Introduction. Play Well, Philosophize Well!
Sondra Bacharach and Roy T. Cook
LEGO® is, of course, a children’s toy. Or better yet, LEGO bricks and elements are the basic building blocks with which children, and adults, build such toys. But they are also the building blocks of a transgenerational multimedia empire. The LEGO Group is currently the largest toy manufacturer in the world, and the LEGO brand covers not just the basic bricks, but a massive multimedial empire including animated television shows, feature films, a vibrant adult fan base with over a dozen yearly conventions, an educational robotics program, an award-winning series of videogames, hundreds of books, magazines, and comics, a team-building workshop program for businesses, a clothing line, an endowed professorship at Cambridge University, and much, much more.
So, LEGO is much more than a mere toy—it’s really big, and it involves a whole lot of different kinds of stuff. But is it philosophical? At first glance, one might not think so—after all, how deep and profound could a little plastic building block be? It turns out that the answer is “very”!
When we—especially adults—play or work with LEGO, it is natural to reflect on these iconic bricks and to ask questions about how we construct ourselves and our world, the difference between childhood and adulthood, and the role of sustainability and reusability in the modern industrial world. In addition, the LEGO Group’s forays into business training (e.g., Serious Play®), robotics education (e.g., Mindstorms®), gender issues (e.g., Friends) and environmental
LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
debates (e.g., the Greenpeace LEGO/Shell video, LEGO Farm) invite us to ask hard questions about this particular toy company—questions that we might not ask of Mattel or Hasbro. But why is that? What makes LEGO so special?
The simple reason is that LEGO, unlike Mattel or Hasbro, doesn’t actually make toys. Strictly speaking, LEGO isn’t a toy. We can make toys with LEGO, either by following the steps in the little instruction books, or by constructing our own original creations. And, lots of us do. But, we can make virtually anything with LEGO—not just toys. These little plastic bricks are more like a building material or medium, and probably have as much or more in common with bricks and paint than they have with most of the items in the toy aisle at the local megamart.
Indeed, lots of people treat LEGO as a building material, constructing practical artifacts like desks, pinball machines, and even full-sized houses out of these little bits of ABS plastic. LEGO is special in part because it’s a building tool—one that opens up a new world of possibility for the builder. And as soon as we appreciate that LEGO is a tool for making things, we can see how it gives rise to a whole new way of appreciating these brightly colored little bricks. For tools can be used to make toys; and tools can be used to make tables; but tools can also be used to make art. Suddenly the domain of LEGO covers not only what is in our ordinary, quotidian world, but also encompasses the world of art—a world that ends only at the limits of our imagination.
Artists like Sean Kenney, Zbigniew Libera, Nathan Sawaya, Adam Reed Tucker, and Ai Weiwei have used LEGO bricks the way other artists use marble or paint, creating artworks that have been displayed in galleries and museums around the world. And, LEGO is well aware of this rich potential of those little ABS bricks—one of the LEGO Group’s most successful advertisement campaigns carried the minimal tagline “Imagine.”
Thinking about LEGO as part of the world of art—including the world of storytelling—explains why children can spend hours and hours lost in their imaginations, telling stories about their little ABS bricks: children know and appreciate how powerful LEGO, and the iconic minifigures so closely associated with the company, really are at storytelling! And, LEGO’s narrative potential, when combined with vivid imaginations, explains how LEGO literally opens up new worlds of possibility for builders young and old. As a result, we can ask the same questions about LEGO creations that we might ask about artworks, narratives, and all the intimate connections between, and surprising combinations of, art, stories, and other creative endeavors.
This book explores just how far LEGO’s reach into popular culture extends, and how that reach can help to illuminate philosophical problems old and new. The essays collected here highlight how LEGO has successfully infiltrated so many aspects of our popular culture, to say nothing of the pop-cultural ramifications of a toy that has enjoyed licensing deals with over a dozen hit Hollywood films. It turns out that properly understanding LEGO’s rise to cultural pre-eminence is itself a deeply philosophical question—one that can be appreciated by coming back to our aesthetic roots with the ancient philosopher and playwright Aristophanes (c. 446-c. 386 вс). Aristophanes introduces the original concept of Cloud Cuckoo Land in his comic play The Birds in order to make a pointed critique of Athenian social life. It’s no accident that Unikitty gives her chaotic, no-rules kingdom in The LEGO Movie the same name, since LEGO can also be used to make pointed commentary on, draw philosophical insights into, and learn more about the world we live in. Like Aristophanes and Unikitty, the essays included in this book attest to this variety of topics and approaches, ranging from the philosophy of architecture and the nature of autonomy to ApocaLEGO zombies and the Zen of LEGO, and pretty much everything in between.
As you are reading this volume, and thinking about your own past and future LEGO adventures, we only ask two simple things. First, as the very name of the company reminds us, “leg godt!,” or “play well!” But equally importantly, we also ask you to philosophize well!