The Lego Surround: A Review of The Lego Movie

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


March 2, 2014

The Lego Surround

A Review of The Lego Movie

In the 1930s and 40s, a group of American anthropologists and psychologists collaborating with German émigré artists and thinkers put forward an idea that they hoped would protect democracy against the threat of fascism that was sweeping Europe. Eight decades later, a ninety minute branded entertainment product based on their ideas has critics saying things like “it’s a laugh-a-minute thrill ride with a heart of gold!”

The Lego Movie has received Pixar levels of acclaim among critics, but it’s unclear why. Despite the social media hype, it’s not very good. Maybe critics have realized that kids today don’t understand what selling out is, so they’ve rushed to endorse an epic exercise in product placement for fear that any criticism will tag them as partisans of old-fashioned notions like artistic integrity.

The film is not literally based on ideas from the 1930s, but it’s impossible to understand why we find the plot of The Lego Movie familiar and compelling without reference to the intellectual movements of that time. The fact that those ideas are part of the plot of a major Hollywood children’s movie shows how influential and accepted they have become.

The movie depends on a familiar trope (as well it should—there’s nothing inherently wrong with tropes): There’s the underdog hero, Emmet Brickowoski, a dimwitted construction worker who lives in a state of blissful conformity to his urban society of Bricksburg; and the villain Lord Business, who appears to the Lego public as his alter ego President Business, president of the world and CEO of Octan Corporation which makes all music, TV shows, surveillance systems, history books and voting machines in the Lego world.

As villains are wont to do, Lord Business is plotting to destroy the world, but this undertaking is hampered by the Master Builders, an underground resistance group with about a dozen members who ostensibly help Emmet, but really serve little purpose as far as the plot goes. They exist mainly as the counterpoint to Lord Business, the other side of the ideological conflict that’s at the heart of the movie: follow instructions or be creative.

The town of Bricksburg is a cheerful but carefully managed society with instructions for even the most mundane of activities. We first meet Emmet waking up and dutifully performing his morning routine with the help of an instruction book that tells him how to get dressed, brush his hair, return a compliment and always root for the local sports team. The writers modeled it after Singapore.

No one will be surprised to learn that the super-villain is on the side of following instructions, while the noble Master Builders stand for creativity, and that’s because creativity is one of today’s predominant forms of ideology (in the Žižekian sense of a belief that is universally taken for granted and accepted as an obvious description of reality).

Right wing conservatives took issue with the movie’s anti-business “ideological” move of making the villain a CEO, but everyone agreed with the message of creativity. The Adam Smith Institute called it “the most libertarian film of the year,” and the American Enterprise Institute saw a strong message about Schumpterian creative destruction. On the progressive left, it was endorsed by Michael Moore and Alyssa Rosenberg embraced it as a critique of homogenized mass culture.

The defining characteristic of the elite Master Builders is their spontaneous creativity. Instead of relying on instructions like the ordinary conformist inhabitants of Bricksburg, they are able to solve problems by inventing new machines, vehicles or weapons on the fly and building them out of whatever parts they find in the immediate environment. Most of their problems involve Lord Business’s robot minions, whom they must defeat or escape.

Lord Business is the opposite of the Master Builders, standing for conformity instead creativity, following instructions over self-expression, and stability over change. We eventually learn that Lord Business’s world-destroying plan is to glue all the Lego bricks together, putting an end to the Master Builders’ subversive spontaneity once and for all.

These are standard motifs that we’ve seen repeated over and over again in movies, books and advertising. Under the influence of the popularized philosophies of film and literature criticism that dominate internet discussions where the word trope is practically a slur, we might stop there. The central consideration is the creativity of the film—does it rely on tropes? Or come up with something new? Put in the idiom of The Lego Movie, the question is whether the writer is a follower of Lord Business’s instructions, or a Master Builder.

But it’s worth taking the time to understand where this trope came from. Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround is that story, beginning in the early 20th century, of how a group of social scientists and intellectuals created a vision of what they called the democratic personality, an alternative to the authoritarian personality and a bulwark against fascism in the United States.

Although now largely defunct, the dominant intellectual trends of the day saw personality as the key to unlocking both culture and politics. Frankfurt School sociologists like Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno studied the personality traits of German workers to understand how they gave rise to fascism, and created the F-scale, a psychological test designed to measure the authoritarian personality. American anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead described human cultures as “personality writ large,” and psychologist Gordon Allport would say that “national problems… are nothing but personal problems shared by all citizens.”

These thinkers would influence and become members of the Committee for National Morale, an organization chartered in 1940 by the Roosevelt administration to advise the president on how to generate public support for US intervention in WW2. It was a war propaganda agency, but unlike conventional propaganda techniques that stoked patriotic fervor and used fear and demonization of the enemy, the Committee would take a different approach.

Their strategy was to persuade the public that Americans were unified not by a flag, a nationality or a political ideology or system, but by a shared set of democratic personality traits that was under threat from the German public, who were similarly unified by the authoritarian personality type. For the social scientists of the day, the democratic personality was flexible, egalitarian, tolerant, open-minded and autonomous in contrast to the rigid, hierarchical, bigoted, closed-minded and dependent attributes of the authoritarian personality.

But there was a problem. In the same way that political systems were thought to derive straightforwardly from personality traits, personality was seen as the product of media formats. Authoritarian media are those that allow the fascist leader to broadcast an emotionally resonant message to his obedient followers who have been deprived of their reason. This led to the idea that film, television and radio are intrinsically fascist and produced fascist personalities because these formats mimicked the one-to-many structure of Hitler’s mass rallies.

What about media that encouraged the democratic personality? In the 1940s, they didn’t exist so the Committee for National Morale had to invent them. With the assistance of Bauhaus artists who had emigrated to the United States before the war, they created a media format that Fred Turner calls the democratic surround. Instead of a single coherent message broadcast to a passive and immobile audience, a democratic surround is an immersive multimedia space filled with diverse images, sounds and film positioned at different heights on walls, on the floor or ceiling. There is no single viewing position, predefined route, pace or final interpretation—each member of the audience finds their own path, sees different things and comes to their own individual conclusions about what it all means.

Democratic surrounds would be found in museum installations like the The Family of Man and other traveling exhibitions funded by the US State Department that were used to promote American ideals during the Cold War. This was after the democratic personality was ironically repurposed after the war as an anti-communist, pro-capitalism ideology—ironic because these democratic traits were originally part of the revolutionary personality when it was first developed by the Frankfurt School prior to their immigration to the United States.

Democratic surrounds were also the basis for the explosion of multimedia installations during the 1960s and ultimately contributed to the utopian hopes around the internet. Remember that in the 1980s, cyberspace was imagined as a space, an immersive, interactive three dimensional visual field where we would be surrounded by images and have total freedom to explore.

Although this vision has since fallen away, the idea of the internet as a participatory environment of individual choice and self-expression, as opposed to the top-down broadcast model of old media, continues to hold sway and contributes to the perception of internet technologies as promoters of democracy in authoritarian countries.

Similar to multimedia environments that encourage audience members to become active constructors of their own personal meaning instead of being passive recipients of a collective meaning, The Lego Movie world is literally made up of construction blocks, and the democratic defenders of individual spontaneous creativity wage war against the authoritarian Lord Business and his obedient citizens of Bricksburg.

The film repeats the Frankfurt School criticism of mass media as fascist by portraying the citizens as conformist drones who consume manufactured pop music and TV shows. They listen to the catchy pop song Everything is Awesome nonstop for hours at a time and the inane sitcom Where Are My Pants? is everyone’s favorite TV show. In its hyper-energetic, seizure inducing style, the film even bears a passing resemblance to Andy Warhol’s intense multimedia events that sought to overwhelm the senses.

The Lego Movie is another example of that recurring paradox that we’re only beginning to get our heads around: a highly conventional story of rebellion against conventions. It celebrates individual creativity through a framework first developed and promoted by state agencies to support war and protect capitalism around the globe. And yet there are still some surprises in the film, indicators that filmmakers have an ambition to go beyond repeating state propaganda.

Most reviewers talk about the film as a celebration of creativity against rule following, but in fact two aspects of the film disrupt this simple reading.

First, Emmet is presented as a generic everyman with no unique qualities or talents. He’s portrayed as completely unremarkable in every way compared with his fellow residents of Bricksburg. In a crucial scene, Lord Business’s lead henchman Bad Cop interviews Emmet’s coworkers and neighbors to find out if he’s a subversive, but he is so generic, they barely know his name.

He’s kind of an average, normal guy. Not normal like us, he’s not that special. Look at Randy—he likes sausage. That’s something. Gale is perky—that’s something! We all have something that makes us something. Emmet is nothing. All he does is say yes to everything everyone else is doing. He’s a little bit of a blank slate I guess.

Emmet is viewed as a conformist drone by the creative, self-actualized Master Builders, and by Lord Business’s robot minions who can’t find him in their database because his face matches everyone, but also by all the alleged conformists of his town. Most representations of social conformity treat it as an explicit ideology where docile characters utter stock phrases about the virtues of blind obedience—Dead Poet’s Society is one well-regarded example in the genre. The Lego Movie’s Bricksburg is unusually true to life, hinting briefly at a conformist society whose members nonetheless think of themselves as creative, autonomous individuals.

The second way the plot deviates from the standard narrative is that, against all expectations, Emmet never overcomes his lack of creativity. His journey to defeating Lord Business begins when he stumbles on the Piece of Resistance, a discovery that according to a made-up prophecy makes him the Special—an ultra Master Builder who possesses extraordinary powers, the elite of the elite.

But the other Master Builders are frustrated to learn of his inability to invent even the most basic of new Lego creations, and he never gets that Karate Kid-style training montage that would transform him. His mentors enter the vast emptiness of his mind to try to unleash the creativity they want from him, but all he can muster is a double decker couch (“so everyone can watch TV together and be buddies!”), which they deride as the dumbest idea ever. In the early drafts of the script, his idea was even more pointless: a hundred foot long green stripe.

Unexpectedly, this alleged defender of creativity presents it as something of a liability. In one memorable scene, the Master Builders build a submarine to escape from Lord Business’s forces, but have trouble working together because each builder insists on only using bricks that match their personal style: Batman only uses black and very dark grey bricks, Unikitty demands sour apple and blue razzleberry colored bricks, and so on.

With no instructions to follow, Emmet tries to help by building the double decker couch, the only idea he’s ever had. The Master Builders are angry at him for building something so useless, but sentiment turns in his favor when the flimsy submarine is destroyed by the water pressure. His couch, the only thing strong enough to survive, becomes a life raft for the group and the Master Builders come away newly enlightened about the benefits of building things with an instrumental purpose instead of aesthetically satisfying but fragile objects of self-expression.

Having earned their respect, Emmet approaches the problem of defeating Lord Business with a novel strategy untried by the Master Builders that he learned in his time as a construction worker: making a plan and following it. His strategy ultimately pays off and leads to Lord Business’s final defeat and the resolution of the conflict.

This critique of pure creativity could be read as a metaphor for the way that in some parts of the Left, self-expression and self-cultivation have become ends in themselves, displacing more effective forms of action that try to achieve a goal. Jodi Dean makes this point in her book The Communist Horizon:

Similarly, some activists and theorists treat aesthetic objects and creative works as displaying a political potentiality missing from classes, parties, and unions. This aesthetic focus disconnects politics from the organized struggle of working people, making politics into what spectators see. Artistic prod­ucts, whether actual commodities or commodified experiences, thereby buttress capital as they circulate political affects while displacing political struggles from the streets to the galleries. Spectators can pay (or donate) to feel radical without having to get their hands dirty. The dominant class retains its position and the contradiction between this class and the rest of us doesn’t make itself felt as such. The celebration of momentary actions and singular happenings—the playful disruption, the temporarily controversial film or novel—works the same way. Some on the anarchist and post-structuralist Left treat these flickers as the only proper instances of a contemporary left politics. A pointless action involving the momentary expenditure of enormous effort—the artistic equivalent of the 5k and 10k runs to fight cancer, that is to say, to increase awareness of cancer without actually doing much else—the singular happening disconnects task from goal.

This reading isn’t far off from what the film’s writers intended. Phil Lord says:

Emmett is the guy who can synthesize both of those styles of play. There needs to be some kind of structure… There needs to be some kind of lattice upon which to hang all of this creativity. These folks, when everybody is doing their own individual thing — that doesn’t really work either. So I don’t know that we took a really strong position, I think we leaned toward individual creativity, but we also wanted to acknowledge that that can be problematic too.

Since the writers are undoubtably steeped in the latest far left intellectual trends, it would be worthwhile to go back and watch other films in their oeuvre such as Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, an obvious parable about global warming.