Theorybuilding with LEGO: A Material Digital Media - Chris Ingraham and Nick Taylor
As palpable as the screens we touch and keyboards we tap may feel, most of us still have a hard time conceptualizing, except in the abstract, what digital technologies actually involve behind the screens. The common usage of such ethereal terms as “the virtual” or “the cloud” attests to the difficulty of thinking materially about procedures and processes that, while organizing so much of social, political, economic, and cultural affairs, nevertheless seem fleeting, mysterious, and untouchable at heart. Whether in reference to digital media, digital culture, digital rhetoric, digital doxa, or anything else to which the epithet “digital” gets applied, how can we understand digitality as something material?
In our recent book, LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media (Bloomsbury, 2020), we argue that one good place to start is with LEGO.
Founded humbly in 1934 when a Danish carpenter’s wartime austerity led to a profitable but unexpected venture—turning his leftover furniture scraps into wooden toys—the LEGO company is now a global transmedia juggernaut. Movies, television shows, video games, amusement parks, novelty gifts, coffee table books, clothing, accessories, school equipment, not to mention the ubiquitous toy bricks and builder sets themselves: LEGO is having a moment. More than just a cultural phenomenon, though, the interoperable and modular affordances of its bricks are material instantiations of how digital media work. As Kate Maddelena puts it, a LEGO brick is a “palpable pixel” (2020). And that palpability matters. As anyone who has ever played with LEGO knows, the satisfying click of pressing two bricks together, the sharp edges of a brick underfoot, the distinct clatter of loose LEGO in a box—the sensory tactility of it all couldn’t be more palpable. But how, then, is it digital?
In our book, when Maddalena lays out the argument for LEGO as palpable pixels, she identifies three fundamental characteristics of the digital that make LEGO a material incarnation of digital media. The digital, she suggests, is discrete, non-semantic, and intended for making and remaking. Think of a single LEGO brick. One brick is a discrete, autonomous thing; it’s non-semantic, that is, without any symbolic significance or meaning unless attached to other bricks, which also, on their own, share the characteristics of being discrete and non-semantic. Only by combining them together in certain ways—by making and remaking things—do they attain some meaning and consequence. Though Maddalena’s full argument is worth pursuing directly (ahem, in our biased opinion), another way to make sense of the fundamental characteristics of “the digital” is through the word’s etymology.
This is something Benjamin Peters does in his own edited collection, where he treats “digital” as a keyword. The Latin digitalis, Peters observes, from digitus, meaning “finger” or “toe,” suggests that the original material habitation of digital media could be found at the end of a wrist: in the digits on one’s fingers. Peters, in turn, argues that we should “see digital media as those media that, like our fingers, count the symbolic, point to the real, and manipulate the social imaginary” (2016, 98). It’s a lovely irony that the so-called digital aspects of media so often experienced as intangible today initially referred to the very medium (hands) associated with touch itself. LEGO, however, both performs the counting, pointing, and manipulating that is constitutive of digitality as we now know it, and does so in a quintessentially tangible form associated with the term’s original meaning.
Figure 1: LEGO Set # 10220, “Volkswagon T1 Camper Van”
LEGO bricks certainly count the symbolic, the way a LEGO Volkswagon T1 Camper Van (set #10220) has 1334 pieces, rendering that van reducible to its symbolic quantification. LEGO bricks also point to the real: once assembled, the camper van set isn’t just a boxful of countable bricks; it looks an awful lot like a smaller version of a real VW camper van. In doing so, LEGO bricks also manipulate the social imaginary; the red and white van can be modified endlessly to resemble something else, maybe a VW camper spaceship, or a box of candy canes. These affordances of old school LEGO bricks are not fundamentally different from the logics of newer digital media technologies, the way, for instance, the discrete pixels in a digital photograph can add up to a photo of a camper van; represent that camper van visually, and be manipulated through editing techniques (think filters or Photoshop) that rearrange pixels or give them different colors to make the photo resemble something else. LEGO bricks really are palpable pixels.
“LEGOfication” is the term we’ve developed—drawing on interviews of AFOLS at LEGO conventions and online—to describe the process of translating material (a photograph, a sentiment, an architectural diagram, a cultural icon, an idea, and so on) into LEGO form. In the same way that digital media, including their affordances and logics, have become almost elementally widespread, the spread of the LEGO Group’s global influence has meant that LEGOfication can be seen just about everywhere. Consider a couple of examples.
In February 2020, a new reality TV show called LEGO Masters aired on Fox. LEGO Masters is hosted by Will Arnett, the comic actor probably best known for playing the role of Job in the TV series Arrested Development, but more appositely has also played the voice of LEGO Batman across several LEGO movies and shows. Becoming part of the LEGOverse in this way is sort of akin to being cast in a Star Wars film; like Daisy Ridley or Adam Driver, Arnett has entered a fan community almost too vast to quantify. As he’s quick to point out on the show, LEGO fandom involves a motley brethren of grown-ups known as AFOLs, “Adult Fans of LEGO.” Geeks, artists, hobbyists, DIYers, collectors, history buffs, builders, crafters, computer programmers, architects, environmental designers, educators, parents. LEGO Masters is, on one register, marketed toward such fans and, on another, toward the LEGO curious who are fond of the toys but may be uninitiated to the wider world of LEGO fandom.
Figure 2: A LEGOfied advertisement for the LEGO Masters television show.
The program pits an eclectic assortment of two-person teams against one another in LEGO-building competitions that differ from episode to episode, but can each take well over 15 hours of real time to complete. In one episode, teams are asked to build bridges that can support hundreds of pounds in weight. In another, they’re presented with common objects that have been cut in half along a vertical plane: a bike frame, a cuckoo clock, a laptop, a fire hydrant, a globe, and so on. Their challenge is to build-out the other half with LEGO. Not only did this require building horizontally (imagine building a LEGO set out from a wall instead of up from a table), it also required that contestants manipulate a “real” object in such a way that reimagined it as something LEGOfied. The fire hydrant could then become a sculptural fairy tale, the guitar a paean to rock and roll.
The show goes meta regularly, with Arnett playing the narcissistic goof whose commentary on the conventions of reality TV—“I keep trying to go to commercial but they won’t let me!”—helps to keep things fresh. The show, in other words, both LEGOfies different things—a skyscraper, a bike, a bridge—and it LEGOfies its viewers by indoctrinating them into the vocabulary, affects, and idiosyncrasies of LEGO fandom. It teaches people, that is, not just key terms in the LEGO lexicon (with instructional cutaways explaining that a “SNOT,” for instance, is a kind of brick with its “Studs Not On Top”). It also teaches people how to watch reality TV as itself subject to LEGOfication: a genre that can be rebuilt, taken down, modified until its conventions are turned upon themselves.
Another example is in the ways that LEGO can be used to reconstruct race, particularly in the hands (and digits) of talented artists. Scholars such as Ruha Benjamin, Andre Brock, Sufiya Noble, and Armond Towns have considered the ways that media technologies construct, amplify, and/or transform racial difference. The temptation, as we have seen in other considerations of LEGO’s social and political significance, is to offer LEGO as a site of metaphorical richness for understanding these relations – as in, “race, like LEGO, is constructed.” But if we take LEGOfication seriously, we can begin to understand the ways LEGO is involved in constructions of race; it is a medium through and by which racialized meanings, practices, bodies, and logics can be built, reconfigured, and perhaps disassembled.
As a race-building technology, The LEGO Group invests heavily in the perniciously racist logic of post-racial color-blindness, repeatedly emphasizing that its yellow-hued minifig is a stand-in for all races and ethnicities, even while its product lines either default to white, Western themes or dabble in domains that are either explicitly orientalist (Ninjago, Orient Adventure) and/or colonialist (Lone Ranger, Western, Pirates, Islanders). It makes exceptions to this colorblind logic (“we are all yellow”) with minifigs based on movie, television, sports, or video game franchises, in which case Black characters and actors are “LEGOfied” as uniformly dark brown minifigs. In similar fashion, White, Hispanic, Latino/a, and East Asian characters get pale pink-colored minifigs, and Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander minifigs are a uniform lighter brown. Even within these concessions towards multiracial representation, LEGO recreates the notion that race and ethnicity are akin to skin color–the number of which we can count “digitally,” that is, on one hand. Not surprisingly, calls for greater racial representation often get met with racist reprisals: on the Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL) social media groups we became involved in over the course of writing LEGOfied, a frequent response some members had to others’ critique or questioning of LEGO’s colorblind logic was ‘why do you have to bring your own personal politics into LEGO’s racially harmonious utopia?’
The work of Ekow Nimako, a Ghanaian-Canadian artist operating in Toronto, inverts LEGO’s post-racial (and racist) worldbuilding. Nimako’s work LEGOfies West African and African-diasporic architecture, mythologies, and histories; and he does so, most often, through monochromatic black bricks. Many of his works are entirely black; and they are also, accordingly, undeniably and powerfully Black in their celebration of West African cultures. In doing so, his pieces offer a stunning rebuke and reconstruction of LEGO’s own material-discursive configurings of race.
Figure 3: Ekow Nimako. Detail of A Sacred Place. Photograph taken by Nick Taylor.
“Building Black: Civilizations,” Nimako’s exhibit at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum (from September 2019 to February 2020) exemplifies this approach. Fantastical warrior-deities, almost 2’ tall, stand in martial poses atop shelves lining the wall of the exhibition space (“Beware the Bandit Queen of Walatah”), flanking a row of camels atop of which perch miniature towers (“World on a Camel’s Back [Triptych]”). Imposing fortresses, temples, and mountainous landscapes rest on top of pedestals. All are constructed out of black bricks and employ an array of building techniques to capture elements of West African mythologies and architectures and re-arrange them into LEGOfied Afrofuturism. One element found in each work is a small minaret, formed of columns, a 2x2 plate, and a 2x2 semi-sphere, on top of which is perched LEGO item number 64567, initially used as lightsaber hilts for minifig Jedis. Here, a piece normally employed in the paradigmatic weapon of the Eurocentric space opera is repurposed as an Afrofuturist architectural motif: such are the possibilities for reconstructing race, however minutely, with this “materially digital” medium.
These are just two examples of what we believe to be a fruitful tool for theorybuilding: one that understands LEGO as emblematic of the ways digital media operate, while insisting that LEGO itself participates in and transforms our world.
Maddalena, Kate. 2020. “Palpable Pixels.” In LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media, Nicholas Taylor and Chris Ingraham (eds.): 23-39. New York: Bloomsbury
Peters, Benjamin. 2016. “Digital.” In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, Benjamin Peters (ed.): 93-108. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, Nicholas, and Chris Ingraham (eds.) 2020. LEGOfied: Building Blocks as Media. New York: Bloomsbury.
Chris Ingraham is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Utah. He performs scholarship that engages rhetorical theory, media studies, and ecological thought to explore the material and affective aspects of cultural politics in everyday life. His book, Gestures of Concern, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in August 2020.
Nick Taylor is an Associate Professor of Communication at NC State University. His work applies critical, feminist and posthumanist perspectives to experimental and mixed methods research with digital gaming communities. In particular, he is interested in the intersections of subjectivity, communicative practice, technologies and games, as enacted through both game production and play across a variety of contexts.