Legless in Legoland
I’ve become mildly obsessed by this image:
How do you get a Lego figure to look traumatised by the death of the woman it loves, and the supposed deaths of its newborn children, and the loss of its legs, and third degree burns over all of its body?
And what kind of a culture is it that even tries?
(Of course, as Richard Pilbeam – who brought the image to my attention in the first place – remarked, the Lego figure does a better job than Hayden Christensen.)
It strikes me that, the more Lego tries to cope with reconstructing scenes from movies – especially from movies like the Star Wars prequels or the later Harry Potter movies, that are self-consciously ‘dark’ – the more it has to bring in elements of painful ‘realism’, i.e. scars on Anakin’s face… but the addition of such features to the Lego aesthetic has an unfortunate effect… it starts to make it look like they’re taking the piss, South Park style, by representing things like serious injuries in crude, cartoon form.
This is particularly evident in the way the figure above simply has no Lego legs provided. Is there any child who ever played with Lego who didn’t, at some point, hold up a Lego torso/head combination without the legs attached and scream, on behalf of the figure, something along the lines of “AAAARGH! WHERE ARE MY LEGS????”, thus causing themselves wild hilarity? I know I did. (I hope I’m not telling you things about myself that I shouldn’t… but, to be honest, I write a blog that tries to subject Doctor Who to Marxist analysis, so, realistically, what have I got to lose in terms of being taken seriously?) The thing is that this exact same strategy – the leaving off of the legs – is now being deliberately employed by Lego to depict horrific mutilation.
Partly this is to do with the fact that a generation who grew up watching Star Wars are now writing and filming stories… and, in common with the fan mindset everywhere, they want to do the same kinds of stories, but better… more serious, more ‘dark’, etc. This is a double edged blade. It gave birth to the good and bad of the Virgin New Adventures, the good and bad of 2005+ Who, the good and bad of modern SF/fantasy fiction and film making. The apotheosis of the bad may be the awkward attempts to do ‘realist’ but bloodless and politically illiterate depictions of urban terrorism in the Nolan Batman films, with the urban terrorist opposed by a moralist ninja in a ‘realistic’ bat outfit. One side effect of this is that, increasingly, SF/Fantasy tries to be ‘serious’ and often tries to do this using what we might call The Gatiss Manoeuver, i.e. it tries to bring in pain and suffering.
Of course, there is a big dose of knowing, sly-winking, in-on-the-joke irony inherent in the whole Lego Star Wars / Harry Potter / Pirates of the Caribbean thing, the toys and computer games and film-recreations.
I think it goes back to the fact that my generation had Star Wars and stuff like that (and the Potter and Pirate films are, indisputably, the offspring of Star Wars ) AND we had Lego… and there was a conceptual connection between them which took the material form of Kenner Star Wars toys… and yet, somehow, Star Wars and Lego never met… even though they lived side-by-side in our toy boxes… even though they both existed as piles of plastic figures and plastic places… even though they both allowed us to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct material worlds in miniature… even though, in short, we always kind of thought they could and should.
Of course, they did meet… but only when we made it happen.
I mixed up Star Wars figures and Lego all the time. I had Lego people inside my Millenium Falcon. I knew kids who never did this… who looked at it askance, as though doing it were, in some way, conceptually indecent… but even they tended to use Lego to build characters from non-Lego worlds. I certainly did. I built my own versions of Star Wars characters using Lego. For that matter, I built Lego Doctors and Lego TARDISes. I built Lego Masters of the Universe and Lego Clash of the Titans. I built Lego James Bond. I built Lego E.T. and Ghostbusters. I built Lego Blade Runner and Lego Hitchcock films.
Increasingly, there is an attempt on the part of the marketers to close the space in which children to do this kind of thing themselves.
We adults take delight in the Legoification of imagery that we recall from childhood, or from the fan experience (which is, I suspect, intimately psychologically linked with childhood)… we all, I’m sure, have felt that peculiar pleasure of recognition, solidification, interpretation and miniaturisation that comes from seeing a model of something that is embedded in our memory of visual storytelling. (It is, by the way, entirely different to the non-recognition / surprise / disappointment that comes with seeing the visual or physical realisation of something that had previously only existed as a set of descriptions in a book.) The more obscure, unlikely and intricately accurate the image that is solidified, miniaturized and recognised, the greater the pleasure.
Of course, Lego Star Wars works in a different way to the above figure.
For a start, Star Wars is mass culture on a scale that old-Who can’t match. It’s images are recognisable globally, to a huge number of people, part of the visual alphabet of Western culture, whereas the figure above lives in the collective memory of a comparatively small fan-gestalt. Only a few images from Doctor Who even begin to be as widely recognisable as Star Wars.
Next, the figure above is meant to be faithful in a very literal, plodding way. It is meant to appeal to that bit of the fan soul that cherishes ‘seriousness’ (something that toy-collector Charles Daniels subverts with his usual genial ingenuity). It might even be treasured by the fan because it, in a way, reclaims and straightfacedly re-presents an image crucial to the history and internal mythos of the show but also long found risible.
The whole concept of Star Wars Lego contains a degree of self-mockery that is possible in the context of a huge, global audience of viewers and customers who are not fans in the way that you probably have to be a fan to buy and cherish the model of the ‘Tenth Planet’ Cyberman. There is something inherently, nose-tappingly, insinuatingly ‘knowing’ about Star Wars Lego. It not only trades upon the memory of those self-created elisions between the fundamentally not-joined-up narratives of Star Wars and Lego that so many of us engaged in during childhood, it also seems to use the Lego aesthetic to quietly insult – in that self-conscious, too-cool-for-school way that is almost always an attempt to obscure insecurity above a genuine but unfashionable devotion – the Star Wars aesthetic.
This kind of double-dealing is endemic in a culture that relentlessly sells things created to cater for deeply-ingrained human tastes (i.e. stories about monsters) while also insisting on supposedly contrary standards of behaviour (i.e. grow up, stop thinking about monsters, don’t be childish, be cool not geeky, etc.).
I’m not taking sides here, by the way. I’m not riding to the defence of Star Wars (or indeed of Doctor Who, or anything else), shouting “lay off our wholesomely geeky pleasures, you ‘ironic’ philistines!” I’m trying to think through some ways in which commodification works… and commodification is not something that Star Wars was ever free from in some pure way, anymore than was Doctor Who. Star Wars is being commodified in new ways all the time… but it was always a commodity, as was Doctor Who, to which similar things are happening….
|This is ‘character building’, apparently. |
Wouldn’t there have to be characters in it?
This is the further-commodification of that which started as a commodity anyway. It isn’t like the mass manufacture of inflatable versions of Munch’s The Scream (which is, in any case, the sort of thing that is inevitable in a culture like ours).
Still less am I riding to the defence of the poor, downtrodden, misunderstood geeky fan. Most active fans, in my experience, are relatively privileged people (and I include myself in that) and nothing is less appealing than their/our occasional lapses into self-pity and feelings of thwarted entitlement.
But, back to the point…
One way to square the get-people-to-buy-what-other-bits-of-culture-tell-them-they’re-sad-for-wanting-to-buy circle (so you can continue selling them both supposedly contradictory sets of ideas and stuff simultaneously) is to package the uncool things (i.e. monsters, childhood nostalgia, models, etc) in ways that seem overlaid – or underwritten – by irony, by apparent self-mockery, by a ready made set of excuses utilising the concept of knowing play.
But there is a problem here, which is the fact that play is supposed to be creative, a way of thinking rather than a way of not-thinking. If these methods of commodification that use play to elbow-out any feeling of unfettered engagement with stories were confined to adults, that would be bad enough. But it isn’t.
It seems to me that the current official and licenced Lego versions of film franchises are symptoms of an invasion – by the increasingly all-pervading neo-liberal capitalist market system – of a childhood prerogative: the task of using the tools of childhood (i.e. toys) to express, mimic, recreate, reinterpret, comprehend and appropriate, for one’s own mental use, the culture into which one has been born. In short, there is an extent to which Star Wars Lego is an appropriation of childhood play – or, at least, one strategy of childhood play – from its rightful owners, i.e. children.
Of course, selling toys of any kind – especially toys with a pre-written narrative behind them like Star Wars figures – is, in a sense, to appropriate play from the child. You’re imposing an external structure upon the play. Even vanilla Lego imposes a structure of shops and cars and tractors and ‘everyday life’ on to play… but then play always mimics the world around it. In children, that’s part of what its for. And it isn’t always a bad thing to impose external per se… and it is often ignored or subverted by the very act of play. But it’s that very avenue for subversion – through the child’s own cross-referencing of narratives – that is being encroached upon.
It is, in a way, yet another example of the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital. Marx identified ‘primitiveaccumulation‘ as the historical origins of capitalism, during which the rising capitalist class seized much of the property that had been ‘common’ under the feudal system, i.e. the enclosures. David Harvey has suggested, plausibly, that we can see neo-liberalism as engaging in a fresh round of ‘primitive accumulation’, what he calls ‘accumulation by dispossession‘, i.e. the re-conquest (privatization) of much that had been placed in the socialized or public sphere; increasing financialization, asset stripping, austerity schemes and structural adjustment. There’s the commodification of public space. There’s the opening up of new markets and forms of commodity exchange, like intellectual property rights, etc.
I’m not suggesting anything but an analogy here, but it seems as though the colonization of what had once been a task of the child – the appropriation of the toy for the creation of the child’s own versions, stories and interpretations – has been subject to a kind of enclosure by the neo-liberal merchandise industry.
Or rather, something of that kind has been attempted and – as noted above – is leading to increasingly uneasy, almost self-satirising, results. The fact is, people are still creatively appropriating and misappropriating toys by using them to appropriate and misappropriate stories they were never ‘meant’ or ‘designed’ to represent. What Adam and Joe started in the 90s has now become endemic on YouTube. The results range from the pathetic and embarrassing to the genuinely brilliant.
I’ve long hankered for staggeringly inappropriate Lego. Lego Schindler’s List, for example. Or Lego Human Centipede. (I mean, why not – is there anything in the logic or ethics of neo-liberalism that puts Lego Operation Enduring Freedom beyond the pale? No, and that’s the point.) I mentioned as much on Facebook and, in a trice, Dom Kelly found me Lego Human Centipede on YouTube. Whatever the intention of whoever made it, this monumentally inappropriate (and thus revealing) collision of two commodities is a sign that the ability to play still cuts both ways.
March 14, 2012 @ 4:33 pm
Just discovered your blog coming here from Phil Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum and have to say I absolutely adore the work you're doing over here!
One thing this post got me thinking about are toy photographers, like this fellow http://bug-eye.deviantart.com/ who take commercially produced toys, in this case Doctor Who ones, and use them to create their own unique scenes and stories, not necessarily just ones based on televised stories. In a sense, aren't they dong the adult version of what you assign the job of children during play and appropriating the capitalist artefacts for their own purposes? Isn't this a form of creative storytelling in itself, and actually a bottom-up one because it takes elements of capitalist media and reappropriates it for a new end?
Incidentally, as a Doctor Who fan from childhood I can tell you I would have killed for toys like the ones Character Options puts out. While I did do things like mix and match toys from different sets as you said, I was always a bit anal about having accurate representations of my favourite characters. As an adult collector, I will freely admit to having some of their sets today. Make of that what you will, I guess!
March 15, 2012 @ 4:01 am
Thanks for the comment… and the praise. I can never get enough praise. Insecure, you see.
To respond to your points.
Firstly, I was perhaps a little bigoted in assigning the task of creation / appropriation / misappropriation / subversion of toys to childhood. There's no reason, as you say, why it should stop there. Indeed, I definitely believe that it shouldn't. And, of course, so much adult behaviour takes the form of play… just not always of the best kind.
And, yes, I own Character Options toys myself. Louise Mensch – and people of her unpleasant ilk – would probably say this makes me a hypocrite to criticise capitalism… but within capitalism one must take part in commodification in order to live, and we don't live by bread alone. We need to play, if we have the luxury to.