very modes of being in the world. To recognize LEGO as media, and not just as toys, in other words, is to alter and constitute the terms of our engagement with aspects of our lives that otherwise might be left unexamined or taken for granted. Childhood, play, gender, collaboration, invention,



fandom, storytelling, sustainability, all can be revised and revisited in light of LEGO’s technicity. As John Durham Peters writes, media studies has “the task of exposing the unthought environments in which we live” (2015, 148). Certainly, as a global transmedia juggernaut, LEGO has become an agential part of our environments, however underfoot they might seem. But thinking about the materiality of LEGO bricks themselves, as a kind of media technology in their own right, can offer another way to see how playing with LEGO brings particular formations of individuality and subjecthood into being, making possible particular potentials and capacities, particular relations between people (and between people and things), all on the basis of a given brick’s techno-aesthetic constraints and affordances. Even as tiny bricks, LEGO are an immersive media environment that deserves more scrutiny. Another of our ambitions for this book is less academic. We hope it will engage with and celebrate the communities of makers, collectors, and craftspeople that inspired us to write it in the first place. As we experienced firsthand, the adult LEGO enthusiast scene is vast and multilayered. It’s more than just a fan culture or geekdom, more than just hobbyists or collectors, more than artists or craftspeople, historians or techno-futurists, profiteers or pirates. Though all of us who have contributed to this book are, to varying degrees, AFOLs ourselves, we also offer a vantage largely from outside the AFOL world. Without posturing as longtime insiders, yet on the basis of onsite observational fieldwork (and plenty of rigorous reading and research), we position ourselves as informed but humble fans, aiming to add a few more conceptual bricks to a marvelous construction that others have long ago begun, and which, by the end of these pages, will still remain unfinished.

Bibliography Aldred, Jessica. “(Un)blocking the Transmedial Character: Digital Abstraction as Franchise Strategy in Travellers’ Tales LEGO Games.” In LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf, 105–117. New York: Routledge, 2014. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Burrell, Jenna. “The Field Site as a Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research.” Field Methods 21 (2009), 181–199. DOI:10.1177/152 5822X08329699. Combes, Muriel. Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Trans. Thomas LaMarre. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Cook, Roy T. and Sondra Bacharach. LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick by Brick. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2017.


Cross, Gary. Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1997. Custom Minifig Maker. Interview by Nicholas Taylor and Jessica Elam, April 2, 2016, BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Delingpole, James. “When LEGO Lost its Head—And How This Toy Story Got Its Happy Ending.”, December 18, 2009. Accessed April 13, 2019, https​://ww​w.dai​lymai​​uk/ho​me/mo​slive​/arti​cle-1​23446​5/Whe​n-Leg​o-los​ t-hea​d--to​y-sto​r y-go​t-hap​py-en​ding.​html.​ Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Giddings, Seth. “Bright Bricks, Dark Play: On the Impossibility of Studying LEGO.” In LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf, 241–267. New York: Routledge, 2014. Grosz, Elizabeth. “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 139–157.Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Handley, Lucy. “How Marketing Built LEGO into the World’s Favorite Toy Brand.”, April 11, 2019. Accessed May 16, 2019, https​://ww​w.cnb​​ /2018​/04/2​7/leg​o-mar​ketin​g-str​ategy​-made​-it-w​orld-​favor​ite-t​oy-br​and.h​tml. Haraway, Donna. “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” In Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cory Nelson, and Paula Treichler, 295–337. New York: Routledge, 1992. Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988), 575–599. Hine, Christine. “Connective Ethnography for the Exploration of e-Science.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12, no. 2 (2007), 618–634. Hjarvard, Stig. “From Bricks to Bytes: The Mediatization of a Global Toy Industry.” In European Culture and the Media, edited by Ib Bondebjerg and Peter Golding, 43–63. Bristol, England: Intellect, 2004. Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. London, England: Verso, 1993. LaMarre, Thomas. “Afterword: Humans and Machines.” In Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, edited by Muriel Combes, 79–108. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-NetworkTheory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. The LEGO Group. Annual Report 2018. Accessed June 1, 2019, https​://ww​w.leg​​/r/ww​w/r/a​boutu​s/-/m​edia/​about​us/me​dia-a​ssets​-libr​ary/a​nnual​-repo​rts/a​ nnual​-resu​lts-2​018.p​df?l.​r=-11​61991​047. Maddalena, Kate. “Plastic Child-gardening Tools: LEGO’s Nostalgia for the Openended Toy.” Technoculture: An Online Journal of Technology in Society (2013). Accessed Marcus, George. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of MultiSited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995), 95–117. Packer, Jeremy. “The Conditions of Media’s Possibility: A Foucauldian Approach to Media History.” In The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies, Volume 1: Media History and the Foundations of Media Studies, edited by John Nerone, 1–34. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2013.



Packer, Jeremy and Stephen B. Crofts Wiley. “Introduction: The Materiality of Communication.” In Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility, and Networks, edited by Jeremy Packer and Stephen B. Crofts Wiley, 3–16. New York: Routledge, 2012. Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Taguchi, Hillevi Lenz. “A Diffractive and Deleuzian Approach to Analyzing Interview Data.” Feminist Theory 13, no. 3 (2012), 265–281. Wolf, Mark J.P. (ed.). LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon. New York: Routledge, 2014.




1 Palpable Pixels Kate Maddalena


oys are powerful world-producing and knowledge-making tools. They are tangible objects that serve as portals to the imaginary. Imaginary or “virtual”1 worlds are fashioned through our early experiments with various arrangements: pots and pans in a play kitchen, sand and water, concrete constructions, mud pies, LEGO builds.2 Long after our childhood, these experiences furnish us with metaphors through which we understand and relate to the world around us. And lately, LEGO metaphors have proven increasingly pervasive. In a 2017 Highline article bemoaning the millennial generation’s precarious financial status, writer Michael Hobbes describes the modularity of the twenty-first-century marketplace in terms of LEGO: “Companies were no longer single entities with responsibilities to their workers, retirees or communities. They were LEGO castles, clusters of distinct modules that could be separated, optimized, sold off, and put back together” (Hobbes 2017). And the first and most successful product in the field of synthetic biology, the BioBrick®, a chemical block with which the user can build living machines, directly references the LEGO brick in its name. LEGO supplies us with metaphors for describing corporate governance and for biochemical processes. What if we understood this not as “mere” metaphor, but as evidence of an increasingly LEGOfied world? In the pages that follow, I argue that LEGO3 helped to produce (and now continues to reproduce) today’s digital world. LEGO bricks are not Lincoln Logs (a rustic toy that hearkens to an historical time) nor are they wooden building blocks (a timeless toy that transcends history).4 Rather, they are palpable pixels—a three-dimensional digital toy for a (screen-bound, largely


two-dimensional) digital age. The toy’s success is tied to a history of computational logics and atomistic epistemologies that powerfully shape both the world itself and the possibilities for human existence in it. I’ll briefly consider LEGO as part of a long Western tradition of breaking things into pieces for the related purposes of understanding, as with molecules and genes, and (re) building, often with the same materials and often developing new ones (like bits and bytes), with which to model and (re)invent both real and imaginary worlds. Finally, I’ll provide a simple example in the marketing language of LEGO Education. A consideration of LEGO Education promotional materials via the theoretical framework developed at the outset of this chapter reveals a clearly articulated subject position for the LEGO enthusiast as maker-learner. Maker-learners, say the experts at LEGO Education, become engineer-scientists. LEGO bricks, then, are media firmly and deeply enmeshed in the ethical and epistemological commitments of technoscience.5 And, for better and worse, a world produced by technoscience is a world made of pieces, a modular world for humans to take apart and manipulate: a LEGOfied world. Much of this book focuses on adults who use LEGO and adults’ use of LEGO, whether as collectors, artists, entrepreneurs, and/or fans.6 This chapter builds upon the Introduction’s focus on LEGO as media by exploring how LEGO is framed as educational children’s play for three main reasons. First, looking at LEGO as media establishes LEGO’s status as a materially digital form; this theoretical move allows us to look at LEGO in certain, especially digital, historical contexts. Second, adults who play with LEGO are participants in a larger culture that extends far beyond fan culture or pop culture. That culture—digital culture—has been and continues to be shaped by LEGO as a material instantiation of a digital way of being. Third and finally, adults who play with LEGO now grew up with LEGO. In order to treat LEGO as media for adult play, we must consider their evolution from tool to educational toy to adult and “serious” media. This chapter, then, starts further out and further back from these adult user communities, with LEGO as a cultural form (theoretically) and LEGO as an educational tool for children (historically).

LEGO and a Digital Episteme Scholars in the history of computing, media theory, and cultural studies have recently grappled with the question of digital media and the definition of the “digital object.” Most accounts of the digital converge upon certain characteristics of culturally digital logics, specifically that they privilege nonsemantic, manipulable, discrete objects and that they enable a “maker” ethic.

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However, few of these accounts acknowledge the physical media that came before and continue to act outside the screen-bound technologies of personal computers and mobile phones as co-constructive of digital ways of being. The basic LEGO brick is one of these media. In order to talk about how the digital constitutes a way of knowing and being in the world, I should acknowledge that there is a long tradition of Western atomistic, linguistic, and analytical philosophy that predates and predicts the digital, most notably Gottfried Leibniz, whose “monads” resemble the non-semantic units I describe as the basis of the digital; Maurice MerleauPonty, who grappled with the impossibility of using language to speak truth in the context of embodied human experience; and Martin Heidegger, who argued, as does every good media theorist, that human existence cannot be considered as somehow separate from the world, and that our technological tools are exceptionally important connections to it. The ingenious artist Randall Munroe of the nerd-chic comic XKCD depicts this connection in a comic about LEGO called “Lego”: Figure 1.1. A history of theories of knowing is (sometimes unknowingly) entangled with the abovementioned linguistic and ontological perspectives, as well. At the same time that Continental philosophy worried about the engagement of language with a world presumed to exist before or beyond language, the

FIGURE 1.1  “Lego,” XKCD, Randall Munroe. Copyright Randall Munroe.


group of philosophers of science known as the Vienna Circle were interested in the truth-value of propositions and whether such propositions could be combined to produce new truths: linguistic LEGO. Their legacy of analytic philosophy and logic continues to be obsessed by the idea that a perfect language undisturbed by semantic ambiguities should be the language of truth in science. The logics developed by A. J. Ayer, Thomas Bayes, Bertrand Russell, and mathematician code breakers in the Second World War, most famously the Navajo Code Talkers and Alan Turing, are all legacies of the holy grail of a language above semantics. While Ayer’s language hinged on denotation of the truth-value of propositions and the enchainment of those propositions in proofs to discover true causes, Bayesian reasoning depended upon the calculation of the probability of a given proposition and led to the emergence of statistical reasoning to establish correlation and (probable) causation. Both efforts enable the digital because both hinge upon the non-semantic, entirely equal, and, at the outset, unmeaning nature of the terms of their statements. The logical operator’s meaning never changes; it only functions to link terms in potentially truthful ways. Likewise, one data point in a set to be analyzed via statistical probability cannot mean anything, by itself. One LEGO brick, or even more to the bit/byte point—one nub7— doesn’t say or do much alone. The power of logic and statistics is entirely dependent upon the separation of a given language from its slippery semantics. At best (and our “at best” is very good), we have learned that logic is an extremely powerful tool for designing efficient systems (e.g., machine-minds, robots, VR games, selfdriving cars, etc.) to do things for us, but it is not very good at finding out the “truth” about the real world around us. And we have learned that statistical reasoning is quite excellent at helping us arrive at truths about the world around us, although it is very poor and even dangerous when applied to truths at the level of human experience. It is not advisable, for example, to decide you are not having a heart attack because you are statistically unlikely to have one (though women are three times more likely to die of a heart attack because of this assumption). And statistics show that thirteen-year-old girls who go missing are likely to have run away, but when that statistics translates to a “wait and see” policy for a police force, it costs individual lives. Both of these tragic generalizations of statistical ways-of-knowing into situated assumptions have required research and revision in practice. We have also discovered that logical operations (a computer program, for instance) applied to a statistically robust data set (a standardized, well-ordered database) is a powerful tool for knowing just about anything, with the right control mechanism, or software. Ultimately, though both logic and statistics give us powerful ways to parse propositions to produce predictive reasoning that very nearly

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approaches truths, and though both are undeniably our best bet for reasoning rationally to find out certain kinds of things about the world, neither fully solved the problem of explanation at the case-by-case level—the real-time event of a heart attack or a missing person as described above. The dream of a perfect spoken language remains unrealized,8 but we have computers as a (questionable) boon as a result of the ambition. These philosophical lineages have informed more recent communication scholars, historians, and media theorists who employ some version of the digital concept as a key driver in the war machine (Kittler 1990), as the key driver of technoscience (Dyson 2012; Thacker 2004), as a worldview (Evens 2012; Hayles 2012), as a set of knowledge-making tools and methodologies (Drucker 2011), and as a functional ontology of the web and web-based communities (Manovich 1999). In “Web 2.0 and the Ontology of the Digital,” Aden Evens (2012) traces the binary basis of the digital into symbolic manifestations on web interfaces and the behaviors of web users with respect to them. Specifically, he argues that the 0 and 1 distinction becomes a “hegemony of choice” that requires all objects on the web (an icon, a link) to be self-identical and “equal” (25). The result, according to Evens, is a privileging of syntax over semantics: The digital does not produce the binary but co-originates with it, and both rely most fundamentally on the (ontologically) prior operation of discretization. That is, the digital (and the binary code) depend on a way of conceptualizing the world and the objects in it as discrete, isolable entities, with independently determined, malleable properties. Digital technologies do not first create such a world nor do they produce the conditions of such a conceptualization, but they do reinforce this contrived perspective. (20) Evens’s analysis concentrates on the web environment, an electronic space comprised by electronic and computational media. My own analysis extends outside of this space and time to media which predate the web and exist alongside it in the physical world: LEGO. LEGO’s binary “hegemony of choice” is the nub—a zero/one analog in plastic form that affords LEGO its functionality. The “contrived perspective” that Evens refers to in the above quotation is, in essence, a Foucauldian episteme: a way of knowing and being that necessitates and is necessitated by the logics and media he describes.9 The machines that we use to read and manipulate (control and execute) our most common digital objects are electronic, but, as the perspectives summarized above establish, the “digital” quality has more to do with the conversion of information into a format that can be read by those machines. We are concerned here with a means of mediation that


requires us to think of what we may have previously perceived as continuous information in discrete bits. The processes of such a mediation involve reduction: the picking-out of important words in a narrative to put on a telegram, for example, because the message must be carefully parsed into dots and dashes by the telegraph clerk, a section of a light-wave spectrum being read by a detector and put into one data “bin,” the checking of a box marked “male” or “female” in order to be coded in a database as a number associated with one of two recognized biological sexes. Digitally epistemic information is necessarily reduced from a more nebulous, continuous world of experience. In terms of media, digitally encoded information includes flag telegraphy, smoke signals, Morse code (Maddalena and Packer 2014), and the LEGO nub. And digitally constructed arrangements include the correctly decoded message and the LEGO build. Conceiving of the digital as emerging from an apparatus rather than a kind of medium reinvigorates Michel Foucault’s conception of the episteme, a term he develops in different ways at different points in his work, but which is perhaps best defined in The Archaeology of Knowledge as the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems . . . the episteme is not a form of connaissance or type of rationality which, crossing the boundaries of the most varied sciences, manifests the sovereign unity of a subject, a spirit or a period; it is the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities. (Foucault 1982, 191) Foucault uses “episteme,” drawing from its Greek root, in the way that Aristotle uses it, with the idea that all thought-styles are ways of making sense of the world and are therefore “sciences.” An episteme, according to Foucault, comprises the similarities between those thought-styles. An episteme can be enacted by more than one apparatus, or a system of materials and discourses arranged to produce certain types of subjects and knowledges, and an apparatus can be seen to reflect or help constitute an episteme. Foucault’s episteme, like the apparatus, is a discursive-material assemblage: a way of arranging people, ideas, rules, and objects that determines what a subject can know. Where the apparatus is the way of doing the thinking, the episteme is the kind of thinking that emerges from a given apparatus. The material and the epistemological can’t be divided into a binary in practice, though. Ultimately for Foucault, in a move that media theorists concerned with materiality should take note of, the episteme becomes an apparatus, and the act of knowing is

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constituted by its mediation. “I would define the episteme retrospectively,” Foucault says later, as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the “apparatus” which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific. (197) The idea of a mediated “field of scientificity” that permeates, through material practices, more than one knowledge-producing discipline is a useful concept for those who want to talk about how media, or groups of media, or media assemblages, or media apparatus (which also often cross disciplines), emerge in knowledge-making micropractices like LEGO play/LEGO making. I propose three distinctive characteristics that together constitute a digital episteme and, in turn, produce a world that is digital. These characteristics in combination both afford the digital its power and constrain its scope.10

1  The Digital Is Discrete In the digital world, a hill is made of tiny incremental steps, not a sloping, unbroken line. All digital objects (the hill or each step that composes the hill can be seen as an “object”) must be distinguishable from other objects, and their shape is partially determined by the smallest unit available to a given system—the pixel, the bit, the dot, the integer. Many media theorists are concerned with how digital media differ from other media materially, and the material distinctions begin with the difference between the discrete and the continuous. Sound recordings are good exemplary remediations by which to play out these differences; a recording on a vinyl record is continuous, and an MP3 recording is digital. One recreates an unbroken timespace (the groove) in order to store a song; the other stores the song in discrete pieces and relies on a set of control operations to reconstruct it every time we want to play it—a LEGO sculpture of a song. Likewise, a digital photo reassembles the image every time we look at it. But more important to my argument is the distinction in ways of thinking that make the digitally material possible, that is, the way of thinking that caused us to design what we now call digital media in the vernacular. These are epistemic distinctions with ontological repercussions. I can illustrate the point with a few more musical examples. The way we experience music may be continuous—we don’t always sing, play, and hear notes


with breaks between them (unless we only ever listen to stuff like bad polka)— but the way in which we write modern Western music scores is epistemically digital. The difference between our hearing one note or another is a matter of a continuum that includes the increments of pitch between two notes on the Western scale. Modern Western musical notation takes a central point on the (continuous) line of that experience and marks it on a staff as distinctly separate from the notes above and below it, thus rendering it discrete. Taking the influence of the digital further, we might argue that a song made of samples might be seen to be manifestly modular, as well. The act of composing consists of taking apart other works and remaking a new song with the “blocks.” Such a practice, it could be argued, utilizes the modularity that marks the digital episteme.

2  The Digital Is Non-Semantic As important as the need to differentiate between objects, which discrete information affords, is the need for those objects to maintain their function (or meaning, in one sense) over time and across contexts. The study of shifting of signification and meaning in spoken and written language is the study of semantics, and by “semantic” I mean to refer to the fields of cognitive and conceptual semantics, which seek to describe the human use and experience of what linguists call natural language. A term’s semantics—or a word’s slippery ability to change—are a socially negotiated set of phenomena that allow for connotation, play, double-meaning, and even the complete alteration of what a word may mean over time. Digital objects have no semantics, and a plain, unadorned LEGO brick is a perfect, simple example. Once the semantics and all of its related processes of interpretation, approximation, and cutting-to-fit are discarded, non-semantic objects can be placed within logic-driven systems and made to do things and answer questions better than we can if we are semantically encumbered. A simple example of this is the ability to translate objects into numbers. As soon as objects are rendered non-semantic, equal, discrete pieces, they can be counted (for comparison to other sets), and rearranged (for reconfiguration or representation). All of these simple examples of epistemically digital objects remain in what Friedrich Kittler, Lev Manovich, and others would call the data rendering and storage domains of digitally based new media. That is, they depend only upon a simple unit of material (a switch, a LEGO nub) and the persistence of its state over time. A LEGO brick by itself does not “mean” nor does it change.11 More complex questions and actions become possible when we add a control function (the function of software) to the system to produce arrangements, to perform syntactical action. Such control functions are the new carriers

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of culture (Manovich 2013). Such carriers include pre- and para-computational media, control mechanisms like human users’ minds and bodies. When a user arranges LEGO bricks into the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, she is performing a syntactical action that gives the arrangement meaning. The “control” aspect of new media interpreted through the lens of the digital always allows the human user to either internalize and behave according to digital logic or be replaced by a mechanism (software). Both remove knowledge-making action from the realm of experience.12 At the level of function, it may also be helpful to think of a non-semantic object as standardized. Standardization is the gold standard in technoscience, since it allows for constant innovation—“thinking-with” without having to back up and think “about,” first. Because every basic, standardized LEGO brick is interoperable with every other, the possibility of arrangement is almost endless. Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler have both linked media history to the standardization of natural or oral languages. Ong sees a major cultural shift from oral to written languages resulting in, among other things, the relative stability of educational institutions and communication practices. Kittler sees the move from oral to literate media as a reduction, one step in the teleological line that leads to integer-based digitality. Peter Galison, in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps (2004), similarly historicizes the standardization of time, weights, and measures as a major moment in the history of the physical sciences, a moment at which interoperable theories and interdisciplinary communication becomes possible. More recently, Adrian Mackenzie and several colleagues in Science and Technology Studies (STS) have critiqued standardization in genetic engineering as problematic engagements with “the biological.” Mackenzie et al.’s perspective presses upon the ways in which standards are user-made structures imposed on natural systems, that is, mediations: “Standards generate forms of infrastructural liveliness. They invest heavily in formal material arrangements such as databases, registries, catalogs, and web interfaces that superimpose other cross-validating regimes of engagements with divergent consequences” (2013, 704–05). Genetic engineers in synthetic biology, using LEGO as a driving metaphor, strive for LEGO-like possibility as they design “building blocks” with which to design microscopic lifeforms. The concept of standardization of syntactical units is tricky because we must agree on the scale at which we are identifying (and rendering discrete, and standardizing) the “object” itself. A standardized object could be seen in terms of LEGO at the level of nub, brick, or build. A standardized object could be seen in terms of language at the level of letter, word, or phrase. In genetics, the base pair is one level of standardized object, but then so is a sequence of these pairings, which is popularly called a “gene,” the equivalent of a word in the genetic world. Finally, the gene-environment assemblage that produces


a certain protein and protein folds is a higher-level function, the one that synthetic biologists strive to make into standardized blocks.13

3  The Digital Is Intended for Making and Remaking. Thus the Digital Makes Us into Makers The first two characteristics of a digitally (re)produced world that I’ve described here are not particularly controversial; there is some version of the discrete (binary, numerical, self-identical) and the syntactically modular, or non-semantic, in most robust theories of the digital. Moreover, both of these features can be categorized as structural features and affordances of the digital as a way of knowing. My third characteristic, the “maker ethic,” which is in many ways a cultural entailment (rather than a structural component) of the other two, is less often focused upon in the literature I’ve cited here so far. It is also the feature that entails LEGO play most interestingly, for both better and worse. Historians and theorists tell the creation story of computing by casting the digital as a way of deciphering code and solving problems—that is, as a way of answering explicit questions and making predictions (see, for example, Dyson 2012; Kittler 1990; Hayles 2012). Claude Shannon, the mathematician who laid the groundwork for bitmapping at MIT, contributed to cryptography projects at Bell Labs during the Second World War. The Von Neumann project—a key piece with the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos—put the interpretation into the machine with the first Central Processing Unit. Those first machines, of course, fulfilled three exigences: a scientific desire for a perfect language with which to test theory, and military desires for the encryption of natural language and a way to perfectly calculate the behaviors of bombs. The two communities’ desires meshed well: science, war, and technological progress. Of course, as the apparatus gets used, it answers and invents new exigences. Computer-based digital apparatuses are now being designed to map the trajectories of individuals’ buying habits, cellular phone users’ geospatial trajectories, and the dispersion of a cloud of oil in ocean water with the same precision that they map the trajectories of supernovae, shrapnel, and missiles. The affordance of modularity begs manipulation, (re)invention, and participation. LEGO blocks ask us to play with them; they want us to build. And open-source platforms that rely on modularity also ask us to contribute to the community by modifying, sharing, and improving the built world, as well. Most readers will be familiar with maker cultures that have grown up around digital tools. Applications exist to accommodate all levels of expertise and interest—from Sploder, a website where a novice can use an easy drag-and-

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drop interface to “design” his or her own video game, to the Arduino community, an open-source platform that promotes do-it-yourself physical computing at multiple levels of coding and engineering complexity. Hacker collectives, Linux-based open-source communities, digital art movements, and now physical computing communities are all examples of manifestations of a digital maker ethos. I would also add self-made citizen science groups such as Safecast, which designed its own digital tools for monitoring radiation levels at Fukushima (Kelly et al. 2015), and biological “hackerspaces” that seek to bring the genetic tools of synthetic biology to a public user community. Much scholarship has documented the emergence of contemporary maker cultures, and much of it has focused on the benefits of open-source tools and communities of practice and technical support. Research in human-computer interaction (HCI) has recently focused on maker communities around standardized, opensource digital media as new environments for teaching and learning (Chorianopoulos, Jaccheri and Salveson Nossum 2012). Scholarship along these lines generally purports to the open and accessible technological practices of such communities as a “democratization of design and manufacturing” that “unifies playfulness, utility, and expressiveness, relying on some industrial infrastructures while creating demand for new types of tools and literacies” (Tanenbaum et al. 2013). Scholars who focus on learning design extend these claims to learning in the sciences specifically, describing a “maker mindset” that embraces the use of technologies like Arduino to “create a generation of tinkerer-scientists” (Honey and Kanter 2013, 5). Sarah Tocchetti describes a community of DIY biologists who self-identify as a maker community and work to construct “personal biologies” in order to manage health problems and benefit from global networks of biological data (2012, np). The LEGO Group recognized early, of course, the powerful shifts in ways of being and knowing—a digital revolution—that the LEGO product helped enable. And, of course, when the time came for market-driven identity revision, LEGO strove to capture, proclaim, and commodify the fact that LEGO was a tool for thinking as well as a toy. The result was LEGO Education, a prime example of a LEGOfied, inherently digital worldview, as I describe in detail in the next section.

Digital Making as Knowing: LEGO Educational Materials as an Extended Example As a part of a reimagining of the LEGO brand that revitalized sales between 2007 and 2012, the LEGO Foundation, which had existed as a private entity


since 1986, revised its charter and became a corporate foundation under the umbrella of the LEGO Group. LEGO partnered with researchers at MIT to research and promote LEGO products as “systems for learning.” At this time, the foundation began to fund research on learning’s relationship with play in accordance with the foundation’s newly revised mandate: “Opening minds to the transformative power of play. Providing tools and experiences to changemakers to facilitate their ability to implement play. Creating and sharing new knowledge about play, learning and development” (LEGO Education n.d.). The LEGO Foundation’s most high-profile funded project is Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, housed in MIT’s Media Lab, but the LEGO Foundation funds multiple academic projects internationally. It is involved with a program in Creativity Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens, a Psychology and Education initiative in the Psychology Department at Wellesley College, and a partnership between distinguished teaching scholars and the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, to name a few. In addition to the academic products of their research, which include curricula, patents, and publications, researchers funded by the LEGO Foundation author brief white papers aimed at a general audience to be featured on the LEGO Foundation’s website as part of a “Foundation Research” page. LEGO Foundation research, in turn, feeds another recently refreshed feature of LEGO’s branding: the LEGO Education line. LEGO Education packages and markets LEGO products as educational tools for schools. Part of this process, of course, is actively making schools into targetable markets. LEGO Education develops markets by putting school systems in touch with grant-giving institutions and encouraging them to seek funding for LEGO programs. For example, six schools (two elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools) in Wake County, North Carolina, were named “LEGO Smart Schools” in 2012,14 and funds were provided from the LEGO Foundation and a separate granting entity, the Education Blueprint Association, for those schools to acquire five specific educational products, or “systems,” to use in classrooms. In October of 2013, I communicated with Kristie Brown, the Southeastern contact for LEGO Education US, about the LEGO Smart program being adopted in Wake County, North Carolina. She introduced me to all five of the products being used in the Wake County initiative (Early Simple Machines, Simple Machines, WEDO, StoryStarter, and Build to Express), and she also provided me with pdf files of LEGO Education marketing and training materials that would put “LEGO Smart” as a concept into better context for me. I spend some time here describing and analyzing these materials as evidence of a corporate ethos that commodifies a digital maker ethic. Combined with the discrete, interoperable medium of the LEGO brick, these educational toys

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help to constitute a compelling and pervasive attitude about what knowledge is and how knowledge is produced. Specifically, the close relationship—almost to the point of conflation—among the processes of “learning,” “making,” and “knowing” becomes a key to the maker ethic in LEGO’s case. LEGO Education also makes very specific claims about how human beings in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields should approach the world. LEGO Education’s public-facing, ethos-maintaining text is called “Our [LEGO Education’s] Manifesto” and is featured in multiple iterations of LEGO Education marketing and training materials. The manifesto is a simple, hierarchical, bulleted list that first claims that children should be “systematically creative learners,” “active learners,” and “collaborative learners.” It then breaks each of these categories down in terms of how such learning can be supported. The breakdown of the first two categories is especially pertinent here, so I include the text of those two bullets in full (Figure 1.2). Three aspects of these statements are of note in terms of the digital episteme I’ve described in the first section of this chapter. First is the focus on material media as an instantiation of learning and knowledge: “Mastering a tool and giving form to thoughts” and “learning by constructing real things in the world . . . and knowledge in their minds.” Second is a close association, as demonstrated in this last phrase, between learning and knowledge. The act of learning, which is “constructing real things,” seems to equal “constructing knowledge.” Knowledge, in this system, is an object that we make, physically

FIGURE 1.2  Excerpt from “Our Manifesto” (LEGO Education, 2014, p. 5).


and mentally. Thirdly and finally, notice the insistence on expression and “mark-making” of the learner’s subject position. A learner should change the world around her in order to learn and know about it. Learning and knowing is making things happen. We know we know something new if we can make something new—if we see its effects. The theme of knowledge as making and knowledge in material manifestation is maintained throughout both the LEGO Education materials and the LEGO Foundation research white papers that lend LEGO Education its academic gravitas. The corporation promotes a “maker” orientation toward the world that privileges tools, action, and direct impact as an operating episteme—a digital one—for the present human epoch. One LEGO Education document, a marketing presentation, can serve as another example of the technoscientific ethos I’ve just described. First, knowledge-making is valued as an activity over knowledge as a product, according to LEGO’s definition: “Individuals benefit more by applying knowledge as a means to expand their understanding than they do by simply acquiring knowledge” (LEGO Education n.d., 6). Moreover, the activities of world-making and world-manipulating as prime focuses are framed as a new, cutting-edge way of doing things in the contemporary world: “Twenty-first century learning is about providing children with opportunities to experiment with their surroundings as a form of problem-solving. . . . It is about improvisation and discovery and interacting with meaningful tools that expand mental capacities” (6). The contemporary age is about tools, technologies, and producing things with them. In many instances the present is referred to as the “digital age” or the “digital era”; one section, entitled “The Digital and Creative Era,” which cites Paul Gee, a celebrated scholar of digital media and literacy, claims, “Young people’s combination and recombination of LEGO bricks and models, both physically and digitally, nurtures non-linear forms of learning, where [learners] move between rule acquisition and rule modification” (11). Basically, learners must understand the protocols of the medium in order to learn to exploit its affordances. Finally, and very importantly, LEGO Education maintains that learners must apply the learning activity in the world at large and across contexts. LEGO Education brands its thusly described way of thinking and being “LEGO Smart,” or “motivated to apply their learning in new contexts” (6). LEGO Smart students, claims LEGO Education, “use LEGO bricks and digital tools to solve problems” (6). This point in LEGO Education’s argument is where it finds and presses upon its pertinence to education for STEM fields. LEGO Education goes on to propose another LEGO Smart framework that applies directly to STEM: “Connect,” “Construct,” “Contemplate,” and “Continue” (13). Connection requires learners to “become solution seekers”; construction always

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involves a building activity to enact the solution. Contemplation is a stage of reflection on the process, and continuation is an extension of the activity to another context. As a separate entity under the LEGO Group umbrella, LEGO Foundation’s funded research serves as academically legitimate backing for the claims that LEGO Education marketing makes about learning and knowing in the twenty-first century. Mitchel Resnick, proponent of school and science as a “lifelong Kindergarten,” cites Friedrich Froebel, the founder of Kindergarten, as an early constructionist and “Froebel’s Gifts” as objects for the new age of knowledge-makers: “Froebel was making for makers. He made objects that enabled children in his kindergarten to do their own making and creating” (Resnick 2013, 50). “Knowledge alone is not enough,” argues Resnick, “[students] must learn how to use their knowledge creatively” (50). The message is constantly repeated: without a material product, a new arrangement or entity in the world, learning and knowledge-making is absent. “At the core of this creative process [learning and knowing] is the ability to create. If we want children to develop as creative thinkers, we need to provide them with more opportunities to create” (50). The LEGO Group, across multiple corporate platforms, is clearly commodifying the digital maker ethic (according to LEGO, in fact, the essence of the “digital creative age”) to great effect.

Looking Forward This chapter and the chapters that follow move beyond facile understandings of LEGO as a cute metaphor for engineering mindsets and/or an aesthetic that resonates with a time period. Rather, it posits LEGO as a materially digital medium that constitutes a digital world that adult LEGO users, LEGO fans, and much of the global population inhabit from childhood. The digital age is a LEGO age; the digital world is LEGOfied. This perspective begins in critique, but it allows for productive power as well. Learning, thinking, and playing with LEGO cocreates the ethical quandaries of the digital age: genetic modification, toxic and unsustainable infrastructures, and economic monocultures (just to name a few). But the same worldview allows us (and, importantly, many more of us than ever before) to make the models that help us see, monitor, and manipulate data at previously unimaginable scales, make and distribute art, construct and project individual and collective identities, and build and maintain the globalizing and potentially equalizing social networks of the internet (likewise, just to name a few). As with all things digital, complexity sprouts from simplicity.


Bibliography Chorianopoulos, Konstantinos, Letizia Jaccheri, and Alexander Salveson Nossum. “Creative and Open Software Engineering Practices and Tools in Maker Community Projects.” In Proceedings of the 4th ACM SIGCHI Symposium on Engineering Interactive Computing Systems, 333–4. EICS ’12. New York, NY: ACM, 2012. Daston, Lorraine J., and Peter Galison. Objectivity. Zone, 2010. Drucker, Johanna. “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory.” Culture Machine 12 (2011), http:​//svr​91.ed​ns1.c​om/~c​ultur​em/in​dex.p​hp/cm​/arti​cle/v​iew/4​34/46​2. Dyson, George. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. First Edition. New York: Pantheon, 2012. Evens, Aden. “Web 2.0 and the Ontology of the Digital.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6, no. 2 (2012). Accessed http:​//www​.digi​talhu​manit​ies.o​rg/dh​q/vol​ /6/2/​00012​0/000​120.h​tml. Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1982. Frost, Joe L. A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement. New York: Routledge, 2010. Galison, Peter. Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time. WW Norton & Company, 2004. Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Hobbes, Michael. “FML: Why Millennials Are Facing the Scariest Financial Future of any Generation since the Great Depression.” Highline (2017), http:​//hig​hline​ .huff​i ngto​npost​.com/​artic​les/e​n/poo​r-mil​lenni​als/ Honey, Margaret, and David Kanter. Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators. New York: Routledge, 2013. Kelly, Ashley Rose, Carolyn R. Miller, Shannon N. Fanning, Molly M. Kessler, S. Scott Graham, and Daniel J. Card. “Expertise and Data in the Articulation of Risk.” Poroi 11, no. 1 (2015), 1–9. Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990. LEGO Education. “LEGO Education North America.” Power Point, n.d. Mackenzie, Adrian, Claire Waterton, Rebecca Ellis, Emma K. Frow, Ruth McNally, Lawrence Busch, and Brian Wynne. “Classifying, Constructing, and Identifying Life: Standards as Transformations of ‘the Biological.’” Science, Technology & Human Values, June 11, 2013. Maddalena, Kate, and Jeremy Packer. “The Digital Body: The U.S. Signal Corps, Telegraphy, and the Discourse Network of 1865.” Theory, Culture, & Society (2014). Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 5, no. 2 (June 1, 1999), 80–99. https​://do​​/10.1​177/1​35485​65990​05002​06. Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

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Packer, Jeremy. “Epistemology Not Ideology OR Why We Need New Germans.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 10, nos. 2–3 (2013), 295–300. https​://do​​/10.1​080/1​47914​20.20​13.80​6154. Peters, Benjamin, ed. Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Resnick, Mitchel. “Lifelong Kindergarten.” In Cultures of Creativity, 50–52. MIT Media, 2013. Tanenbaum, Theresa J. et al. “Democratizing Technology: Pleasure, Utility and Expressiveness in DIY and Maker Practice.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2013), 2603–2612. Thacker, Eugene. Biomedia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Tochetti, Sarah. “DIYbiologists as ‘Makers’ of Personal Biologies: How MAKE Magazine and Maker Faires Contribute in Constituting Biology as a Personal Technology.” Journal of Peer Production, no. 2 (2012), http:​//pee​rprod​uctio​​/issu​es/is​sue-2​/peer​-revi​ewed-​paper​s/diy​biolo​gists​-as-m​akers​/.




2 The Aesthetic Work of LEGO Eddie Lohmeyer


n their 2013 show, In Pieces, which premiered at Openhouse Gallery in SoHo, NYC, sculptor Nathan Sawaya and photographer Dean West presented viewers with an uncanny juxtaposition of digital photographs and sculptures created using LEGO building blocks. Sawaya and West’s work is positioned within discourses of contemporary LEGO art: communities of artists that employ LEGO as a medium within a field of aesthetic practices, often in subversive and parodic ways, and exhibit their work in spaces associated with the broader artworld. Through the collaborative efforts of both artists, the show featured a series of photographic tableaus in which West captures listless subjects placed within landscapes of contemporary North America. Yet, situated unassumingly within each of West’s scenes exists a mundane object made of LEGO bricks, sculpted by Sawaya to stand in for the object’s photographic representation in each tableau. For instance, in West’s photograph Bus (2012), two women stand awkwardly at a bus stop, one walking a yellow lab on a leash. Peering through the curtain of a store front behind both subjects is the torso of a mannequin. A closer look reveals that the dog—although naturalistic in gesture and appearance—is built from LEGO, the textures of the bricks rendering the shadows and contours of the animal’s frame. The obscured mannequin is also assembled from LEGO bricks. In the exhibition space, not only do Sawaya’s LEGO creations mirror real-world objects within West’s tableaus but each sculpture, built to actual scale, is also positioned next to the photograph in which it appears. Standing before Bus upon a pedestal is Sawaya’s Dog (2012) and Mannequin (2012): life-sized models of the same


Labrador and mannequin figure standing within the artificial reality of West’s photograph. Through the trompe l’oeil mimicry among image and sculpture that West and Sawaya entertain, In Pieces explores themes of cultural identity as a commercialized and fabricated construct. The artists point out that their photographic subjects are poised in “an awkward moment of self-awareness. . . . An acknowledgement [that] their cultural arena is suffocating” (Sawaya and West n.d., “In Pieces”). Although positioned within familiar landscapes— an empty street along Sunset Boulevard, a desolate train station against the backdrop of a Western vista, an interstate motel parking lot, a rainy NYC street—each person appears to be dissociated from their surroundings. Their eyes often stare into a void, and their posturing is intentionally artificial, a citation to the lonely scenes in the paintings of Edward Hopper (Sawaya and West n.d.). By digitally compositing West’s high-definition photography and LEGO sculptures, West and Sawaya draw attention to the similarities among plastic brick and pixel. Just as the digital image is composed of thousands of pixels, each LEGO sculpture is constructed of a “tangible” pixel that forms a gestalt through its constituent parts (Sawaya and West, n.d.). As I address throughout this chapter, the unique remediation of pixel to plastic brick foregrounded in West and Sawaya’s work speaks to a broader aesthetic within contemporary LEGO-based art: namely, the experience of mimesis, or rather, the ways in which LEGO as a toy commodity playfully imitates real things. NYC lawyer turned LEGO artist Sawaya’s sculptures repurpose the popular children’s building blocks into often surreal figures and compositions, emphasizing the visual texture of the bricks. Different from LEGO builders, who often construct models as a hobby within close-knit communities of other enthusiasts, or individuals who collect and play with LEGO bricks as a cultural pastime, artists like Sawaya employ LEGO as an expressive medium within the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic flows of the broader artworld. His solo exhibition, The Art of the Brick, continues to tour globally, prompting recordbreaking attendance at museums and galleries. Similarly, Chinese political activist and artist Ai Weiwei has employed LEGO bricks in his works since the controversial 2014 show, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, which featured his installation, Trace: a series of 176 portraits spread across the floor of the former Alcatraz prison. In an act of ironic subversion, each portrait was constructed from innocent LEGO blocks, yet depicts historical figures imprisoned for their political and/or religious beliefs, much like Weiwei himself. In 2011, the artist’s studio was raided, and he was arrested by the Chinese secret police, spending eighty-one days in prison for critiquing China’s political ideologies. The portraits required more than eighty volunteers and millions of LEGO bricks to build. Through 2017 and 2018, Weiwei also exhibited Trace at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

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In 2015, Weiwei created Letgo Room at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne for the exhibition Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei. The site-specific work included a room of portraits representing Australian human rights activists, each constructed using plastic bricks produced in China and unassociated with the LEGO brand. The Danish toy company controversially refused to sell the artist bulk orders for the show, citing that his work used the bricks against company policy to make a political statement. Weiwei denounced LEGO for their censorship. In turn, fans from around the world donated their own LEGO pieces to Ai Weiwei’s studio, yet the artist used Chinese off-brand blocks instead. Following the incident, LEGO amended its policies on bulk orders and said it would no longer inquire into customer intentions. The company’s vicechairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen deemed that the refusal to sell Weiwei bulk LEGO was not related to the company’s commercial involvement in China, instead claiming the decision was an “internal mistake” (Tan 2016). As another example of a prominent contemporary artist using LEGO as the content of a large-scale installation, in the same year Danish artist Olafur Eliasson created an interactive work along NYC’s High Line as part of his ongoing The Collectivity Project (2005): a public collaboration in which participants build a miniature utopia using white LEGO elements supplied by the artist. Most recently, Weiwei once again used LEGO bricks to create a series of portraits for the Museum of Contemporary Art at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, documenting the 2014 tragedy in which forty-three students were kidnapped by corrupt local police from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero and presumably killed by organized crime members. These recent instances in which LEGO has been reappropriated into an artistic medium raise important questions as to the ways the popular child’s toy extends into discourses within the contemporary avant-garde. The repurposing of commodities for aesthetic aims has been a long-running strategy within the avant-garde throughout the twentieth century. For instance, in his readymade work, Prelude to a Broken Arm (1915), Marcel Duchamp hung a standard snow shovel from the ceiling of his studio, rearticulating the functionality of a mass-produced good as a sculptural form. Similarly, through her own feminist aesthetic, fellow Dada artist Hannah Höch repurposed clippings from newspapers and popular magazines to create politically charged photomontages that sought to challenge traditional gender roles during the Weimar period. With the emergence of the neo-avant-garde by the mid-century, pop artists such as Warhol displayed stacked pyramids of Brillo boxes, while Lichtenstein borrowed from existing comic book imagery to challenge artworld conventions, foregrounding kitsch elements in mass culture through tactics of irony. Working from the phenomenon of LEGO as a medium in itself, this chapter explores both artistic communities of practice that build with LEGO and


the aesthetic operations at work through the forms of the plastic bricks they manipulate. Here, I look at the unique work of aesthetics, the viewer’s sensory engagement with the textural and spatial rendering of objects in LEGO, through concepts of mimesis in the media theory of Walter Benjamin. Drawing from Benjamin’s critical observations of media during the early twentieth century, I articulate mimesis as a playful imitation of things in reality that provokes novel forms of embodiment. Mimesis involves the body’s sensory-perceptual capacities in recognizing similarities among other bodies and objects in the world. For instance, mimesis reflects the playful ways in which we perceive the plastic bricks of a LEGO castle as the stone of a real castle, the shapes of passing clouds as an elephant, or craters of the moon as a face. More so, I consider aesthetics here as the co-constituency of the artist’s creative use of bricks to render worldly appearances and the viewer’s affective experience of LEGO sculpture. As I argue, the modality of LEGO bricks and their ability to click and snap together in a multitude of ways gives rise to a mimetic response within the viewer. This response describes affective resonations generated from the playful and sensuous forms of the LEGO bricks, or more particularly, from the textures, colors, and shapes of the objects they seek to imitate. By examining works of LEGO-based contemporary art within discourses of pop and commodity aesthetics, I situate LEGO within a more inclusive landscape of the avant-garde through strategies of irony, or rather, the relationship among LEGO’s market value and the often subversive forms they take on. That is to say, the ways in which artists repurpose LEGO toward ironic and satirical means, as artworks that paradoxically situate LEGO as both consumer good and aesthetic object, express possibilities for critique within the broader global economies that LEGO operates within.

Mimesis and Play When artists build with LEGO bricks and reconstruct abstract appearances of things in the world, the viewer’s reception of LEGO sculpture can be understood through concepts of mimesis and play inherent to the media theory of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s critique of media concerns itself with the way technology in the context of modernity ultimately shapes and configures human sensation. Mimesis, as a dynamic of aesthetic experience, is historically contingent upon the technical and sociopolitical conditions of modernity: mass-produced imagery, cinema, the lights and noise of a bustling metropolis, and so on. To Benjamin, the function of technology, and especially cinema, is to perceptually train the body in a mechanized, industrial world

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


through what he calls processes of “innervation” (see, for example, Benjamin 2008, 19–55). In his critique of modernity, Benjamin never addressed the materiality of LEGO, but his observations of cinema as a new technology offers a helpful way to understand mimesis in relation to LEGO. Cinema holds a kind of therapeutic potential that can counter forms of social alienation organized by capitalist, fascist societies through what Benjamin sees as a failed reception of technology in the presence of the modern world. That is to say, technology and its destructive effects isolate citizens from productive modes of interpersonal exchange and sentimentality through mass consumption, commodification, and an overstimulation of the senses. By contrast, “innervation” describes an embodied, neurophysiological “channeling” between the cinematic apparatus and the viewer’s physic-perceptual operations. In Benjamin’s Marxist ideology, cinema and its capacity to elicit new kinds of embodied experience through innervation affords utopic possibilities in the ways that cinematic images can show different temporal and spatial configurations of life. Through both the mobility of the camera and editing film, innervation works through plays of the senses to restructure the relationship among bourgeois society and the collective masses. As an embodied process, innervation operates as a dynamic of what Benjamin calls the mimetic faculty, or rather, a kind of sensual interaction among humans and things in the world that can ultimately disorder traditional forms of aesthetic reception within bourgeois society. By this, I mean the prescribed ways in which a patron views a painting within the traditional space of an art institution. As a capacity of humankind, the mimetic faculty acts as a relational process through which the body produces and recognizes similarities among itself and other material things in the world. Here, mimesis works through expressions of playful imitation and the sensuous forms perceived among objects, alluding to interrelated qualities.1 This could be, for instance, the way we might recognize a face in the trunk of a gnarled tree; a cinematic montage that strings together seemingly unrelated objects, or a grouping of LEGO bricks that through their holistic construction, resemble a yellow Labrador. Benjamin relates mimesis to instances of play, especially the uninhibited and imaginative play of children. In his discussions of the early animations of Walt Disney, he argues that cinematic technologies afford novel forms of embodied mimesis, or as he calls it a “Spiel-Raum,” which translates to “room-for-play.” Miriam Hansen suggests that film opens up the body to the Spiel-Raum, a mode of innervation in which humans “appropriate technology in the mode of play, that is, in a sensory-somatic and nondestructive form” (Hansen 2012, 19). By this, Hansen refers to the way cinema as a novel technology of the early twentieth century can reconfigure the body’s relationship to the world through the camera’s ability to capture disparate images of the


industrial-capitalist landscape. By showing the masses the industrialized world in which they reside through a kind of perceptual disruption, cinema can generate playful associations among people and things, in turn, providing ways to think outside the discursive conditions of bourgeois society. For example, through a dissolve among two shots in a film, the pistons and spinning gears of factory, machines are perceived as the kicking legs of dancing showgirls. Pistons become legs through the playful affinities that cinema affords. Beyond cinema, the Spiel-Raum likewise reflects the ways children play (with LEGO) and creatively interact with their surroundings through their own gestures and physicality in relationship to toys, found objects, and so on. Here, play is a mimetic behavior in that children imitate both people and objects. For instance, a child make-believes that they are a firefighter or bank robber just as they may embody a fighter jet or LEGO mini-figure. As Benjamin observes, “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but also a windmill and a train” (Benjamin 2005, 721–22). The mimetic play of children is historically contingent within industrial, capitalist economies through the introduction of new technologies and commodities such as LEGO building blocks. Hansen argues that these modes of play are performative in nature and indicate a generative perception of the world through a kind of productive “miscognition” or rather, the ways a child invents disjunctive similarities among people and things (Hansen 2012, 150). Benjamin speaks to these inventive modes of play within his broader ideology, stating that “just as a child who has learned to grasp stretches out its hand for the moon as it would for a ball, so humanity, in its efforts at innervation, sets its sights as much on currently utopian goals as on goals within reach” (Benjamin 2008, 45). Here, my aim is not to employ mimesis within Benjamin’s political ideology as a way to suggest that LEGO-based artworks hold the potential to reform late capitalism. Benjamin’s critique of media is bound to the discursive frameworks of modernity, and there is an inherent danger in applying his theories to the economic complexities of the contemporary artworld. Rather, I borrow Benjamin’s materialist understanding of mimesis and play to think about the viewer’s embodied reception of contemporary LEGO-based works of art. Mimesis offers a way to think about how LEGO-based art can open up new perceptual associations, sensations, and experiences through irony, satire, and subversion, working within the contours of the contemporary artworld and late capitalism more broadly. With sculpture created using LEGO, mimesis operates through the ways the textural surfaces and shapes of bricks are perceived as other objects in the world through the entirety of their modular construction. The viewer’s aesthetic interfacing with LEGO art occurs within a room for play, or “Spiel-Raum,” through which a commodity toy innervates the body, in turn generating playful forms of miscognition. That is to say, the

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


aesthetic experience of LEGO has as much to do with unique LEGO pieces chosen by the artist because their textural qualities hold a relational appearance to objects in the world as with the way constitutive pieces are integrated into a distinct whole that bears a resemblance to something other than the bricks themselves. I am proposing that the various modes of experiencing LEGO sculpture are guided by modes of play in which the artist’s creation is coextensive with the viewer’s aesthetic interaction. In his theories of play, Friedrich Schiller discusses what he calls the play impulse, or experiences which emerge among human rationality (formal impulse) and our sensual engagement with the world (sense impulse). These competing drives give rise to the “living form” or the object of the play drive (Schiller 1794, Letter XV). That is to say, when the LEGO artist reconstructs a semblance of a real object through the formal qualities of the bricks, the viewer at once perceives the rational forms rendered by the bricks and feels their blocky textures, engaging the body’s instinctual play impulse. For example, when Sawaya builds a billowing dress from LEGO that appears to ripple in the breeze, the viewer sensually engages with the sculpture whose textures and shapes are composed of plastic bricks and as an object that playfully imitates an evening dress. Both the LEGO bricks and the billowing dress they resemble are taken up in our experiences of the work. Through Schiller’s understanding of play, I consider mimetic engagements with LEGO art as a co-constituency among artist and viewer. The artist’s uncanny ability to render an evening dress in LEGO is taken up with viewers through playful sensations of the bricks becoming something other in their holistic construction. As I discuss presently, these concepts of mimesis and play are particularly evident in the work of artist communities that employ LEGO to construct complex architectural forms modeled after real-world locations.

The Visual Textures of LEGO Architecture At the 2016 and 2017 BrickUniverse conventions in Raleigh, North Carolina, internationally recognized LEGO artists Jonathan Lopes and Rocco Buttliere exhibited architectural landmarks whose complex designs articulate playful forms of mimesis through the textures created by certain pieces. With such architectural works, I argue that mimetic experience emerges among the technical remediation—that is, the LEGOfication—of real-world structures into their LEGO-based interpretations, as we perceive the artist’s creative use of bricks to replicate architectural forms that produce visual textures. San Diego–based artist Jonathan Lopes uses LEGO as an artistic medium to create


realistic urban landscapes as well as large-scale sculptures. Lopes mentions that his works reflect a way to educate the public on the expressive qualities of LEGO as an artistic medium—one that often blurs distinctions between LEGO as a kind of pop culture commodity and a legitimate sculptural material (Lopes 2016). At the 2017 BrickUniverse, Lopes featured his monumental rendering of the Woolworth Building at roughly eight feet tall (Figure 2.1). Here, the artist works to mirror the objectivity of architect Cass Gilbert’s neo-Gothic skyscraper, yet also takes artistic liberties with choosing the right LEGO bricks to express certain forms of visual texture in the building’s ornamentation. Lopes speaks directly to the mimetic qualities at play in the Woolworth model when describing his process of using the underside of bricks so that the impression created from each stud imitates the building’s decorative lattice work above certain windows (Figure 2.2): I use the undersides of bricks . . . but I do that purposely to establish texture. . . . A brick has, what, six sides? Why not use the bottom? Nobody uses the bottom. That’s the underside of a plate, and that is put in there exactly for that, to establish texture, to give the eye something else to

FIGURE 2.1  Jonathan Lopes, Woolworth Building, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Eddie Lohmeyer.

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


FIGURE 2.2 Jonathan Lopes, Woolworth Building (close up), 2012. Photograph courtesy of David Zumbach. notice. . . . It’s about replicating the vision that is either a true vision, a real life vision or the vision that I come up with in my head. And then sharing that with the public. (Lopes 2017) Similarly, LEGO-based artist and designer Rocco Buttliere, a graduate of the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, constructs detailed architectural landmarks and urban landscapes as an alternative to conventional architectural design. Buttliere mentions that architecture informs the constructions of his models in the way that specific design elements translate to the LEGO medium so as to objectively portray actual structures. Buttliere’s process involves studying photographs of the real-world landmark to establish colors and textures for his model. He then uses Google Earth 3D to take precise measurements as each model is created at a scale of approximately 1/650. This interplay among architectural forms and corresponding LEGO pieces is evident in Buttliere’s construction of a fully functioning suspension model of the Golden Gate Bridge, showcased at the 2017 BrickUniverse. At one end of the bridge, Buttliere has imitated organic textures of dirt and rock through brown and green bricks that protrude outward in multiple directions, drawing a resemblance to the jagged coastlines of San Francisco Bay (Figure 2.3). Likewise, the artist employs cylindrical LEGO pieces to recreate the bridge’s main cables and ones with cross-hatching to give the impression of steel beams undergirding the road. In this process of using specific LEGO to articulate form following function, Buttliere says that


FIGURE 2.3  Rocco Buttliere, Golden Gate Bridge, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Rocco Buttliere. some of it [building] is just imagination and on the spot, and that’s no less valuable I think because it helps you use stuff that isn’t necessarily meant to replicate what you’re replicating, but you’re using it anyway . . . my thing is realism, but then there’s sort of respecting the [LEGO] elements to kind of not necessarily be a true depiction, but it’s like a true depiction of the medium in a way. (Buttliere 2016) With these architectural renderings by Lopes and Buttliere, we can think of building with LEGO as a process of generating strange perception of things in the world through the relational likenesses they produce. To borrow Hansen’s term, such works elicit a type of sensual “miscognition” among, for instance, LEGO and the rocky coastline, or LEGO and the gothic ornamentation of a skyscraper. The techniques that Lopes and Buttliere employ in these processes of LEGOfication elicit embodied, affective interactions in the way visual textures mirror real-world architecture and landscapes. Working in a similar technique, artist Mike Doyle uses LEGO to create hyperdetailed models of residential homes that have experienced the realities of urban decay. In his series of dilapidated homes, the artist constructs each model and portrays its neglected state through photographic documentation. Doyle mentions that his works often produce visual textures through brick combinations: I can create innumerable types of textures, which give each of my pieces a unique look. I can use elements to mimic bark, rotting wood, grass, weeds,

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


roots, snow, mud, building ornamentation, endless varieties of rocks and boulders, and on and on. . . . For me this means transforming hard, plastic mechanical forms that seem impossibly organic and natural. (Doyle 2015, 144) For instance, Doyle’s Victorian on Mud Heap shows an old three-story home ravaged by time and neglect, positioned on top of a pile of debris. Doyle reconstructs this mud heap by loosely piling black, white, and grey bricks upon each other, mirroring the appearance of earth mixed with trash and rubble that have fallen from the home. More so, the siding of the house is constructed from flat, non-studded bricks with some that have been attached at crooked angles, suggesting the look of weatherboards that have deteriorated with age. From the same series, Doyle’s Two Story with Basement portrays a home that appears charred black from fire and covered in blankets of snow. Here, the artist uses various black bricks to indicate the burnt foundation of the home contrasted with white and translucent pieces that give the impression of snow drifts and ice along the building’s roof and windows. Hanging from the awning of the home’s front porch, Doyle incorporates columns of translucent and white single stud pieces that resemble icicles. Each model of crumbling home speaks to themes of life’s unpredictability and impermanence. Doyle mentions that just as a home functions as a safe haven, so do larger religious, political, and social frameworks through which we find security. Yet, these structures, whether home, church, or government are fragile: “Foundations give way. . . . Our safe havens betray us” (Doyle 2011, np). For the viewer, the impermanence of Doyle’s broken-down homes is taken up in mimetic plays of natural (snow, mud, dead trees) and structural (siding, lattice, awnings) textures that appear to precisely replicate the urban decay of once affluent neighborhoods. With a focus on integrating LEGO into real architectural elements, Jan Vormann’s project Dispatchwork employs combinations of bricks to generate plays of visual textures along actual city streets. An ongoing project since 2007, Vormann and a global network of participants work to repair city walls using colorful patchworks of LEGO bricks. Each repair is documented and featured on a website that uses Google Maps to track its location. Vormann’s project at once experiments with diffuse and collective modes of creative production as well as plays with the relationship among LEGO as a children’s toy with global recognition and LEGO as an alternative building material. For example, in one of the repairs made in the streets of Paris, bricks of multiple colors were used to fill in areas along an old wall where the original mortar had fallen away. Here, swatches of LEGO pieces blend in with the surrounding wall to produce a kind of disjunctive relation among the textures of toy and stone (Figure 2.4).


FIGURE 2.4  Jan Vormann, Dispatchwork (Paris), since 2007. Photograph courtesy of Similarly, in another instantiation of the project on the streets of Valparaiso, Vormann et al. use LEGOs to fill in several capstones that have fallen away. LEGO pieces have been stacked along the top of the wall to reconstruct the capstones, blending in with the adjacent balcony (Figure 2.5). With Dispatchwork, mimesis is made possible through a bricolage among plastic bricks, stone, and the surrounding cityscape in which LEGO elements emulate walls, generating a kind of sensuous affinity between toy building block and the city’s architecture. Due to the modularity of their interlocking bricks, LEGO sets are often seen as impermanent compared to lasting materials used in actual structures such a brick, stone, and cement. In the 1950s, some of the earliest LEGO sets to employ interlocking bricks with a stud and tube design served as architectural model kits, allowing children to construct houses and small cities. Yet, here Vormann plays with the impermanence of LEGO by using bricks to repair permanent structures in the real world. Sensual experiences of mimesis are realized in the way LEGO bricks function as an analog to permanent building materials, specifically in how Vormann uses LEGO bricks as a replacement for actual structures to scale. As I address in the following section, these plays of mimesis that unfold among architectural sites and their forms replicated by artists in LEGO point to a broader tradition within the avant-garde through which the aesthetic use of commodities expresses irony and satire.

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


FIGURE 2.5 Jan Vormann, Dispatchwork (Valparaiso), since 2007. Photograph courtesy of

Irony and Satire in LEGO Art As a commodity repurposed as an art form, LEGO has permeated discourses within the contemporary artworld, namely through traditions of pop art. Problematizing the pluralism of contemporary art, or rather an excess of interpretation, styles, genres, techniques, Boris Groys argues that the artworld is undergirded not by pluralistic taste and democratic equality but instead by a logic of paradox (Groys 2008). That is to say, art objects throughout the latter half of the twentieth century communicate both “thesis and antithesis” in that such works at once affirm and undermine a concept within the same gesture. For instance, Andy Warhol’s stacks of Brillo boxes or Lichtenstein’s comic book imagery are at once seen as commodities within mass culture as well as aesthetic objects within the context of the museum or gallery. Groys calls such artworks paradox objects, or those that embody a dual ontology of both art and nonart. Paradox objects project an illusion of “infinite plurality”; yet, as Groys argues, the value of contemporary art is in its inherent self-contradiction and capacity to elicit paradoxical meaning: it contributes to “establishing or maintaining the perfect balance of power between thesis and antithesis” (2–3). Here, we can consider LEGO-based artwork as an embodiment of the self-contradiction that Groys describes: it simultaneously presents itself as a toy commodity and sculptural object. Speaking to the paradoxical nature of contemporary art after the Second World War, Kirk Varnedoe argues that modes of abstraction in pop art worked to directly negate and contradict the idealism


of previous modernist movements (Varnedoe 2003). Through strategies of irony, pop art took aim at the pretentions of abstraction expressionism that came before it, attempting to, in Groys’s terms, resituate flows of power in the artworld by providing an antithesis to the high modernism of the 1950s. As Varnedoe suggests of pop art’s contradictory nature, And thus begins a series of thrusts and parries between abstract and nonabstract artists in the twentieth century in which the supposedly high, unique, invented forms of abstraction are constantly subverted or demolished by other artists who see them as being perilously close to cheap, commonplace, commercial, and mass-produced artifacts. (Varnedoe 2003) As an example, Roy Lichtenstein sought to contradict the idealized art forms of his contemporaries in his work Keds (1961): a playful image of the iconic high-top sneakers in which geometric dashes and lines cover one of the soles (Figure 2.6). Through satire, Lichtenstein targets what he sees as the elitism of artists like Victor Vasarely and his idealized, geometric patterns. When

FIGURE 2.6 Roy Lichtenstein, Keds, 1962, graphite pencil, graphite rubbing on paper. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


Vasarely sought to produce a kind of democratic art that worked directly upon the optic nerve through formal illusions, Lichtenstein’s sneakers show similar geometries on their soles, implying that art’s democratic possibilities are not found in the pretensions of Vasarely’s idealized forms but rather in a shared experience of commodities and market exchange. Varnedoe argues that a “heroic irony” is at play in Lichtenstein’s work, one suggesting “that a society should rally around what is most inclusive and commonplace, that we are ill-served by idealism, by symbolism, and by separating ourselves from the ordinary by means of pedestals” (Varnedoe 2003). In more contemporary forms of pop aesthetics, artists have appropriated this collectively shared language of mass consumerism that we see in Lichtenstein’s work to implement particular forms of social and political critique through ironic and satirical means. In her assessment of pop art and its relation to feminist art throughout the 1960s, Martha Rosler argues that pop communicated its irony through a series of lacks as well as an “absence of an answering culture of resistance” (Rosler 2006, 95). In disrupting former paradigms of artistic production, pop art was largely systemic: it relied on a fast language of mass culture and advertising, an impersonal channel of communication among image and receiver (97). In terms of its absences, “Pop was rationalist / antiexpressionist, cool and nonpartisan; it was literalist / antitranscendent / antimetaphoric; impersonal and chosen rather than authored; bounded rather than open-ended; sociological rather than metaphysical; synchronic rather than diachronic” (99). As Rosler explains, although pop and feminist works of the time found common ground through an emphasis on the social self and private life in relation to mass commodification and conformity, feminist art focused on gender and “the politics of domination in all of social life, whether personal or public” (100). Conversely, as Rosler argues, pop art presents a vague critique of social and political issues, one that isn’t overtly apparent and realized only if the viewer can perceive such a critique through bright, fast, and accessible pop imagery. As an example of contemporary pop art and its implementation of social and political critique through irony, the LEGO portraits in Weiwei’s Letgo Room work within traditions of what is known as “Political Pop” in the Chinese avant-garde. As a style and movement that emerged in China during the late 1980s, political pop operates through tactics of irony similar to American pop art, often appropriating imagery from the Cultural Revolution or Socialist Realism. Chinese artists such as Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, and Wu Shanzhuan combined communist propaganda with consumer imagery to address the contentions among China’s political ideologies and increasing globalization (Minglu 1993, 19). Like Lichtenstein’s Keds or Weiwei’s LEGO portraits, I argue that certain forms of contemporary LEGO art draw from a similar genealogy


of self-contradiction and irony within traditions of pop art, especially in the ways such works challenge the reception of contemporary art forms by articulating itself as a commodity toy. Rather, through its paradoxical status, LEGObased art prompts us to consider our material relationships to everyday things through sensual forms of mimesis. In the models of Lopes and Buttliere, this mode of “heroic irony” is apparent in our mimetic response to the complex technical design of each work and their construction with LEGO bricks. In Vormann’s Dispatchwork, self-contradiction is at work in the weaving together of LEGO as a children’s toy and a functional building material integrated into the surrounding city infrastructure. In Doyle’s mansions, combinations of LEGO that become an uprooted dead tree, ice, heaps of debris and mud, or siding that barely hangs to building’s façade reflect the artist’s ability to transfer appearances in the world into corresponding colors, textures, and shapes through the modality of the bricks. Yet, these mimetic operations also play with the inversion of LEGO as a bright and colorful children’s toy into dreary, abandoned homes. Here, experiences of “fun” typically associated with LEGO have been drained, negated by the artist through the rendering of these now forgotten homes that perhaps once belonged to an upper-class neighborhood in Detroit or Cleveland, or another rust belt city experiencing the hardships of economic depression. Similarly, Belfast artist David Turner employs strategies of irony as political critique in his LEGO Firearms, a collective series of historical machineguns, rifles, and pistols constructed from LEGO. Each gun is built by the artist based on freely available designs by LEGO creator Jack Streat and other enthusiasts as well as schematics included on BrickGun. As a process of appropriation, the series culminated in an installation called LEGO Gun Shop (2015). Turner’s LEGO guns speak to themes of war and terrorism present in the artist’s childhood and more broadly upon the horrors and glorification of war. Through an autobiographical stance, Turner uses the playful qualities of LEGO—toys that were popular during this youth—to comment on the volatile politics in Belfast throughout the 1970s (Turner n.d.). As a child, Turner recalls attending kindergarten in Belfast’s Sandy Row area, considered a heartland for Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitaries. Although Turner’s school held a policy that disallowed toy guns, the artist mentions that being a boy the first thing I did was run to the LEGO box and make a toy gun. The appropriation of designs and creation of the LEGO gun collection is an adult recreation of those childhood memories. The display of the work laid out on a table top also mirrors the press photos of captured weapons often displayed by the British Army and the RUC (police force) after an early morning raid. (Turner, Email to Author, 2019)

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


Here, I would argue that the paradoxical reception of Turner’s LEGO guns unfolds within the embodied forms of mimesis that misconstrue historical gun models as playful LEGO counterparts. For one, Turner’s brick guns intentionally work within gendered norms of play, or rather the way a young boy might gravitate toward building a gun as an expression of masculine identity. In Turner’s Brick Gun that replicates a Desert Eagle pistol, the artist uses instructions from the BrickGun website to build the gun’s barrel using round LEGO bricks and a single stud piece to mimic the appearance of its sight (Figure 2.7). In another Brick Gun that replicates a Python .357 Magnum, Turner recreates the pistol’s spinning cylinder using clusters of round bricks while slanted roof tile pieces compose the rounded grip of the gun (Figure 2.8). In these instances of mimesis, irony is realized in a conflicting dialogue among the severity of war and violence that each historical gun model projects relative to the innocence of a children’s toy that their construction with LEGO implies: a contradiction that mirrors Turner’s playful childhood memories amid the backdrop of a politically turbulent Northern Ireland. To return to Sawaya and West’s In Pieces, the multimedia collaboration among the artists serves to articulate the sometimes self-contradictory nature of contemporary art through a playful contrast among digital and “materially digital,”2 physical media. To recall, Sawaya’s LEGO sculptures of mundane things are photographed by West and composited into existing landscapes, serving as an illusion of the actual objects that each sculpture represents through arrangements of bricks. Within the gallery, Sawaya’s sculptures are displayed next to West’s photographs, providing a reference to the sculpture’s appearance in each tableau. As the artists indicate, the building of a LEGO

FIGURE 2.7 David Turner, Brick Gun. Photograph courtesy of BELFASTARTS



FIGURE 2.8 David Turner, Brick Gun. Photograph courtesy of BELFASTARTS


sculpture is similar to composing a digital photograph in that “thousands of bricks are glued together to form recognizable objects much like the assembly of pixels in a digital image” (Sawaya and West n.d., “About”). Here, I would argue that Sawaya and West intentionally work to muddy the distinction among the physical and digital qualities of LEGO as a medium. In In Pieces, this confluence among digital pixels and plastic bricks—both of which compose an image through their individual units—is realized through plays of mimesis that simultaneously position LEGO as an analog and digital medium through its modularity. That is to say, LEGO bricks bear an analogical relationship to one another in that they interlock through corresponding studs and depressions. Yet, they also possess a certain digital materiality in that interlocking bricks can be combined in multiple ways to produce a series of objects. For instance, in Sawaya’s Large Cloud (2012), the artist constructs a white, cartoon-like cloud with curves constructed through bricks that make up spherical forms (Figure 2.9). The cloud’s texture is at once ridged and uneven, yet billowy, giving at certain aesthetic of pixilation. Sawaya’s cloud and other sculptures possess a low-resolution or low-fi quality. Its rough and choppy contours are reminiscent of the 8-bit clouds in an early console game like Super Mario Bros. (1985). More so, Sawaya’s cloud bears a similar iconicity to the pixelated clouds in media artist Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2002): a modified version of Super Mario Bros. in which all content has been stripped away except for the game’s familiar clouds, which continually scroll across a blue sky. West’s corresponding photograph Hotel (2012) portrays two women, a housekeeper and guest poised rigidly in the parking lot of an interstate motel

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


FIGURE 2.9 Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Large Cloud, 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection.

FIGURE 2.10  Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Hotel, 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection. (Figure 2.10). To the far right of the image above the hotel, Sawaya’s Large Cloud floats along with actual clouds among the backdrop of a mountain range and blue sky. Closest to the viewer within the perspectival space of the photograph, it is obvious that Sawaya’s Large Cloud is materialized from discrete units of bricks. In other words, we can discern that it is composed of LEGO. Receding into the background is another Large Cloud whose pixilation in LEGO is not as evident. The viewer must work to decode whether the cloud is a natural element of the landscape captured by the camera or an artificial construction in LEGO bricks (a detail of the clouds in West and Sawaya’s Hotel is featured on this book’s cover). Similarly, hidden next to the housekeeper is


Sawaya’s Bucket (2012) whose small presence within the photograph blurs its status as a LEGO model or constituent pixels of the whole image. In Sawaya and West’s Dress (2012), a similar paradox among the materiality of brick and pixel is at play. Sawaya’s sculpture Dress (2012) portrays a sumptuous red evening dress whose textures of creases and folds rendered in LEGO appear to ripple in the wind (Figure 2.11). In the gallery, Sawaya displays the sculpture so that individual bricks appear to dissipate and break away from its billowing skirt (Figure 2.12).

FIGURE 2.11  Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Dress, 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection.

FIGURE 2.12  Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Dress (Installation view), 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection.

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


Positioned next to Sawaya’s Dress is West’s tableau, also titled Dress, in which we see the red evening gown worn by a young woman standing outside a movie theater, clutching her body for warmth amid falling snow ­(Figure 2.13). Similar to the mimetic interplay among Large Cloud and its appearance in Hotel, Sawaya and West suggest that Dress holds a dual ontological relationship as an analog and digital medium. In the photograph, the LEGO dress is blown by gusts of wind, causing its illusory fabric to dematerialize brick by brick into the night air. As the dress falls away, each red brick begins to blend with the surrounding snowflakes. That is to say, the bricks bleed into the pixels of the image, becoming indistinguishable from them. Here, selfcontradiction in Sawaya and West’s work is evident in the subtle ways we recognize LEGO sculpture within the photograph as an analogical medium composed of plastic bricks and as a digitally rendered component made of pixels. LEGO possesses a digital materiality through its modular design that is reinforced by the sculpture’s appearance in each photographic tableau. Through sensual forms of mimesis, brick and pixel become interchangeable units which are foregrounded by juxtaposing each sculpture with its related photograph in the gallery. For instance, by hanging several clouds from the ceiling and displaying their corresponding photograph in front of the sculptures and across the gallery space, Sawaya and West engage the viewer in a playful mode of interaction, a process of interpreting what is objectively photographic and what is constructed in plastic brick (Figure 2.14). More so,

FIGURE 2.13  Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Dress, 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection.


FIGURE 2.14  Nathan Sawaya and Dean West, Clouds (Installation view), 2012. In Pieces. Photograph courtesy of In Pieces Collection. these playful illusions among brick and pixel are communicated by obscuring LEGO works within the photograph. Certainly, we recognize some of the mundane objects in each image as LEGO through their low-resolution rendering via bricks: the rough and blocky textures of Large Cloud as it floats among natural clouds or the bricks that seemingly evaporate behind the rippling forms of Dress. However, within the paradoxical spaces of Sawaya’s and West’s In Pieces, the viewer must also determine whether objects like Bucket or the remaining LEGO clouds are real objects or artificial counterparts.

(Not) Playing It Safe Yet, to return once more to pop art and its implementation of social critique, in these self-contradictory modes afforded by LEGO-based art and its commodity aesthetic, we might ask what is at stake for artists who choose to not play it safe and instead use LEGO to interrogate current social and political issues via a child’s toy? What would it mean for artistic communities of practice to work outside the boundaries that the LEGO Group as a commercial entity has dictated for the use of its product? It is easy to think of playing with LEGO as a contained and local practice: an activity that is imaginative, localized, and as the LEGO Group mission suggests, one that aims to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow through creative play” (LEGO Group n.d., “About Us”). However, it’s

The Aesthetic Work of LEGO


important to note that the political stakes of the LEGO Group’s mission and its flows of affect, desire, and capital work beyond these individual microcosms of play. As the world’s largest toy company and with brand recognition across multiple transmedia, LEGO is engaged within a complex global economy in which company interests are channeled toward capital gain. Within Benjamin’s critique of media, just as cinema possessed the ability to palliate destructive forms of politics and social life in the presence of the modern industrial world, we may consider ironic uses of LEGO within contemporary art as a way both to work within and to subvert capitalist, global economies. To examine the role of LEGO in these modes of social and political critique, I return once more to Ai Weiwei’s controversial work Letgo Room (2015) at the National Gallery of Victoria in which the artist used approximately three million “plastic building blocks” to construct, as Weiwei calls it, a temple honoring twenty Australian political activists. The temple room included LEGO portraits of individuals who have advocated for human rights within areas of academia and law, social injustices for indigenous populations, as well as for the LGBTIQ+ community, sex workers, and those applying for asylum. Along with their portrait, each activist included a statement articulating their worldview and philosophical stance on human rights (Prugger 2018). More so than the vague sociopolitical critique of pop art during the 1960s, Weiwei’s use of plastic building blocks to render colorful portraits of human rights activists does point to an overtly political agenda spoken through the language of mass culture. To recall, LEGO refused to provide Weiwei with bulk orders of its bricks for the construction of Letgo Room on the grounds that they would be used for political means. In response, the artist posted the company’s rejection letter on his Instagram account along with a photograph of LEGO bricks clogging up a toilet, its rim signed “R. Mutt 2015”: a citation to Duchamp’s infamous Fountain. Weiwei would further accuse the LEGO company of censorship and blatant discrimination, claiming that their reasons for refusing bulk orders was to protect business relations the company had forged in China. LEGO would deny these claims. Amid the controversy of the project, Weiwei secured millions of generic building blocks produced in China to finish Letgo Room, further exploring themes of reproduction, labor politics, and global economics. The artist was assisted by roughly one hundred volunteers to finish the work: a process integral to the installation’s political messages of social change through grassroots activism (Prugger 2018). By rendering portraits of human rights activists in colorful knockoff LEGO bricks, Weiwei’s Letgo Room entertains a playful irony between social injustice and a global toy company whose capitalist agenda, as Weiwei asserts, is to an extent complicit in hindering freedom of speech. Most importantly, Weiwei’s installation is informed by the politics of artistic process that unfolded when


the artist’s studio butted heads with LEGO throughout 2015. LEGO’s refusal to sell in bulk became a fundamental component of the work through the artist’s public denouncement of LEGO on Instagram as well as starting a campaign to gather donations for used LEGO bricks by way of drop-off areas at the National Gallery of Victoria and abroad. Here, what Weiwei’s Letgo Room shows us is that as a globally recognizable commodity, a cultural ­artifact, and an artistic medium, LEGO and its integration into contemporary art forms holds the potential to critique the unproductive social and political conditions in which we live. In these contexts, it is the aesthetic work of LEGO—sensations of mimesis that emerge from its inherent self-contradiction—that affords artists the capacity to not play it safe and build outside the commercial limitations of the LEGO trademark.

Bibliography Benjamin, Walter. “On the Mimetic Faculty.” In Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone and others, 720–722. Cambridge: Belknap, 2005. Benjamin, Walter. “‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Second Version.” In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others, 19–55. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. Buttliere, Rocco. Interview by Eddie Lohmeyer and Sarah Evans, April 2, 2016, BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Doyle, Mike. Beautiful LEGO. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2015. Doyle, Mike. “Lego: Victorian on Mud Heap.” Flickr. September 28, 2011. Accessed April 30, 2019, https​://ww​w.fli​ckr.c​om/ph​otos/​79315​59@N0​8/619​28354​32/in​/ phot​ostre​am/. Groys, Boris. Art Power. London: MIT Press, 2008. Hansen, Miriam. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. The LEGO Group. “About Us.” About Us Accessed June 06, 2019, Lopes, Jonathan. Interview by Eddie Lohmeyer and Nicholas Taylor, April 2, 2016, BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Lopes, Jonathan. Interview by Eddie Lohmeyer and Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017, BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Minglu, Gao “Chronology of Chinese Avant-Garde Art, 1979–1993.” In Fragmented Memory: The Chinese Avant-garde in Exile, edited by Julia Frances. Andrews and Gao Minglu. Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, 1993.

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Prugger, Katharina. “Ai Weiwei Letgo Room.” NGV. December 20, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.ngv​.vic.​gov.a​u/ess​ay/ai​-weiw​ei-le​tgo-r​oom/.​ Rosler, Martha. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. Sawaya, Nathan, and Dean West. “In Pieces.” ABOUT. n.d. Accessed April 18, 2019, http:​//www​.inpi​ecesc​ollec​tion.​com/a​bout.​html.​ Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Accessed April 25, 2019, https​://so​urceb​ooks.​fordh​ am.ed​u/mod​/schi​ller-​educa​tion.​asp. Tan, Monica. “LEGO: Refusing to Sell Bricks to Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Was a Mistake.” The Guardian. April 28, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2019. https​://ww​ w.the​guard​ian.c​om/ar​tandd​esign​/2016​/apr/​28/le​go-se​ll-br​icks-​chine​se-ar​tist-​ ai-we​iwei-​mista​ke. Turner, David. “” n.d. Accessed May 05, 2019. Varnedoe, Kirk. “Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock, Part 5: Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art.” Lecture, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., May 4, 2003.

3 Band of Builders Jessica Elam


ining up outside a set of double doors inside the Raleigh Convention Center, BrickUniverse 2016 attendees present their tickets to convention staff and move through a short corridor, emerging onto a balcony overlooking the Exhibit Hall. While the 150,000 square feet of space is filled with eyecatching booths, displays, and activity centers, front and center stands a semicircle of six massive portraits on easels, surrounded by three walls of bright red cloth. A strange dissonance emanates from the portraits—they’re not lovingly crafted renderings of beloved fictional characters in minifig form, as we expected to see at a LEGO hobbyist convention. Rather, the six stylized, head-and-shoulders, grayscale images centrally placed for none to miss depict famous military officers of the Second World War (Figure 3.1). An outsider to the LEGO hobbyist community might be briefly confused, until their eyes are drawn just to the left of the display, resting on a massive LEGO battleship, the pièce de résistance within the area allocated to custom LEGO kit and accessory vendor Brickmania. The battleship doesn’t stand alone. In fact, all of Brickmania’s models on display reflect their catalog. Military-themed, the majority are based on actual weapons, equipment, vehicles, and events that occurred, or in some cases are still occurring, in major global conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Figure 3.2). Further exploration of the convention space reveals that Brickmania’s model kits are not the only custom offerings. One can equip their minifigs with a variety of weapons and other accessories, manufactured by companies like BrickArms and sold at several vendor booths across the convention space.

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FIGURE 3.1 The BrickUniverse 2016 Convention Space. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Elam.

FIGURE 3.2  Brickmania model sets. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Elam. This niche fills a gap in the market that LEGO artists and aftermarket customizers are happy to fill, as the LEGO Group has an official policy stating they will never produce realistic weapons or military equipment (Puiu 2019). Certainly, LEGO’s stance and the hobbyist community’s response raise questions about the political ramifications of representing modern military conflicts through what is, at its core, a children’s toy—especially the technologies that contributed to catastrophic death tolls in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history. In this chapter, the network of the adult LEGO craftspeople and enthusiasts


who produce and consume customized, military-themed LEGO serves as a case study to illuminate the ways in which participants are becoming subjects within this community. Essentially, I explore what enables people, LEGO, and elements of the environment in which they engage to come together in an arrangement known as an “adult LEGO hobbyist” or, more specifically here, an “adult military-themed/after-market/custom LEGO enthusiast.” This is not a kind of a static arrangement in the sense of an individual person’s passions and preferences, but rather is defined by the conditions and processes that make custom, military-themed LEGO hobbyism possible in the first place, as a set of dynamic arrangements between multiple components, both human and nonhuman. Such arrangements constantly shift as engagements with the material (LEGO), social (the enthusiast community), and historical (military conflict) contexts change. Thinking about it this way entails an examination of “synthetic subjectivations” (Wiley and Elam 2018), a term meant to draw attention to the logics that influence the processes and the interconnections between components of the arrangement (or assemblage; see Hayles 2016). In LEGOfied terms, this means asking how our understandings of ourselves (as LEGO hobbyists, military enthusiasts, etc.) get constructed, and according to which sets of instructions. Case studies such as this one may illuminate the context in which these processes occur, while specifically understanding what, in particular, holds this group of military-minded LEGO makers and fans—this Band of Builders—together (roll credits). This chapter is guided by two overarching considerations. First, I examine the infrastructure in place to support the creating, buying, and selling of aftermarket, military-themed LEGO products.1 Here I look at how practices and arrangements in this infrastructure lead to the establishment of certain authority figures and standard practices in the manipulation and customization of LEGO around military settings and themes. Second, I look at how LEGO’s material properties intervene on physiology and cognition, and how this leads to the Band of Builders producing the knowledge necessary to translate other forms of military related media (history books, war movies) into the kinds of LEGOfied versions we encountered at BrickUniverse.2 I ask what it is about the material capacities of LEGO—their properties as “materially digital medium,” as Kate Maddalena calls them in her chapter—that enable and/or constrain these practices and processes, and when/how they either limit what’s possible or open up new possibilities for communicating particular expressions of militarism through LEGO. With these considerations in mind, this chapter explores three questions: (1) What makes military-themed kits and accessories especially prominent among the LEGO hobbyist communities we encountered at BrickUniverse,

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and a significant presence both on the LEGO convention circuit and among the communities that make and collect aftermarket and customized LEGO? (2) Among broader networks of enthusiasts, including Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs), who traffic in sharing and circulating their resources and creations (My Own Creations, or MOCs), how does the selling of these military models for high prices fit in, and what’s the relation to custom brick or brick-purchasing sources? and (3) What are the influencing logics that govern subjectivity—the ways people themselves get constructed—among this Band of Builders? To address these questions, I’ll first discuss specific aspects of military-themed LEGO manufacturers, vendors, and their customers, then examine practices and processes involved in the manufacture and selling of custom kits and instructions, and finally review the dominant logics influencing the processes of becoming “LEGOfied” in militarized modes.

Bringing the Band (of Builders) Together Dan Siskind is the owner of Brickmania, a major manufacturer, vendor, and display-maker of military-themed aftermarket LEGO. Siskind is a central authority in the community, and through his perspectives and experiences we can comprehend the foundational ingredients that compose the Band of Builders—this network of LEGO enthusiasts who just happen to be into the military (and vice versa). Siskind’s entry into this business began with his MOC of a medieval forge, creating ten kits and placing them for sale on eBay, at a point when adult LEGO enthusiasts were “an underground internet LEGO community” and when eBay itself was not yet the behemoth it is today (Siskind 2016). After the creation of the site BrickShelf in 1998, a space where enthusiasts could post pictures of their MOCs and engage in discussion, Siskind began posting photos of his creations, one of which was a LEGO tank. As he received more requests for military-themed designs, he discovered (and indeed, fed) this burgeoning niche market and began to focus entirely on creating military-themed kits. It grew from a hobby with benefits to a full-time business, including a production warehouse, a $5,000 laser printer, and paid employees to contribute to design and sales. At BrickUniverse 2016, Siskind described to us his process of creating new military-themed kits using aftermarket LEGO pieces. First, he and his team conduct research using his large “research library” of military history books, schematics, and other visual representations, on which he has spent a not insignificant amount of money. His rigorous use of this source material reflects a concern for accurate representation, not just for the military


veterans but also for the history buffs: “There’s always somebody that knows a little bit more about a certain thing that we do and we have to try to not make too many red lights go off” (Siskind 2016). Having amassed this archive, Siskind is constantly adding to it in order to achieve the highest level of accuracy possible in Brickmania’s LEGOfied products. Brickmania distributes its products online, in a physical storefront (with multiple new locations opening in 2019), and on the road at various conventions. It also acts as one of many arms dealers (or rather, “authorized resellers”) for BrickArms’ custom modern military weapons and accessories—a close and imperative collaboration that gives Brickmania and other custom kit and minifig makers a steady supply of LEGOfied machine guns, rifles, and artillery rounds that the LEGO Group won’t produce. Sites like Bricklink (which multiple interviewees at BrickUniverse described as the “LEGO eBay”) and the similar Brick Owl provide a source to obtain aftermarket bricks needed for these kits. Brickmania’s business gets exposure and advertising through its message board and other community sites, but earns authority through convention and museum exhibits where the skills of its designers and builders are on full display, next to stacks of business cards with their website and physical store location. With these facets of the infrastructure in place—the aftermarket players, their resources and collaborations, and the distribution channels for advertising and selling products—a crucial element is necessary to ensure its continued existence: the consumer base that provides the demand for these specific, niche products.

Military Play and Display: The Niche Market and Supply and Demand As mentioned previously, LEGO’s official policy is not to create “realistic” military-themed kits or accessories. When asked about this policy at BrickUniverse 2016, Siskind suggested that LEGO doesn’t necessarily take issue with creating products reflective of warfare, but rather with reproducing depictions of actual events that occurred in the twentieth century. According to Siskind, it’s a wholly political and geographical concern: “I think it’s purely a Danish company selling to a German market . . . [which] touches on a lot . . . if you remember, Denmark was on the other side, the Axis side, in WWII” (Siskind 2016). To illustrate, one can purchase official LEGO kits from a prolific catalog of battle scenes and futuristic/fictional combat equipment, vehicles, and weapons that reflect scenes and characters from the Star Wars and various superhero franchises. In addition, the LEGO Kingdoms and Castle lines

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featured quasi-realistic medieval hand-to-hand and siege weapons, along with sets to build a variety of combat sequences (both were discontinued in the 2010s and replaced by the much more sci-fi/fantasy inspired Nexo Knights). The LEGO Group’s line in the sand is further blurred by their production of modern weaponry, such as a tommy gun, found in sets included in its Cars 2, Batman, and Indiana Jones lines (the latter, a movie series taking place during the Second World War). So, they’re not shying away from producing realistic weaponry or designs, but rather ensuring they frame the context in very specific ways; it’s almost as if these franchises provide cover for LEGO to make and sell military minifig weaponry. In the LEGO Group’s statement regarding weapons and conflict in LEGO sets, they specifically address children’s LEGO experiences and their effort to keep children’s play “in the realm of fantasy” and “maintain the right balance between play and conflict”; they go on to point to their desire to “not be associated with issues that glorify conflicts and unethical or harmful behavior” (Puiu 2019, np). As such, the specific contexts in which aftermarket retailers frame their military-themed kits are crucial in filling a supply gap in the market, but also begs the question regarding the source of demand. The customer base for these products shares roots in other forms of hobbyism and model-building (e.g., glue and paint) that have largely focused on military vehicles and scenes. Beyond the vendors of military-themed LEGO kits, several fan-builders at BrickUniverse proudly displayed their models of Second World War–era military aircraft. Siskind even commented in 2016 on his use of 1/35th scale, “a common modeling scale” that follows broader conventions of military modeling (Siskind 2017). This is a notable move through which Brickmania positions its products as historically accurate military models for construction, collection, and display, downplaying the recombinatory potentials of LEGO—though it is this potential that makes LEGOfied tanks, artillery guns, and planes possible in the first place. Creators such as Brickmania and BrickArms and their vendors cater to a customer base occupying an interesting intersection of history buff and LEGO enthusiast, similar in some ways to model plane or model ship hobbyists. Siskind stated a much wider variety of customers are interested in his products, including “a lot of professionals . . . [who] start out buying it for their kids but then they end up becoming the collectors and professionals like doctors, lawyers and then academics . . . we do have professors that buy from us . . . we have teachers that use it for teaching aids in school” (Siskind 2017). Military hobbyists and LEGO collectors aren’t the only ones in demand of these models. Siskind discussed how he and his team create larger models for display at conventions and museums, initially prompted by museum requests. Here we can see some connections to broader culture. For example,


at BrickUniverse 2017, I observed parents or grandparents and children looking over the massive displays—in particular a large-scale LEGO diorama of Omaha Beach, one of the landing grounds for the Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, commonly referred to as “D-Day.” This diorama garnered attendees’ comparisons to other reenactments of these historical events, including a reference to the film Saving Private Ryan. According to Siskind, these displays are “a way for people to start a conversation,” reflected in older generations telling the younger about the historical veracity of the scene (e.g., “this really happened” when referring to Omaha Beach), invoking both discussions of history and nostalgia for the “Greatest Generation.” Siskind even referenced the Second World War veterans that attend events, who “get teary eyes, and they’re all like, ‘I remember this, and I was here . . . this is my gun during the war’” (Siskind 2016). This sentiment was reflected by another vendor we met at BrickUniverse, an authorized reseller of BrickArms, Brickmania, and other custom makers that sells at gun shows as well as LEGO events. This vendor claimed that military veterans of various conflicts, along with law enforcement agents, would often tell him “thank you, we needed this . . . this is the gun I carried when I was in the Army or when I was a police officer” (Vendor 2016). Given the deeply held experiential, emotional, and nostalgic connections made by these customers, it’s important for vendors to pay close attention to the accuracy of their models. While historical accuracy is key to these products, when it comes to the event displays, the creators leave room for playfulness, inserting a number of “Easter Eggs”3 into their large-scale models and scenes. At BrickUniverse 2017, Siskind explained, “We sneak them in everywhere because it’s fun; the thing is the kids have to be interested” (Siskind 2017). Katriina Heljakka’s discussion of adult toy collectors suggests that while collection and display are partially viewed as more serious play endeavors, as opposed to child-like play, adult practices of display are nonetheless often deeply playful, including “dressing-up, customizing (and otherwise crafting), creating stories (through e.g., photoplay and stop-motion animations), ‘world-playing’ (creating displays, decorating doll houses, and scripting doll-dramas) and toy tourism, that is, traveling with toys” (Heljakka 2018, 13). The Easter Eggs I observed peppered among Brickmania’s massive dioramas represented several of these types of (dis)play, and appealed to both children and adults alike. Within the Omaha Beach diorama, one could spot Captain America riding a motorcycle up the beach toward the German machine gun nests, sharks attacking allied soldiers in the waters (reminiscent of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, famously described in a fictional retelling by the character Quint in the movie Jaws), and Ariel from The Little Mermaid hanging out just offshore. Likewise, aboard the USS Missouri battleship model were two sailor minifigs standing at the bow

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of the ship in the position of Jack and Rose in Titanic, Steven Segal from the movie Under Siege (in which the USS Missouri was the setting), and singer Cher, who shot a music video aboard the actual battleship in 1990 (much to the Navy’s great dismay upon viewing the final product). A Vietnam War display includes a yellow submarine (Figure 3.3), and Colonel Kilgore’s stolen surfboard aboard a patrol boat from the film Apocalypse Now. A Battle of the Bulge diorama featured Olaf the snowman from Frozen being built by German soldiers, and wearing a German helmet and holding a German weapon. The majority of these Easter Eggs are fun and light-hearted nods to pop culture (save the not-so-lighthearted nod of sharks devouring soldiers), made possible by LEGO’s recombinatory aesthetic and its involvement in a multitude of transmedia franchise licenses. At the same time, particular details of the diorama’s more realistic aspects raise some other questions about a sort of historical version control. Alongside playful elements meant to give people a laugh or draw children’s attention is the depiction of violence in what is essentially a children’s toy. Within the Omaha Beach scene, there were minifigs with legs separated from torsos amid scattered, tiny red blocks representing blood, those tiny red blocks also littering the sea of blue in the waters of the landing zone. It also included a German soldier who was, it appeared, wielding a flamethrower that was punctured by gunfire, and had subsequently erupted in plastic flames, and another German soldier pushing daisies while a minifig rat

FIGURE 3.3  The yellow submarine amid the Vietnam War diorama. Diorama by Brickmania, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Elam.


appeared to be making a meal of his body (Figure 3.4). All the while, blinking LED lights represented weapons firing from turrets and machine gun nests. As I was photographing the various bits of carnage scattered throughout the scene, a teenaged boy walked by and remarked to an adult he was with that it was “pretty gory.” However, a much younger boy pointed out an amputee on the battlefield and proclaimed that the minifig had “lost his underpants” (Figure 3.5), then seconds later noticed Captain America and wondered “what is Cap doing here?” It was quite common among adult-child

FIGURE 3.4 A German soldier pushing daisies. Diorama by Brickmania, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Elam.

FIGURE 3.5  He “lost his underpants.” Diorama by Brickmania, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Elam.

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pairs looking over the display, for the adult to explain to the child about how this was a “real” battle, or invoke Saving Private Ryan and say something like, “This was a movie, but it was also real.” With these sprawling dioramas, we can see LEGO’s capacity to remediate multiple forms of media at once, from history books, comics, movies, music videos, and video games. Though much of the current scholarship on LEGO and remediation concern the ways in which LEGO is represented through movies and games,4 Brickmania’s displays showcase the incredible intertextual plasticity of LEGO as a material medium. Whomever the audience, though, these blurred lines between playful remediation and serious subject matter affect the ways in which adult LEGO enthusiasts engage with both these convention displays and the model kits they purchase. The practices involved in purchasing and building a military-themed LEGO set are thematically similar to other forms of model-building, but boast capabilities for different modes of play: analog wargaming hobbyists (board games and tabletop games) may build models, but then they go on to enact a performance of military operations. Adult LEGO enthusiasts build their military models to become exhibits; there’s no further play once assembled other than possible disassembly to create something else (Brickmania’s convention and museum displays emphasize this very literally with DO NOT TOUCH signs in front of their displays).5 However, other play with these models is possible beyond the initial assembly. Akin to tabletop/board game wargamers and their figurines and scenes, Siskind’s company has “a game system that uses micro tanks” although it represents a small portion of their catalog (Siskind 2016). The demand for these products may come from a broad array of professionals, and the audience for the displays may be varied, but the majority of customers and spectators appear to share in common an interest in history, the military, and/or model-building, and a nostalgic connection to particular historical conflicts. Accurate representation (even with the Easter Eggs in the displays) appears to be the major selling point, rather than the playability of models: these are intended for display, whether at a convention or on one’s desk. What remains is the question of how this demand for prepackaged LEGO kits not created or sold by the LEGO Group exists, given that LEGO as media is so open for individuals to create them on their own: Why buy these aftermarket sets, priced to reflect both the high cost of LEGO and the labor of those who design, build, box, and market them, when you can build them yourself? Put simply, the labor is the commodity. While individual LEGO enthusiasts can buy bricks on sites like Bricklink and scrutinize photos, schematics, or other media to create, say, a LEGO P-51 Mustang airplane, it takes time and effort many would rather not invest when they can buy one of Brickmania’s professionally produced kits and enjoy the build.


Capitalism and Community Legitimacy: Parts, Instructions, Packaging Within these military-themed LEGO kits, consumers are paying for the exact bricks needed (like with official LEGO sets) and, perhaps even more so, for the instructions—both of which must meet specific community-determined rules, expectations, and standards. For one, every vendor interviewed at BrickUniverse emphasized the importance of using “real” LEGO bricks, and not knockoffs like Lepin or Megablocks, or self-manufactured LEGO clone bricks (e.g., 3-D printed). Siskind commented on the use of only official LEGO and not manufacturing his own bricks, saying “we’re not in the business of building brands . . . or in the business of taking brands that aren’t already recognized” (Siskind 2017). While a part of this can be attributed to brand loyalty, perhaps the most imperative aspect is the materiality of LEGO bricks. Siskind and many fan-builders at BrickUniverse discussed using LEGO bricks and only LEGO bricks, along with perhaps custom minifig accessories.6 For example, there’s a debate among LEGO hobbyists regarding the use of glue in model-building. At BrickUniverse 2017, Siskind discussed that he and his team would never use glue in their models or displays unless “there was a structural thing that we had to absolutely get done and wanted it to stay, or we’re tired, and we had to fix it every build” but otherwise among “everything we have with us there is not a single drop of glue.” Glue, paint, or other materials that aren’t among official LEGO products defy the affordances and constraints of the bricks—they’re meant to click together, and one is not using them “the right way” if one has to glue them together to keep models intact. Siskind even went so far in preserving that materiality that he added tinting to their warehouse to prevent bleaching the bricks, and an A/C system to prevent the bricks from becoming brittle. The notion of the “right way” to play and build with LEGO is most apparent in the instructions for models—despite their source, official or unofficial. Because of the particular constraints and enablers of LEGO’s capacities as media—modularity, interchangeability, lack of inherent permanence to building with them—the technical and intellectual labor of coming up with professional-looking packaging and instructions is in large part what makes up the exchange value of custom sets. Siskind described the “three main components” of a LEGO set as “the parts, the instructions, and the packaging” (Siskind 2016). In particular, however, beyond emphasizing the importance of authentic LEGO bricks in his kits, Siskind underscored the quality of his instruction guides. Siskind uses a computer-aided design (CAD) program similar to those used most frequently to create plans and schematics for

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architectural or engineering products. He lauds the program, called LDraw, which was created by the adult LEGO enthusiast community, as superior to LEGO’s own Digital Designer program in its capabilities for generating instructions. Printed on a high-quality printer that Brickmania invested in, Siskind believes his instruction sets are not just comparable to official LEGO, they are “exactly the same” (Siskind 2016). In fact, right alongside complete model kits, Siskind’s company sells books of instructions (e.g., a book of models specific to the Pacific Theatre in the Second World War) without selling the bricks along with them, reflecting a fairly common community practice in which individuals either freely distribute or sell instructions for their own creations. There are certainly legal and economic reasons behind the threat the LEGO Group faces from companies like Lepin, whose knockoff bricks can interact with official LEGO bricks, but perhaps the more existential threat is Lepin’s attempt to replicate LEGO in total, including the specific product lines and packaging. Custom military model kit producers may attempt to replicate the look of LEGO box art and instructions, but more so to increase the sense of legitimacy of their products, which have the right feel given their inclusion of authentic LEGO bricks in their kits. Legitimacy is centrally invoked in this emphasis on never using knockoff bricks, while at the same time emphasizing the superiority of fan-created resources (namely, the homegrown CAD program) over LEGO’s own, when it comes to generating quality instructions. And this deliberate focus on authenticity and quality comes at a price. With Brickmania’s current model kits ranging in price from $16 to $1,900, Siskind explained that pricing varies based on the cost of bricks his company has to purchase on the open marker, some rarer, and therefore more expensive, than others (Siskind 2016). The orientations toward LEGO found among these adult enthusiasts who produce, purchase, and put together military-themed custom sets are markedly different from the kinds of play we typically associate with the construction toy. LEGO’s own promotional and publication material abounds with associations to “free,” “open,” and “unstructured” play (LEGO Foundation 2018), concepts which are mirrored in the work of LEGO’s proponents in academia (see, for example, Gauntlett 2015). Here, the capacities of LEGO as material medium are expertly deployed toward a specific end. This outcome serves the logics of the community, the logics of the state (insofar as Brickmania sets and dioramas, like the multiple movies, books, and other sources they remediate, participate in the legitimation if not outright glorification of “necessary” and “good” wars)7 and, especially in the case of vendors like Brickmania and BrickArms, the logics of capital. Such practices are also institutionalized by the LEGO Group in the LEGO Ideas line, in which LEGO fans do the work of creating a description and prototype model taken up for review and possible


production as an official LEGO set to be mass produced, with both the LEGO Group and the original creator profiting. Following the Group’s model, Bricklink is also formalizing this fan-driven mode of creation as part of their community-based site. But it is only among the aftermarket vendors such as Brickmania and BrickArms that we see such a specific and sustained focus on military models.

The Logics of Militarized LEGOfication Capital and Commodifiable Labor Brickmania’s intensive efforts and care toward creating LEGO-quality instructions, embodying a good deal of research about the vehicles and weaponry they are LEGOfying, illustrates the centrality of instructions—and instruction-making—to communities of adult LEGO enthusiasts.The instruction manuals showing how to snap the bricks together in what order is the result of intensive labor and familiarity with LEGO and with the CAD program used to generate the instructions, something not everyone can do, and very likely not with any immediacy. Someone else has done the work of remediating photos, schematics, film, or other historical source material, through LEGO, into a recognizable model with a comprehensible set of directions for others to follow. And this is deeply rooted in the material engagement with the bricks, the particular and unique work of LEGO that produces the necessary epistemological foundation, the conditions of knowing, for the processes of creating these models in the first place—with or without reference materials.8 Fan-builders and hobbyists have the option of buying the required bricks from other sources, facilitated in online, enthusiast-run sites like Bricklink and Brick Owl, for possibly cheaper prices than prepackaged sets. The instructions represent the commodifiable labor at the heart of the business. As a combined practice of experimentation and capital, creating instructions for LEGO kits are of particular significance. As a child, I was enamored of building blocks, which led to my first bucket of Duplo bricks, initially building towers as tall as I could manage. As a grew older, I played with LEGO in much the same way, building cityscapes along with vehicles that would move through or above them, and even included my plastic army men and tanks in these interactions. To nurture my enjoyment of building things, my parents bought me Erector Sets and glue-and-paint model kits, which demand much more permanence in their construction, particularly the latter. For much of my childhood I wanted to be either a paleontologist or a fighter pilot, so my model kits were predominantly

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dinosaurs and either Second World War era or more modern military aircraft. Following the precise instructions, I would build my creations and display them proudly, but would no longer play with them the way I engaged with LEGO. The instructions had become paramount to the medium; they are, in the terms laid out by media theorist John Durham Peters, the “channel” for material media assembled for display (Peters 2010, 267). Similarly, the process of creating the battle dioramas seen at BrickUniverse or the LEGO model tank sets sold through various venues represents an internal process of “diagrammatics,”9 a creation of instructions to organize the process for the original builder, and then to bring it from the abstract to the actual in documented forms for others to follow—all of which rests on prior engagements with LEGO media to become attuned to its capacities. Also, while it’s a playful process of experimentation that may gesture toward childhood play, creating specific model kits indicates a desire to make something recognizable and permanent, which removes it from the “free” play in which something new or experimental is being made without an end state in mind— that is, the kind of play that the LEGO Group itself valorizes. In addition, what is profoundly interesting here is that someone can sit down with a bucket of loose bricks, and/or open a CAD program like the community-created LDraw, and begin putting elements together until they become something that is recognizable as a version of something else, but that in this specific case study it also generates a strange sort of dissonance between childhood memories of LEGO and that recognition being linked to epic, brutal violence. I was fascinated by all these elements of gore depicted in a medium that doesn’t convey photorealism, but we can certainly tell what they’re getting at, and it bumps up right against all the feelings of nostalgia for building LEGO skyscrapers and aircraft as a kid.

Remediation, Nostalgia, and Discomfort Military-themed kits and accessories illustrate the power of nostalgia for growing up with LEGO coming together with the varying intensities of the power of recognition—the ability to process with speed and efficiency what the medium is remediating, what the bricks are LEGOfying. A fan-builder of the Second World War aircraft whom we met at BrickUniverse 2016 described his childhood experiences engaging with LEGO as deeply interwoven with his current hobbyist practices: In my head, when I look at the image of the plane, I realize that I want to use that piece right there even though if I was trying to go for the most


accurate look it would not be using that piece. But because it’s a LEGO shape and it’s been in my head since childhood that fits perfectly right there. And that’s what I want to do. So in that sense . . . the medium of what I’m building with affects the outcome. (Master Builder 2016) That childhood nostalgia, including the nature of the visual and tactile sensation of the pieces (see Eddie Lohmeyer’s chapter), combines with other forms of nostalgic practice and thought; not just an interest in history but also an engagement with the affective dimensions of historical knowledge and memory in general. Vendors play up their commitment to historical accuracy, and rely on remediating other media—like Siskind’s research library, not to mention any number of popular culture references they include—and make sure to display these sources near their models and dioramas. As mentioned in an earlier section, my observations of the Omaha Beach scene included various conversations involving some version of “this is real” (even when said reality was remediated by more “realistic” media such as Saving Private Ryan). Technically, it’s real in the sense that it exists as a LEGO diorama, but what the sentiment conveys is that it is recognizable as a depiction of something else that happened or existed before. It is a LEGOfied remediation of a reality that has been, itself, pieced together via firsthand accounts, photographs, journalists, historians, and so on. This recognition is central to Richard Grusin and Jay Bolter’s concept of remediation: new/different media assuming stylistic, aesthetic, material, thematic, and/or various additional traits of older/other media to re-present the real (1999). Remediation includes distinct representational strategies: transparent immediacy and hypermediacy. The former speaks to “attempts to erase or conceal the process of remediation by making the medium invisible” while the latter “calls attention to the process of remediation by acknowledging or highlighting the medium itself” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 62). The latter is extremely relevant to the creators of LEGO displays, for whom drawing attention to the bricks themselves is a central concern for branding and recognition by consumers, and also a source of pride and claim to legitimacy for enthusiasts. Again, the attention to detail and accurate depictions in Siskind’s militarythemed kits and dioramas comes from remediation via the extensive archive of other media. However, recognition of the remediated may not always be associated with joyful nostalgia. While I cultivated an interest in the military at an early age, again with toy army men and then with model kits, it wasn’t until adulthood that I began to develop a serious dissonance with the combination of military operations and play. I served as an officer for four years in the US Army during the Global War on Terror, an experience that drastically reshaped my perspective on

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actual military operations alongside their depictions in pop culture and other media. Unlike the Second World War veterans who expressed nostalgia for that period in history after viewing the dioramas at conventions, I felt a sense of discomfort with the Modern Combat LEGO model kits and accessories, reflecting the similar apprehension I feel toward representations of modern combat in other media, particularly video games. I’m an avid gamer and almost exclusively play sci-fi or other fictional First Person Shooter (FPS) games, but have distanced myself from games that depict any “realistic” modern military operations. While this apprehension certainly reflects my own ideological perspective, it’s equally influenced by my personal military experiences that significantly impacted the development of that perspective. Born in the mid1980s, I’m decades removed from any personal involvement in or experience with the historical conflicts remediated through Brickmania’s First World War, Second World War, and Vietnam War sets and dioramas. Unlike my interest in the Second World War and the fighter jets proudly on display at air shows as a young adult, and my more recent academic interest in Cold War military media technologies (Elam 2018), I lived and embodied military operations during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. My discomfort with modern combat model kits and accessories stands in stark contrast to my glee upon discovering (and subsequently purchasing) a Lyudmila Pavlichenko minifig, the famous female Soviet sniper who fought for the Red Army during the Second World War, at BrickUniverse. Apparently, to a lesser degree I embody the same contextual discomfort with remediations of modern military conflict as the LEGO Group has regarding all depictions of realistic combat using their products.

Community Legitimacy and Materiality As with other media, LEGO intervenes on consciousness and physiology in the sense that it garners the production of a particular type of knowledge.10 Besides what I mentioned earlier regarding this very medium-specific knowledge production that emerges through the processes of engagement with LEGO, power is conferred on this business, its people, and its products through the notions of legitimacy and purity. Brickmania is sure to advertise that their kits only use genuine LEGO bricks, never any from other vendors. All of their dioramas and large-scale show models also use only these genuine LEGO bricks, except in those rare instances that LEGO does not produce a required part (such as the tank treads they manufacture themselves) and avoid permanently affixing parts together with glues or epoxies whenever possible to maintain the spirit of taking apart and reconstructing that LEGO


embodies. This brings us back to Michel Foucault—the purity of the bricks and the way they’re used, and this claim to accuracy informed by traces of other storage media are processes that act back on the entire LEGO fandom apparatus and channel power into arrangements of relations stacked with the most legitimacy and purity, determined by certain community-determined, standardized rules.

The Band of Builders Under the influence of the dominant logics discussed in the previous section, the creators and consumers of these military-themed models are equally channeled into arrangements by institutional and community dictates as they are by the materiality of LEGO as media. In fact, the materiality of the brick may even play a more central role not only in determining the synthetic, relational arrangements that form in the community but also in the sustainment of community legitimacy and flows of capital. Just as distinctions are blurry between what represents realistic content and context in the manufacture and marketing of official LEGO products or aftermarket kits and accessories, there are blurred lines regarding what can be called play, art, and entrepreneurship. With the LEGO Ideas line, for example, LEGO enthusiasts of all ages can creatively remediate other media through playful engagement that then becomes channeled into an entrepreneurial endeavor. However, there is a specific political context to the LEGO Group’s policy, and is mainly the result of their efforts to promote themselves as a progressive, inclusive, and wholesome brand; thus, LEGO Ideas gives us a Flinstones set and a set featuring the eponymous robot from Wall-E, while Brickmania gives us Normandy Bunkers and T-72a Battle Tanks. Brickmania and other aftermarket manufacturers and vendors of military-themed products aren’t interfering with LEGO’s audience—also remembering that Brickmania builders and other military-themed LEGO enthusiasts are engaging in a kind of curatorial, rather than recombinatory, play. The infrastructure that supports the Band of Builders doesn’t discourage enthusiasts from coming up with MOCs instead of buying prepackaged sets (e.g., the fan-builder of military aircraft). Rather, it draws attention to what’s missing from the LEGO Group’s catalog while still reflecting the community’s values. The success of Brickmania, BrickArms, and others is not simply the result of a supply gap, it’s also based on their adherence to using processes and material that are considered legitimate, along with the attention to detail in LEGOfying other media and producing quality instructions and packaging.

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The price of their products might be high, but the customer base is there and growing, given the labor involved in creating these models from the close study of portrayals in other media and effectively translating the process into instruction guides, along with tapping into powerful forces of nostalgia. Overall, LEGO is a medium that intervenes on subjectivity and produces a type of knowledge that consists of remediating books, movies, games, and so on, in a format that is limiting and yet also affords overwhelming recombinatory potentials (see Kate Maddalena’s chapter for a discussion of LEGO as “materially digital” media). In a way, despite the limits of LEGO’s material capacities, its lo-fi modularity not only can be harnessed to create the recognizable, often with desire invested in nostalgia, but also produces the mediaspecificity that shapes notions of legitimacy and purity. As such, it continually affects processes of subjectivation—of becoming certain kinds of people—in the hobbyist community, which constantly shift and emerge as the materialities and political economies of LEGO evolve. This happens across the spectrum of official and unofficial LEGO, and between particular representational or ideological aspects of the content being remediated. These considerations can also apply to further case studies—LEGO as art, as gender remediation (see the chapter by Eddie Lohmeyer, and by Sarah Evans and Nicholas Taylor, respectively)—in looking at the logics that influence how LEGO enthusiasts become particular kinds of subjects within their community. Looking back on the first time I stepped through those convention center doors and being immediately struck by the scale and prominence of militarythemed products and displays, I had yet to understand the complex and prolific number of moving parts involved in the operations of this niche market. Particularly with the intense work involved in generating instructions, the great care that goes into remediating history through the LEGO medium reflects the fastidious expectations of a community dedicated to preserving the legitimacy of not only the medium but also what their creations represent. This Band of Builders is both making a living and enacting a kind of living history in their engagements with LEGO, remediating historical scenes and offering their customers step-by-step instructions to do the same.

Bibliography Bolter, Jay and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983 [1972].


Elam, Jessica. “Automated: The Life and Death of the Human Subject,” PhD diss., North Carolina State University, 2018. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995. Foucault, Michel. “Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom.” In Foucault Live, edited by Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1997. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Gauntlett, David. Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. New York: Peter Lang, 2015. Guattari, Felix. The Guattari Reader. Edited by G. Genosko. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996. Guattari, Felix. Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. New York: Penguin, 1984. Hayles, N. Katherine. “Cognitive Assemblages: Technical Agency and Human Interactions.” Critical Inquiry 43 (2016), 32–55. Heljakka, Katriina I. “More than Collectors: Exploring Theorists’, Hobbyists’ and Everyday Players’ Rhetoric in Adult Play with Character Toys.” Games and Culture 13, no. 3 (2018), 240–259. Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Network 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. LEGO Foundation. LEGO Play Well Report 2018. The LEGO Group, 2018. Master Builder. Interview by Jessica Elam, April 2, 2016, BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Peters, John Durham. “Mass Media.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, 266–279. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Puiu, Tibi. “Why Lego Won’t Ever Make ‘Realistic’ Military-Related Toys.” ZME Science April 8, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2019, https​://ww​w.zme​scien​​m/ oth​er/di​d-you​-know​/lego​-mili​tary-​toys/​. Siskind, Dan. Interview by Nicholas Taylor and Sarah Evans, April 2, 2016. BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Siskind, Dan. Interview by Jessica Elam and Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017. BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Vendor. Interview by Jessica Elam and Nicholas Taylor, April 3, 2016. BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Wiley, Stephen B. Crofts and Jessica Elam. “Synthetic Subjectivation: Technical Media and the Composition of Post-Human Subjects.” Subjectivity 11, no. 3 (2018), 203–227. Wolf, Mark J.P. Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012. Wolf, Mark J.P. (ed.). LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon. New York: Routledge, 2014.

4 Reassembling Gender Sarah Evans and Nicholas Taylor


he 2016 BrickUniverse convention was the first year several of the authors in this volume attended the annual event together. After descending to the crowded floor of the event space, Jessica, Eddie, Nick, and Sarah soon found themselves at different attractions. Jessica spent the most time among Brickmania’s sprawling dioramas of modern military combat occupying the middle of the floor; Eddie sought out the exhibits of artists such as Rocco Buttliere and Jonathan Lopes; Nick stalked the custom minifig stalls; and Sarah found herself scoping out My Own Creations (MOCs), especially any that made subversive use of pink and pastel bricks. Beyond their color, very few LEGO bricks mean something explicit or fixed. While we can certainly point to highly specialized pieces such as barred doors, minifig accessories, and pieces printed with particular designs, these are mostly exceptions to the rule. As Kate Maddelana explains earlier in this volume, the capacities of LEGO as a recombinatory, “materially digital” medium rest a lot in the ability of (almost) any piece to become a part of multiple creations that may all have drastically different meanings. Color complicates these recombinatory capacities. In addition to their differing locations in the visible spectrum, colors have meanings—culturally, geographically, and historically specific ones—which therefore add dimensions of complexity to the expressive potentials of LEGO. Colors operate “independently of content and whether or not people are attending to what’s on display” (Coyne 2016, 157). While a full consideration of the importance of color to LEGO is outside the focus of this chapter, we can see glimpses of this in LEGO’s (and its


enthusiasts’) struggles with the frailty of pieces produced with certain colors.1 We also see it in the communicative potential of LEGO products that are restricted to few colors, such as the LEGO Ideas “Steamboat Willie” set (no. 21317), which uses an exclusively grayscale color palette to evoke the look of the titular Disney cartoon, or in the homogeneous white of the LEGO Architecture Studio set (no. 21050), a serious toolkit for aspiring architects. And we can see it in our own everyday dithering with LEGO, in the realization that a build doesn’t quite look right when we swap one piece out for the same piece in a different color. On the show floor of BrickUniverse 2016, Sarah came face-to-face with this realization about just how much color can matter to LEGO. Encountering a MOC that used neon greens and pastel pinks to assemble a gallows (Figure 4.1), she realized the potential of different-colored pieces to say one thing while the overall creation might mean something else. The grayscale images in this book don’t do justice to the complexity of color when it comes to LEGO—as a result, you just have to take our word for it that the base of the gallows depicted in Figure 4.1 is white, the tiled floor and circle beneath the unfortunate soul a vivid fuchsia, the hanging apparatus a pale pink, the switch a dark purple, and both the characters a lime green. Encountering this MOC on the floor of BrickUniverse 2016 created a similar kind of dissonance to those Jessica Elam describes in her chapter, upon seeing a diorama of D-Day that playfully combined popular culture references with LEGOfied enactments of modern military carnage. Here, however, the

FIGURE 4.1 Hanging out at BrickUniverse. Gallows MOC by an anonymous builder. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Evans.

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dissonance isn’t between scenarios that might be physically adjacent but affectively disparate; the dissonance is between color and form. The colors are saying one thing—the combination of bright neons and soft pastels evoking any number of children’s, and specifically girl’s visual media—but the arrangement of pieces is saying something else. As a parent, Nick can imagine following his child’s eager path toward the MOC, only to then have to explain why that person is hanging there and what the person with the switch is doing. We argue that these colors, but especially the fuchsia and pale pink, are being used deliberately to create this dissonance. After all, the anonymous builder could have chosen any other colors, and done so more easily, given the relative rarity of pink pieces. The pinkness of the pink pieces in this gallows MOC is doing a very particular kind of work, insofar as pink is commonly associated with places, artifacts, experiences, and identities—whole worlds of meaning and being—that normally have nothing to do with public executions. In this chapter, we pay close attention to pink LEGO pieces and to the surprising places they show up. Our approach here is to take three hobbyist creations that make notable uses of pink LEGO pieces. These include the gallows at BrickUniverse 2016, a fleshlight (male sex toy) posted on the subreddit r/lego, and custom-manufactured pink and purple minifig guns. By tracking the histories and original uses of these pieces across official LEGO sets, we explore how these creations mobilize the recombinatory potentials of pink pieces, in support of drastically different understandings, and performances, of gender. Call this an in-depth look at the cultural politics of colored bricks: an investigation, via three specific case studies, of the ways pink bricks are used in both official LEGO sets and fan creations we encountered both at BrickUniverse and online. With these critical analyses, we gesture toward the work these LEGO sets and hobbyist creations carry out in defining who can play with pink bricks, and how.

Gender Constructions In following pink pieces around as they travel from official LEGO sets to MOCs, and from BrickUniverse to subreddits, we are employing an understanding of gender that bears a lot of similarities, in terms of how it operates, to LEGO itself. We see gender identities (like giant LEGO builds open to continual tweaking) as complex constructions that we both assemble and that are assembled for us. These constructions include pieces, techniques for combining them, and instructions for doing so in ways that make the construction intelligible to others. The pieces themselves might


include anything from personal grooming products (Braun, Tricklebank, and Clark 2013) to domestic spaces (Preciado 2014); from fitness regimens (Dworkin and Wachs 2009) to toys (Willis 1991); from clothing (Burman 2002) to videogames (de Castell and Bryson 1998), and so much more. Our instructions for combining them together come from our family members, laws, online tutorials, magazines, doctors, teachers, movies, lovers, institutions, and cultures, not to mention our membership in different categories of race, ethnicity, age, ability,2 and so on—in short, from the worlds we inhabit. Gender is a dominant way of ordering these worlds, and our place within them. Furthermore, certain pieces and certain instructions might be more available to some, and not others; they might be forced upon us, or forcibly kept from us; and we undoubtedly find ourselves with greater or lesser degrees of freedom in experimenting with different pieces and arranging them in different ways, degrees that are always shaped by the same demographic categories mentioned here. We therefore understand gender as a construction (i) assembled by us and for us using an assortment of pieces, which are themselves made available by our belonging to any number of other identity categories; and (ii) as a construction shaped and mediated by multiple, overlapping, often contradictory sets of instructions. This understanding is informed by decades of feminist research in the fields of cultural studies, media studies, science and technology studies, and so on, though that literature is too vast to take on here. As a concept for thinking through the intersections of gender and LEGO, though, we are particularly drawn to Paul B. Preciado’s (2013) idea of “technogenders,” which he describes as techniques for retooling our bodies in line with (or increasingly, away from) conventional demarcations between male and female, demarcations which are culturally, legally, scientifically, and technologically produced and enforced. As Preciado notes, technogenders are becoming big business, with industries from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals to pornography (what he collectively calls the “pharmacopornographic” regime) offering an increasing array of modular, interoperable body-modifying technologies (110). In a passage rife with notions of computation and digitization, not to mention LEGOfied notions of collection and assembly, he writes, Gender is an operational program capable of triggering a proliferation of sensory perceptions under the form of affects, desires, actions, beliefs, and identities. One of the characteristic results of such a technology of gender is the production of inner knowledge about oneself, with a sense of a sexual self that appears to be an emotional reality that is evident to consciousness. “I am a man,” “I am a woman,” “I am heterosexual,” “I am homosexual,” “I am transsexual”: these are units of specific knowledge

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about oneself, hard biopolitical nuclei around which it’s possible to assemble an entire collection of discourses and performative practices. (117) This articulation of technogender is useful for us in two ways. First, it helps us show how LEGO, as a toy with a long history of constructing gender in various (often puzzling and problematic) ways, itself operates as a technogender: one element, among many, of the techniques used by enthusiasts to (re)tool their own gendered identities. Second, we are intrigued by the similarities between Preciado’s understanding of gender, and the theorization of LEGO that this volume collectively offers; that is, both LEGOfication and technogender refer to constructions made of recombinatory, interoperable components that mean, say, and do certain things within certain assemblages. It would be too facile (however tempting) to say that gender itself is LEGOfied; however, both LEGOfication and technogender come out of, reflect, and help further construct a world that has been thoroughly digitized. The similarities go further. Both the LEGO Group and the pharmacopornographic industry Preciado writes about are invested in expanding the market for their materially digital operating systems. There is money, lots of it, in modularity, and plenty of incentive therefore in compelling more people to participate, though often along striated, demographically demarcated lines. Thus, we get LEGO lines “for girls” and cosmetic products “for men.”3 And like LEGO, there are all sorts of unwritten rules around who can access certain technogenders, and in what ways. Some of us are more open to play around— with LEGO, with forms of gendered embodiment and expression—than others, and this says much about how both LEGO and gender are shaped by legacies of privilege and oppression, inclusion, and marginalization. In exploring the intersections between these two, we are particularly interested in the shifting ways that LEGO has sought to balance its vision (or more accurately, corporate messaging) as a toy for everyone, with its attempts to capture—and arguably, contain—a specific market for girls.

Finally! LEGO *FOR* Girls LEGO’s earliest sets of bricks consisted of a variety of brick types, sizes, and colors and came without explicit building instructions. Notably, these sets were marketed as gender-neutral (Maddelena 2013). The creative, collaborative, educational aspects of LEGO as an open-ended building toy for children of any gender were foregrounded and ads even advertised LEGO sets as something the whole family could enjoy together (Sarkeesian 2012a).


In the late 1970s, as the LEGO Group sought to expand their product lines, their merchandise became increasingly “deterministic” (Maddalena 2013, np). What was, at one time, marketed as a box of loose bricks subject to children’s imaginations became regimented sets of specific bricks that corresponded to explicit instructions on how to build one thing (albeit with ideas for alternate builds often shown on the back of the box). Along with this change came a shift in the way LEGO designed its products and marketed to potential audiences, specifically along highly gendered lines. In what follows, we offer a very truncated overview of LEGO’s various attempts at offering product lines “for girls,” sets that formed a series of problematic and reductionist channels for pink bricks. Crucial to acknowledge here is that as one particular “technogender,” color interoperates with other facets of these product lines, namely their degrees of complexity and the types of characters that accompany them, to produce products which are not just pink (and pastel) but simplified and domesticated compared to other LEGO lines, presumptively for boys.

Scala, Paradisa, and Belville Launched in 1979, LEGO Scala offered a kit with fifty-eight pieces to make wearable LEGO: necklaces and bracelets. The “Necklace and Pendant” set (no. 313)4 was intended for girls aged five to twelve and, setting up a pattern for future girls’ products which prioritized possibilities for dress-up and domestic play over building and rebuilding. In 1992, the LEGO Group introduced the Paradisa collection, an extension of the LEGO Town line. With sets themed around leisure in a pastel-colored beachfront town, Paradisa was fully compatible with other LEGO sets. This theme was short-lived, however, and by the mid-1990s (roughly parallel to the “pink games” movement5), LEGO released the Belville line and rereleased the Scala line. Belville featured large, rigid dolls rather than minifigs, and although the sets’ complexity improved over time, there was far less construction and many more pre-built decorative elements compared to sets in other LEGO themes of the time—including pirate, castle, and space-themed lines. Scala extended this principle; the dolls in Scala were much larger than LEGO minifigs and had fabric clothing and realistic hair, making them more like Barbies. For anyone not looking closely, these products barely resembled LEGO at all. With distinctive pink and pastel palettes, both Belville and Scala downplayed complexity in favor of cosmetic and domestic-themed “play” (Sarkeesian 2012a), such as in the LEGO Scala “Laundry Room” (set no. 3202, released in 1997)6 or “Emma’s Chill Out Kitchen” (set no. 3123, released in 2001).7 While

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girls were being given yet another doll house to play with, other product lines expanded: Chima, Ninjago, City, Vikings, Bionicle, Castle, Pirates, and many more. Through this fragmentation, in which not just colors, but complexity became gender-segregated, the LEGO Group made it very clear that “regular” LEGO sets were for boys (Sarkeesian 2012b). LEGO’s partnership with transmedia franchises such as Star Wars—which, as the Introduction to this volume points out, helped the LEGO Group come back from the financial brink—further cemented LEGO’s gender demarcation, as its most successful product lines became modeled after the predominantly masculinized worlds of action and sci-fi media franchises (Johnson 2014). This resulted in the LEGO Group doubling down on their marketing almost exclusively to boys. Culture critic Anita Sarkeesian informs us that “out of the 250+ unique minifigures in the Star Wars sets for instance, you can count the number of women on your fingers” (2012b). Despite or perhaps even because of this lack of female representation, focused marketing on boys lead to a 105 percent revenue increase between 2006 and 2011 (Wieners 2011).

Let’s Be Friends The LEGO Friends line was released in 2012, and further intensified these gender-striated patterns. At least in its initial offerings, Friends sets featured domestic settings in the fictional Heartlake City (notably a separate place from LEGO City) such as “Heartlake Supermarket” (no. 41118), “Heartlake Hair Salon” (no. 41093), and “Heartlake Puppy Daycare” (no. 41124), constructed out of pastels and neons. The figures, “minidolls,” are taller, slimmer, and curvier than minifigs, and less poseable, though they are (finally) interoperable with other LEGO lines. The success of Friends has prompted numerous other pastel-hued, minidoll-populated product lines, including the fantasy-themed Elves line.

The Politics of Pink Although it was not always the case, pink is understood in the Western hemisphere as the color “for girls.”8 More so than purple, or a neutral like yellow, pink is the one color that immediately makes an otherwise genderneutral product into something for girls. Our use of “girls” here is intentional since women are acceptably referred to as girls no matter their age, and even products intended for adults but marketed toward women specifically as an alternative to the men’s version are often colored pink. In unstructured LEGO


play, pink bricks function in the same way a brick of any color would. Someone using LEGO bricks to realistically recreate something from life, perhaps a sunset, might use them in much the same way paint or crayon colors are deployed. Within LEGO sets, however, pink has become a foundational brick color by which to understand which sets are for girls to play with—and therefore NOT for boys (Sarkeesian 2012a). The “girly” colors of the bricks in the Scala, Belville, and Friends lines make them, from the point of view of fledgling heteromasculinity, unsafe. If boys were interested in a set about equestrian activities such as “Emma’s Horse Trailer” (set no. 3186), boys and/ or their parents would conceivably fear the mockery a pink jeep and sky-blue horse trailer might attract (Johnson 2014). Due to color alone, this aversion means boys miss out on the attendant ideologies associated with these sets: “feminine” themes and narratives regarding care, friendship, and compassion (Sarkeesian 2012a). The LEGO Group’s shift toward niche marketing does not just capitalize on perceived differences between gendered markets but age and interest group as well. Until recently (as will be discussed next), the LEGO Group strictly believed in this strategy where each line of bricks is separate but equal, since they are (mostly) interoperable across product lines: sets from the Ninjago line are “for boys,” LEGO Friends are “for girls,” the Architect and the Ideas lines are “for adults.” Everyone is accounted for and offered the opportunity to enjoy LEGO, as long as their interests and preferences are LEGOfied by some demarcated facet of the LEGO Group’s vast transmedia universe. With the entrenched sociocultural baggage of the color pink and this decades-long history of the LEGO Group missing the mark in its product development and marketing for girls, we can now look to the ways that these official uses and intentions for LEGO bricks and product lines fall away in the hands of adult LEGO enthusiasts.

Building (and Banking on) Gender Inclusivity LEGO has taken some recent steps to critically engage with its own history of channeling girls toward pink pieces and their attendant ideologies, even as it continues to expand on product lines featuring the minidoll. In The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2018), we see the cast of minifigs from The LEGO Movie (part one) confront, and eventually team up with, minidolls from the “Systar System.” Led by the shape-shifting “Queen Whatevra Wa’nabi,” the minidoll characters include Balthazar, an “attractive, non-threatening teen vampire” who runs a glitter-festooned spa, and General Mayhem, an

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intimidating interplanetary commando (Mitchell 2018). While the plot of The Second Part is convoluted, the thematic push is anything but subtle: the minidolls and Bianca, their human proxy (and the sister of the boy, Finn, from the first movie) just want a more inclusive world, less striated by gender and age. The LEGO Movie was all about the power of open play, breaking down the rigid divisions that characterize the staid, adult-oriented forms of LEGO enthusiasm; correspondingly, LEGO released kits based on the movie that mashed together pieces from multiple conventional LEGO themes, from city to castle to pirate, maintained as separate worlds by the movie’s boundarypolicing villain/father figure. The Second Part, on the other hand, shows us the generative, harmony-building potentials of gender-inclusive play—of breaking down the barriers between its own demographically distinct product lines. As with the first installment, its products follow suit. Perhaps most notable among these The Second Part sets, in terms of how it engages with an ongoing dialogue about LEGO’s own gender politics across multiple media (including, of course, LEGO bricks), is “Sweet Mayhem’s Systar Starship!” (no. 70830), also called the “Formidaball” (Figure 4.2). The spherical ship’s predominant colors are azure and white. Its distinctive shape is formed through four white curved, tapered panels with clips on each end; these pieces are found primarily in minidoll sets involving hot air balloons, including “Heartlake Hot Air Balloon” (no. 41097) from the Friends line, and “Aira’s Airship & the

FIGURE 4.2 General Mayhem beside her ship, the Formidaball. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Taylor.


Amulet Chase” (no. 41184), from the Elves line. Here, rather than Victorian pleasure craft, these pieces are put to use to make a deadly spaceship for the enigmatic and powerful Mayhem. The set’s use of pink is restrained, but notable: fuchsia flower blossoms grace the tip of the ship’s thrusters, both Mayhem’s blaster and the buttons in her cockpit use translucent pink studs, and in one of the compartments on either side of the cockpit is a heart-shaped missile. These same missiles are shown in the opening scenes of The Second Part, racing after Emmet and Lucy in their dune buggy before saying “I love you!” and “I love you more!” and then detonating, blowing the heroes’ buggy to pieces (Mitchell 2018). The set includes the Mayhem minidoll, with both her voice-altering space commando helmet and her glittery blue hair, and minifig versions of Emmet and Lucy. It is one of few sets to include both minidoll and minifigs; what is more, through a clever use of smooth tile pieces and a translucent pink hinged windshield, its cockpit is cleverly designed to accommodate both taller and slender minidolls and squatter minifigs. Perhaps more than anything else, this inclusion of both kinds of figures, typically seen as non-interoperable, marks the Formidiball as a reflexively boundary-breaking, product line-jumping set. As an official LEGO product and movie tie-in, it is notable for the work these various design elements do in engaging ongoing conversations about gender between LEGO fans, critics, and product lines: typically “girl” pieces and colors put to work in a formidable spaceship, which is itself put to work, in the movie, as a defender (and ambassador) of the “Systar System” and all of the feminized palettes and builds associated with it. Mayhem and her ship are “boundary objects,” a term coined by scholars of science and technology to describe artifacts capable of bridging two communities: artifacts that have “different meanings in different social worlds” (Star and Griesemer 1989, 393). A boundary object circulates between one community and another, remaining relatively stable across contexts, and as it does so, it becomes a “means of translation”: a contact point between communities, and a foundation for shared practice and shared understanding (393). The Formidaball is equally at home among a collection of LEGO Friends sets as among a collection of LEGO sci-fi and space-themed sets. We might therefore see the Formidaball as LEGO’s attempt at a “gender interoperable” product: a starship-boundary-object designed to traverse and unite the divided worlds of masculinized and feminized LEGO, worlds that LEGO itself has helped build. It seems designed to narrow the gender gap that LEGO itself has created through years of successive attempts at “pink pieces” that have little circulation or relevance beyond their own limited product lines. LEGO released “Sweet Mayhem’s Systar Starship!” six years after (predominantly male) LEGO enthusiasts began defending the release of the

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Friends line by showing that its pieces could be used to build starfighters, among other things. Perhaps more than any other girls’ product line to that point, the Friends line became justifiable for broader circulation based on the capacity of its pieces to be repurposed in the service of builds coded as masculine. Indeed, the starfighter created for the 2012 “Brothers Brick” review (Nannan, 2012) was one among several notable MOCs, built and circulated by key cultural intermediaries in LEGO enthusiast communities, which demonstrated the fresh, surprising, and often absurd recombinatory potentials of the bricks, minidolls, and colors that came with Friends products. The release, years later, of the Formidaball suggests to us that the LEGO Group as a commercial entity and cultural force is watching, listening, and learning from hobbyist communities. At the same time, it seems to be following the lead, primarily, of those cultural intermediaries who show off the capabilities of “girl” lines by repurposing pink and purple pieces toward enactments of colonization and conflict. We are not presenting a direct, causal line between the starship fabricated out of the initial Friends line sets by the “Brothers Brick” reviewer in 2012 and LEGO’s 2018 release of its gender interoperable, movie tie-in starship. Nonetheless, we find it significant that pink pieces, and the product lines they are part of, seem to gain broader currency as boundary objects when they are repurposed toward themes of conquest and domination, however playfully presented. In what follows, we offer three case studies of how this works in practice: how pink bricks become technogendered tools for reasserting the links between LEGO and masculinity.

Pink Bricks, Masculine MOCs: Three Case Studies of Gender Remediation Gallows Humor We can now return to the floor of BrickUniverse 2016, and Sarah’s fascination and disquiet upon seeing the gallows fashioned out of pastel and neon bricks. Like the Formidaball—or more accurately, the various fan-created builds that inspired it—the gallows MOC takes pieces of earlier product lines for girls and repurposes them to something else. Where the majority of MOCs we encountered at BrickUniverse conventions were either intricate in their detail or massive in scope, the gallows MOC is striking in its simplicity. It is a minimalist MOC in an exhibition filled with crowded, busy builds. Its minimalism is further underscored by the use of smooth tile plates and the almost total lack of printed pieces. Neither the executioner nor the victim


has a face or any other identifying mark. All this serves to draw our attention to the shape, form, and crucially, the color of the apparatus and its faceless figures. Absent any other visual markers, color takes on additional meaning, and the inviting and vibrant palette arguably creates more dissonance than if the builder had used, say, more realistically colored pieces featuring smiling LEGO minifigs. The one exception to this stark visual field is the bunny, perched on the executioner’s shoulder; only found in LEGO Friends sets, it is a clear reminder that many of the gallows’ pieces are sourced from “girl” product lines. The base of the pole is formed with two pink arches, three studs long, and one stud wise. The same color and piece is used most notably for the legs of Princess Unikitty, the unicorn-horned feline heroine from The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, as well as a short-lived spin-off series. Unikitty rules a world called “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a rainbowcolored anarcho-utopia in which almost everything is permissible—except rules and negativity. While not associated with explicitly girl-focused sets, Unikitty is nonetheless one of the more well-known female characters in LEGO’s burgeoning cinematic universe. Here, Unikitty’s legs support a structure historically used for public execution, a spectacle meant to illustrate to a populace under monarchic rule their sovereign’s power over life and death (Foucault 1995). Both the hole beneath the hanging figure and the beam supporting the noose are made with long (12 stud), narrow arches. The hole is a bright fuchsia, and the beam a pale pink. These pieces are rare, regardless of color; according to Bricklink,9 they have only been included in fifteen sets. With one exception (“Watto’s Junkyard,” no. 7186, a tie-in to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace from 2001) all instances of this piece are from products in LEGO’s Belville line. In each instance, the arch serves a decorative rather than functional purpose, adding height and elegant curves to the wall of a nursery in “Nursery” (no. 5874, from 1997) or the top of a children’s playroom in “Pretty Wishes Playhouse” (no. 5890, from 1994). In these sets and others, the two studs at the top of the piece are used to affix purely cosmetic elements: specifically, each one is topped with a small rectangular tile with a ball on top, in chrome (Figure 4.3). Indeed, the wide arch with chrome ball on top is one of the signature features of the Belville line, alongside pastel and pink colors and lattice fences. Together with the lattice walls, the archways with their characteristic chrome-topped flourish give the Belville sets a delicacy that is distinct (and distinctly gendered). Again, the use of decorative pieces from a notoriously hyperfeminized product line retired almost twenty-five years ago, rather than pieces that might be more structurally suitable and thematically adjacent, is not incidental; it is the entire point. An online search for “LEGO gallows”

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FIGURE 4.3 A page from the instructions for “Pretty Wishes Playhouse.” Image credit: yields a surprising number of other MOCs, some of which are functional (in that a lever activates a platform underneath a figure, causing them to dangle from a noose), and all of which are built in the grays, browns and blacks associated with castle and pirate themes. None have the same abstract minimalism, with its resultant communicative power of color and form, as this MOC. With these gallows, the fuschia Belville arches are put to work in ways completely different from their original, decorative use. They lie on their sides, forming a circle, fastened perpendicularly to either side of the opening in the gallows platform via a clever use of pieces that LEGO enthusiasts call SNOTS (studs not on top). This technique creates smooth surfaces on almost all visible sides of the circle formed by the arches. Flush with the bottom of the build and in the middle of the platform, rather than perched atop a latticed wall, the arches serve a very particular purpose: they form the hole that will make the executioner’s imminent action (throwing the lever) fatal for the figure in the noose. The decorative turns deadly. We could go on to consider the provenance of other pieces in this MOC—for instance, how the pale pink arch that the figure hangs from is another Belville piece, originally used to support a playground slide in “Pretty Playland” (no. 5870, from 1994). But this might be beating a dead horse, to use some gallows humor. Instead, we turn now to another example of a MOC that repurposes pink pieces for surprising ends.


Insert Brick Joke Here10 It is no surprise LEGO enthusiasts utilize multiple platforms to discuss their favorite sets, post MOCs, buy, sell, or trade bricks to be able to create the aforementioned MOCs and otherwise participate in online LEGO communities. Browsing various LEGO subreddits, such as r/lego, r/AFOL, and r/legodeal among others, yields a variety of unique LEGO content that would perhaps not be welcome at family-friendly conventions such as BrickUniverse. Therefore, on Reddit, LEGO enthusiasts can share what are known as NSFW11 builds to discuss their merit, aesthetic, or even just joke about wishing it was an official LEGO product. It was on r/lego that Sarah discovered a highly detailed, artfully crafted MOC fleshlight, created by Reddit user Oystro (Figure 4.4).12 This build is not functional; it is not intended to be used for sexual pleasure but instead was built and posted as a novelty. Commenters on the Reddit post featuring the raunchy build delighted in its absurdity and daring, making comments about how they thought “stepping” on LEGO hurt or made a myriad of other LEGO puns and pontifications about the builder’s free time. Oystro’s other posts include a MOC that features lines of cocaine with an AMEX card and a can of overturned Monster energy drink cascading its neon liquid, so taboo or unusual MOCs seem to be his specialty. The clitoris of the fleshlight build is a Transparent Dark Pink Diamond (piece no. 30153) and is attached to a bright pink SNOT (piece no. 47905) that serves

FIGURE 4.4  A Fleshlight, LEGOfied. Photograph and build used with permission from Oystro.

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as the clitoral hood. These bricks are somewhat rare. The 1 x 1 is used in only one other set: Minecraft “Micro World: The Village” (set no. 21105, from 2013).13 It is used to construct the body of a micro-scale pig from the video game Minecraft.14 The stud on the front is where a Minecraft pig’s face tile is attached and the stud on the back serves as the pig’s tail. In the fleshlight, this piece is attached by the open stud on the bottom of the brick while the front stud holds the pink diamond. According to Bricklinks, this diamond can be found in almost one hundred distinct sets from a wide set of product lines ranging from Friends to Ninjago to Harry Potter, although it is primarily concentrated in sets from Friends, Elves, and Belville from the 2000s. As a more decorative rather than functional brick (meaning that it clicks onto other bricks but other bricks cannot be clicked onto it), it is unsurprising it appears in so many sets from the lines marketed to girls, since cosmetics are often a core component to these products. In these sets, the diamond often represents a treasure, and this is perhaps an intentional choice on behalf of Oystro to invite this metaphoric comparison. Joined together here, the pinkness of the bricks is meant to mimic the pink flesh of a Caucasian woman’s genitals. The conglomeration of these three discrete types of bricks reconfigures their meaning on multiple levels; what a brick might indicate about gender is all about how it is used in a larger assemblage. The context of a patriarchal society that demarcates pink as “for girls” and its inclusion as the foundational building material in far more sets (historically at least) intended “for girls” sets the brick up to be understood that way. However, depending on the more local and personal contexts of individual builders, the pink might mean something totally different: monarchic power in one, the possibility for male heterosexual pleasure without women in another. What consumers of these bricks do with them is the ultimate arbiter of meanings and ways that LEGO functions as a technogender. Users are modifying their own LEGO worlds (and indeed, their own gendered identities) brick by brick.

Heartlake City Is Now (Unofficially) Open Carry Our third study moves from pink-bricked MOCs to the world of custom minifigs and accessories, explored in more detail in both Jessica’s and Nick’s chapters. At BrickUniverse 2016, Sarah was perusing the available wares from a vendor tucked into the back corner of the show floor. She observed a father excitedly point his daughter toward a yellow tacklebox of modern military weapons, organized in different compartments by model and color. As discussed elsewhere, the LEGO Group does not manufacture sets or pieces that are


directly linked to modern military, providing a thriving niche market for minifigcompatible firearms catered to by outfits such as BrickArms and BrickWarriors. This father drew his daughter’s attention to a specific compartment filled with a mix of pink and purple weapons and happily suggested she get some for her LEGO Friends (Figure 4.5). Together, they picked a few of each color, paid for them and left. Sarah was left pondering what kind of pastel dystopian scenes await that young girl’s Heartlake City at home. Perhaps more disturbingly, Sarah also wondered how—in a convention space filled with massive LEGOfied historical battle scenes, an official Brickmania vending booth, and multiple BrickArms resellers—it took this parent a trek to the farthest corner of the convention space to consider his daughter might want LEGOfied guns for her minidolls. Surely, he saw the historically accurate minfig guns for sale at the centralized Brickmania booth or the literal hundreds of other gray, black, and brown guns of every make and model available from the other resellers flanking the space. Yet, it was only upon seeing this compartment of guns that the father was finally struck with the idea that perhaps his daughter’s minidolls might want a sniper rifle or machine gun. The existence of these guns is amusing and jarring, similar to the way the lime-green-and-pink gallows scene described above is shocking yet discordantly delightful. The idea of a LEGO Friends minidoll holding a teensy pink handgun in “Stephanie’s Cool Convertible” (no. 3183) or outside the “Butterfly Beauty Shop” (no. 3187) is comical, if not ominous. However, in considering this custom-built accessory, it is meaningful that this parent was hailed by

FIGURE 4.5  Three minifig-scale modern weapons. The topmost is dark purple, and the bottom two are light pink. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Evans.

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the very same binarized, capitalist logics employed by the LEGO Group to sell girls LEGO. Despite whatever stuttering progress we’ve made toward gender equity, Sarkeesian reminds us that “all of this marketing is inescapable and young people and adults alike internalize these deeply harmful and limiting messages . . . the truth of it is, that advertising works to manipulate us” (2012b). The media that are meant to sell specific goods to key demographics work from the extant frameworks of social norms, as was discussed earlier in this chapter. If it takes coloring guns pink and purple to sell more product, so be it. The above vignette stands in contrast to Sarah’s purposeful search for pastel guns at the following year’s BrickUniverse and online. These were the only pink or purple weapons Sarah saw at BrickUniverse 2016, and when she attended in 2017, she specifically sought them out but could not find them again. A search of the BrickArms website reveals only typically colored weaponry: black, brown, the occasional silver, and camouflage (excepting fantasy weapons which were far fewer in number but displayed a much broader range of colors). Maybe they didn’t sell well, maybe it was a mistake. Even when gendered goods or marketing seems inclusive or transgressive, it is usually because it is profitable (Condis, 2015) and when efforts at inclusivity don’t garner profit, they’re typically abandoned. After all, even LEGOfied worlds still exist under the umbrella of capitalism that is inextricably bound with the pharmacopornographic industry discussed above.

Conclusion: Some Reassembly Required While we have by no means exhausted this look at the cultural politics of pink bricks, we think it’s worth reflecting on their significance for the communities we examine throughout this volume. That is, where and how might pink bricks (and the product lines with which they are associated) help bridge the world of gender-segregated play and the world of adult LEGO enthusiasm? Limited as we are by the scope of this project, we were unable to explore more widely applicable practices of the communities that comprise adult LEGO fandom. Anecdotally, it seems to us that the gender diversity and equity that is possible in theory through the recombinatory potentials of LEGO is less easily achieved for girls and women who visibly participate in LEGO hobbyism. Nick learned that within the AFOL community (which, as indicated elsewhere, does not represent the entirety of adult LEGO enthusiasts), there is a special term for an attractive woman who participates as an AFOL. They are apparently so scarce, and so desirable, among the ranks of dedicated AFOLs that they have


been colloquially referred to as “5 x 1’s,” in reference to a type of beam (one stud wide and five studs long) that famously does not exist. We might call this LEGOfied misogyny: not only is LEGO hobbyism virtually incompatible with heteronormative notions of female attractiveness but female participation is, ultimately, also articulated in terms of its usefulness to male desire. And yet, women do participate, intensively, in LEGO hobbyist communities, and perhaps in more ways than the kinds of “support” roles often associated with other forms of male-dominated media hobbyism.15 Artists such as AbbieDabbles, who makes everything from videogame-inspired murals, to jewelry, to a custom minifig version of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Lia Chan, who constructs and photographs large, hyperrealistic models of NASA spacecraft (and who attends conventions in a NASA jumpsuit), demonstrate that serious LEGO communities can be welcoming of female-identified creators from diverse backgrounds. But to what extent this is the case is, we would argue, an empirical question, one arguably suited to ethnographic inquiry rather than to the exercise of critically analyzing specific MOCs that we have undertaken here. Likewise, while theoretically disassembling these MOCs to tease out their gendered meanings is enjoyable and productive, we have not explored in great depth the broader networks in which these MOCs circulate. How might they function in shaping what sorts of constructions—of LEGO, and of gendered LEGO hobbyism—become most actual for a medium in which, virtually, anything is possible? These limitations are, we would argue, germane in the approach we have chosen. As Donna Haraway wrote, the “acid tools of critical discourse” (1988, 577) are great for deconstruction, for taking something apart (a gallows, a fleshlight, a spaceship) in order to understand the logics by which it fits together (masculinity, militarism, etc.) in the formation of particular technogenders. But a more pertinent intellectual and political project, if we are to take a cue from feminist interventionist scholars in other domains (Fisher and Harvey, 2013), is to invent conditions for more inclusive and less striated forms of construction, whether we’re talking bricks or technogenders. Examining the ways pink bricks are repurposed away from themes of domestic labor and cuddly companionship to decidedly different ends has shown us that LEGO’s frequently problematic codes of gendered production are, themselves, continuously undone and remade through its own recombinatory capacities. There’s a lesson here, not just for those interested in LEGO and gender, but for gender scholars and activists more generally, if we look past the unsettling but familiar logics by which these masculinized MOCs put pink bricks to work in models of domination and objectification. The lesson goes something like this: similar to LEGO, gender is modular and mediated, and therefore open to continual reinvention. Only once you get the hang of taking it apart, though, can the work of reassembling it really begin.

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Sarkeesian, Anita. “LEGO Friends—LEGO & Gender Part 1.” 2012a. Accessed June 1, 2019, https​://ww​​tube.​com/w​atch?​v=Crm​RxGLn​0Bk Sarkeesian, Anita. “The LEGO Boys Club–Lego & Gender Part 2.” 2012b. Accessed June 1, 2019, https​://ww​​tube.​com/w​atch?​v=oe6​5EGkB​9kA&t​=6s Star, Susan L. and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3 (1989), 389–420. Taylor, Nicholas, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell. “Cheerleaders, Booth Babes, Halo Hoes: Pro-gaming, Gender, and Jobs for the Boys.” Digital Creativity 20, no. 9 (2009), 239–252. Wieners, Brad. LEGO is for Girls.” Bloomberg, December 15, 2011. Accessed June 26, 2019. https​://ww​w.blo​omber​​/news​/arti​cles/​2011-​12-14​/lego​-is-f​ or-gi​rls Willis, Susan. A Primer for Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 1991.



5 Fake Plastic Trees Chris Ingraham


n the second decade of the millennium, after over sixty years of making plastic bricks, LEGO began rolling out public-facing initiatives to be more ecologically responsible. For the world’s largest manufacturer of plastic toys, the grim realities of climate change could no longer be ignored. In 2013, the LEGO Group signed a “Climate Savers” partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), naming targets for the development of sustainable materials. Two years later, in spring 2015, the partners agreed upon a new collaboration to assess the environmental impact and sustainability of plant-based materials for LEGO elements and packaging. Two years after that, in June 2017, LEGO and WWF extended their collaboration again, this time emphasizing the reduction of carbon emissions in manufacturing. Though accompanied by optimistic fanfare in the popular press, these initiatives also underscored a brewing identity crisis for LEGO. How could a company whose eponymous product was made of synthetic plastic—the veritable icon of human negligence to the environment—become truly sustainable without also becoming something fundamentally different? LEGO, it seemed, had a LEGO problem. In this chapter, I consider the history of LEGO’s relationship to its materials, and the ways it has navigated that relationship in light of its long-standing commitments to austerity and more recent commitments to the environment. My aim is not to critique the LEGO Group’s environmentalism or the effectiveness of its efforts at carbon reduction. That work has already been done and early verdicts are not especially flattering (George and McKay 2018). But the company does seem to be trying in earnest, and on many fronts,


however unwilling it may be to give up on plastics altogether. What’s interesting to me rather is how their efforts to be more sustainable have emphasized plants, and plant-based plastics, as the change that will make a difference for the environment, while nevertheless insisting that, in the bricks themselves, the change should not be noticeable at all. This reverses the usual reasoning around “hyperobjects” like global warming, which maintains that things of such a massive scale can’t possibly be seen or conceived except locally and therefore in such a partial way as to enable no wholistic sense of their enormity and complexity (Morton 2013). With plant-based LEGO bricks, however, we’re given to suppose the opposite. As LEGO would have it, to hold a tiny sustainable LEGO brick in your hand should reveal no change whatsoever relative to prior bricks, whereas the larger process of their production, which of course most of us don’t see, is where the meaningful environmental change is held to occur. The most significant of the LEGO Group’s recent sustainability initiatives was undoubtedly the 2015 announcement of the goal to use 100 percent sustainable materials in all their bricks and packaging by 2030. It seemed ambitious. But then in April 2018, LEGO announced that they could do even better: their new goal was for 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2025. If successful, none of its packaging would ever again have to end up in a landfill because it would all be recyclable (Gherasim 2018). To do the same for its bricks, however, posed a considerably trickier problem. It’s one thing to change a product’s packaging, another to change the product itself. Here again, though, progress was being made. Around the same time as the sanguine announcement of the expedited schedule for their packaging goals, the LEGO Group also announced that they had begun production on their first range of sustainable LEGO elements made from plant-based plastic—instead of the petroleum-based plastic that had long been their status quo. In a gesture widely taken as symbolic, the first plant-based pieces would be “botanical elements” such as trees, shrubs, and leaves. In the same way that LEGO is the world’s biggest tire manufacturer by measure of units produced—the company makes 700 million tires annually (BBC News 2018)—it is also one of the largest makers of artificial plants. Trees and bushes have featured in LEGO sets going back to the 1950s (Figure 5.1). What the release of plant-based elements meant, then, was not that LEGO was suddenly in the business of making artificial plants, which had long been the case. It rather meant that LEGO would be making plants from plants. Indeed, “Plants from Plants” was the first sustainable set’s official name when it shipped in August 2018 with twenty-five pieces. Far from merely symbolic, though, I argue that by making the “Plants from Plants” set its first attempt to produce more sustainable elements, the LEGO Group revealed

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FIGURE 5.1  LEGO Set #230, “Trees and Bushes,” 1958. Image Credit: Brickset.


their belief that sustainability could be an engineering problem—and, in doing so, demonstrated the backwardness of separating nature and culture. To make this case will require understanding more about synthetic plastics, the history of artificial plants, and the material history of LEGO itself.

LEGO and Its Materials LEGO as we know it was born from austerity. In Denmark, 1916, a carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen started a business building houses and furniture. And all was well—until the depression hit, forcing him to downsize his production line and make more modest appliances like stools and ironing boards instead. Times were tight. With no choice but to be resourceful, he used his leftover materials to make wooden toys and playthings on the side. By 1934, these thrifty byproducts of necessity had become his primary product, and Christiansen changed the company name to LEGO: short for


the Danish, leg godt, meaning “play well.” Only later did anyone realize that “lego,” in Latin, also means “I put together.” Initially, the wooden toys Ole Kirk produced were mid-sized products that came already assembled: ducks with wheels, train sets, trucks, yo-yos. These toys had some of the idiosyncrasies of woodworking, which, by involving different grains or knots in the materials, made these first LEGO products feel more authentic and personal. Made directly from an identifiable natural material, even now these wooden toys have a timelessness about them, a substantive quality that makes them immediately familiar, as if hard to conceive of a time when they didn’t or would no longer exist. But the LEGO company stopped producing wooden products in 1960, after a February 4 lightning storm struck their storage facility for wooden toys and sent its inventory up in flames. This was the third time their storehouse had been burned down since 1924 (Blakemore 2018). Wood, it finally became clear, was just too destructible. In other words, while wood had revealed itself to be a useful material, according to the principles of austerity wrought by the economic depression of the 1930s, its vulnerability to fire revealed it later to be too decadent. Wood was a valuable material to the extent it could be used in full: an entire stock of wood could be put to maximal use when even the scraps left behind from the manufacture of other products could be repurposed to make smaller products, and the scraps from those repurposed to make smaller products still. But the vulnerability of wood to outright extinguishment made its value too risky according to the unwritten rules of austerity. In such a calculus, the capacity of some materials to be broken down into repurposable parts was an advantage only if those materials also had the incapacity to be extinguished altogether. “Extinguishment” is a term that the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli uses to describe the ways things live and die, taking different forms or states, decomposing or recomposing, but without the drama of finality (Povinelli 2013). A tree might burn down, a whole forest even, as might a LEGO warehouse filled with wood, but the extinguishment of that wood merely means it continues to exist in a different way. Such is the dynamism and circularity of living systems. As some things cease to be, others come to be from what remains. What came to be from LEGO’s abandonment of wood as a material for its products, however, was a reliance on synthetic plastics instead—and plastic defies extinguishment altogether. LEGO had turned to the production of plastic toys before the company fire of 1960, as it did in earnest in 1947, when it bought a British-made “Windsor” injection-molding machine that could mold plastic into shapes suitable for toys ( nd). But the discontinuation of wooden materials in favor of a complete shift to plastics signaled a core company value against the drama

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of finitude. Having seen its supplies of wood come to an unfortunate end multiple times, LEGO saw plastic as a more durable, hence more sustainable medium. But it would be a mistake to see the LEGO company’s changing relationship to its materials as merely wrought by the “fool me twice” lesson learned from its accidental fires. In the same way that the austerity necessitated by the global economic depression of the 1930s led Christiansen to produce toys instead of furniture, the austerity demanded by the two world wars had influenced the materials available for the toy industry at large: an industry regarded as secondary to the greater cause of the good fight. During wartime, woods and metals were scarce because they were needed for military construction, machinery, and artillery. Plastic began to seem like a viable alternative to consider. It wasn’t scarce; it could be custom-shaped and formed to suit any design; it could be easily cleaned; it could be colorful; and it was cheap. The trouble was, when it came to toys, it was also widely regarded as inferior to wood. As Maaike Lauwaert has shown in her study of how LEGO changed the nature of construction play, the company’s shift from wood to plastic required overcoming a widespread belief that “real” wood was superior to “fake” plastic (Lauwaert 2008). Lauwaert quotes a Danish trade magazine in the early 1950s, Legetøjs-Tidende (Toy-Times), which reported after visiting the LEGO factory in Billund that “plastic would never be able to replace good and honest wooden toys” (Hansen 1997, 22; quoted in Lauwaert 2008, 222). That sentiment seemed to be part of a broader mid-century social imaginary, in Europe and elsewhere, perhaps best articulated by the French intellectual Roland Barthes in 1957: “Current toys are made of graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch” (Barthes 1972, 54). By contrast, for Barthes, wood “is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor” (54). It was just this “humanity of touch” and “close contact” that the LEGO company realized needed to be preserved if plastic was to become the preferable material for its products. Plastic, that is, would have to be wielded like wood. Its craftspeople would not only have to work with it in ways that suited the synthetic material’s best capacities and avoided its shortcomings. They would also have to overcome the tacit comparison that plastic toys evoked with their wooden predecessors by seeming to demonstrate some of wood’s own “natural” qualities—a skill that Ole Kirk Christiansen, and his son, Godtfred, evidently mastered. As Anthony Lane observed in a New Yorker article from 1998, “Part of Christansen’s genius was to make the new material feel almost as comforting, as


domestically reliable, as wood itself” (Lane 1998). But the similarities were far from comprehensive. After all, wood has a history, plastic has a future. The former’s past is materially evident in its grain and rings, the markers of its once having lived. The latter’s future is evident in its lack of a past at all, its dropping from a mold onto an assembly belt to be processed and packaged for a long half-life still ahead. With LEGO’s quiet decision to abandon wood altogether in 1960, not only was LEGO casting its lot in favor of plastic, the company was so all-in as to cast its lot against the non-drama of extinguishment altogether. As Heather Davis explains, “The framework of extinguishment then recognizes the fact that plastic is killing off particular worlds through its proliferation, even as plastic itself remains a materialization of the drama of finitude, refusing to participate in the cycles of extinguishment” (Davis 2015, 355). In the sense that wood’s extinguishment, its ceasing to be, involves taking new forms and leaving behind new conditions for the emergence of different ways of being, its “death” is not its end. Burning a tree, for instance, tends to waft the plant’s nitrogen into the atmosphere but to leave potassium and calcium carbonate behind to enrich the soil. Plastic, by contrast, leaves nothing behind because it never goes away in the first place. There’s an irony here, of course, in that trees are regarded as environmentally sustainable, while plastic is not, though LEGO’s complete shift to plastics was precisely to avoid wood’s vulnerability to a totalizing end. The deeper irony, though, certainly the greater inconsistency, is that LEGO in spirit doesn’t treat finality as the barrier to sustainability. The whole ethos of its interoperable products is to refuse finality. A LEGO set can be anything, and it can be anything again and again. It can’t ever be “finished” more than provisionally because it’s always subject to further modification. As Seth Giddings argues, “LEGO is nothing without its open-ended, imaginative and hence unpredictable potential” (Giddings 2014, 242). (As one illustration of this value, witness the plot of The LEGO Movie, which involves trying to find the “Piece of Resistance,” a cap to a tube of superglue that could permanently and disastrously glue all LEGO City together unless the cap can be replaced in time.) The LEGO Group’s commitment to repurposability as a principle of austerity makes plastic the ideal medium for its products because synthetic plastics just don’t go away or biodegrade, meaning they can be repurposed indefinitely. The trouble is, repurposing is at odds with reproducing, and LEGO continues to produce and reproduce billions of bricks every year—a far cry from austerity. Indeed, in March 2018, the very same month it announced its “Plants from Plants” sets, the LEGO Group openly admitted it had produced too many bricks the year before (BBC News 2018). In turn, warehouses and stores were overstocked, leaving no room for newer products. Because the toy industry

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thrives on newness, sales flagged. For the first time in thirteen years, LEGO saw its profits and sales decrease in 2017. The company’s response, however, was curiously not to curb production, but to curb shipments. To get retail inventories down again, and thereby make room for newer products, that is, LEGO shipped less stock to its retailers than what consumers were buying. This may have created demand, but it did nothing to reconcile the fundamental tension between repurposing and reproduction. Moreover, LEGO doubled-down on their flagship bricks by blaming the decline in profits to having diversified into products other than toys, such as movies and video games. As the company chairman Jørgen Knudstorp explained, LEGO needed to press “the reset button” and get back to their core focus by “building a smaller and less complex organization” (BBC News 2018). Becoming more sustainable was one way it would do so. From a corporate standpoint, however, being “sustainable” is always both a financial and environmental proposition. Arguably, once LEGO abandoned wood in 1960, it also abandoned the dream of being a small and not-so-complex company. Synthetic plastic, after all, involves a difficult and scientifically complicated manufacturing process, requiring far greater technical expertise and cost than the timeless craft of woodworking, which can be taught from generation to generation and learned through a sweating brow and calloused hands. LEGO’s origins in wood had been sustainable but not austere enough. Conversely, discovering plastics enabled a theoretical austerity but not sustainability. Now it wanted to go around the thumb to get the fingers: that is, back to sustainable materials, but this time through a synthetically engineered solution, much the way many climate scientists the world over are looking for ways to geoengineer carbon sequestration instead of just reducing our reliance upon it.1 Plastic had many affordances, but could it accommodate such a workaround?

The Art of Plastic The first-known documented use of the term “plastic arts” dates to 1624. That’s well before LEGO was around, and well before “plastic” was even a noun referring to the synthetic material that now chokes our planet’s oceans, kills its animals, and piles up as a geological stratum of future evidence for the existence of humans on Earth during the Anthropocene. The term appeared in a British book about architecture, in an otherwise minor passage in which Henry Wotton wrote, “Of this Plastique Art, the chiefe vse with vs is in the gracefull fretting of roofes” (Wotton 1624, II.108). Although what we now think of as the plastic arts generally includes any art or craft that involves shaping


or modeling materials into form (sculpture, pottery, and so on, but also the visual representational arts at large), there’s something to the term’s early association with architecture that lends well to a study of LEGO and its own plasticity. After all, the first plastic LEGO set, from 1949, was conceived as an architectural modeling kit, and the prehistory of the LEGO company involved carpentry and house-building. That first plastic set, called “LEGO Automatic Building Bricks,” featured pieces in four different colors and two shapes: either four- or eight-stud variations (no instruction manuals included). But from those limited options, as fans of LEGO have learned ever since, whole worlds could be built. The English word “plasticity” derives from the Greek plassein, and can mean either to be given form, the ways putty is plastic, or to give it, the way surgery can be plastic. “Plasticity,” as Catherine Malabou has put it, “refers to an equilibrium between the receiving and giving of form” (Malabou 2012, 3). But Malabou also notes that plasticity can be destructive too, as for instance in the way explosives can be plastic (Malabou 2012; also see Gisbers 2018, 320–3). This threefold capacity—the capacity to receive, give, and destroy form—makes “plasticity” a way to designate the always only provisionally stable quality of a medium constantly amenable to change. There are all kinds “natural” mediums that exhibit qualities of plasticity: skin, soil, foam, brains, and many more. Though humans have been shaping and reshaping materials into representational forms well before Henry Wotton mentioned the “Plastique Art” in 1624, the materials used to do so were primarily found, grown, or mined natural materials. There was, in other words, an implicit connection between natural materials and representational arts—an unquestioned entanglement of what now goes by the separate names of “nature” and “culture.” As Heather Davis points out, “Until the invention of the synthetic polymer that we have come to know as plastic, the arts held a virtual monopoly on artifice; now it is chemical engineers who re-make and re-fashion the earth” (Davis 2015, 348). In these late days of climate change it should go without saying that plastics are an environmental disaster. But if some evidence is needed, consider that the amount of plastic produced in one year is roughly the same weight as the entire mass of humanity, and that with the very miniscule exception of what’s been incinerated, every piece of plastic produced since 1950 is still around in some form or another. Approximately 10 percent of all this plastic ends up in the ocean, much of it as microplastics, the particles of which outnumber the stars in the Milky Way. Soon the plastic in the oceans will outweigh the fish (all statistics above from Earth Day Network 2018). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)—just one of five such places where plastic accumulates en masse in the oceans—is nearly 1 million square miles in size (Lebreton et al. 2018)

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making it geographically larger than most of the world’s countries. Indeed, an official Declaration of Independence has been filed to the UN on behalf of the GPGP, hoping to make it the world’s 196th nation, “Trash Isles,” replete with its own currency and flag. Though many have endeavored the impossible venture of identifying exactly when the age of the Anthropocene began—top candidates include the invention of agriculture, the onset of industrial revolution, and the first testing of nuclear weapons2—another contender might be July 13, 1907, in Yonkers, New York. That’s when the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland filed a patent for one of his new inventions, something he called Bakelite. It was the world’s first synthetic polymer. As he described the creation in his patent application, Bakelite’s innovation was in the means of its production: “A method of making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde” (Baekeland 1909). It turns out that “insoluble” was a fitting word for the synthetic plastic Baekeland invented. Not only can it not dissolve but its incapability of biodegrading also poses a problem impossible to solve: plastic sticks around for a long, long time, wrecking enormous havoc on the environment and its living species. We have been living with that insoluble problem ever since, and the planet will live with it well after we’re gone. If, to a certain degree, the plastic industry was officially born when Baekeland’s patent was granted on December 7, 1909, the ramifications of its emergence were not yet foreseen—or, at least, not regarded as much of a problem for the environment. Just the opposite: plastic was seen as a great solution to the overexploitation of natural materials by human conquest. This was a time when colonialism had already dealt most of its spoils and created consumer demand for products such as ivory and jade, which were desirable in part for their air of exoticism and the status associated with the difficulty of their acquisition. “On a geopolitical level,” Jeffrey Meikle writes in his cultural history of plastic, “this desire fueled a search for artificial substitutes for potentially scarce raw materials that had become indispensable to civilized life” (Meikle 1997, 26). In face of an expanding and all-consuming middle class that was seen to threaten, even at the turn of the century, the planetary supply of such rare raw materials as tortoise shell, shellac, horn, and so forth, plastic alternatives presented an obvious commercial opportunity. By potentially offering an artificial but more or less indistinguishable counterpart to real ivory, jade, and so on, the early plastics of Bakelite, Celluloid, and Lucite made plastic seem capable of stanching the depletion of natural materials by humans intent to exploit the environment for their own ends. In other words, from its very inception plastic has been treated as an interoperable material. Though its synthetic and manufactured origins meant that a plastic tusk of ivory, for instance, was not the same as real ivory, the plastic


version was capable of being exchanged, used, and displayed as if it were. Indeed, in the case of ivory, the plastic version was sometimes even too perfect and regular to be mistaken for the real thing. The ivory that grows from elephants, walruses, or narwhals tends to be variegated in color and texture, almost regularly irregular we could say. For this reason, to achieve greater verisimilitude, manufacturers intentionally built flaws into plastic ivory so it could pass as authentic (Meikle 1997, 22). Over time, the creation of other synthetic polymers gave rise to an enormous industry of global reach and birthed a new market, commercially and aesthetically, for a form of artificiality regarded as more naturalistic than previously possible. As interoperable materials, in short, not only were synthetic plastics pliable and moldable but they could also be shaped and given form with such precision as to replace the more “natural” nonhuman forms that they could be produced to resemble. One variation of this story is the case of artificial plants.

Plants, Plastic, and Artifice Artificial plants, both foliage and flowers, have been produced for centuries and across cultures. Though the curious human desire to create fake plants seems to be constant over time and place, the materials and methods have varied. Consider some of the media involved: stained horn shavings (Egyptians), silver and gold (Romans), rice-paper (Chinese), bamboo pith (Japanese), dyed silkworm cocoons (Italians), feathers (South American indigenous peoples), buck-skin and beads (North American indigenous peoples), seashells (Pacific Islanders) (Peterson 1958, 12). Across time and cultures, the purpose and use of artificial plants have varied. Artificial plants have served as part of ceremonial dress, rituals, gift exchanges, and many other cultural functions. For many years, in China, for instance, producing artificial plants was an aesthetic practice, a bona fide art as opposed to a commercial or functional venture. In other cultures, too, fake plants were appreciated in part for the amazing remarkability of their resemblance to the real thing. Marie Antionette is said to have fainted on account of the sheer perfection of a silk rosebud presented to her in 1775 (, 1996, s.v., “Artificial Flower”). The Victorians had faux flowers everywhere, contributing to the Western norm that they could serve a beautifying and decorative end. Until only relatively recently, because the raw materials used to produce artificial plants were natural and sometimes scarce or difficult to attain, artificial plants were primarily a privilege of the wealthy. The ability by midtwentieth century to manufacture plausibly real plastic plants, however, made

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artificial flora affordable for the masses. In 1955, Hong Kong had just one plastic plant factory; by 1962, it had 997 (Lo 2017). A 1964 article in The New York Times identified artificial plants as a burgeoning cultural and economic phenomenon. “As recently as five years ago,” the article claimed, “few florists would have touched a polyethylene pansy with a trowel; today, at least half the retail florists in this country not only sell plastics but often recommend them over real plants” (Kohn 1964). The American market for plastic plants was so successful in the mid-1960s that not only could whole plastic landscapes be rented or bought in gross, many people paid “up to $250 a month to have their polyethylene greenery cleaned, rotated and arranged” (Kohn 1964). Today, in the global economy of late liberalism, artificial plants are often seen as cost-efficient and convenient alternatives to living plants, which require regular watering and maintenance. By extension, in a bit of backward reasoning, artificial plants have also come to be regarded as a sustainable solution to the problem of how to be more environmentally responsible. And business is booming. The market for fake plants today is massive, from department stores looking to decorate their showrooms to natural history museums looking to make their dioramas seem more realistic. As Anna Liakh noted as Sales Responsible for Plants at IKEA Global (another Scandinavian company that makes modular and interoperable products), “Artificial plants share is increasing year after year. We see that even in the markets where people have historically been more resistant towards artificial plants, they are more open to buying them today. It is probably connected to the sustainability factor” (Perrone 2017). Artificial plants, in other words, are not only convenient for people and organizations that can’t be bothered to keep real plants alive. Artificial botanicals are hailed as environmentally responsible for the water and labor that they save. Artificial Christmas trees may be the best example, though in the desert of the American southwest, fake lawns are sometimes used to resemble a healthy and wellwatered grass lawn, and “artificial turf” is commonplace on athletic fields for foot sports played outdoors in cold weather climates. The sustainability of plastic plants, though, is importantly connected to the aesthetic naturalism of these plants. In other words, fake plants would not be treated as viable sustainable products if they didn’t realistically resemble living plants. And that capacity is directly related to the affordances of plastic as the naturalistic medium par excellence. Chemically, plastics are not unlike the modularity of LEGO bricks themselves. The basic “building block” of all plastics is a single chemical known as a monomer. When monomers link together, they form polymers. If a “mer” is a single unit, much the way a LEGO brick is a single piece, a polymer is the structure formed by chemically joining many different “mers” to each other, much the way LEGO sets are built by connecting the individual pieces. There are two basic ways that monomers can be


FIGURE 5.2 Patent for process of manufacturing plastic flowers and leaves in multicolor design, 1957. L. Bosco.

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“polymerized,” that is, linked together to form polymers, and that’s through either addition polymerization or condensation polymerization, each of which involves different chemical steps leading to different arrangements (linear, zigzagged, crosslinked, etc.), and hence to materials with different characteristics and applicable uses. It’s this intrinsic capacity for different arrangements that makes plastic, like LEGO itself, such a versatile and powerful product. In the same way that after Bakelite’s invention fake ivory was manufactured with deliberate flaws in it to better approximate the real thing, one of the latest trends in artificial plants is to give them the appearance of imperfection: some wilting here, asymmetry there, discoloration around the edges. In 2018, a company called “Slightly Browning Fake Plants” launched a Kickstarter campaign to create “high-quality replicas of acceptable-quality plants.” Real houseplants can be hard to keep alive, which makes the perfect greens and sturdy foliage of artificial versions stand out as fakes. While there’s a cultural history of artificial plants to be written, however, a media history of fake plants would have to consider those materials by which they’re made and ask after the ways such materials determine their situation: that is, what they can do, how they appear, and so on down to how humans then value and use these plants in ways that reciprocally determine our situation.3 After all, the material affordances of synthetic plastics—along with innovations in injection-molding techniques that enabled plastic leaves and stems to be produced with exceptional fidelity to their “real” organic models (Figure 5.2)—were what fostered an interoperable logic whereby the organic and synthetic, the natural and cultural, the real and artificial, the matter and the form, could begin to converge.

Hylomorphism and Becoming Brick A long time ago, Aristotle proposed a philosophy known as hylomorphism. Its basic precept is that all substances are composed of matter and form. Neither the matter nor the form of a substance, however, can be neatly divided as if to identify matter here, form there. Rather, matter is made substantive by being formed into substance, that is, by virtue of the form it takes. Though matter, for Aristotle, denotes that out of which something is made—the way wood might be the matter of a desk, or stone the matter of a sculpture—matter itself can only be formed into a desk or sculpture through the addition of form: “The arts make their matter” (Aristotle 1992, II.2, 194b33). For such a philosophy, matter is intrinsically formless, even passive and inert, as if waiting to be given form so it can have substance. Conversely, form is active and imposed; it’s what determines, as if from outside materiality, what matter can be.


It should not take much work to see how this sort of thinking aligns with the notion that nature and culture are separate spheres, the former encompassing everything accessible to the senses except what’s produced by humans in the latter.4 There is only a short step, in other words, from imagining matter as formless and inert, and form as imposed by an active hand, to imagining nature as the passive matter that human culture actively gives a form. So, human “culture” makes desks and sculptures from the wood and stone of “nature.” To be sure, there’s something initially self-evident in this way of thinking. A tree, after all, is not a carpenter. It does not cut itself down and make of its trunk a desk with drawers and legs. No one would suggest as much either. But to challenge the division of nature and culture is not to suggest that there are no differences in the capacities of the human and nonhuman, nor to deny that people do make and do things with (and to, and from) the so-called natural resources that predate and exceed the human. Instead, to challenge the nature/culture divide is to show that each side of the split is so entangled in the other that to posit their division is at best an anthropocentric convenience, and at worst a dangerous imposition of human ontological and ethical superiority over the more-than-human with which we are, of course, inextricably interdependent. Bruno Latour puts it this way, “The very notion of culture is an artifact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures— different or universal—do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only natures-cultures, and these offer the only possible basis for comparison” (Latour 1993, 104; emphasis in original). Latour’s idea of “natures-cultures” or what Donna Haraway calls “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) are accordingly ways to acknowledge that supposing a clean separation between nature and culture is not only untenable but also unethical. To assume a separation of nature and culture, in other words, is both ontologically false and imposes gendered, colonializing, and racist orientations toward how we make sense of any collectivity (see van der Tuin 2018, 269–70). By contrast, denying a division of nature and culture involves giving priority to relating over the related. As Iris van der Tuin explains, “Prioritizing relatings entails a perspective on the coming into being of bounded subjects, objects and domains such as the natural and the cultural. Priority is given to studying how, where and for whom boundaries are drawn” (van der Tuin 2018, 269).5 If we take nature as a given, as what Heidegger would call a “standing-reserve,” then we adapt an attitude of exploitation toward it: nature as that which exists to be used in service of human culture (Heidegger 1977, 3–35). The givenness of each side of the relation distracts from the real issue of how such relations are created and mobilized in the first place. To suppose, in short, that humans are imposing their forms on the environment, and that we are somehow

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ontologically justified in doing so, is at least tacitly to endorse a modern variation of hylomorphism (see Ingold 2012, 432). One of the great critics of hylomorphic thinking is Gilbert Simondon. And conveniently, as if he were writing about LEGO, his paradigm case against hylomorphism is the process of molding a brick. A hylomorphic approach to the molding of a clay brick, which assumes an imposition of form upon matter, can only see the “final” product of the molding process: matter given form. In Simondon’s view, emphasis on the final form misses the more essential technical operation of taking on form itself. There’s a modulation involved in the process of individuating each brick, such that “matter and form are made present as forces” (Simondon 2005, 44; quoted as translated in Combes 2013, 5). To recognize as much is to reject the view that matter is passive and forms active. Matter is active insofar as it prepares to change form, that is, active in relation to those colloidal properties and the molecular makeup that effectuate its preparedness to change form as it comes into provisional contact with a mold. But Simondon also eschews the view that forms are active. To the contrary, he writes, “Forms are passive inasmuch as they represent actuality. They become active when they organize themselves in relation to the ground, thus actualizing prior virtualities” (Simondon 2007a, 208). The point here is that there are no final terms for the brick, the clay, or the mold, but that the coming together of clay and mold provisionally individuates a brick as a process of creation. It is this process, for Simondon, what he calls “ontogenesis,” that is far more important than whatever temporary results the process creates. “Precisely,” he writes, “in the technical operation, it is the mediation itself which should be considered” (Simondon 2007b). In the case of LEGO, to consider “the mediation itself” is to recognize that LEGO bricks are media technologies that take part in an ongoing process of ontogenesis, not just as plastic works with mold to take form, but as individuated LEGO pieces work with others to take on new formmaterial relations when someone plays with or builds LEGO. As I write this, for instance, my six-year-old son is across the room building a train out of LEGO originally belonging to a Ninjago set that had nothing to do with trains. But before he began building the train, he had to destroy the shoe he’d already made from the same repurposed pieces, setting aside some that his younger sister had managed to chew. The form-material individuations of LEGO pieces, in other words, including their representational features, are themselves always provisional, subject as they are to what Catherine Malabou describes as the threefold capacity of plasticity to take, give, or destroy form (Malabou 2012; also see Gisbers 2018, 320–23). This insight can help to clarify why the company’s attempt to be more sustainable is not just a


matter of changing ingredients, but a matter of rearranging the very history of LEGO and its materiality. If we reject hylomorphism and take ontogenesis seriously, as Tim Ingold has argued, “We should not thus think of the properties of materials as attributes. Rather, they are histories” (Ingold 2012, 434). And LEGO’s historical relationship to plastic is more nuanced than just a shift away from wood. The first kind of plastic LEGO used, from 1949 to 1963, was Cellulose acetate, which had the great moldability of most synthetic plastics, but was also highly flammable and too easily deformed. Heat or water, for instance, let alone the general wear of time, could melt or alter the designed form of such toys into something other than their intended form—effectively making them different substances. By 1963, after looking for a more durable material to retain LEGO’s constitutive form over time and against exposure to the elements, the company began producing pieces using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic. In contrast to celluloid plastic, ABS offered four principle advantages: (1) durability, (2) color-fastness, (3) strength, and (4) clutch power. Not only would LEGO elements now withstand the wears and ravages of play over decades; they could take on different colors with minimal fading; they’d be strong enough to support larger builds; and they would keep their distinctive ability to interlock tightly. Because ABS plastics are amenable to precise molding and to greater stability, the shift to producing LEGO using these plastics fulfilled one of the company’s foundational commitments to austerity—the principle of making products that truly last. The trouble is ABS plastic lasts too well. This is both commercially risky (if you already have LEGO that works, what incentive do you have to buy more?) and environmentally precarious (what are the costs of making things that can’t be destroyed?). ABS is what’s known as a thermoplastic. That means that at 221 degrees Fahrenheit, ABS plastic reaches its “glass transition,” which enables it to be injection-molded into nearly any desirable form. (LEGO heats its ABS plastic nurdles to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.) Once it cools in the mold, it hardens into a stable form: for instance, into the LEGO bricks we’re accustomed to using for play. But ABS plastics can also be re-heated to melting point without chemical degradation, making them fully recyclable. In theory (and with the right equipment), if you had a LEGO brick you didn’t need and lacked one that you did, you could take your superfluous brick, melt it down, and then mold it into whatever brick you needed. But being recyclable is a far cry from being biodegradable. No matter how many times ABS plastics get recycled by being melted down and reformed, the material itself will not degrade. We’re stuck with all this LEGO, which makes the company’s environmentalism all the more important—and all the more challenging to get right.

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Techno-Aesthetics LEGO’s sustainable “Plants from Plants” line is made with a polyethylene plastic derived from the ethanol sourced from sugarcane in Brazil. Leaving aside the carbon emissions associated with its production, processing, and shipping, sugarcane-based polyethylene is sustainable because sugarcane can be regrown, unlike the petroleum that LEGO had used to make the polyethylene in all its botanical elements for decades. Though LEGO uses twenty different kinds of plastic for its products—so a LEGO tree is made of a different type of plastic than a LEGO tire, which is made from a different variety than a minifigure—of the seventy-five billion LEGO pieces made annually, only 1–2 percent are made from polyethylene. The overwhelming majority is manufactured using varieties of ABS plastic, which is made from fossil fuels and not replaceable by plant-based alternatives with the same ease that polyethylene accommodates. That means that, with their selfimposed 2030 deadline to use entirely sustainable materials fast approaching, LEGO has some work to do. At a $155 million price tag, they’ve built a 4,000 square meter Sustainable Materials Centre in Billund, the company’s Danish headquarters, and added over one hundred new employees tasked with finding sustainable alternatives to their current materials. The difficulty is not just that LEGO hasn’t found the right materials to replace their ABS plastics with sustainable alternatives but also that, unlike with polyethylene plastics, no engineers in any industry have been able to produce bio-based plastics that exhibit the same properties that have made ABS plastics so useful—and especially so for LEGO elements. As anyone who has played with LEGO can attest, the botanical elements have a different feel than other bricks. They’re grainier, more flexible, just not the same. In addition to its goals to help mitigate the damaging environmental impacts of their flagship products, the LEGO Group was also explicit about wanting to make it “feel” as if the bricks hadn’t changed at all. In other words, in a tacit hylomorphism, they wanted to change the matter, but not the form of the LEGO brick. The form was presumed to be already perfected, in need of no improvements, indeed something that could only be ruined by its alteration. Hylomorphically, to modify the interlocking system that LEGO had popularized—to change the fundamental form that LEGO elements took—would be to make a different substance altogether, and hence not what consumers know as “LEGO” at all. As The New York Times put it, “In essence, the company wants to switch the ingredients, but keep the product exactly the same” (Reed 2018). The emphasis on form as what separates LEGO from competitors, however, underscores that the company’s edge comes largely from its molds. Indeed,


the superlative precision of the LEGO Group’s proprietary molds is what gives their bricks the distinctive interoperability and clutch that knockoffs can’t match. And unlike other plastic toys—say, an action figure or a dump truck, which aren’t modular or interoperable and hence can tolerate minor idiosyncrasies or differences in size and shape from unit to unit—even the slightest deviation in the size or shape of connectable LEGO parts can be catastrophic. The LEGO Group’s commitment to sustainability and austerity means that every LEGO piece ever made needs to be able to connect to every other LEGO piece ever made, whether it’s from the 1960s or today. All the LEGO elements have been compatible since 1958. Even Duplo bricks, those made at a larger size for younger children, are compatible with the smaller LEGO bricks. For this reason, LEGO periodically “retires” molds when their exquisite precision deviates by even half of a thousandth of an inch. Of course, the molds themselves are not pure form, but rather material arrangements of hyper-engineered metals that themselves needed to be melded and molded into form of their own. If ontogenesis makes it difficult to think about what falls on either side of the process of becoming, we are left to recognize that the boundaries are more fluid, that matter and form, feel and function, are constitutively interdependent—particularly so, the example of LEGO suggests, when it comes to sustainability. In its commitment to using new and sustainable plastics without sacrificing the melding of function and feel that makes LEGO elements so unique, the company has had to specify what it means by “sustainable” in the first place. “By sustainable materials,” Søren Kristiansen, director of the LEGO Materials Department, has said, “we mean materials regarding which there is no compromise on safety or quality, and that give the same play experience. Durability is key” (Bioplastics Magazine 2017). Consider that for moment. Durability is key. It’s not just that the LEGO Group wants to mitigate fears from fans that their product will change in quality when its bricks eventually are made from different materials. That’s understandable enough. LEGO also wants these products to retain their same durability, to last a long time. Plastics, of course, are nothing if not durable. Notwithstanding whatever carcinogenic toxicity some plastics may also have, the biggest problem they pose for the environment is that they just never biodegrade. It would be one thing to say, “We realize that all plastics are bad for the environment. We’re not going to stop making LEGO pieces from plastics, but we will try to produce them in ways that create a lower carbon footprint.” Instead, LEGO basically says, “Our plastics will be sustainable because they’ll be durable.” Consider, for instance, one FAQ from LEGO’s official website that tries to resolve common questions about the new “Plants from Plants” line. “Q: Is plant-based plastic biodegradable. A. No” ( 2018). After that it gets circular (see Figure 5.3).

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FIGURE 5.3  Screenshot of FAQ from about the “Plants from Plants” initiative, July 30, 2018. By defining an approach to sustainability in part by the achievement of durability, LEGO effectively says we don’t even want our products to biodegrade. This staunch commitment to physical longevity, rooted as I’ve tried to argue in the company’s historical commitments to austerity, seems to run so curiously counter to the agenda of environmentalism that a reasonable suspicion could attend the company’s motives. Certainly, there are economic and commercial advantages to be gained by “going green.” For instance, in a well-publicized example from 2011 (publicity being part of the point), Taylor Guitars changed its practices around the procurement and milling of ebony used in its fingerboards. In the guitar world, the aesthetic preference has long been for acoustic guitars with fingerboards made of monochromatic, black ebony tonewood. But this kind of dark and single-color ebony is relatively rare; and, because it’s harvested from the heartwood at the center of a tree’s trunk, in practice entire trees were being cut down to see if the uniformly colored ebony was present, which is only the case for about one in ten trees. Given the strong commercial preference for uniformly black ebony, this meant that trees cut down to reveal a more variegated heartwood were typically left behind. With ten trees felled to find just one “usable” trunk, the guitar industry was contributing to incredible environmental waste and labor inefficiency. Taylor decided to do something about it. They bought their own processing plant and began making guitars with fingerboards made from variegated ebony, introducing a new and more environmentally conscientious norm to replace the wasteful industry preference for black tonewood alone. Doing so also gave them control over the means of production, and hence a better bottom line. Though the shift to LEGO made from plant-based plastics instead of petroleum-based plastics can be understood as a similar corporate initiative to create greater efficiency of production while being more ecologically responsible, I think we would be misunderstanding LEGO if we adopted a critical cynicism. In addition to a long-standing commitment to the longevity and interoperability of its products, the LEGO Group is also invested in upholding Ole Kirk’s original motto, Det Bedste Er Ikke For Godt (Only the Best is Good Enough).


And what’s taken as “best” here involves a particular relationship between the aesthetics and function of LEGO products—a relationship that plays out differently in LEGO than it does in acoustic guitars. A guitar should operate just the same whether its fingerboard is made of solid black or variegated ebony. What’s at stake is “the look” of the guitar relative to received norms about what that look conveys in social capital. The sound and playability should remain unchanged. A LEGO brick made from a new kind of plastic, however, would potentially be a different product altogether, the way Taylor’s guitars might have been, by virtue of playing or sounding different had they switched to an all new kind of wood, say, from ebony to pine, instead of merely switching to a different hue or grain of the same tonewood. With LEGO, the technical affordances of the medium—that is, the functions that a brick can perform—are uniquely entangled in the aesthetics of the bricks themselves. To change one is to change the other. LEGO pieces have what Simondon, in an unsent but posthumously published letter to Jacques Derrida, describes as techno-aesthetics: a kind of “intercategorical fusion” between a material thing’s technical and aesthetic aspects, which makes them “perfectly functional, successful, and beautiful” (Simondon 2012, 2). That a workman’s tools, for Simondon, are great exemplars of techno-aesthetics owes to the way their functionality and the beauty of their design converge in a tactile pleasure experienced at the level of aesthetic sensation for both the tool’s creator and user. The painter feels her paints, as does the perceiver of her painting. So it is that Simondon celebrates “the bite of a saw with clean teeth” (3), the way the poet W. H. Auden extols poems that “click like a closing box” (Wellesley 1964, 22), or the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, ever the synesthete, performs a techno-aesthetics of his own by describing the “square echo” of a car door slamming (Nabokov 1990, 59). The technicity of a thing cannot be separated from its sensorial and aesthetic affects,6 and techno-aesthetics are achieved when the intercategorical fusion of these elements is something we experience as a provisional realization of the medium’s potential. Techno-aesthetics puts a kind of naturalism to work: though we hadn’t known it before, the car door can only slam as a square echo. LEGO pieces have to be durable and clutch just-so, that’s their “natural” form. The near-perfect clutch of LEGO pieces, as experienced in play, is evidenced in the sensuous and tactile pleasure of connecting two pieces together. But as part of LEGO’s techno-aesthetics, that sensuous clutch is also what makes LEGO more “sustainable” than other construction toys. Its pieces just stick together better, for longer, and more easily than other similar construction toys. Not only is the LEGO Group well aware of this virtue in its product; the way LEGO pieces stick together and stay stuck together is also one reason

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that LEGO enthusiasts have such fierce brand loyalty. Other products, such as China’s Lepin bricks, or Canada’s Mega Bloks, are often taken not to have the same techno-aesthetic value. As Victor Fernandez, the owner of EclipseGrafx, a company that customizes LEGO bricks and minifigures, has said of Mega Bloks in particular, “They don’t click well either. I mean, you can build a whole building with a Mega Blok, but if you breathe on it, it will probably fall over” (Fernandez 2017). Disputations about brand superiority aside, the interesting phenomenon here is that LEGO exemplifies not just an artful pairing of form and function, but that this pairing is an achievement that suggests the product’s sensorial aspects cannot viably be separated from its sustainability.

Sensorial Sustainability Before the “Plants from Plants” set had become a reality, and without any mention of the company’s larger mission of shifting to bio-based plastics altogether, LEGO put its builders to work making at least two trees of lifelike size. First, in April 2017, the LEGO Group installed an enormous tree resembling a giant oak inside the atrium of the LEGO House in Billund. Almost exactly a year later, they installed a giant sakura (cherry) tree outside at the LEGOLAND park in Nagoya, Japan. Though the representational features of each tree are mimetically impressive, no one up close would mistake these trees for their living models. Together, though, each in different ways encapsulates something of the LEGO approach to fake plastic trees and the naturecultures boundary work that characterizes the company’s way of thinking the sustainable by way of the sensorial. By way of conclusion, then, I’d like to offer a short read of these two LEGO trees followed by some thoughts about sensorial sustainability. At 15 meters high, and made of 6,316,611 pieces, the Tree of Creativity inside the LEGO House in Billund is easily one of the largest LEGO models ever constructed. Built offsite over 24,350 work hours, the tree’s onsite installation alone took 1,200 hours, with installers using ropes and pulleys like actual lumberjacks to climb and attach modular clumps of bark and branch, leaf and twig, together around a metal frame. The sheer scale is staggering. The Tree of Creativity was designed to fit a particular location in the LEGO House, specifically to rise up the middle of a wide interior staircase that wraps around the tree so visitors ascending the stairs can circumambulate the trunk and see the various other builds—moonscapes, train stations, airports, monkeys—constructed on the topside of the many leaf canopies. What’s so impressive is not just the build’s size and artistry, but the ways it instantiates


so much of what LEGO stands for when it comes to its relationship with the environment and its materials. Consider, for instance, the base where the tree’s “wooden” root system connects to the “grass” in which it grows. The base consists in thousands of disconnected green LEGO bricks, mostly 2 x 4s, piled there around the roots as if a kid had taken a box of bricks and dumped them on the floor. This rubble of unconnected green bricks is the most “non-built” component of the entire installation, and hence, in a way, the most “natural.” In part because the pile of bricks serves to represent the grass or moss—that is, not the tree that is clearly the focus of the build—it enacts the wildness of nature in ways the more meticulously designed trunk and branches do not. The Tree, after all, is intended to appear not just as a tree, full-stop, but as a built tree, and one that is still in progress at that. At the tree’s top, above the canopies of leaves, a yellow mechanical crane extends from the core of the uppermost remaining portion of the trunk, as if there were still more tree to be built. This crane overtly indicates that this isn’t a naturalistic representation of a real tree, but an unfinished representation of a LEGOfied tree: wood become plastic, plastic become wood, a permanently still in-progress construction whose ontogenesis is always underway (Figure 5.4). According to Jesper Vilstrup, vice president of the LEGO House, “The tree is a metaphor for the entire LEGO Group, containing references to both wooden toys and a company in growth” (LEGO Group 2017). If the mechanical crane is a reference to the company still in growth, the reference to wooden toys is to be found in the form of a toy duck “carved” into the trunk by design—a nod to the first LEGO toy, a duck on wheels, back when wood was the company’s medium of choice. Like lovers carving their initials in a tree, the duck acts here as a sort of skeuomorphic graffiti, defacing the tree on purpose so to represent a tree that’s been defaced. But the unruly pile of green bricks has also made the tree subject to unanticipated modifications. On my visit, enterprising visitors had reached over the edge of the tree’s planter and taken pieces from this pile to construct small builds of their own, which they’d then affixed to the tree’s roots like weird outgrowths or mushrooms—actual LEGO graffiti. While it would be too brazen to take elements off the tree trunk itself, the trunk being so self-evidently the cultured result of human craft and creativity, the pile of green bricks, by contrast, with its natural disorder and abundance, was more or less ready-at-hand to be appropriated by visitors for their designs. The Tree of Creativity, that is, not only takes and receives form, by plan and otherwise; it exemplifies that only so much can be controlled, that non-appropriative relationships to “nature” and “culture” alike require acceding that they are more imbricated than it seems.

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FIGURE 5.4 The Tree of Creativity in the LEGO House, Billund. Photo used with permission. ©2019 The LEGO Group. The second of LEGO’s big tree builds illustrates this as well. The sakura tree, built in 2018 for the first anniversary of LEGOLAND Japan, may not be as large as the Tree of Creativity, but it’s just as impressive. And it’s still awfully big. At 881,470 bricks, it holds the distinction of being in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s “largest LEGO brick cherry blossom tree.” Built by hand in the Czech Republic over the course of 6,500 work hours, it features drooping pink and white blossoms, illuminated lanterns, and a bed of undulating grass at its base, all made from LEGO bricks assembled around a hidden metal frame. Unlike the Tree of Creativity, the sakura’s grass base is built purposefully with connected bricks of different shades, including some white patches meant to represent blossoms that had fallen from the branches


above. To be installed in the LEGOLAND park, it had to be shipped from the Czech Republic in modular parts that arrived in modular shipping containers of their own. Though I’ve not yet seen the tree in person, its prepossessing qualities are enchanting even in photos and videos. With the delicacy of a living sakura, the sinuousness of its wood and the waft of its leaves achieve a naturalism that makes it somehow seem to belong outdoors. Though it’s within easy grasp, no one appears to have defaced it. It may be incidental, but it’s not insignificant, that the sakura tree is in LEGOLAND while the Tree of Creativity is in the LEGO House. The sakura is there to be looked at, a finished product presented as a flowering part of a landscape. It’s situated outdoors among the elements. The Tree of Creativity, by contrast, is a domestic build, literally inside a house, and it’s more evidently still in progress, both as visitors add their own mini-builds to its roots and as the mechanical crane indicates by protruding permanently from the top. The differences here are important insofar as they indicate some of the boundary-marking that LEGO has done around the human relationship to the environment. As Lauwaert has shown in her book, The Place of Play, LEGO’s shift from wood to plastic also signaled a new relationship to the materials: “The evolution from wooden building blocks to plastic designing bricks changed the way children could play with LEGO toys”—and where that play should occur (Lauwaert 2009, 53). Wood was for outside, plastic for in. As the LEGO company itself put it in a 1975 publication, LEGO bricks are “much more convenient for indoor use” than for outdoor play (LEGO Company 1975, 5). Indeed, not just for play, but for display too: the sakura tree has had to be taken down during inclement weather, so not to be damaged by the summer heat. Curiously, that accommodation is not usually made for those builds in the park’s “Miniland,” which features miniature LEGO skylines and cityscapes from across Japan. Though the country’s iconic buildings displayed there are as LEGOfied as the sakura, the becoming-plastic of wood seems to require it be moved indoors in ways that the buildings do not—as if acceding that to LEGOfy the natural is to subdue its fundamental animacy. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram argues that no matter how distant we may have become from the natural and organic basis of those materials we use in everyday life—from a pencil to a car—in one way or another, however abstractly and even with some preconscious distance, we nevertheless retain something of our connection to the earth through the technologies and tools that mediate our lives: Our human-made artifacts inevitably retain an element of more-thanhuman otherness. This unknowability, this otherness, resides most often in the materials from which the object is made. The tree trunk of the

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telephone pole, the clay of the bricks from which the building is fashioned, the smooth metal alloy of the car door we lean against—all these still carry, like our bodies, the textures and rhythms of a pattern that we ourselves did not devise, and their quiet dynamism responds directly to our senses. (Abram 1996, 64) As Abram sees it, the trouble is that our sensorial attunement to the quiet dynamism of this earthly connection is being attenuated. It’s as if we are losing a kind of sensorial literacy, the ability to feel connected with the earth and its natural wonders. The mass production of interoperable products only exacerbates the problem and distances us from the dynamic animism of the earth. Too often, Abram notes, “this dynamism is stifled within mass-produced structures closed off from the rest of the earth, imprisoned within technologies that plunder the living land” (64). For Abram, though we never lose our earthly connection entirely, we would do well to cultivate it more directly. The aim is to be more “a part of” and less “apart from.” How then, we might ask, does LEGO’s move to plant-based elements reconnect us, if at all, to our sensorial empathy with the world? Indeed, it is precisely the rupture of that connection that LEGO enthusiasts have complained will be lost with the new bricks, manifest at least in their sensorial tactility. On the one hand, the argument that LEGO elements produced with sugarcane will lose their techno-aesthetic essence sounds a bit like arguments that digital books shortchange readers the tactile pleasures of holding a book in one’s hands and leafing manually through the pages. Historically, people have always shown a stubborn nostalgia for the familiar expressed as a reluctance to adapt to newer technologies whose unfamiliarity registers as fearful because unknown. On the other hand, arguments that sugarcane-based LEGO elements will lose their “feel” reinforce an important connection between artifacts made by human design and those “natural” or organic elements that constitute the more-than-human world. It’s all too easy to forget, as Julia Corbett notes, that “nature is in absolutely everything you touch” (Corbett 2018, 15). The more we can hold that in mind, whether or not by feeling it in hand, the more we will see the error in drawing boundaries between nature and culture by supposing one can ever be disarticulated from the other. And yet, so much of LEGO’s discourse operates along a series of such boundary markings. Big LEGO pieces are for little kids; little LEGO pieces are for big ones. Plastic toys are best for indoor play, wooden toys for outdoors. Sustainability is not a matter of staving off environmental catastrophe, but sometimes just making sure our own tiny worlds last longer. In a way, LEGO is a medium for anesthetizing our loss of connection to nature. Making plants


from plants might restore some of that connection, but it’s our job, whether in play or appreciation, to keep that connection close. Sustainability is more than scientific. It’s not just a technical problem to be engineered away. Sustainability is also sensorial, a matter of forming a new attunement to the wondrous dynamism of the world that’s already around us, and building better worlds therefrom.

Bibliography Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Aristotle. Aristotle Physics Books I and II. Trans. William Charlton. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1992. “Artificial Flower.” “How Products Are Made.” (September 13, 2019). https​://ww​w.enc​yclop​edia.​com/m​anufa​cturi​ng/ne​ws-wi​res-w​hite-​paper​ s-and​-book​s/art​ifici​al-fl​ower.​ Baekeland, Leo H. “Method of Making Insoluble Products of Phenol and Formaldehyde.” US Patent 942699, filed July 13, 1907 and issued December 7, 1909. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Noonday, 1972. BBC News. “Lego Admits it Made Too Many Bricks.” BBC News. Published March 6, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​​.com/​news/​busin​ess-4​32988​97. Blakemore, Erin. “The Disastrous Backstory Behind the Invention of LEGO Bricks.”, August 29, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.his​tory.​com/n​ ews/t​he-di​sastr​ous-b​ackst​ory-b​ehind​-the-​inven​tion-​of-le​go-br​icks.​ Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Anthropocene Time.” History and Theory 57, no. 1 (March 2018), 5–32. Combes, Muriel. Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Trans. Thomas LaMarre. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Corbett, Julia. Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in Everyday Things. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2018. Davis, Heather. “Life and Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic.” In Art in the Anthropocene, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 347–358. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015. Earth Day Network. “Fact Sheet: End Plastic Pollution.” Published March 7, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.ear​thday​.org/​2018/​03/07​/fact​-shee​t-end​-plas​tic-p​ollut​ ion/.​ Fernandez, Victor. Interviewed by Nicholas Taylor, at BrickUniverse Convention, Raleigh, NC, April 9, 2017, transcript. “The First LEGO Plants Made Based on Plants.”, Ourstories, July 30, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.leg​​/en-a​u/abo​utus/​respo​nsibi​lity/​ourst​ories​ /plan​ts-fr​om-pl​ants.​ George, Sharon, and Deirdre McKay. “‘Sustainable’ LEGO: Plastics from Plants won’t Solve a Pollution Crisis.” The Conversation, March 13, 2018. Accessed https​://th​econv​ersat​ion.c​om/su​stain​able-​lego-​plast​ics-f​rom-p​lants​-wont​-solv​ e-a-p​ollut​ion-c​risis​-9295​3.

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Gherasim, Bogdan. “The LEGO Group Aims for 100% Sustainable Packaging by 2025.”, Newsroom. April 22, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.leg​o.​ com​/nb-n​o/abo​utus/​news-​room/​2018/​april​/lego​-sust​ainab​le-pa​ckagi​ng-20​25. Giddings, Seth. “Bright Bricks, Dark Play: On the Impossibility of Studying LEGO.” In LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf, 241–267. New York: Routledge, 2014. Gisbers, Tom. “Plasticity.” In The Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, 320–323. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Hansen, Ole Steen. Grote Zakensuccessen. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen En Lego. Trans. Marina C. Solleveld. Gilze, NL: Dahlgaard Media B.V., 1997. Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, 3–35. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Ingold, Tim. “Toward an Ecology of Materials.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012), 427–442. Kohn, Sherwood. “The Flowering of Fake Flowers.” New York Times, August 23, 1964. Lane, Nathan. “The Joy of Bricks.” The New Yorker, April 19, 1998. Accessed https​://ww​​yorke​​/maga​zine/​1998/​04/27​/the-​joy-o​f-bri​cks. Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Lauwaert, Maaike. The Place of Play: Toys and Digital Cultures. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2009. Lauwaert, Maaike. “Playing Outside the Box—On LEGO Toys and the Changing World of Construction Play.” History and Technology 24, no. 3 (2008), 221–237. Lebreton, Laurent, Boyan Slat, Francesco Ferrari, Bruno Sainte-Rose, J. Aitken, R. Marthouse, Sara Hajbane, Serena Cunsolo, Anna Schwarz, A. Levivier, Kimberly Noble, P. Debeljak, H. Maral, Rosanna Schoeneich-Argent, Roberto Brambini, and Julia Reisser. “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic.” Scientific Reports 8, Article 4666 (2018). LEGO Company. A Brick—And the Story Behind It. Billund, DK: LEGO Company, 1975. “Entering the Age of Plastics.”, no date. Accessed June 20, 2019, https​://ww​w.leg​​/en-u​s/the​mes/l​ego-h​istor​y/art​icles​/ente​ring-​ the-a​ge-of​-plas​tics-​cef66​07f38​56452​d920b​728b9​82ce9​47. LEGO Group. “The World’s Most Iconic LEGO Model at LEGO House.” Press Release, April 6, 2017. The LEGO Group. Accessed June 20, 2019, https​://ww​ w.leg​ohous​​/en-g​b/pre​ss-re​lease​/2017​/apri​l/tre​e-of-​creat​ivity​. “LEGO Making Slow but Steady Progress Towards 2030 Sustainable Materials Goal.” Bioplastics Magazine, April 4, 2017. Accessed https​://ww​​plast​ icsma​gazin​​/en/n​ews/m​eldun​gen/0​40420​17-Le​go-pr​ogres​sing-​towar​ ds-20​30-su​stain​abili​ty-go​als.p​hp. Lo, York. “The Forgotten Jewish American Tycoons Behind the HK Plastic Flowers Industry.” The Industrial History of Hong Kong. December 18, 2017. Accessed https​://in​dustr​ialhi​story​hk.or​g/the​-forg​otten​-jewi​sh-am​erica​n-tyc​oons-​behin​ d-the​-hk-p​lasti​c-flo​wers-​indus​try/.​


Malabou, Catherine. Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Trans. Carolyn Shread. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012. Meikle, Jeffrey. American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. New York: Vintage, 1990. Perrone, Jane. “Houseplants at IKEA: Q&A with Anna Liakh.” Jane Perrone Blog. March 17, 2017. Accessed https​://ww​w.jan​eperr​one.c​om/bl​og/20​17/3/​17/ho​ usepl​ants-​ikea-​qa-wi​th-an​na-li​akh. Peterson, George E. “Artificial Plants.” Curator: The Museum Journal 1, no.3 (1958), 12–35. Povinelli, Elizabeth. “Keynote Speech.” The Anthropocene Project: An Opening.  Berlin, Germany, January 20, 2013. Reed, Stanley. “Lego Wants to Completely Remake Its Toy Bricks (Without Anyone Noticing).” The New York Times, Energy and Environment. August 31, 2018. Accessed https​://ww​w.nyt​imes.​com/2​018/0​8/31/​busin​ess/e​nergy​-envi​ ronme​nt/le​go-pl​astic​-denm​ark-e​nviro​nment​-toys​.html​. Simondon, Gilbert. L’individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’information. Paris: Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2005. Simondon, Gilbert. “On Techno-Aesthetics.” Trans. Arne De Boever. Parrhesia 14 (2012), 1–8. Simondon, Gilbert. The Physico-Biological Genesis of the Individual. Trans. Taylor Adkins, Fractal Ontology Blog, October 3, 2007b. Accessed https​://fr​actal​ontol​ ogy.w​ordpr​ess.c​om/20​07/10​/03/t​ransl​ation​-simo​ndon-​and-t​he-ph​ysico​-biol​ ogica​l-gen​esis-​of-th​e-ind​ividu​al/. Simondon, Gilbert. “Technical Individualization.” Trans. Karen Ocana. In Interact or Die!, edited by Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder. Rotterdam: V2 Publishing/NAi Publishers, 2007a. van der Tuin, Iris. “Naturecultures.” In The Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, 269–70. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Wellesley, Dorothy. Letters on Poetry From W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Wotton, Henry. The Elements of Architecture. London: Printed by Iohn Bill, 1624.

6 Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging Nicholas Taylor

How Does LEGO Feel? Why Does This Matter?


ouch is central to LEGO. It is primarily our sensuous and, specifically, tactile engagements with LEGO that form the foundations for how and why we separate LEGO from other kinds of material. A non-exhaustive list of such foreign matter includes lint, hair, dust, dirt, food particles, other toys, animal waste, and—perhaps most problematically from the standpoint of ardent adult collectors—elements from non-LEGO building block systems. This chapter is about how the material dimensions of LEGO—specifically, its feel—come to matter to the practices of adult fans, collectors, builders, artisans, and entrepreneurs. More to the point, it is about how the majority of the adult enthusiasts we encountered at multiple BrickUniverse conventions, and scores more in online message boards such as r/AFOLs and AFOLs of Facebook, invest in ideas about the purity of LEGO and go to some lengths to protect LEGO (and not just their own collections, but the brand itself) from incursion by foreign elements. These battles for LEGO’s soul and, more importantly, its market share, are carried out across multiple complex processes. They are waged at fan conventions and manufacturing plants, on message boards and in movie theatres, through courts of law, and in the quotidian efforts of enthusiasts to keep their LEGO collections and creations free of impurities. I touch on many of these in this chapter as I document the


multifaceted work of keeping LEGO pure. The understanding of purity that I want to advance here is of a range of boundary-making practices undertaken by adult LEGO collectors and builders, aimed at fixing and maintaining rigid boundaries between LEGO and not-LEGO. Drawing from feminist scholar of science and technology Karen Barad, I show how purity, as a particular form of boundary-making, is performative: it involves active interventions into the world. These interventions are both shaped by and help reproduce (or in some cases, disrupt) our understanding of what is pure and impure, and why those differences matter. First, I consider some of the mundane, everyday ways that LEGO can become contaminated.

Keeping It Clean For a building system that is routinely praised for its durability, for the remarkable resiliency produced through the alchemical mixture of LEGO’s ABS compound and its jealously guarded injection-molding design, LEGO is remarkably prone to contamination. On AFOL social media groups, it is common to see posts seeking advice about how to remove pet fur from loosely stored LEGO, or how to protect pieces from the decaying effects of mildew and sunlight, or how to get the smell of cigarette smoke out of multiple pieces at a time, or how to restore vintage pieces to their original color. Perhaps predictably, these queries usually concern large collections; as people who have been amassing LEGO for years, some of whom have been doing so on and off since childhood, AFOLs tend to talk about and interact with LEGO in substantial quantities (Geraghty 2014). AFOLs on social media frequently show dioramas of completed sets that take up entire rooms; they discuss and exhibit storage solutions that often line multiple walls and stretch from floor to ceiling;1 and they proudly (or sheepishly) display boxes of unopened sets, piled on top of each other, spilling out of closets. Given this disposition toward lots of LEGO, it may seem strange that AFOLs often hone in on individual pieces, particularly when discussing (and doing) purity. As I discuss in this chapter, however, LEGO is both a mass and a microscopic medium, and purity operates in and across these scales. I consulted these online communities fairly intensively upon finding out that much of my own LEGO collection came in contact with mouse droppings. For several years during and after graduate school, when my spouse and I lived in a series of small apartments, I stored most of my collection in Ziploc bags which were in turn kept in IKEA boxes, stacked in closets or underneath stairwells. Upon opening these bags years later, when we had a house and a child, I dumped a few of these bags on the floor of our living room, in

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preparation for our then two-year-old son to play with them. It was only after I hastily upended the entire contents of the storage boxes that I noticed the fine brown dust at the bottom, which my spouse quickly and disgustedly identified as dried, powdered mouse excrement. What followed was two days of disinfecting, rinsing, and drying LEGO: soaking pieces in batches in a bleach compound, rinsing them in hot water, then using a series of methods to dry them out (spinning them in a salad spinner, wrapping them in tea towels, putting them in a linen bag, and running them through a low-heat dryer cycle). Each stage of this process was partially informed by strategies tested out by other adult LEGO enthusiasts and posted on social media and partially by our (and my spouse’s in particular) intergenerational knowledge, passed on from our mothers, of how to deploy household cleaners and appliances to ward against contaminants. As tedious as this process and other strategies for decontamination might be, LEGO enthusiasts can draw from a wealth of knowledge and experience stored and accessed via social media: which percentage strength of hydrogen peroxide to use when restoring vintage grey castle walls to their original color (3 to 6 percent), which ratio of vinegar and water to neutralize the smell of smoke (50/50), and so on. A more troubling source of contamination comes from pieces of other building systems that can interlock with LEGO pieces and, at a glance (but not a touch!) pass as LEGO. While posts about environmental contaminants on AFOL social media groups are common, posts about the infiltration of knockoff brands into LEGO collections are far more frequent. Discussions abound regarding the various threats such elements pose to pure LEGO collections: pieces that can often hide in plain sight amid hundreds of actual LEGO blocks, or that might pass cursory visual inspection, particularly by the unscrupulous or untrained. One member of AFOLs of Facebook, for instance, wrote of buying secondhand LEGO minifigs from a vendor at a festival, only to find out later on “closer look” that they were “NOT. LEGO.” as they lacked the tell-tale LEGO logo on the stud on top of their heads. The user asks: “What do you people do in situations like this? Melt them? Build a prison cell for each of them?” before writing that “they were very convincing at a distance.” Some respondents suggest that a few knockoffs in one’s collection are nothing to worry about (so long as you know which ones they are), while others give advice on how to avoid knockoffs altogether (“the price is usually a giveaway,” referring to LEGO’s much higher price point). The majority insist on disposing of the knockoffs, often humorously, writing: “Tie them to bottle rockets,” or “mount them on your wall so you never make that mistake again,” or posting a GIF of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars with the caption, “Wipe them all out” (AFOLs of Facebook 2018). User-generated memes depicting violent


purges of knockoff blocks appear throughout these and other online discussions: in one, a Mega Bloks figure is beaten and run out of town by LEGO minifigs; in another, LEGO minifigs armed with guns surround a Mega Bloks figure on fire, buried up to its neck in sand. In another image (Figure 6.1), a meme featuring two rows of human skulls and a Neanderthal skull on the end has been modified: under each of the normal skulls are names of LEGO product lines, while under the Neanderthal skull is the caption “Lepin,” a knockoff brand that is much maligned among the AFOL communities I follow. Such images toy with the dark undercurrents of purity: with a proclivity to define perceived differences of religion, ethnicity, race, language, sexual identity, gender, and so on in terms of contamination, and the legacies of dehumanization, oppression, and genocide (“ethnic cleansing”) that very often accompany such determinations (Appadurai 2006). The themes of purity, contamination, purging, and cleansing appearing throughout online discussions such as these resonate with some of the earliest anthropological understandings of purity. Mary Douglas, synthesizing a body of research on these themes up to the mid-twentieth century, notes how concerns for purity across various cultures do not just reflect a reaction to dirt and other forms of pollution; rather, she writes, “In chasing dirt,

FIGURE 6.1 Knockoff LEGO collectors as under-evolved. Image credit: Mocer


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in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea” (Douglas 1966, 3). As a concern that animates any manner of cleansing rituals, cleaning and purifying technologies, and both symbolic and real borders between clean and unclean, purity is an intensely productive force. Purification is (hard) work. When we are getting rid of dirt from our homes, as Douglas argues, we are actively participating in ideas about what is clean and not clean, ideas that are shaped by our experiences of social class, ethnicity, gender, and so on—in other words, by ideology. As I argue in this chapter, the same is true of LEGO enthusiasts’ efforts to keep their collections pure. The memes showing purges of knockoff blocks, not to mention the more numerous, mundane invocations of purity that we’ve encountered in our interactions with adult LEGO enthusiasts, are concerned with demarcating what is LEGO and what is not. Whether chemical, legal, physical, or ideological, or a mix of these, purity is never a stable quality, never a given, but an accomplishment—and always a temporary one at that. We might say then that purity is performative; it is an act, or series of acts, of both constituting order upon and within the world and of demonstrating the necessity of that order: setting boundaries between that which belongs among the clean, and that which does not belong. Boundaries, however, are tricky, especially when trying to mitigate against myriad ways that the world with its pollutants, environmental conditions, knockoff toys, and unscrupulous actors can encroach into the pristine worlds of LEGO.

“Boundaries Do Not Sit Still” Karen Barad, a feminist scholar of technoscience,2 offers a compelling understanding of how boundaries are produced and how they come to matter, both physically and symbolically. Her theorization of boundary-making is primarily concerned with how phenomena are produced, and not just recorded, by scientific instruments. Though she is not immediately concerned with notions of purity, her work provides a useful lens through which we might gain a deeper understanding of the complex relationships between the material properties of LEGO pieces and the various meanings of purity and contamination that become attached to them. In “Posthumanist Performativity,” Barad (2003) begins by disrupting a tendency in studies of culture and technology to foreground meaning over matter: to treat representations of things as separate from (and more influential than) the things themselves. In this view, our relationships to things, to matter, are inescapably premediated—


“always already” determined, to use a clichéd cultural studies phrase—by the means we use to represent them (words, drawings, diagrams, photographs, etc.). What Barad terms “representationalism” is the belief, on the one hand, that representations of things exist independently of things themselves; and on the other, that representations have more force, more power to act, than the things that they represent.3 Matter, in a representationalist paradigm, “is figured as passive and immutable”; language, by contrast, is “more trustworthy than matter” (801). For Barad, this is an untenable position, as it denies the fundamental agency of matter to have a say in how it is represented and manipulated. As a way out of the representationalist trap in which representations come to matter more than matter itself, Barad turns to the work of Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Though a contemporary of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a fellow Dane who is regarded as the inventor of LEGO, the two were arguably worlds apart philosophically. Around the same time Christiansen was busy refining techniques for mass producing interlocking bricks, Bohr was conducting experiments in quantum mechanics that demonstrated the inseparability of scientific instruments from the very phenomena they are observing and recording. According to Bohr, what we see or know about things always depends upon the means we use to examine them; famously, Bohr demonstrated that light can be both a particle and a wave, depending on the technologies used to measure light. How we look, quite literally, matters: as Bohr’s experiments with atomic particles indicated, they only become “atomistic” under certain conditions and techniques of observation. According to Barad, the results of this work compelled Bohr to reject the taken-for-granted scientific belief that things “have inherently determinate boundaries or properties” (813). When considered microscopically, things only take on their thinginess—their status as discrete entities—through intervention by the very instruments used to observe, record, and measure them. Perhaps Ole Kirk Christiansen and Niels Bohr, these two mid-century Danes, were not so far apart: one was using industrial machinery to create atomistic, interlocking toys, while the other was using scientific machinery to show how atomic particles are created through instruments of observation. Both were in the business of understanding how atomic (or atom-like) elements get made, and the processes through which they can be combined. At any rate, Barad embraces Bohr’s insight that how something acts is inseparable from how it is observed, and that things themselves have a say in whether and how they are observed. Extending the insight from queer cultural theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam that gender (among other categories of identity, and indeed, like purity) is continually performed, and this performance over time and across contexts is what constitutes the reality

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


of our gender identities, Barad argues that this capacity for performance is by no means restricted to humans. This is what she terms “posthumanist performativity”: that matter, far from being inanimate or inert, has a demonstrable role in how it becomes knowable by quite literally, acting differently under different conditions of observation (808). At the same time, Barad stresses that techniques of representation (including but not limited to Bohr’s own scientific instruments) do not simply show, but help construct phenomena. It is through this cyclical relationship between matter and its representations, each shaping the other, that boundaries between things become intelligible and actionable. What matters, for Barad, is how boundaries between things are produced, and what the implications of these boundary-making practices are for how we conduct ourselves in relation to others—whether things, human and nonhuman beings, systems, institutions, and so on. Barad argues that boundaries are made (and unmade) through “material-discursive practices,” a term that preserves what she sees as the fundamental inseparability between things (material) and representations of things (discourse) (810). Material-discursive practices are “specific iterative enactments,” ways of arranging and describing things in their relation to other things, “through which matter is differentially engaged and articulated” (822). Boundaries are accomplishments: arrangements of ideas and objects that are never wholly fixed.

Making and Breaking Boundaries As a product and a brand, LEGO is deeply invested in boundaries: the capacity for a LEGO piece to connect with other pieces in a snug and supple way, to maintain boundaries that are both stable and interoperable, is its hallmark and its key “material-discursive” accomplishment. Consider the ways boundaries materialize, shift, and erode over the life of a single LEGO element: a “bar holder with clip” (piece no. 11090) that is “reddish-brown” in color (no. 192, in LEGO’s labeling scheme).4 The bar holder with clip (Figure 6.2) is a claw that has the same dimensions as a minifig’s hand, with a long socket on the end. For it (or any other piece of the same color) to be made, billions of tiny granules of reddish-brown ABS plastic, stored in large silos in LEGO factories around the world, travel via a series of tubes from storage silos to nearby machines that heat them up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, transforming innumerable hard granules into a singular molten liquid goop: a chemical and physical process of boundary-remaking that prepares the ABS for its materialdiscursive arrangements into different pieces. The machine then pours the hot


FIGURE 6.2  Reddish-brown bar holder with clip. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas


goop into molds, hyper-engineered to produce LEGO pieces that permit no more than 0.002 millimeter in variation from one piece to another of the same type. Thousands of molds stamp the hot reddish-brown goop into different types of LEGO pieces, among them “bar holder with clip.” From here the individual pieces, cooled, are placed in bags with other pieces, subjected to another set of material-discursive practices: those through which pieces are grouped into bags together, and the bags numbered to correspond to the sequence with which they are to be opened and assembled according to a specific set’s instructions.5 In this way, the reddishbrown bar holder with clip becomes a small but vital part of any number of sets across a range of themed product lines. Sixteen of them attach ropes to turnbuckles in a boxing ring on the second floor of the “Downtown Diner” (no. 10260), itself a part of the series of expensive, highly involved, interlocking buildings that form LEGO’s nostalgia-soaked Creator Expert streetscape. In “Knowhere Escape Mission” (no. 76020), six of them become the finger joints for the tree-like Marvel superhero Groot. In “Enter the Serpent” (no. 70749), one of them forms part of a trap that an unsuspecting ninja might trigger upon ascending the steps of an ancient temple. Each of these uses constitutes material-discursive rearrangements in which the piece, fastened to others, is employed to both do and mean something different. Once opened at home, consumers may either continue the material-discursive practice of executing the design established in the instructions: rearranging pieces, in immaculately detailed sequence, into a specific LEGO kit. Or the bar holder with clip might become part of a MOC, marshaled for entirely

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


different purposes. But since these bar holder with clips are reddish-brown, the chemical disposition of their dye makes them more brittle than identical pieces of different colors;6 and since they involve thin, hand-like designs that undergo a lot of stress, bending a little bit each time a cylindrical piece clicks into the claw and pops back out, they break much more easily than others. Their boundaries are more prone to dissolution than other colors and other pieces, and they are treated with a measure of suspicion, exasperation, and scorn by LEGO builders and collectors. As demonstrated through this very brief foray into the boundary-making and -breaking that involves a single LEGO brick, boundaries are indeed interventions into the world: separations of matter into discrete elements that then have, and can be represented and understood as having, a concrete existence distinct from other things. A single piece out of billions manufactured by LEGO that year; one element of one hundred in a bag of others packaged in a mass-produced set that, when combined in sequential steps, make a boxing ring, a superhero’s arm, a trap to ensnare heroic ninja; an element that can be employed in countless other ways to connect two cylindrical LEGO objects; and a piece that, when it inevitably breaks under the strain of all its work and its comparatively brittle composition, becomes evidence of a glaring inconsistency in the LEGO Group’s otherwise sterling reputation for quality. The reddish-brown bar holder with clip enters into all of these material-discursive arrangements, changes them, and is changed in turn. Boundaries, indeed, do not sit still. It is in large part because of the plasticity of these boundaries that constitute LEGO that the boundaries between LEGO and not-LEGO are always, at best, contingent and provisional, and must continually be performed.

Beer, Bacteria, and Bricks While the boundaries between LEGO and not-LEGO are often cast in ideological terms, as I alluded to previously when discussing the reactions on AFOL social media to knockoff LEGO bricks, they are frequently experienced as matters of touch. The boundaries that separate LEGO from not-LEGO are rooted in, and constantly reinforced by, recourse to the unique tactility of LEGO. This property is the result of histories of microbiological and industrial science that LEGO (among many other mass-produced commercial objects) has inherited: purity is as much a technical and scientific performance as a cultural and anthropological one. In “Producing Identity, Industrializing Purity: Elements for a Cultural History of Genetics,” Christophe Bonneuil (2008) documents the material-discursive


practices of agricultural and microbiological scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He pays particular attention to how the work of Louis Pasteur and other biologists was used by industrial agriculturalists of the time to standardize food production on a global scale. Through their efforts, microbiology began to be regarded as “a field of practices and discourses of purity,” as scientists fiddled with apparatuses to record and reproduce strains of yeasts, grains, and other plants that would predictably manifest a certain set of traits (97). What grew out of these experiments (alongside many, many plants!) was a scientific understanding of purity as rigid, in which a strain was only deemed “pure” if it exhibited an “absolute absence” of undesirable microelements (97). Purity, in other words, became articulated and instrumented by Pasteur and, later, by a rapidly industrializing agricultural industry as a zero-sum game: a matter of yes or no, on or off. These insights were put to use by a number of organizations operating in the emerging field of industrial agriculture; notable among these (at least in part because of its Danish roots) was Carlsberg Breweries, which undertook experiments using newly engineered strains of pure yeast as a way to produce stable, standardized beer for an emerging globalized market. Due in large part to these experiments in “absolute” notions of purity (not to mention advances in bottling, transportation, and refrigeration), a bottle of Carlsberg in Copenhagen could taste the same as a Carlsberg in New York or New Delhi. As a result of this “industrialization of the agro-food sector” during the Industrial Revolution, purity became materially and discursively associated with predictability, reproducibility, and standardization, rather than rarity or instability (99). This “industrialized” notion of purity became immensely valuable to an emerging globalized capitalism, “because it was amenable to quantity production and to replication across time and space” (100). Based on Bonneuil’s account, we can see how purity becomes industrialized, to the extent that it is understood and represented in binary terms as an “absolute absence” of impurities at a microscopic level, and to the extent that the boundaries between pure and impure elements can be reproduced and reinforced at scale (millions of bottles of beer; billions of bricks), purity becomes, arguably, digitized. This detour from Danish building blocks to Danish beer and back again is intended to expand the range of legacies that LEGO purists engage with when they continually reinforce the boundaries between LEGO and not-LEGO. These legacies, as I’ve shown thus far, are as much scientific and industrial as they are cultural; as much about the creation of rigid demarcations between pure and impure substances in the mass production of standard commodities for globalized markets, as about the meme-making practices of online fan groups that dramatize violent (r)ejections of knockoff pieces from collections

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that are (or ought to be) characterized by the “absolute absence” of anything other than LEGO. I am deeply interested here with further exploring the plasticity and interoperability of purity as a concept, when applied to the plastic and interoperable medium of LEGO: the ways that industrial notions of purity (associated with precision and standardization) can so easily “click” with notions of anthropological purity (associated with cultural contamination and taint). In the material-discursive performances that draw boundaries between LEGO and other substances, LEGO is associated with purity both in terms of its quality and durability as a mass-produced commodity and in terms of its cultural status as a trusted, European-based company that aligns itself with pure motives: progressive education, environmental consciousness, inclusivity. On the other side of these boundaries are knockoff imitation brands, from which the threat of contamination (to the LEGO Group’s vaunted cultural status and, crucially, its bottom line) is all the more urgent because they can, legally, interact with LEGO bricks.

LEGO versus Lepin LEGO’s near (but by no means guaranteed) monopoly on modular plastic building blocks has been persistently taken up in court battles between the LEGO Group and the manufacturers of building blocks that are capable of interlocking with LEGO pieces. As of spring 2019, it is legal to create products that work with LEGO pieces, but not legal to directly copy LEGO products. This is based on the ruling of a Chinese court, in November 2018, against four Chinese companies that produce kits which are nearly identical to LEGO sets, down to the box art. To make a broad simplification, the LEGO Group is relatively tolerant of small-scale businesses, hobbyists, and artists who manufacture, sell, and make use of products that interact with its system (duct tape, office supplies, the tank treads that Brickmania makes for its military vehicles, etc.). The LEGO Group is far less tolerant of businesses that create entire product lines out of LEGO-compatible pieces, which compete directly against their products and are often sold for a fraction of LEGO’s own price. Notable here are Mega Bloks (the Canadian company that initially successfully challenged the LEGO Group’s legal monopoly on LEGO-interacting blocks) and Lepin, the Chinese brand that has arguably come closest to replicating LEGO products. What makes Lepin particularly problematic from the perspective of the LEGO Group, and many of the LEGO enthusiasts who perform the boundary-


making work of purity, is that the brand has been brazen about mimicking not just the interoperability of LEGO, but instructions, sets, and indeed, entire product lines. Even its logo—a red square with rounded edges, with large, white capital letters—directly invokes LEGO’s own. These are, of course, the very same grounds by which the LEGO Group has been able to challenge them in court. The proximal quality and the one-to-one mimicry of LEGO products make Lepin a compelling alternative to LEGO. Provided you are not concerned about the “impurity” of it, you can buy a set that, for most intents and purposes, looks and acts like LEGO’s own sets. Lepin enthusiasts have formed multiple social media groups, such as r/lepin, to discuss the differences between LEGO and Lepin (which, according to some, are diminishing), as well as upcoming Lepin releases and where to buy them.

The “Fake LEGO Gang” Confronted with this threat to LEGO’s purity and financial well-being, the adult enthusiasts and artists we spoke with at BrickUniverse, and many I observed and interacted with online, adopt two overlapping responses to Lepin. The first is to paint Lepin and other Chinese knockoff makers as criminal enterprises, operating within and by virtue of a seedy, under-regulated world of bootleg cultural production. This is certainly the tone of most discussions of Lepin on AFOL social media groups such as AFOLs of Facebook and r/AFOLs, in which Lepin’s business model is routinely described as “theft” and discursively associated with both sweatshops and piracy (AFOLs of Facebook 2019). One custom minifig artist we spoke to at BrickUniverse told us a story of other makers who have their products printed in China had their custom molds “fall off the assembly line,” leading to cheaper “knockoff” custom minifigs that undercut their own, authentic creations. We encountered this story in spring 2016, about a year before the LEGO Group won a series of court battles over copyright infringement in China; the criminal framing of Chinese knockoffs among adult LEGO enthusiasts was well underway before the activities of Lepin and other manufacturers were deemed illegal by Chinese courts. In spring 2019, reports came out that Chinese police had raided three Lepin plants in Shenzen and Shandou (two cities the “special economic zone” of Guangdong province). In total, the plants employed some 3,000 workers. A BBC article quotes a representative of the Chinese police describing the scope of the seizure: “10 assembly lines” with “over 90 molds” and “some 630,000 completed pieces” valued at $30 million USD (BBC 2019). Notably, both the BBC article and another by Shanghai-based media outlet describe Lepin as a “gang”—in the BBC’s case, a “fake LEGO gang.” This is

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a marked shift from the ways Lepin was reported on during fall 2018, when the LEGO Group won its copyright infringement suit against Lepin and three other China-based knockoff manufacturers; then, it was “the manufacturer of Lepin,” or “the Lepin brand.” This demonstrates the LEGO Group’s success at criminalizing counterfeiters, at a time when it is undertaking intensive attempts to attract Chinese customers.7 In this instance, the boundaries being performed are legal and moral. But these boundary-making practices are also imbricated in globalized economies of manufacturing, in which areas of intensive economic and technological development such as Shenzen become nodal points in the often contentious production and circulation of cheaper manufactured goods and the millions of jobs they require, shaped by the neocolonialist efforts on the part of Western corporations and governments to force other nations to adopt their copyright laws.

You’ve Lost That LEGO Feeling The other approach to insisting on the not-LEGO-ness of LEGO knockoffs is through recourse to touch. Lepin and other imitation brands have the capacity to look and act like LEGO, meaning the feel of LEGO—its special clutch, the satisfying, predictable, and supposedly unique way it fits and snaps apart— becomes a baseline for maintaining LEGO’s purity. At BrickUniverse, a handful of LEGO creators and artists spoke to us about their experiences with Lepin, and their comments are fascinating in considering how touch matters (literally) to their creative practices and their understanding of themselves as LEGO brand loyalists and purists. One artist recounted a story in which a family member wanted to buy a particular LEGO set for their child, was put off by the high price, and bought the Lepin version for a third of the price. The artist said that when he visited his family and saw the child building the Lepin set, he was impressed with the quality of the pieces. He went ahead and bought two sets for himself, and based on his experimentation with them, he describes Lepin as “literally like 98% the quality of LEGO” (LEGO Artist 2017). On the surface, this seems like an odd claim; how can we quantify something as sensuous, embodied, and subjective as touch?8 And even if we can, “98%” seems very specific. But this is precisely the kind of logic that the “industrialization of purity” makes possible. Because of the LEGO Group’s decades-long experimentation with ever more precise manufacturing apparatuses (molds of 0.002 millimeter variance, for instance), LEGO invites quantified understandings and expressions of its tactile, structural characteristics: Lepin is not just “almost as good”; it is “98%” as good. And because the industrialized notions of purity that LEGO operates in and on are binary—dealing


in “absolute absences”—the missing 2 percent is vital. Lepin is almost as good as LEGO, but it is certainly not “almost” pure, because in this industrial, Pasteurized, binarized world, purity is all or nothing.

Chemical and Cultural Contamination These two sets of boundary-making logics, the legal-cultural and industrialtactile, find their overlap in a series of concerns I’ve seen addressed by both Lepin users and detractors: issues of safety and risk posed by the production of knockoff brands in less regulated (and according to some, less conscientious) conditions. A thread on the r/lepin Reddit forum entitled “Is Lepin healthy?” discusses numerous instances of Lepin users encountering an oily feel and chemical smell to the bricks, particularly upon first opening a new set. Other users report itchiness and discomfort on their hands after using Lepin. There seems to be a consensus among several thread users that these are the result of the “release agent”—the chemical wash used to remove ABS products from their injection molds—clinging to the bricks, possibly because they are not given enough time to settle and dry before being bagged, boxed, and shipped (u/darkownage 2017). In a slightly different vein, a custom minifig maker we spoke to at BrickUniverse told us that the plastic itself used in Lepin and other knockoff brands is toxic: “The majority of it is melted down medical waste. So the old syringe plastic and whatever . . . that’s why it’s so cheap” (Custom Minifig Maker, 2017). I could not find any other source to support this claim and, as numerous posters to the r/lepin thread point out, ABS is cheap and readily available. We can identify numerous other reasons for LEGO’s higher price point other than the cost of plastics (including, for instance, marketing, research and development, legal battles, franchise agreements). Regardless of the veracity of these claims, they have currency within a certain discursive environment in which these matters of touch operate and which they help reproduce: namely, the set of (mis)understandings and (mis)conceptions about standards of manufacturing processes in certain parts of the world. Chief among these is an ongoing and well-documented concern about traces of lead in children’s toys produced in China. It bears repeating here that notions of purity are, themselves, plastic; in this case, concerns over chemical contamination can very easily operate alongside and interact with concerns over cultural contamination. With these plastic boundaries around plastic pieces, experiences of touch, whether an “oily” sensation or a “98% as good” feel, can easily click with ideological judgments about impure cultures, nations, and ethnicities; in

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this case, with what Mel Y. Chen terms the “toxic racialization” of Chinese products following the “lead panic” in 2007 (Chen 2012, 168–71). Indeed, some of the more perverse and dangerous instances of boundary-making in recent years seem to deliberately conflate notions of purity—ethnic, chemical, nationalist, industrial; impure people, impure ideas, impure goods—in order to rationalize building walls, starting trade wars, and forcing exits.

Custom LEGO and the Margins of Purity Binary all or nothing understandings of what is LEGO and what is not, buttressed by the LEGO Group’s aggressive stance toward counterfeiters, and enforced through its (thus far, largely successful) efforts at criminalizing sources of contamination: this is the material-discursive context in which the creators and entrepreneurs we encountered, those who work with LEGO as their artistic medium, operate. Throughout the BrickUniverse events we attended were indications (some hidden, some obvious) of the precarity of these artists’ positions within this world. This came through in the stories they told us of plain clothes “brand officers” hired by the LEGO Group to covertly monitor the event; the BrickUniverse organizers’ introduction of strict rules ensuring that no knockoff brand pieces were incorporated into any of the displays or activities; and the equally rigid (in)tolerance on the part of many AFOLs (who constitute a major, if sometimes tenuous, economic lifeline for these artists) toward what they deem as impurities. The kinds of purity that these artists perform differ according to the specific forms of LEGO creation and manipulation they practice, the nature of their involvement in and affiliation with the AFOL community, and the particular shape and intensity of their own brand loyalty. Jonathan Lopes, a LEGO artist whom we spoke to on several occasions, admits to using glue in his commissioned works, which is an anathema to many AFOLs and to conventional understandings of LEGO more generally (the use of glue by an adult enthusiast constitutes the existential threat in the plot of The LEGO Movie, for instance). According to Lopes, he is a purist in the sense that he only works with LEGO products, except in those instances when he uses a custom brick maker that creates pieces that LEGO does not (bright green tree leaves, for use in streetscapes, in his case). But due to his glue use, he is not a purist to the degree that many AFOLs he encounters demand. He has found much warmer receptivity for his work at less AFOL-focused events like BrickUniverse, and among the networks of artists, museums, and galleries that he is able to interact with on Instagram (Lopes 2017).


Customizing LEGO The perspectives of Jonathan Lopes and others are foundational to my understandings of how purity works within different LEGO communities—the world of AFOLs, on the one hand, and of artists and makers, on the other. These artists and craftspeople are, for the most part, earnestly committed to using LEGO products in their work, even as their work itself prods the boundaries of what can be done with, and to, LEGO. This work typically entails acquiring official LEGO elements and minifigs in bulk, then modifying them. In the case of Jonathan Lopes, for instance, his creative practice involves physically and meticulously modeling an idea for a work and then attaching (and sometimes gluing) pieces together to build it. Other artists, such as AbbieDabbles, make jewelry and home decor out of LEGO, and sell these as kits, often accompanied by instructions. In some cases, such as with Brickmania, designers might use a CAD program to fashion wholly new kits and product lines, creating professionally printed instruction books, box art, and packaging, as Jessica Elam discusses in her chapter. These aftermarket sets often incorporate custom-imprinted pieces and specially manufactured elements—such as certain kinds of tank treads, and the modern military gear made by BrickArms and other minifig weapons dealers—that LEGO does not produce. As this brief overview of aftermarket LEGO products suggests, the artists involved inhabit a precarious space: their medium is LEGO, and they have a number of compelling reasons for “sticking with” LEGO despite the presence of much cheaper LEGO-compatible products; yet at the same time, their artwork stretches and in some instances, violates what other fans, collectors, and artists perceive as pure. As I will show, these crafting practices operate within boundaries that appear fixed when viewed from afar (in news stories about the raid on Lepin, for instance) but are, in reality, much more porous and provisional.

EclipseGrafx and the Custom Minifig Scene The activity I am most concerned with here involves customizing the look, and in some cases, feel, of aftermarket LEGO bricks: primarily, though not exclusively, minifigs. I am attracted to this work because of my own decadeslong interest in LEGO minifigs, and because these creations generate a fuzziness in what are otherwise cleanly demarcated, binary distinctions between LEGO and not-LEGO, pure and impure. Indeed, in ways that I find delightful and fascinating, these artists play with these boundaries at the same

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


time as they profess their loyalty to LEGO and describe themselves as purists. The activity carried out by these creators—those behind Citizen Brick, Clone Army Customs, EclipseGrafx, and other small businesses—involves creating new designs (via software such as Adobe Illustrator) to imprint on different pieces, and then either investing in a printer capable of adhering the design to LEGO or sending the designs and pieces to a third-party printing service. It’s worth taking a closer look at one of these minifig modifiers in particular, to understand how notions of purity work on and through their efforts to both express themselves creatively with LEGO and make a living while doing so. Victor is the owner and artist behind EclipseGrafx. We had a chance to speak with him on two separate occasions, at the BrickUniverse events in 2016 and 2017. His perspective from almost a decade of creating aftermarket modified LEGO products, setting up an online retail business, and traveling from convention to convention to sell them—interacting with other aftermarket artists, thousands of AFOLS, and many other fan communities in the process—has been instrumental in my understanding of purity as it is performed among these diverse communities. When we first talked to him in 2016, Victor said he’d already been a graphic designer for sixteen to seventeen years, and had been drawing since he was a young child. He began customizing LEGO in the early 2010s, when his son started getting into it. He was out of a job, and had felt “stifled” by his experiences in “corporate America” (Fernandez 2016). Victor says he was interested in what was then a burgeoning market for customized LEGO, which consisted primarily of decals and hand-painted pieces. Frustrated by the high cost of these aftermarket LEGO products, and the low durability of the modifications themselves, Victor decided to apply his creative talents to making his own modifications. With his training and professional experience in graphic design, he created customized images on his computer and then printed them out as decals to affix to LEGO pieces. He circulated images of these around online LEGO communities, and was encouraged by the enthusiasm they received; when he started selling his aftermarket creations, he set them at a price at which he would feel comfortable buying for his son. Eventually, he began sending his designs to a printing facility, before investing in his own printer. By 2016, his wife had quit her job to support the business (handling the retail, marketing, and legal aspects) and care for the children, and EclipseGrafx had been the family business for two to three years. Having his own printer allows him full control over the quality of his prints, which he says exceed LEGO’s own printing in terms of both color and durability. With control over both the design and production of his aftermarket creations, Victor makes an ever-changing range of products, primarily consisting of minifigs and accessories. Many are inspired by transmedia fiction franchises:


the “Sole Survivor” minifig, for instance, sports a blue and yellow jumpsuit with bandolier and a small wrist-mounted computer, evoking the default look of the playable character from Fallout videogames (Figure 6.3). Other minifigs are pulled from real life: like fellow custom minifig creator Citizen Brick, a large portion of EclipseGrafx’s minifig offerings are LEGOfied renditions of American soldiers, marines, and officers. And as his first foray into overtly political creations, Victor started making Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton minifigs in the run up to the 2016 election. Each featured a normal (as they appeared in televised debates) look and satirical variation: Hillary Clinton in an orange prison jumpsuit with handcuffs, and Donald Trump as “El Trumpo” in a sombrero, Mexican poncho, and maracas. Victor claims that he and his wife knew well in advance who would win the 2016 federal election, based on the amount of normal Trump and satirical Clinton minifigs they were selling as they traveled to LEGO conventions around the country in the months leading up.

FIGURE 6.3  EclipseGrafx’s “Lone Survivor” custom minifig. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Taylor.

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


In addition to minifigs and minifig parts, EclipseGrafx modifies individual pieces that are either sold on their own, packaged with other pieces as parts of themed collections, or integrated into small building kits. Themes include food, video games, and illicit substances: in my own collection of EclipseGrafx products are flat two by one tiles imprinted with what looks like the interface of the early 1990s Nintendo GameBoy handheld gaming system, and a twenty-five piece “Bricktendo” kit, complete with small video game console, television set, and small flat tiles evocative of the first Nintendo controllers. I also own a small dime bag of cigarette and narcotics-themed pieces, again with the same playful appropriation of pop cultural references (flat tiles imprinted to look like a bag of small blue rocks, evoking the notorious—and dangerously pure—brand of meth featured in Breaking Bad) and corporate logos (including a pack of “Studboros”). EclipseGrafx charges between $15 and $30 for its minifigs, which is much cheaper than custom minifigs used to sell for, before Victor and others made high-quality printing a standard for their fledgling industry. They remain much more expensive than custom minifigs made using knockoff brands. Here, Victor is adamant in his commitment to using LEGO, even when its higher cost means he cannot compete directly against custom minifig makers who use much cheaper figurines and can sell custom non-LEGO minifigs for a fraction of his. This has a profound impact on how Victor does business. For instance, he has stopped selling his wares at Comic-Con and other large fan culture conventions that are not specifically LEGO focused, but which seem to be a receptive market. These conventions have no policies around selling knockoff LEGO brands, and as a result, Victor cannot compete against vendors who offer custom minifigs made using knockoff brands which, to “the untrained eye,” as he calls it, look the same as his (Fernandez 2017). As a staunch believer in both the quality of LEGO as a medium and in his own technical and creative standards, he sees it as part of his job—an increasingly important one—to educate people about the quality of his products. When interacting with people who are new to his work, who might encounter it as one among many stalls lining the walls of BrickUniverse and other conventions, competing for attention, space, and money, he often has to “take a good two to three minutes” with a potential customer and “explain no, it’s not a sticker. It’s not a decal. It’s actually printed directly onto the LEGO” (Fernandez 2016). In contrast to large fan culture conventions like Comic-Con and their laissezfaire attitude toward LEGO knockoffs, conventions like BrickUniverse—which are not even officially endorsed by LEGO—can have uncompromising rules regarding the authenticity of bricks used, sold, and displayed. BrickUniverse’s policy, in Victor’s words, is that “if it has a stud it needs to say LEGO on that stud,” referring to LEGO’s practice of stamping the studs on almost all of the


pieces it produces with the brand name. For a colleague of his who creates (among other things) LEGO minifig hats that have been modified to have the studs removed, such products are technically disallowed—even though they use authentic LEGO pieces. In their own boundary-making practices, these LEGO-exclusive fan conventions offer a degree of protection for aftermarket artists who are committed to using LEGO products, offering somewhat of a safe haven in what can otherwise be unstable terrain.

“One Purist at a Time” At the same time, Victor often faces resistance at LEGO-exclusive events, particularly from AFOL purists: those fans that put great stake in the quality of authentic LEGO and are vigilant toward potential sources of contamination, especially LEGO knockoffs. According to Victor (and as Jonathan Lopes explained to us as well), for many of the LEGO enthusiasts he and his colleagues encounter, the creative work they undertake is itself suspect: an act of taking authentic, pure LEGO and, however creatively and professionally, altering its appearance, composition, and in some instances, feel. This is tricky territory, culturally and legally: turning LEGO bricks into something that the LEGO Group had not intended, something outside of the recombinatory and aesthetic potentials of its own material and discursive grammars. For this reason, Victor is as adamant about the quality of his own processes for printing on LEGO surfaces as he is about the use of authentic LEGO itself. He notes that LEGO’s own pad printing technique is relatively volatile, especially compared to the UV (ultraviolet) printer he uses. In his words, “If you took sandpaper to LEGO’s printing, you could rub it off within a couple swipes. With mine, it would take you a couple minutes to take it off” (Fernandez 2016). He continues: “I’ve seen kids play with their favorite [LEGO] figure for a week and then at the end of the week you have nothing on it. And my figure—I mean I had a kid actually compliment me on that because he has sweaty hands. He says the LEGO printing rubs off very easy and mine doesn’t.” Given his commitment to use LEGO products instead of much cheaper brands, Victor seems keenly aware that his livelihood depends on convincing “the purists” of the quality of his work. He says one of his personal mottos is “converting one purist at a time,” indicating the slow and painstaking labor of convincing adult LEGO enthusiasts to invest in something which started off as LEGO but is now something slightly different (Fernandez 2017). The tenuous nature of Victor’s position is evident. He operates in a marketplace that is increasingly flooded with cheap imitators, but he remains convinced of LEGO’s superior quality and views the use of authentic LEGO as a means of attracting and

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retaining AFOLs and other purists as customers. At the same time, his own creative practices—which, themselves, are different than and in some cases superior to LEGO’s own printing—means his products are no longer wholly pure. But what kind of impurity is this?

Makin’ Bacon Perhaps my most prized EclipseGrafx pieces are the bacon and eggs I bought at the first BrickUniverse I attended. The bacon is a flat, brown rectangle imprinted with small beige and red ridges of fat, and the eggs are two round, smooth, white pieces imprinted with a slightly raised, off-center yolk. Using UV printing, Victor has altered the feel of the bricks: running your finger over the bacon, there is a sensuous pleasure in feeling the small ripples on an otherwise smooth surface. The eggs have a satisfyingly rounded, smooth, nubby quality, the yolk less pronounced than a conventional stud—and without its interoperability. By contrast, LEGO’s own bacon and eggs, which are made using pad printing, are sort of bland (Figure 6.4). While the yellow dye on the official LEGO egg is designed to look like a rounded dome of yolk with a fatty sheen and the bacon has more visual detail than Victor’s, they do not have the same sensuous appeal. At the same time, the bumpy, nonhomogeneous surfaces on these bricks raise an issue for their interoperability. Tiles such as the ones Victor has modified are often used precisely to provide a smooth look and functionality: to

FIGURE 6.4 LEGO’s flat, pad-printed egg (left) versus EclipseGrafx’s rounded UV-printed egg (right).


seal a space between a base plate and the bottom of a door, for instance, or to give a sports car a homogeneously sleek feel. One could swap a monochromatic circle or rectangle out for LEGO’s own flat, pad-printed egg and bacon tile in these instances, and it might look a bit funny, but it would feel (and in the case of the door, work) the way it is intended. But this is not the case for EclipseGrafx’s bacon and eggs: put the egg under a door and the door will not open. If LEGO’s purity is a matter of the homogeneity and interoperability of its bricks, the “absolute absence” of variability in terms of touch, tactility, and functionality between any two of the same types of pieces, these bacon and eggs no longer fit, materially and discursively, within the neat boundaries separating LEGO from not-LEGO. And yet, Victor is an avowed purist, in terms of his loyalty to the LEGO brand and its products, and his livelihood very much relies on establishing that. He is playing with the boundaries of purity, if we understand play in the elegant terms laid out by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: “Free movement within a more rigid structure” (2004, 304). As I have shown throughout, LEGO’s purity, like LEGO pieces themselves, is both rigid and plastic. Its boundaries are both microscopic in feel and global in reach: the 0.002 millimeter precision tolerance of LEGO molds; the missing 2 percent that makes Lepin “almost” as good as LEGO; the inability to showcase your work at a fan convention because you eliminated the tiny “LEGO” inscription off of one of your custom LEGO products. It is within these seams, these miniscule matters of touch, that Victor’s work finds its unique purchase—and its precarity. It is worth returning to Victor’s story of why he turned to UV printing and its boundary-pushing capacities in the first place: it provides a more durable form of imprinting images (and textures) onto ABS plastic than LEGO’s pad printing. As a material-discursive practice, his modifications produce LEGO with more stability than regular, unadulterated pieces. His custom creations, engineered by the capacity of ultraviolet light to polymerize acrylic dyes, do not wear off as easily through intensive handling and manipulation (particularly, as one EclipseGrafx customer points out in Victor’s story, by sweaty hands). In other words, EclipseGrafx’s LEGO products are more suitable for play than LEGO itself; they handle touch better. Here, it is worth returning for a moment to the discussion among Lepin enthusiasts on Reddit asking, “Is Lepin healthy?” As one user remarked, commenting on the oily feel and “strong chemical smell” of the Lepin they’ve purchased: “I certainly wouldn’t buy Lepin for my daughter to play with but for sticking on a shelf to display? I don’t see a problem” (r/ lepin 2017). Though Victor and this anonymous Lepin user may occupy drastically different locations in the networks of purity and belonging that I’ve been sketching here, they both insist that when it comes to matters of touch, purity is always in play.

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


Play and Dis-play I have two LEGO collections: the one at home and the one in my office on NC State University’s north campus. Constituting the home collection are incomplete and/or disassembled sets from my earlier bouts of LEGO purchasing, which began with the first LEGO Star Wars sets in the late 1990s. The Star Wars sets (and specifically, no. 7140, the first X-Wing) were my reintroduction to LEGO after what AFOLs call the “dark age” (Baichtal and Meno 2011, 18), that time in between halting LEGO collecting as a child or teen and resuming it as an adult. My own dark age began abruptly, marked by the sale of my massive collection in my mid-teens.9 Throughout graduate school, I continued to add to my new LEGO collection, including plenty more Star Wars sets with their predominantly grey palettes and multitude of wings, boosters, and blasters, and a foray into the short-lived sports theme, with its introduction of African American LEGO minifigs. Also making up this home collection are more recent sets we have bought for our son, mostly from the City and Friends lines. My son will build these according to the instructions but then disassemble them almost immediately, dispersing the pieces across multiple, never-quite-finished landscapes of his own creation: a constantly morphing assortment of parks, pizza parlors, robots, and so on. This is, in other words, our play collection (Figure 6.5); specifically, it is used for what Seth Giddings calls “dark play,” that which is often “pursued without adult attention” consisting of “narratives or scenarios children conjure up as bricks are connected and moved” (Giddings 2014, 241). Giddings calls this “dark play” for its ephemeral, ineffable quality: “Like the dark matter that constitutes the bulk of the universe, but which cannot as yet be detected or examined, this dark play constitutes the reality of LEGO as lived and played” (242). Perhaps predictably, my son also frequently deliberately involves nonLEGO elements: metal toy cars, Playmobil figures, stuffed animals. In a form of play that can be called both “pure” (for its pursuit of no outside purpose) and “dark” (for its untraceable quality) the boundaries between LEGO and not-LEGO that matter so much to me, and to whole communities of adult LEGO enthusiasts, matter little to him. In my office, by contrast, is the collection I have amassed since attending my first BrickUniverse in 2015, the same time I took an active research interest in LEGO hobbyism. These sets are pulled from the Creator Expert line of modular buildings; the Ideas line, based on fan-submitted and fan-voted set designs; and science fiction and videogame franchise lines. They are showcased prominently on shelves around my office, displacing my comparably underwhelming collection of academic books. Among these are sets that I have been given, or have given to myself: the magnificent “Ninjago City” (no.


FIGURE 6.5  Our son with our home LEGO collection, used for “dark,” pure, open play. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Taylor. 70620) which my spouse bought for me when we learned I was to make tenure, and the equally impressive “Welcome to Apocalypseburg!” (no. 70840) I purchased, over a year later, when I finally received my notice of tenure. Also included in this collection are my rarer minifigs, including those I have purchased from Citizen Brick, EclipseGrafx, and other custom LEGO creators. While these sets almost never leave my office, I often take my son there, where we take sets off their shelves and play with them. This is not the kind of “dark” play he does at home, with its constant, shifting cycles of disassembly and reassembly. Under my watchful and often anxious gaze, this play is orderly, routinized, and visible, frequently involving narratives of our characters taking turns showing one and other around the completed, pristine, quasipermanent sets. Clearly, this is the display collection; even when we play with these sets, the narrative tourism that my son and I fabricate is arguably playing at display (Figure 6.6).

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


FIGURE 6.6  Our son with my office LEGO collection, in which we play at, and with, display. Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Taylor. There is a generational distinction at work here between play and display, a distinction that demarcates, by age, the (in)appropriate, (un)suitable, and (un)productive uses of toys and hobby materials. This distinction has been studied, satirized, and moralized ever since markets for toys, building systems, and other hobbies historically “for children” began expanding into adult leisure practices (Geraghty 2014; Heljakka 2018). According to this logic, play is the domain—famously, the work—of childhood. Depending on the particular theory of childhood development one ascribes to, play is the means through which, as children, we assimilate new sensory information (Piaget); learn about communication (Bateson); learn how to make meaning of and take agency within our environments (Dewey); perceive and manipulate the formal properties of objects (Montessori); and so on (Saracho and Spodek 1995). As Kate Maddelena explores in her chapter, the LEGO Group positions itself as key promulgator and remediator of these various ideas of play as the work of childhood. It is a tool for pure play—understood in terms of an activity done solely for enjoyment, though the educational rewards may be profound. Children’s play may be work, but this work is primarily autotelic (Heljakka 2018, 241): it is carried out for its own sake. The product of this work is the child herself. Display, conversely, seems to be a particularly grown up mode of interacting with toys and hobbies. Adults now constitute the primary market for many artifacts and hobbies once considered toys (241), as is readily seen among many


of LEGO’s own product lines. Adult consumers are only infrequently described as players, however; they are “collectors or hobbyists” (241; emphasis in original). Crucially, for Katrina Heljakka, display is not without its playfulness, and yet it is frequently opposed to play in the accounts she has collected from adult toy enthusiasts. She notes that even when engaged in such “ludic” activities as arranging figures into certain scenarios and photographing them (256), adults tend to refer to these in terms of display. My own involvement in LEGO fandom backs this up, and not just in my experiences as a collector and displayer of LEGO on the one hand, and a sometimes-companion to my son’s pure, dark play on the other. Countless posts on the AFOL social media threads I am part of depict or describe collections on display. And tellingly, at each of the BrickUniverse events we have attended, activities for building—for free play with LEGO—were designated as Kid Zones, usually found at the edges of the convention floor. The focal point, spatially and discursively, were the exhibits on display. While play and display have different etymological roots (play, from Old English plegan; display, from Old French desploir) there is a serendipitous contemporary relationship between the two that captures the adult (and arguably Protestant) relegation of autotelic activity to the realm of childhood: “dis-play” is disparate from play. Across all these domains—semantic, generational, spatial—we can therefore locate firm and significant demarcations between play and display, even when our forms of display might be deeply playful. In Karen Barad’s terms, play and display are material-discursive practices through which our different engagements with toys and hobbies become culturally intelligible. And purity operates very differently in each.10

Working On, With, and for LEGO Of course, adult LEGO enthusiasts don’t just display; they also create and share their own builds, customize LEGO, generate instructions, write books, and so on, all of which the AFOL community has found ways of supporting and in which the LEGO Group itself is increasingly invested. But these activities are often framed in instrumental terms. When adults engage with LEGO, they are doing something useful: Daniel Lipkowitz, author of The LEGO Book (2009), claims that AFOLs are “pioneering new building techniques and detailing, attending fan groups and conventions, and showing off their passion for the LEGO brick every day” (172). According to Lincoln Geraghty, the LEGO Group can thus emphasize that AFOLs are “not simply playing with their toys,” but proving their “worthiness”: “They are actively engaged with a pursuit that is not childish but commendable, innovative not unoriginal” (2014, 169–70).

Purity and the Boundaries of Belonging


Adult LEGO fans are not playing; they are doing something constructive, useful, and extrinsically valuable. They are working. We can also include display as a kind of work: far from being a passive, nonparticipatory activity, display constitutes a vital part of the work of purity. Specifically, like the other material-discursive practices I have considered, displaying operates to preserve LEGO, materially and discursively: to keep it safe from contaminants and from the wear and tear of “dark” play, and to form a curated record of LEGO’s pristine products. The memes AFOLs circulate depicting LEGO collections being violently purged of other building blocks help sustain LEGO’s cultural status as the construction toy. Mine and my partner’s attempts to rid our LEGO of toxic contaminants sought to preserve both our LEGO collection itself and our son’s health. The joint efforts of the LEGO Group and adult LEGO enthusiasts to criminalize Lepin and other Chinese knockoff brands help safeguard the LEGO Group’s economic well-being. The custom LEGO creations produced by Victor and other artists not only preserve LEGO’s use as an artistic medium but, in Victor’s case, his printing techniques are also actually more durable than LEGO’s own. And the distinction between play and display allows LEGO to preserve the former as the work of childhood while also allowing AFOLs to engage in the latter, the “adult thing” of curating a “highly sophisticated interlocking brick system,” to quote the self-important father figure/villain from The LEGO Movie. In performing purity across all of its senses—legal, industrial, cultural, artistic, generational—we are sifting through and feeling for what is LEGO, and what is not.

Bibliography AFOLs of Facebook. “I Got Duped.” Facebook, April 28, 2018. Accessed https​:// ww​w.fac​ebook​.com/​group​s/Adu​ltFan​sOfLe​go/. AFOLs of Facebook. “Lepin Is Gone For Good!” Facebook, April 25, 2019. Accessed https​://ww​w.fac​ebook​.com/​group​s/Adu​ltFan​sOfLe​go/. Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Baichtal, John, and Joe Meno. The Cult of LEGO. San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, 2011. Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 1 (2003), 801–831. BBC News. “Fake LEGO Gang Dismantled in $30m Chinese Raid.” BBC News, April 27, 2019. Accessed May 15, 2019, https​://ww​​.com/​news/​world​-asia​ -4807​6505.​ Bonneuil, Christophe. “Producing Identity, Industrializing Purity: Elements for a Cultural History of Genetics.” In A Cultural History of Heredity IV: Heredity


in the Century of the Gene, edited by Staffan Muller-Wille, Hans-Jorg Rheinberger and John Dupre, 81–110. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Chang, Dennis. 2019. “Lepin Is Gone For Good!” Facebook, April 25, 2019. Accessed https​://ww​w.fac​ebook​.com/​group​s/Adu​ltFan​sOfLe​go/. Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Custom Minifig Maker. Interview by Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017, BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 1966. Fernandez, Victor. Interview by Nicholas Taylor and Jessica Elam, April 3, 2016, BrickUniverse Convention 2016, transcript. Fernandez, Victor. Interview by Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017, BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Geraghty, Lincoln. Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2014. Giddings, Seth. “Bright Bricks, Dark Play: On the Impossibility of Studying LEGO.” In LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf, 241–267. New York: Routledge, 2014. Heljakka, Katriina I. “More than Collectors: Exploring Theorists’, Hobbyists’ and Everyday Players’ Rhetoric in Adult Play with Character Toys.” Games and Culture 13, no. 3 (2018), 240–259. LEGO Artist. Interview by Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017, BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Lipkowitz, Daniel. The LEGO Book. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2009. Lopes, Jonathan. Interview by Eddie Lohmeyer and Nicholas Taylor, April 9, 2017, BrickUniverse Convention 2017, transcript. Parisi, David. Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. Saracho, Olivia N. and Bernard Spodek. “Children’s Play and Early Childhood Education: Insights from History and Theory.” Journal of Education 177, no. 3 (1995), 129–148. u/darkownage. “Is Lepin Healthy?” r/lepin, January 31, 2017. Accessed https​:// ww​​dit.c​om/r/​lepin​/comm​ents/​5r6rp​d/is_​lepin​_heal​thy/.​

Notes Introduction 1 With some notable and very productive caveats, as we will discuss here. 2 Each of the authors in this volume attended Raleigh’s BrickUniverse conventions, though often not at the same time. Kate Maddelena went in 2011 and 2012; Nicholas Taylor has attended from 2015 to 2019; Chris Ingraham visited in 2017; and Jessica Elam, Sarah Evans, and Eddie Lohmeyer joined Nick in 2016 and 2017. Our IRB-approved interviews and field observations were taken at the 2016 and 2017 BrickUniverse events. 3 Aside from these edited collections, the play system has been addressed by scholars representing a broad range of academic fields. As Giddings argues, the majority of this uptake, whether from political economists (Kline 1993), cultural theorists (Hjarvard 2004; Maddalena 2013), or cultural historians (Cross 1997), concerns the apparent tension between LEGO’s ideology—a tool for boundless creativity and experimentation—and its increasing investments in themed sets, narratively driven, transmedia play, specialized parts, and complex instruction sets.

Chapter 1 1 I don’t insert this term as a theoretical red herring, but rather as a nod to the futurist term “virtual reality.” Play—playing house, playing superhero, playing with blocks—is the original VR. 2 See A History of Child’s Play (Frost 2010), especially detailing John Dewey’s and Friedrich Froebel’s contributions to play’s relationship to knowledge and integration into systems of education. 3 Here I will focus on the basic bricks, not the specialized sets, though the theoretical implications of the relationships among these two are rich and will be explored elsewhere in this book. 4 See Chris Ingraham’s chapter in this volume for more on the history of LEGO and wooden toys. 5 “Technoscience” refers to the way in which our scientific endeavors drive our technological innovations, and vice versa. The term is connotatively critical and Marxist; I mean it to imply that contemporary science is rarely independent of commitments to technological “progress.”


6 I will characterize these activities as “play,” with the understanding that play is not a frivolous, child-only activity, but rather an important world-making practice. 7 I use this term instead of the more commonly used term “stud” in order to avoid reifying a gendered metaphor. 8 The longing for “perfect” communication as a driver of the history of communication is a perennial discussion in the field, but it is described most beautifully by John Durham Peters in his volume, Speaking into the Air (1999). 9 I first began to conceive of a “digital episteme,” and named LEGO as one of the episteme’s constitutive media, during my dissertation work in 2014. 10 For a different but compatible take on the “digital” see Peters 2016. 11 The environment repercussions of this durability are taken up in Chris Ingraham’s chapter. 12 Seth Giddings’s essay, cited in the Introduction to this volume, traces the tension in existing literature on LEGO around supposedly “free” play versus instructions-based building. 13 For detailed theoretical and historical accounts of what standardization means for epistemology, see Jeremy Packer (2013) and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2010). 14 This is the same district in which the work for subsequent chapters in this volume was done.

Chapter 2 1 In his writings on the mimetic faculty, Benjamin articulates two different historical instantiations of mimesis: phylogenetic and ontogenetic. Phylogenetic relates to a deep historical time of mimesis through which modes of representation and signification are developed and organized. Benjamin correlates this form of mimesis to the development of not only language but also ritual dance and astrology. Benjamin’s ontogenetic understanding of the term refers to the tradition of mimesis I use throughout this chapter as a mode of playful, sensual interaction among bodies and things through a perception of their similarities. Furthermore, Benjamin sees mimesis as a historically contingent concept (Benjamin 2005, 721–22). 2 For a detailed analysis of LEGO as a digital medium, see Kate Maddalena’s chapter in this volume.

Chapter 3 1 Informed by Michel Foucault and the collaborative works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, this infrastructure channels investments of power,



knowledge, and the logics of various megamachines such as capital, the State, institutions/institutional authority (e.g., the official LEGO brand, which confers legitimacy according to particular rules and categorizations of dominant regimes, both official LEGO bricks and quality of instructions; see Deleuze and Guattari, 1983[1972]; Foucault 1980, 1997). 2 Channeling German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, this consideration of the intervention on the so-called human illuminates the determination of particular subjectivations—in other words, the material processes of LEGOfication. The imperative aspects of materiality to this case study are in the LEGO medium’s particular affordances and constraints, it’s capacities and how they’re either activated or suppressed (see Kittler 1990, 1999). 3 This is a term originating with William Robinett’s secret message programmed into the Atari game Adventure and referring to the practices of Easter egg hunts in searching for hidden messages and features (Wolf 2012). 4 LEGO’s increasing presence across movies, games, and other representational media is the primary focus of the edited volume LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (Wolf 2014). 5 For more on the difference between LEGO play and display, see Nicholas Taylor’s chapter in this volume. 6 See Nicholas Taylor’s chapter for a deeper discussion on LEGO’s purported purity and its shifting boundaries. 7 This manner of participation reflects a facet of what Michel Foucault describes as the disciplinary power of the state to create docile subjects; particular narrative/representational and discursive practices regarding the State’s participation in warfare are framed in a way to maintain State power and authority over the populace (see Foucault 1990, 1995). 8 Here the work of Deleuze and Guattari on desiring production, invoked in the introductory section, becomes very apparent and very helpful to understand why the capacities of these media work so well to channel this particular expression of desire into processes of subjectivation. 9 A form of semiotic production theorized by Guattari as processes of interacting with and ordering particular components to “lead to an enrichment of their potentialities where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts” (see Guattari 1996, 234, 1984). 10 As suggested in the Introduction, this reflects Kittler-influenced argument regarding the so-called human subject (Kittler 1999, 16).

Chapter 4 1 See Nicholas Taylor’s chapter for its brief discussion on LEGO’s struggles to make certain shades of red and brown bricks as durable as other colored pieces.


2 This is the fundamental insight of intersectional feminism, particularly as articulated through the work of Black feminists beginning with Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). 3 See, for example, War Paint, a line of cosmetics specifically tailored for the “naturally tougher,” “25% thicker” skin of men (http​s://w​arpai​ntfor​men.c​ om/pa​ges/n​ew-ab​out-u​s). Note the invocation of a drastically reduced and oversimplified sexual dimorphism here—real men have tougher, quantifiably thicker skin than women—and the commodification of solutions for it. This is the pharmacopornographic industry at work. 4 In this chapter, as elsewhere in this volume, we are very grateful to the labor of LEGO enthusiasts who operate sites like Bricklink and Brick Owl. These sites provide comprehensive databases of pieces, which (among other things) allow users to search for individual types of pieces and find out in which official LEGO sets these pieces appear. 5 The “pink games” movement of the mid-1990s was a response (at times earnest, at times cynical) to the lack of women and girls in the burgeoning culture of digital games. Games “for girls” proliferated, most often featuring simplified play mechanics, pastel color palettes, and themes of friendship, cooperation, and domesticity (de Castell and Bryson 1998). 6 https​://ww​w.bri​cklin​​/v2/c​atalo​g/cat​alogi​tem.p​age?S​=3202​-1#T=​S&O={​ %22ic​only%​22:0}​ 7 https​://ww​w.bri​cklin​​/v2/c​atalo​g/cat​alogi​tem.p​age?S​=3123​-1&na​ me=Em​ma%27​s%20C​hill-​Out%2​0Kitc​hen&c​atego​r y=%5​BScal​a%5D#​ T=S&O​={“ic​only”​:0} 8 The color pink was originally associated with boys because it was seen as a strong, vivid color, and blue was recommended to dress little girls since it was gentle and calming. After the Second World War, people wanted to move away from the drab wartime colors of gray and blue. The colors associated with either gender swapped (Paoletti 2012). 9 https​://ww​w.bri​cklin​​/cata​logIt​emIn.​asp?P​=6184​&in=S​ 10 This title is a not-so-subtle play on a long-running social media practice in which users post pictures that seem to invite obvious and/or humorous phallic references (hence, “Insert dick joke here”). 11 NSFW stands for “Not Safe for Work.” This is a common acronym used on the internet to indicate content that includes nudity, overtly sexual content, gore, violence, illegal drug-use, or even sometimes foul language. Generally, anything that might get someone in trouble if someone caught them looking at it while in a professional workplace setting is NSFW. 12 A Fleshlight is a masturbation toy that simulates a vagina or anus, intended for use by people with penises. It is vaguely flashlight shaped, with a solid exterior, that envelops a penetrable opening made of silicone or other soft, waterproof material. Fleshlight originally referred to a specific brand but the name has become a proprietary eponym (similar to the way the term “Escalator” is used to describe all moving staircases or “Kleenex” as a word for tissues) and is now commonly used to refer to all toys of this nature.



13 https​://ww​w.bri​ckowl​.com/​catal​og/le​go-mi​necra​ft-mi​cro-w​orld-​the-v​illag​e-set​ -2110​5 14 Minecraft is an open-world video game where users can craft virtually anything out of materials found in the game’s environment. It is well known for its simple, block graphics. 15 In competitive gaming, for instance, it’s long been observed that while few women occupy roles as top players, their economic, emotional, and physical investments help make possible something as overtly masculinized as an esports tournament (Taylor et al. 2009).

Chapter 5 1 Large-scale geoengineering projects range from artificial clouds that absorb pollution to proposals that would prop up glaciers to prevent their calving, though some recent efforts have involved intervening in plants themselves by bioengineering artificial plants with leaves that are more effective at photosynthesis than their “natural” alternatives. 2 For an excellent history of the Anthropocene concept, see Chakrabarty (2018, 5–32). 3 The notion that “media determine our situation” is an oft-quoted insight of Friedrich Kittler, discussed in more depth by Jessica Elam in her chapter from this volume. 4 In Nicholas Taylor’s chapter of this book, he makes a similar point by drawing on Karen Barad’s work to illustrate the unproductive differentiation of matter and discourse. 5 For more on this boundary-making process, see Nicholas Taylor’s chapter in this volume. 6 See Eddie Lohmeyer’s chapter for a further articulation of this relationship, as it pertains to LEGO art.

Chapter 6 1 One very well-respected guide in the AFOL community is https://, which offers tips for sorting collections by size (small, medium, and large). 2 See Kate Maddalena’s chapter in this volume for an excellent definition of technoscience. 3 Representationalism arguably stretches back to Aristotle’s philosophy; see Chris Ingraham’s critique of hylomorphism in his chapter in this volume.


4 The following information on sets and pieces is made possible by LEGO’s own exhaustive documentation and labeling systems, and by the incredible fan-supported databases of sets and pieces found on sites like Bricklink and Brick Owl, which are the two I draw from here. These databases are, themselves, fan-driven material-discursive practices of digitally tagging, ordering, and indexing the massive array of LEGO pieces and the sets in which they appear. 5 LEGO’s system of sorting pieces into numbered bags, corresponding to the building sequence of each particular set, is a relatively new materialdiscursive practice, one designed to minimize the amount of time and effort required to sort and hunt for pieces from one instruction step to the next. It is a refinement in LEGO’s ongoing boundary-making and remaking practices, one oriented toward a certain goal of usability: carrying out the instructions as efficiently (and perhaps, pleasurably) as possible. 6 This same issue besets pieces in the New Dark Red (color no. 154) and Dark Brown (no. 308) colors, though the LEGO Group claimed to have remedied this issue in late 2018 (see https​://br​icksh​​m/201​8/12/​probl​em-br​ittle​-lego​ -redd​ish-b​rown-​brick​s-sol​ved).​ 7 In 2018, LEGO began producing region-exclusive Asian (and specifically, Chinese) themed sets. There is certainly a cyclical relationship between this deliberate attempt to cater to a Chinese market through exclusive products, attempts to crack down on China-based knockoff manufacturers, and the LEGO Group’s installation of manufacturing plants in mainland China. 8 Arguably, videogames have been in the business of quantifying touch for some time now (Parisi 2018). 9 This remains the biggest regret from my early adolescence. 10 The LEGO Movie (2014) offers a contemporary fable about the value of open, “pure” play as compared to the heavily demarcated, static, curatorial (dis)play of adults.

Contributors Dr. Nicholas Taylor Associate Professor of Digital Media North Carolina State University Nicholas Taylor is an associate professor of Digital Media at North Carolina State University, where he carries out ethnographic research with communities who take play seriously; these include, among others, collegiate esports athletes and LEGO enthusiasts. He helps direct the PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media. He is the lead editor (with Gerald Voorhees) on Masculinities in Play, the first collection examining the multiple intersections between gaming and masculinities. Dr. Chris Ingraham Assistant Professor of Communication University of Utah Chris Ingraham is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Utah. His training across the humanities finds him drawing from rhetorical theory, media studies, and critical theory to think about the material, aesthetic, and affective practices that configure the environments we create and inhabit. His first academic book Gestures of Concern is about the impalpable force of affective and aesthetic participation in public life, forthcoming from Duke University Press. Dr. Seth Giddings Associate Professor Digital Culture and Design Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton Seth Giddings’s research focuses on technology, media, and play from popular videogame culture to the design and testing of experimental games and other playful systems. His work uses media theory and philosophy, design anthropology and microethnography. He is the author of Gameworlds: Virtual Media and Children’s Everyday Play (2014), and is currently working on a book on toys, technology, and postdigital play.


Dr. Kate Maddalena Assistant Professor of Writing William Peace University Kate Maddalena is an assistant professor at William Peace University. Her interests include media theory, science and technology studies, and technical communication; she is particularly interested in how building blocks and material manipulatives are used in knowledge production. Kate has only recently begun to play with LEGO again; her toddler’s habit threatens to overtake her family’s living space. She’s amazed and slightly worried at how well the kits teach the kid to follow precise directions. Dr. Eddie Lohmeyer Assistant Professor Nicholson School of Communication and Media University of Central Florida Eddie Lohmeyer is an assistant professor of Digital Media at University of Central Florida, who explores aesthetic and technical developments within histories of digital media, focusing specifically on video games and their relationship to avant-garde traditions. His art considers embodied experience through processes of play and defamiliarization. Using deconstructive approaches such as glitch, hardware modifications, and so on, his installations stage bizarre encounters with nostalgic media as a means of unveiling normal attitudes and perceptions toward them. Dr. Jessica Elam Assistant Professor of Mass Media Baker University Jessica Elam is an assistant professor of Mass Media at Baker University. Her interests include materialist media studies and critical/cultural studies, particularly the intersections of automation, military media technologies, and subjectivity. She teaches multimedia production and analysis, combining theory and practice that recognizes the militarized underpinnings of technological media while considering the all-too-human aspects of lived experience in governance. Dr. Sarah Evans Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and New Media Molloy College



Sarah Evans is an assistant professor of Digital Humanities and New Media at Molloy College and program director for the game studies minor. Her interdisciplinary research documents and interrogates inequalities in gaming and game design communities as it simultaneously seeks to disrupt, intervene in, and alleviate these inequalities. She teaches classes on game design, digital production, and civic engagement through new media.

Index @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz  44 AbbieDabbles  104, 152 ABS  1, 124, 125, 138, 143, 150, 158 Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. See ABS Adult Fans of LEGO. See AFOLs AFOLs  5, 17, 71, 103, 137–9, 148, 151–3, 157, 159, 162, 163 Alcatraz  44 analytic philosophy  26 Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei  45 Apocalypse Now  75 Arcangel, Cory  60 Arduino  33 Aristotle  28, 121, 169 n.3 artificial plants  110, 111, 118, 119, 121, 169 n.1 The Art of the Brick  44 austerity  109, 111–15, 124, 126, 127 avant-garde  45, 46, 54, 57 Ayer, A. J.  26 Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College  45 bacteria  145–7 Batman  x, xi, 73 Bayes, Thomas  26 BBC  148 beer  145–7 Belfast  58 Bell Labs  32 Belville  92–4, 98, 99, 101 Benjamin, Walter  46–8, 166 n.1 Billund, Denmark  10, 113, 125, 129 binary  27, 28, 146, 149, 151, 152 Bing, Xu  57 BioBrick®  23 Bohr, Niels  142

Boundaries  xiv, 8, 28, 64, 95–7, 122, 126, 129, 132, 133, 138, 141–3, 145–7, 149, 150–2, 156, 158, 159, 167 n.6 Breaking Bad  6, 155 BrickArms  68, 72–4, 79, 80, 84, 102, 103, 152 BrickFair  5 BrickGun  58, 59 Bricklink  72, 77, 80, 98, 101, 168 n.4, 170 n.4 Brickmania  6, 68, 69, 71–4, 77, 79, 80, 83, 84, 87, 102, 147, 152 Brick Owl  72, 80, 168 n.4, 170 n.4 Brickshelf  71 BrickUniverse  5–10, 49–51, 68–74, 78, 81, 83, 87–9, 97, 100, 101, 103, 137, 148, 149–51, 153, 155, 157, 159, 162, 165 n.2 BrickWarriors  102 Brown, Kristie  34 Bucket  62, 64 building blocks  xii, 4, 23, 31, 43, 44, 48, 65, 80, 132, 146, 147, 163 Build to Express  34 Buttliere, Rocco  49, 51, 52, 58, 87 Buzz Lightyear  11 CAD  78–81, 152 Captain America  74, 76 Carlsberg  146 Cars 2  73 Central Processing Unit  32 Chan, Lia  104 China  45, 57, 65, 118, 148–50, 170 n.7 Christiansen, Ole Kirk  111, 113, 142 Citizen Brick  6, 153, 154, 160 clickable media  2 Clinton, Hillary  6, 154

INDEX  175

Clone Army Customs  10, 11, 153 clutch  2, 124, 126, 128, 149 The Collectivity Project  45 Comic-Con  155 connective ethnography  xv, 8 constructionism  37 Continental philosophy  25 cross-hatching  51 cultural politics  15, 16, 89, 103 culture  ix, x, xv, 5, 6, 17, 24, 31, 45, 50, 55, 57, 75, 82, 83, 88, 93, 116, 122, 130, 133, 141, 155, 168 n.5 custom LEGO  68, 70, 151, 158, 160, 163 dark age  159 dark play  xv, 159, 160, 162, 163 Davis, Heather  114, 116 decal  155 Desert Eagle  59 diagrammatics  81 diffraction. See diffractive analysis diffractive analysis  8, 9 digital  ix, x, xi, xiv, 2, 3, 23–37, 43, 44, 59, 60, 63, 70, 79, 85, 87, 91, 133, 166 n.10, 168 n.5 discrete  xi, xii, 5, 12, 24, 27–32, 34, 61, 101, 142, 145 Dispatchwork  53–5, 58 Doyle, Mike  52, 53 Dress  62–4 Duchamp, Marcel  45 Duplo  6, 9, 80, 126 Early Simple Machines  34 Easter Eggs  74, 75, 77 EclipseGrafx  129, 153, 155, 157, 158, 160 Education Blueprint Association  34 Eliasson, Olafur  45 episteme  28–30, 35, 36, 166 n.9 Evens, Aden  27 extinguishment  112, 114 Facebook  137, 139, 148 Fallout  154 feel  1, 79, 83, 112, 113, 125, 126, 133, 137, 149, 150, 152, 153, 156–8

Fernandez, Victor  129, 153, 155, 156 fleshlight  89, 100, 101, 104, 168 n.12 form  xiii, 11, 14, 24, 27, 28, 35, 36, 49, 51, 55, 60, 68, 84, 89, 90, 98, 99, 116, 118, 119, 121–6, 129, 130, 137, 138, 144, 158, 159, 163, 167 n.9 formal impulse  49 Formidaball  95–7 Foucault, Michel  28, 29, 84, 98, 166 n.1, 167 n.7 Fountain  65 Friends (as in LEGO Friends)  x, xi, 93, 94, 96, 98, 102 Froebel, Friedrich  37 Frozen  75 Fukushima  33 futurism  13 gallows  88, 89, 97–9, 102, 104 Gee, Paul  36 gender  16, 45, 57, 85, 89–91, 93, 95–7, 101, 103, 104, 140–3, 168 n.8 General Mayhem  94, 95 Giddings, Seth  10, 15, 114, 159, 165 n.3 Gilbert, Cass  13, 123 Ginsberg, Ruth Bader  104 Global War on Terror  82 glue  73, 78, 80, 114, 151 Golden Gate Bridge  51, 52 Google Earth 3D  51 Groys, Boris  55 Guangdong  148 Guangyi, Wang  57 gun  5, 58–9, 73, 74, 76, 102 hackerspace  33 Hansen, Miriam  47, 48, 52, 113 Haraway, Donna  9, 104, 122 Heidegger, Martin  25, 122 Highline  23 Hirshhorn Museum  44 Hobbes, Michael  23 hobbyism  70, 73, 104, 159 Höch, Hannah  45


Hopper, Edward  44 Hotel  60, 61, 63 hylomorphism  121, 123–5, 169 n.3 IKEA  119, 138 Indiana Jones  73 indoor  132, 133 innervation  47, 48 In Pieces  43, 44, 59, 60–4 Instagram  65, 66, 151 instructions  x, xi, xiv, xv, 9, 15, 16, 59, 70, 71, 78–81, 84, 85, 89, 92, 144, 148, 152, 159, 162, 165 n.3, 166 n.12, 167 n.1, 170 n.5 instruments  9, 141–3 Invasion of Normandy  74 Iron Man  11 Jaws  74 Kansas State University  34 Keds  56, 57 Kindergarten Group  34 Kittler, Friedrich  27, 30–2, 167 n.2, 167 n.10, 169 n.3 knockoffs  11, 139, 148, 149, 155, 156 Kristiansen, Kjeld Kirk  45 Labrador (dog)  44, 47 Large Cloud  60, 61, 63, 64 Latour, Bruno  10, 122 Lauwaert, Maaike  113, 132 LDraw  79, 81 The LEGO Book  162 LEGO Castles  23 LEGO Education  24, 33, 34–7 LEGO Elves  93, 96 LEGOfication / LEGOfied  xiii, 5, 6, 10–11, 13–16, 23, 24, 33, 37, 49, 52, 70–3, 82, 88, 90, 91, 94, 102–4, 130, 132, 167 n.2 LEGO Firearms  58 LEGO Foundation  xi, 33, 34, 36, 79 The LEGO Group  ix, xi, 1–4, 33–4, 37, 64–5, 69, 72–3, 77, 79–81, 83–4, 91–4, 97, 101, 103, 109–10, 114, 125–9, 145, 147–9, 151, 156, 161–3, 170 n.6

LEGO Gun Shop  58 LEGO House  129–32 LEGO Ideas  4, 79, 84, 88 LEGO Kingdoms  72 LEGOLAND  8, 10, 129, 131, 132 The LEGO Movie (2014)  2, 94–5, 98, 114, 151, 163 The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2018)  94, 98 LEGO Scala  92 LEGO Smart Schools  34 LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game  3 LEGO User Group (LUG)  4 Leibniz, Gottfried  25 Lepin  78, 79, 129, 140, 147–50, 152, 158, 163 Letgo Room  45, 57, 65, 66 Lichtenstein, Roy  45, 56 Lincoln Logs  23 Linux  33 The Little Mermaid  74 Lopes, Jonathan  49–52, 58, 87, 151, 152, 156 Los Alamos  32 Mackenzie, Adrian  31 maker ethic  24, 32, 34, 35, 37 Maker movement  15 Manhattan Project  32 Manovich, Lev  27, 30, 31 marketing  x, xiii, 4, 24, 34–7, 84, 93, 94, 103, 150, 153 Marxist / Marxism  47, 165 n.5 material-discursive practice  143, 144, 158, 162, 163, 170 n.4, 170 n.5 materialist media studies  14 matter  1, 2, 30, 77, 88, 93, 121–6, 132–4, 137, 141–3, 145, 146, 149, 150, 158, 159, 169 n.4 Mega Bloks  2, 129, 140, 147 Mega Brands. See Mega Bloks Merleau-Ponty, Maurice  25 metaphor  vi, 23, 31, 37, 130, 166 n.7 microbiology  146 militarism  70, 104 military  15, 32, 68–74, 77–85, 87, 88, 101, 102, 113, 147, 152 Millennium Falcon  31

INDEX  177

mimesis  44, 46–9, 54, 58–60, 63, 66, 166 n.1 mimetic faculty  47, 166 n.1 Minecraft  3, 101, 169 n.14 minidolls  93–7, 102 minifig  11, 68, 72, 73, 75, 76, 78, 83, 87, 89, 96, 102, 104, 148, 150, 152, 153–6 minifigure. See minifig miscognition  48, 52 MIT  32, 34 Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group  34 MIT Media Lab  34 models  xi, xv, 36, 37, 43, 44, 51, 52, 58, 59, 68, 71, 73, 74, 77–80, 82–5, 121, 129 modularity / modular  ix, xi, xiii, xiv, xv, 1, 4, 12, 14, 23, 24, 30, 32, 48, 54, 63, 78, 85, 90, 91, 104, 119, 126, 129, 132, 147, 159 Molds  125, 126, 144, 148–50, 158 Morse code  28 MP3  29 Munroe, Randall  25 Museum of Contemporary Art at the National Autonomous University of Mexico  45 My Own Creations (MOC)  71, 88, 89, 97, 99, 100, 144 NASA  104 National Gallery of Victoria  45, 65–6 nature  xv, 26, 48, 55–6, 59, 82, 111, 113, 122, 130, 133, 151, 156 natureculture  122, 129 natures-cultures  122 Navajo Code Talkers  26 neo-avant-garde  45 Nexo Knights  73 Ninjago City (LEGO set)  16, 93, 159 Nintendo  155 nostalgia  3, 74, 81–3, 85, 133, 144 nub  26–8, 30, 31 Omaha Beach  74–5, 82 Ong, Walter  31

ontogenesis  13, 123–4, 126, 130 outdoor  119, 132–3 packaging  x, xi, xiv, 78–80, 84, 109–10, 152 pad printing  156–8 palpable pixels  23–37 Paris  53 Pasteur, Louis  146, 150 Pasteurization. See Pasteur, Louis Pavlichenko, Lyudmila  83 performative/performativity  xiv, 48, 91, 138, 141, 143 Peters, John Durham  17, 81, 166 n.8 pharmacopornographic  90–1, 103, 168 n.3 pink  16, 87–9, 92–4, 96–104, 131, 168 n.8 pixel  23, 29, 44, 60, 62–4 plants  110–11, 114, 118–19, 121, 125–7, 129, 133–4, 137, 146, 148, 170 n.7 plastic  ix–x, xiv, 1–2, 4, 9, 14, 16, 27, 44–6, 49, 53–4, 60, 63, 80, 109–21, 123–30, 132–3, 143, 147, 150, 158 play  ix–xv, 1–2, 5–6, 10, 12, 15–16, 23–4, 29–30, 32, 34, 44, 46–50, 53–4, 57–60, 62, 64–6, 72–9, 81–4, 89, 91–5, 103, 113, 123–4, 126, 128, 132–4, 139, 152, 156, 158–63, 165 n.3, 165 n.1, 166 n.6, 166 n.12, 167 n.5, 168 n.5 play impulse  49 political pop  57 pop art  55–8, 64–5 posthumanism  xv, 4, 141, 143 Povinelli, Elizabeth  112 precarity  151, 158 Preciado, Paul B.  90–1 Prelude to a Broken Arm  45 Python .357 Magnum  59 Raleigh, NC  6, 49 Reddit  100, 150, 158 remediation  14, 29, 44, 49, 77, 81–3, 85, 97–9 representationalist/ representationalism  142, 169 n.3


Resnick, Mitchel  34, 37 Rosler, Martha  57 Russell, Bertrand  26 Safecast  33 Sakura  129, 131–2 San Francisco Bay  51 Sandy Row  58 Sarkeesian, Anita  93, 103 Saving Private Ryan  74, 77, 82 Sawaya, Nathan  43–4, 49, 59–4 Schiller, Friedrich  49 Science and Technology Studies (STS)  31 semantics  26–7, 30 senses  ix, 1–2, 4–5, 8, 12–13, 28, 30, 47, 49, 70, 79, 82–3, 90, 110, 114, 122, 133, 151, 163 Shandou  148 Shannon, Claude  32 Shanzhuan, Wu  57 Shenzen  148–9 Simondon, Gilbert  13, 123, 128 Simple Machines  34 Siskind, Dan  71–4, 77–9, 82 Spiel-Raum  47–8  32 Star Wars  xi, 7, 31, 72, 93, 98, 139, 159 statistical reasoning  26 STEM  35, 36 Streat, Jack  58 subjectivity  71, 85 Super Mario Bros.  60 Super Mario Clouds  60 Sustainability  9, 16–17, 109, 110–11, 114, 119, 126–7, 129–34 Sweet Mayhem’s Systar Starship! (LEGO set)  95–6 synthetic subjectivation  70 tactile/tactility  xi, xiii–xv, 2, 15, 82, 128, 133, 137, 145, 149–50, 158

technicity/technicities  xiv, 12–14, 16–17, 128 techno-aesthetics  17, 125–9, 133 technogender  90–2, 97, 101, 104 technoscience  24, 27, 31, 141, 165 n.5 toys  ix–xiv, 1–5, 9–10, 15–16, 23–4, 33–4, 44–5, 48, 53–5, 58–9, 64–5, 69, 74–5, 79, 82, 89–91, 109, 111–15, 124, 126, 128, 130, 133, 137, 140–2, 150, 159, 161–3, 165 n.4, 168 n.12 Trace  44 transmedia  ix–x, 1, 3–4, 11, 14–15, 17, 65, 75, 93–4, 153, 165 n.3 Traveller’s Tales  3 trees  53, 110, 114, 119, 127, 129 trompe l’oeil  44 Trump, Donald  154 Turing, Alan  26 Turner, David  58–9 Two Story with Basement  53 Under Siege  75 Unikitty  98 University of Georgia, Athens  34 UV printing  157–8 Valparaiso  54 Varnedoe, Kirk  55–7 Vasarely, Victor  56–7 veterans  72, 74, 83 Victorian on Mud Heap  53 Vienna Circle  26 Vietnam War  75, 83 virtual worlds  xv Von Neumann Project  32 Vormann, Jan  53–4, 58 Wake County, NC  34 Walt Disney  47 wargamer/wargaming  77 Warhol, Andy  45, 55 Web 2.0  27 WEDO  34 Weiwei, Ai  44–5, 57, 65

INDEX  179

Welcome to Apocalypseburg! (LEGO set)  16, 160 Wellesley College  34 West, Dean  43–4, 59–61, 63 wood  xii, 23, 52, 111–15, 121–2, 124, 127–8, 130, 132–3 Woolworth Building  50

World War II (WWII)  4, 8, 26, 32, 55, 68, 73–4, 79, 81, 83, 168 n.8 XKCD  25 Yellow Submarine  75