D.I.Y. Disciplinarity — (Dis)Assembling LEGO Studies For The Academy

15Jan15

I have two new book chapters out that I want to share. The first is an essay called “Lengthy Interactions with Hideous Men: Walter White and the Serial Poetics of Television Antiheroes,” published in a brand new anthology, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives, edited by Roberta Pearson and Anthony Smith. The chapter, which is largely about Breaking Bad and antiheroes, is adapted from the Character chapter in Complex TV, so I won’t reproduce the content here.

The second is unrelated to television narrative altogether (or at least was, before I got hold of the topic and started off with a diversion into television studies). A couple of years ago, Mark J.P. Wolf invited me to contribute to a book he was editing about LEGO. I declined to write a chapter, as I was knee-deep in finishing Complex TV and couldn’t commit to an original research essay on a new topic, but I was interested in the topic and offered to write an afterword for the book.

It evolved into something a bit more pointed than a typical afterword, and I want to share it here now that the excellent book has been published as LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon and hopefully inspire people to read the whole book. I post it on the day that a crime against LEGO, against art, and against humanity itself was perpetrated: The LEGO Movie was snubbed in the Oscar nominations. It’s small solace, but I offer this essay in appreciation of how The LEGO Movie inspired my own thinking about how we can both build things up and tear them down productively.

AFTERWORD: D.I.Y. DISCIPLINARITY–(DIS)ASSEMBLING LEGO STUDIES FOR THE ACADEMY

I wish to begin this afterword with a cautionary tale. In 2001, Slayage: The International Journal of Buffy Studies launched in the wake of an overwhelming number of submissions to an edited anthology about the series, Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Slayage continued as a quarterly journal until 2012, at which point it officially shifted to a semi-annual schedule—as of this writing, the journal has published 37 issues, with more than 150 peer reviewed essays. Like most successful pieces of popular culture, Slayage has spawned spinoffs, including an undergraduate scholarly journal Watcher Junior in 2005, and a biannual academic conference starting in 2004 dedicated to the study of Buffy and other works produced by series creator Joss Whedon. In 2008, the scholars who founded Slayage officially incorporated a nonprofit organization called the Whedon Studies Association, changing Slayage’s subtitle to “The Official Journal of the Whedon Studies Association” in 2010. In Slayage’s online bookstore, the WSA lists more than 40 books of “Scholarship and Criticism” about Buffy and other “Whedonverses”.

Buffy Studies was built into a thriving and prominent subfield of media studies, generating such a body of scholarship that it seems likely that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most studied television series of all time.2  But what does this success, at least in visibility and quantity, mean? An outsider might regard this prolific scholarly enterprise as a marker of a superlative status: Buffy must be regarded as America’s all-time best television series, or perhaps its most important, most popular, or most controversial program. Or perhaps Whedon must be the medium’s most prolific, innovative, or iconic creator, the Shakespeare of television. But even the most ardent “Whedonian” would be hard-pressed to stand by any of these claims—at best, I’d imagine a Whedon scholar would assert that they find one of his programs to be television’s most interesting series, or perhaps just their personal favorite. If the number of critical words written about an object of study were a clear marker of its merits as an important scholarly topic, then we could expect many other series to dwarf Buffy in academic prominence, including Star Trek, Sesame Street, and The Simpsons (just to account for the letter S), as an easy case can be made for why each of these (and other) series is more vital to understanding television as a medium than Whedon’s work.

But Buffy Studies did not emerge and thrive because of its inherent merits as an academic subfield; rather it was the beneficiary of a convenient conjuncture of numerous factors. Buffy debuted in 1997 at a moment when American television’s creative possibilities were undergoing a change, with a rise in more serialized storytelling in primetime dramas such as Northern Exposure and The X-Files, as well as comedies that embraced a playful attitude toward narrative conventions, as with The Simpsons and Seinfeld—all trends that Buffy built upon and transformed fruitfully.3  The emergence of so-called “netlets”, The WB and UPN, allowed a series with cult appeal like Buffy to stay on the air for many seasons by attracting a small but dedicated audience that would have never survived on one of the major networks, and the new aftermarket for TV-on-DVD encouraged new fans to discover the series and join its cult following. On top of those trends, Buffy’s highly literate dialogue and overt feminist sensibilities placed it in the taste culture sweet spot for many media scholars who could look beyond the campy title to discover the program’s more subtle pleasures. Given that launching an online journal in 2001 seemed both feasible and innovative, Slayage and its spinoffs were a logical outcome to the program’s appeals to so-called “aca-fan” sensibilities.4

Buffy Studies was born of scholarly demand, as many academics had something to say about this innovative series that they loved. But it persists by creating its own demand by constituting and institutionalizing an academic community and its apparatuses of credentialed accomplishments. After all, given the competitive state of the academic profession, publication and conference venues eager to find content on a highly-specialized topic to fill its ongoing tables of contents and schedules are understandably appealing to aspiring scholars of all ranks. That is not to suggest that there is not merit in many individual works of Buffy Studies, but we need to think about what they add up to together—how do we reconcile the fact that Slayage has been published for more years than Buffy and its spin-off Angel ran combined? Is the institutionalization of Whedon Studies functioning to produce important scholarly knowledge, or is it working more to generate publication lines on academic CVs and foster a community of academics with a shared taste in television? In short, what would be lost if Buffy Studies were dismantled?

I raise these questions not to call for the eradication of Buffy Studies—I leave it to the Whedonians to assess their own continued relevance and importance. Instead, I tell the cautionary tale of Buffy Studies to make an arguably more incendiary proposal: I am calling for the eradication of LEGO Studies, here at the very site of what might be viewed as its founding.

Let me clarify. I am not suggesting we should not study LEGO; in fact, I would argue that this book makes a strong case as to why LEGO merits continued academic study, and provides many models for how best to pursue such scholarship. I am also not trying to poke holes in this book’s title, as “LEGO Studies” is a very apt name for what these collected essays have to offer. Rather, I am suggesting that LEGO Studies should both begin and end with this book, not continuing as an ongoing project attempting to sustain the specific contours mapped in this volume.

Before making the case for dismantling this project, let me sketch what LEGO Studies looks like, based on the work assembled in these pages. LEGO Studies is comprised of pieces from a variety of disciplinary sources, combining the critical analysis found in media and cultural studies with the practice-based accounts of artists, educators, and designers. LEGO Studies foregrounds the industrial contextualization of its material objects, much like film and media studies encourages us to see cultural texts as emanating from commercial systems where market logic and institutional structures shape the meanings that we consume. In this case, though, LEGO is an unusual company: globalized prior to the era of globalization, connected to a web of other cultural industries but structurally independent from them, and innovating trends like transmedia convergence long before such terms were coined. LEGO Studies is also an account of a practice, as the majority of LEGO products are designed to be used, and only become significant through user practices of building, playing, collecting, and destroying. Beyond just a medium, though, the essays here varyingly consider LEGO as a technology, a tool, a platform, a practice, a brand, and a toy, remaining open to a fluid and shifting definition of the scholarly object itself, in a way that certainly befits LEGO’s inherent flexibility.

These essays embrace different angles and approaches to their topics. Mark Wolf and Neal Baker both explore what a close-reading of a playset might look like, requiring a different methodological toolset used to critically read a novel, a film, or even a video game. Such an analysis requires the flexibility to realize that a LEGO model has both designed and improvised uses, and that meaning arises only through the active playful engagement of builders, a methodological challenge tackled head-on by Seth Giddings’s essay exploring adult memories of childhood LEGO play. LEGO Studies also insists that we look at the parts as well as the whole, seeing the significance of each piece’s context and usage within or across sets. This extends beyond the pieces themselves, as Lori Landay’s account of the transmedial Ninjago and Chima franchises and Derek Johnson’s analysis of paratexts like advertisements and designer videos both highlight that even the free play enabled by LEGO bricks are always contextualized by cultural frameworks, such as gender norms and racially-tinged mythologies, and thus such playsets circulate in larger fields of industrial and consumer practices.

This book also highlights how LEGO Studies embraces transmedia analysis, considering both material plastic bricks and electronic pixels as the foundational elements of LEGO’s cultural practices. Studying the LEGO branded video games opens the methodological door to aesthetic and cultural accounts of gameplay and representation, as with Jessica Aldred’s and Robert Buerkle’s essays that consider the influences of comic books, live-action films, and video games to explore the unique transmedial playfulness of the LEGO games, as well as competing notions of nostalgia, irony, storytelling, and play. The layers of physical plastic and software code also merge in Christopher Hanson and Michael Lachney’s discussions of LEGO MINDSTORMS, where the boundaries between toy and teaching tool are shifting and subject to both historical and political analysis. In another approach to transmedia ecology, Kevin Schut compares the physical and electronic versions of LEGO bricks to consider the ways in which digitization changes concepts of play, creativity, and materiality.

Despite the emphasis on LEGO’s various materialities throughout the book, LEGO Studies also remains open to imagining LEGO as a site of hands-on practical philosophy and theorization. David Gauntlett exemplifies this approach, highlighting the ways in which LEGO embodies the creative impulses of the maker movement, and how this creativity might be marshaled to help foster social change. While impossible to realize through the constraints of a collection of written scholarly essays, Gauntlett’s maker-centered account suggests a new mode of LEGO scholarship, using bricks instead of words to literally make arguments in a material built form. Such creative and expressive uses are explored in the practice-based essays by LEGO practitioners Nathan Sawaya, Ed Diment and Duncan Titmarsh, and there are rich possibilities for further imaginative work that might express scholarly insights raised throughout this book via the material form of LEGO.

In short, the version of LEGO Studies assembled in this book is rich and varied, avoiding strict disciplinary boundaries or even a sense of uniformity in positing a singular definition of LEGO itself. With this exciting assortment of possibilities and connections assembled in this book as a model, why would I want to dismantle LEGO Studies already? When I first proposed this essay, I’ll admit I had no such thoughts, but my impulse for creative destruction was spurred by the ur-text of LEGO theorization, The LEGO Movie.

Beyond just serving as a hugely popular amalgamation of promotion and entertainment, the film offers some deep reflection on LEGO as a cultural practice and how it might best be theorized. Within the film’s embedded storyworld, the narrative conflict contrasts the rank-and-file LEGO populace who inhabit a world constructed according to instruction manuals, and the master builders who wish to transform their world based solely upon their creativity. At first, the story seems to endorse the master builders, as they offer the mind-expanding revelations that enlighten Emmet and allow him to break through his conformist sensibilities—to extend this parable to the academic realm, this would seem to endorse rejecting disciplinary traditions in the name of free-floating inquiry-driven exploration. However, as the film’s narrative progresses, Emmet comes to reconcile and balance the extremes of instruction manual conformity and the master builders’ open creativity, discovering how the traditions and limits of designed builds offer benefits that work best in tandem with freeform creative practice. This volume similarly strikes such a balance between being guided by disciplinary instructions and inspired by the creative new possibilities discovered by thinking across traditional boundaries and objects of study.

But The LEGO Movie’s philosophy transcends the dichotomy of prescribed versus open building, as the real conflict is revealed to be at a larger level of practice. The film’s true villainous object is not the instruction manual, but the Kragle, the weaponized glue that Lord Business plots to use to freeze the LEGO-verse in a state of permanent stasis. In the film’s meta-revealing third act, we discover that Lord Business is the LEGO avatar of “The Man Upstairs”, or the father of Finn, the creative spirit behind the embedded LEGO story we have been witnessing. This unnamed man has a drawer full of Krazy Glue, which he plans to use to combat his son’s rule-breaking by binding his collection of LEGO seemingly built to perfect design specifications into a state of permanent stasis. The film’s emotional climax comes when both The Man and Lord Business recognize that the power of creativity and collaboration would be sacrificed if the Kragle is applied. Thus the evil impulse that must be vanquished to save both Bricksburg and the father/son bond is not conformity, but stasis.

Academic codification into scholarly organizations and journals is the equivalent of applying the Kragle to our critical practices. What we need from LEGO Studies is fluidity and flexibility, the ability to put unlikely pieces together while also being able to dismantle and reconfigure what has already been done. Building and locking in an academic sub-discipline creates a structure that outright demands further production of more of the same, leading to a proliferation of work that mostly lacks the energy and insight that inspired the field’s initial founding—the intellectual equivalent of Where Are My Pants? or “Everything is Awesome”. To be clear, I am not calling for the end of scholarship about LEGO by suggesting that this book serves as any sort of “final word” on the topic; nor am I suggesting that the book’s editor is a nefarious Lord Business looking to build a static empire of LEGO Studies. Rather, I simply believe the “study of LEGO” should not be forged into something more stable called LEGO Studies. Let’s keep the Kragle in the drawer, and be inspired by new recombinations and builds, not beholden to the norms of a publishing schedule or regular conference.

We must avoid treating this book as an instruction manual to be replicated and rebuilt. We should take inspiration from its cross-disciplinary strengths and keen insights, but also recognize its gaps. Many aspects of LEGO remain unexplored in this volume, including the role of DUPLO and its young practitioners (a topic that The LEGO Movie teases will be addressed in its sequel), the way that LEGO has spread differentially and been localized across the globe, the culture of LEGOLAND theme parks and LEGO-derived movies and video series like Clutch Powers, the fan communities surrounding LEGO and their creative practices, such as LEGO-based animation, fan sites, or the feature-length mockumentary Brick Madness (2012), and less-heralded LEGO products like their line of board games and non-buildable toys and clothing. Likewise, there are some other disciplines and topics that might be brought to the table, such as analysis by architects and engineers of LEGO’s underlying design and building practices, environmental scholars reflecting on the impact of LEGO’s popularization of molded plastic toys, and psychologists thinking about the use of LEGO as a tool within play therapy. I’m particularly intrigued by the possibilities of what a philosopher or critic following Object-Oriented Ontology or Actor-Network Theory might have to say about LEGO’s materiality and object-hood—after all, in thousands of words of LEGO scholarship, we still have not heard anything from the perspective of a minifigure or 2×8 red plastic brick.

To conclude, I learned a lot from reading this book, both within each chapter and in the provocative connections between them. After absorbing its various insights and perspectives, I come away inspired to tear them down—not via the tools of critical nitpicking and hole-poking typical of much academic discourse, but through a dismantling inspired by LEGO creativity. What are the conceptual building blocks offered by these essays and how might they be recombined and added to in the most constructive way imaginable? I hope the study of LEGO flourishes and points toward new directions that I cannot even yet imagine, but that we resist the lure of the Kragle and always retain the fluidity and creativity that our subject matter demands.

Notes

  1. See these details of the journal’s history; Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery, Fighting the Forces?: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
  2. At least by outside scholars—reputedly, Sesame Street holds the record for the most researched television series of all time, but the majority of that research is commissioned by its producers to understand children’s viewing practices and comprehension, not published by independent scholars unrelated to the series.
  3. See Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015, for more on this trend.
  4. For discussions of aca-fans, see Matt Hills, Fan Cultures, London, England: Routledge, 2002, and the many writings of Henry Jenkins, especially on his blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan.


3 Responses to “D.I.Y. Disciplinarity — (Dis)Assembling LEGO Studies For The Academy”

  1. I really must get hold if this book on Lego. It looks to a must tead for me. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts here, and I look firward to writing the chapter

  2. Sorry, stupid iphone app published my comment before I could correct it – final sentence shoukd say ‘look forward to reading the chapter.’

  3. A quibble, really (and from an ardent Whedonian at that), but your line of attack in the second para of your Afterword takes it for granted rather that Buffy Studies has to (ought to?) justify itself in relation to television and the study of television. Buffy Studies/Whedon Studies is probably better understood as an example of a set of studies clustering around a particular creative figure. Nevertheless, you’re bang on when you write: ‘…That is not to suggest that there is not merit in many individual works of Buffy Studies, but we need to think about what they add up to together.’ It’s a question that has often troubled me.


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