The accursed Second Part: initial thoughts on the ontologies of gender and race in Lego Movie 2

Both The Lego Movie and Lego Movie 2 are consumer-cultural myths working on Liberal fears around the twin threat of total order and total chaos against which the middle classes from the outset have defined themselves as at once rational and creative, as enlightened and romantic antidote, relating those principles (as myths typically do) to gender categories and to categorisations of collective Self and Other. One reason why this fear will not go away that the economic system that sustains these emphatically “middle” classes moves dialectical between ossification and decay (and within the middle classes themselves we find, in regular waves, counter-movements to both, which alternatingly or sometimes simultaneously celebrate absolute order and total destruction – most clearly in fascism)

While the first movie dealt with the fear of absolute order, the second one focuses on the fear of chaos. The struggle for a middle position remains a central concern when in the real world the “cool” capitalism of the creatives, the networkers, hipsters, geeks and freaks has under threat from a new authoritarian alliance between old industries (oil, steel, property magnates) and (so the Liberal imagination) the “White working class”[1], both envisioned as hyper-masculinities putting pressure on the dominance of a more civilised mode of masculinity. Read the full post »


health= abstract labour power (outline)

Working towards a conceptualisation of the changes in professional approaches towards long-term unemployment and how they are informed by the medical system (see previous posts), it turns out that Jan Grue‘s suggestion to make analytical use of the metaphor “illness is work” merits a little “subproject” as it were. Central to my argument will be the notion that in the moral grammar of a society commoditising labour power health equals, from a system point of view, abstract labour power. The idea that illness resembles work, or at least is subject to similar social expectations, is conducive to that argument. Grue builds on Strauss and Glaser’s pioneering work, the research since then and his own empirical work, showing that in many ways illness – and particularly chronic illness, is akin to work. He concludes:

‘The point of these observations is that ILLNESS IS WORK may be quite useful in capturing the sense of individual responsibility experienced by patients with chronic illness, as well as the need for their continuous effort—even, and perhaps particularly, when these are not explicitly recognized by others. It may help explain their motivation and actions, including when their actions are or appear to be in conflict with professional medical opinion and advice. The notion of a purposeful trajectory marks a clear distinction from passive patient roles while recognizing work that is already being performed as work. People with chronic illness strive for recognition of their experiences, their competence, and their embodied knowledge of themselves and their own illness; this effort may be tightly interwoven with the struggle toward health, but does not entail an expectation to become free of all illness and experience total well-being.’ (Grue 2016: 410)

I will argue that the metaphor of “illness is work” was always around and as latent idea affected the social practices in and around illness ever since the time Parsons formulated his sick role theory. (which is my one-and-only disagreement with Grue’s text). The difference between illness-as-work in a Parsonsian world and today is that it was not out in the open as a metaphor but as a Barthesian myth. While the metaphor can, within the limits which Grue lays out, lead both to better insights into the lifeworld of people with chronic illness and to greater recognition of their struggles and contributions, the myth has very much the opposite effect: it creates a set of work-like expectations which underline the reduced legitimacy and autonomy of the sick person while also minimizing the recognition for compliance and contribution within the sick role. As long as the prevalent experience of illness was that of transient acute illness the prospect of regaining autonomy and recognition within the framework of commodified labour power this was not necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden. With the shift towards chronic illness that changes. The cases highlighted by Grue could therefore also be interpreted as struggle to transform the “illness as work” from myth to metaphor and thereby claiming the hitherto withheld recognition.


For a theoretical grounding I will start with my own suggestion (/free) that Parsons’ concept of health – in the functionalist terms which may be untenable theoretically but nonetheless constitute an adequate reflection of the still dominant normative expectations in a capitalist society self-defining as meritocratic “achievement society” – is congruent with what in Marxian terms could be called “abstract labour power”. For Marx, there is, of course, only labour power – he applies the distinction concrete/abstract to aspects of labour expended. However, there is a case to be made for an inference from abstract labour to abstract labour power, denoting that aspect of the potential in human capacity which is recognised in the valorisation process by abstract exchange value, expressed in the universal, impersonal and abstract commodity: money. I will here go back to Isaac Rubin’s suggestion that abstract labour only is established as a social fact in the abstraction of commodity exchange where different human capacities as manifested inqualitatively different products create the premise that there must be something equal in them which makes them commensurable.


If illness in capitalist societies is, as Parsons portrays it, the loss of the ability to function in social reciprocities (and the central reciprocity which makes that sociality “functional” in the first place, as Sohn-Rethel points out, is that of commodity exchange), then its opposite, health, is reduced to nothing but that very ability prior to any concretisation. Because health itself is not specified in its productive application – as it can be the minimal subjective condition for very qualitatively very different individual contributions to the process of production, it is the equivalent of labour power as such, labour power “before”[1] its concretisation through expenditure, i.e. abstract labour power.


The ability to work (and therefore functional health) is not a given state but subject to permanent reconstruction, reproduction and therefore also (re)creation, change. Georges Canguilhem emphasised this aspect of health – health as ability to weather blows to the system, to adapt to changing environments, respond to challenges and re-form (heal) the biological entity whose property it is. He also underlined that there is no reversibility in this – it is never an act of going back to a previous state but brings to bear the Platonic logic that culminates in the capitalist myth of the producer. According to Marx labour power is subject to reproduction – and therefore labour power needs to be expended on this task (in fact, he measures the value of labour power in precisely the amount of socially necessary labour time spent on its creation and maintenance). For Marx this is happening mainly outside the properly capitalist process of production in the gendered division of labour of the family. That division has been been transformed but not abolished in our contemporary gendered and racialised modes of reproductive labour, which are increasingly marketised and valorised (a development intersectional theorists like Mignon Duffy (2005) have a lot to say about). But what has long been overlooked is that of course every individual has reserve some of her/his labour power (i.e. health) for their own reproduction (after all, people working full-time in reproductive occupations also have to reproduce their own labour power) – this only becomes visible in the very recent trends such as that of digitalised health through self-tracking, where the consumer is offered the opportunity to self-monitor and self-regulate the time spent on reproducing health as abstract labour power. Or in the notion of “resilience” (e.g. Luthans et al. 2006) whose active strengthening through measures of primary prevention is proposed to secure the individual’s ability to retain and rebuild their labour power under increased work-place stress. This concept very much circumscribes precisely that part of individual labour power which is reserved for its own reproduction: employees are encouraged to make the most efficient use of it to reduce ill health (and sick leave), while employers are called upon not to use it up for primary production as they risk costs related to illness. At the same time there seems to be a tacit understanding that active reproduction through measures under the flag of “resiliency” (mostly programmes of digitally self-monitored changes to nutrition and physical activity) are to take place outside hours, i.e. on employees’ own time. This is only natural, as that is when the reproduction of labour power is to take place and what the wage, in Marxian terms, is for.


If despite such efforts functional health is lost, what remains is the firm expectation that whatever remaining resources there are will be mobilised in a surge to regain it. This is what is behind Parsons notion that the sick role offers the ill person an alternative to the roles they can no longer perform in (and he does acknowledge that the role where compliance is reciprocated through payment is the dominant one of those). Here the expectation is (under an obligation to a “will to get well”) that the ill person concentrates all their productive energy, whatever is left of their labour power, on the restoration of the ability to perform in reciprocal role relations – to restore their full (elastic and plastic, and hence abstract) labour power.


In acute illness, the strange set of assumptions may go unnoticed. In chronic illness the medically supported upsurge of restorative abstract labour power does not lead to a recovery on the same level (or, where the same level of performance can only be reached by spending a larger part of one’s labour power on holding that level, i.e. by hours and hours of illness work). Here it becomes clear, to those ready to see, that illness under capitalism is in fact very rarely a merely passive suffering – both self-care as reproduction (and restoration) of health as labour power and its valorisation through its commoditisation in the labour market are expected. The dual imperative translates in the double suspicion which people with chronic illness have to negotiate according to Alan Radley (1994: 157) that of unduly withholding labour power (“malingering”) and that of neglecting reproductive self-care at the expense of paid work (“recklessness”).


Hannah Arendt famously pointed out that modernity associates, semantically, work and suffering, as for the industrialised forms of work the signifier for productive creativity (derived from Latin opera or German Werk) by signifiers emphasising woe and misery (labour from Latin labora, Arbeit from the old arebeit…). With regards to illness work one could say that these signifiers work both ways, also underlining suffering as a related to work and requiring productive activity. The old (stoic, Catholic…) option of accepting suffering, even finding meaning in it and bearing it as one’s assigned fate, is no longer available.  One may think of this as a loss or celebrate the end of fatalism. Either way, within the moral grammar of a society that runs on the commoditisation of labour power it is an inevitability.


As long as this is the case, as long as the latency of illness-as-work, its character as a Barthesian myth persists, people with, from the perspective of the system of production, “reduced” health, are denied access to recognition that would be taken for granted in other role reciprocities. While social expectations toward people with illness and especially with chronic illness are formulated under a tacit assumption of illness-is-work, they are cannot utilise the culturally dominant vocabulary of motive of production/reproduction. Promoting illness-as-work as an analytical metaphor would be a move towards changing this. What it would not change, of course, is the underlying moral grammar of commoditisation – but at least it would make it more visible and therefore a potential object of critical praxis.


Arendt, Hannah (1958): The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barthes, Roland (1957): Mythologies, Paris: Éditions du Seuil

Duffy, Mignon (2005): ‘Reproducing Labor Inequalities: Challenges for Feminists Conceptualizing Care at the Intersections of Gender, Race, and Class’, in: Gender and Society, Vol.19, no.1, pp.66-82

Georges Canguilhem (1988) : Le normal et le pathologique, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France

Grue, Jan (2016): ‚ILLNESS IS WORK: Revisiting the concept of illness careers and recognizing the identity work of patients with ME/CFS’, In: Health, Vol.20, no.4, pp.401-12

Luthans, Fred/Vogelsang, Gretchen R./Lester, Paul B. (2006): ‘Developing the Psychological Capital of Resiliency’, in: Human Resource Development Review, Vol.5, no.1, pp.25-44

Radley, Alan (1994): Making Sense of Illness, London: Sage.

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred (1985): Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp





[1] Before in inverted commas since it is abstract only logically before its concretization – in real time, labour comes before labour power (which is a mere inference from the observation of what then appears as its actualization) and concrete labour comes before abstract labour (again, the latter being an inference form the former)

Chronic Unemployment and the Professionalisation of Personal Advisors in the Context of the Moral Economy of the Welfare State (Abstract)

Welfare-state provision has always consisted of more than just the administration of benefits. From early on it also included professional services tasked with, among other things, with the maintenance of the moral integration of societies strained by individual and collective anomy. The classic case is the medical profession. Over the last decades, with unemployment having become a more individualised phenomenon, and the persistence of long-term unemployment during near-full employment having moved into policy makers’ focus of attention, the professional aspect of the services of the German Federal Labour Agency has been systematically strengthened.

The aim of the paper will be to develop a theoretical understanding of this professionalisation. Instead of deriving it from a general trend towards neo-liberal “welfare to work” policies I will focus on the way that unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, constitutes both a troubling individual anomy (in the context of the normative expectations centred on a moral economy around paid employment, Cole 2007) and a perceived collective anomy (the fact of long-term unemployment putting in question taken-for-granted assumptions about meritocratic legitimacy in the same way chronic illness does, Müller 2015).

Building on existing research on the changing role of personal advisors at local labour agencies and jobcentres (e.g. Bartelheimer et al. 2014, Behrend/Ludwig-Mayerhofer 2008,  Bender and Brandl 2017, Terpe 2012) and my a re-assessment of Parsons’ theory of the medical role (Varul 2010a) in the context of the moral grammar of labour-market centred societies (Varul 2010b), I will argue that those changes follow from the way that unemployment now is socially presented as resulting, at least partly, from a deficit in the ability to adapt motivationally. This widens the field of professional action on behalf of the welfare state from illness to unemployment. Approaching professionalisation in this field from the nature of the problem which professionalised staff are to work on will offer a new angle to attempt an explanation as to why the considerable allowance of discretion of ‘activation workers’ in social administration (van Berkel/van der Aa 2012) is not just a concession to the pragmatics of service provision but creates the felt need for a distinctively professional approach.  It is significant that Bender and Brandl (2017) are able to etch the professionalisation of advisors at the labour agencies into particularly sharp relief by using the examples of advisors specialising in people with multiple and complex problems – constellations that merit the characterisation as ‘anomie’ which is the starting point of Parsons’ theory of professional action.

The moral pressure faced by the sick and the jobless are similar: they can count on social support under an assumption of innocence. Yet that assumption is fragile and open to challenge when evidence of motivation becomes crucial in the legitimation of welfare provision: the “will-to-get-well” as much as the “will-to-work”. Both are put in question by the involuntary inability to make work-based contributions, which means that there is a systematic suspicion that both ill health and unemployment may be caused by dysfunctions in the motivational structure of those affected.

Like the sick role, the institutional role of jobseeker provides a context where the assumed motivational causes can be tackled through the provision of a legitimate alternative role. Here compliance in social reciprocities can be enacted even though participation in “normal” reciprocities (as in labour market participation) is not possible. With “acute” unemployment becoming a less pressing problem due to a dynamic labour market, and “chronic” unemployment is moving to the centre of attention, maintaining the morale of the affected becomes a more urgent issue which lends intuitive plausibility to a turn from an administrative to a more professional approach. While the main goal remains to end unemployment, personal advisors now also have to be able to help the long-term unemployed to maintain motivation even where such motivation will not lead to a reintegration in gainful employment.

The parallel logic of the professional approaches to chronic ill health on the one hand and chronic unemployment on the other is reinforced by the fact that the two are, of course, also causally linked (e.g. Holleder 2012). With chronic illness impacting on work and thereby on work-related identity and self-esteem (Markle et al. 2012) it is therefore to be expected that future impulses for further professionalisation will come from those areas of praxis where long-term unemployment and chronic illness mutually reinforce each other. Depression, which as disease affects the core virtues of employment-centred societies, namely motivation, initiative and responsibility (Ehrenberg 2000), has been ascribed a pioneering role in the process, as we already witness a rapprochement of professional action in the jobcentres and the medical system (Bühler et al. 2013).


Bartelheimer, Peter/Brussig, Martin/Henke, Jutta/Kotlenga, Sandra/Reis, Claus/Wagner, Alexandra/Kupka, Peter/Schwarze, Henrik/Wolf, Andreas/Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut an der Universität Göttingen (2014): Beratungskonzeption SGB III: Endbericht, Göttingen: SOFI-Forschungsbericht.

Behrend, Olaf/Ludwig-Mayerhofer, Wolfgang (2008): ‚Sisyphos motivieren, oder: der Umgang von Arbeitsvermittlern mit Chancenlosen‘, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialreform, Vol.51, no.1, pp.17-55.

Bender, Gerd/Brandl, Sebastian (2017): ‚Beschäftigungsorientierte Beratung im Spannungsfeld von Bürokratie und Professionalität‘, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialreform, Vol.63, no.1, pp.75-101.

Bühler, B./Kocalevent, R./Berger, R./Mahler, A./Preiß, B./Liwowsky, I./Carl, P./Hegerl, U. (2013): ‚Versorgungssituation von Langzeitarbeitslosen mit psychischen Störungen‘, in: Der Nervenarzt, Vol.84, pp.603-7.

Cole, Matthew (2007): ‘Re-Thinking Unemployment: A Challenge to the Legacy of Jahoda et al.’ in: Sociology, Vol.41, no.6, pp.1133-49.

Ehrenberg, Alain (2000) : La Fatigue d’être soi : Dépression et société, Paris : Odile Jacob.

Hollederer, Alfons (2002): ‚Arbeitslosigkeit und Gesundheit. Ein Überblick über empirische Befunde und die Arbeitslosen- und Krankenkassenstatistik‘, Mitteilungen aus der Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, Vol.35, no.3.

Markle, Gail/Attell, Brandon K./Treiber, Linda A. (2015): ‘Dual Yet Duelling Illnesses: Multiple Chronic Illness Experience at Midlife’, in: Qualitative Health Research, Vol.25, no.9, pp.1271-82.

Müller, Arne (2015): ‚Dis/Ability und Prekarität. Inklusion durch Arbeit? Eine Problematisierung des Leistungsprinzips‘, in: Susanne Völker/Michèle Amacker (eds): Prekarisierungen: Arbeit, Sorge und Politik, Weinheim: Beltz Juventa, pp.111-127.

Terpe, Sylvia (2012): ‚„Mit Gefühl“ im Wohlfahrtsstaat: Berechenbarkeit, Gleichbehandlung und Transparenz in der entbürokratisierten Arbeitsverwaltung‘, in Bereswill, M. et al. (eds.): Wechselverhältnisse im Wohlfahrtsstaat. Dynamiken gesellschaftlicher Justierungsprozesse, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

van Berkel, Rik/van der Aa, Paul (2012): ‘Activation Work: Policy Programme Administration or Professional Service Provision?’, in: Journal of Social Policy, Vol.41, no.3, pp.493-510

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010a): ‘Talcott Parsons, the Sick Role and Chronic Illness’, in Body & Society, Vol.16, No.2, pp.72-94.

— (2010b): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition, and Labor Value: Marx’s Incidental Moral Anthropology of Capitalist Market Exchange’, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.41, No.1, pp.50-72.

Out now: Lego Movie as Consumer-Capitalist Myth


Finally out – am grateful to the European Journal of Cultural Studies and its reviewers for putting up with a rather meandering line of argument…

Took a while – the first version was held as a presentation at the German Sociological Association’s biannual conference in 2014. But then, this has given me time to discover more evidence for the link between Wyldstyle and Lévi-Strauss’ La Pensée Sauvage (see previous post) … and to put in a reference in passing to the current US President whose Taco Tuesday was, unfortunately, more successful than that of Lord Business in the movie.

The resurrection of the Demiurge reaches its climax in the fascist celebrations of industry, such as in Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes where an elite of industrial/engineering führers leads the masses in the execution of a ‘program of technological advance carried out by the national community of blood’ (Herf, 1984: 63). In our own time, we are witnessing the ascent of leaders who recast themselves as Platonic demiurges, Faustian creators to Spengler’s taste (1923: 591ff., also cf. Michaud, 2005) of whom the wall-building real-estate tycoon President ‘Lord Business’ in the Lego Movie is a caricature before the event.

open access pre-published, pre-Trump version here

open access conference paper (in German) here

Emmett engineering, bricolage, Brickowski

In my take on the Lego Movie I have speculated that the female protagonist’s nom de guerre ‘Wylde Style’ could be a reference to Levi-Strauss’ La Pensée sauvage (the English title is The Savage Mind… but the Danish is Den vilde tanke). So he stands for the principle of bricolage which, once activated comes to its own in the film’s anti-hero Emmett Brickowski. The surname is a more-than-obvious reference to the Lego brick, but as he is much in love with Wylde Style the allusion to bricolage is not entirely implausible.

I have not, though, given much thought to whence Brickowski’s first name might derive. Given that the writing team has not missed a single opportunity to insert cultural clues (both high cultural and popular cultural), the plainness of the name is odd. Of course, Emmett’s extraordinary ordinariness is essential to the plot – but then, “Emmett” is not precisely a common name these days.

In rewriting the paper I have reread Mary Douglas on Lévi-Strauss’ piece on Asdiwal. And there it was. An absolutely plausible explanation for Brickowski’s first name and how it links up with the notion of bricolage.

‘The bricoleur, for whom we have no word, is a craftsman who works with material that has not been produced of the task he has in hand. I am tempted to see him as an Emmett engineer whose products always look alike whether they are bridges, stoves, or trains, because they are always composed of odd pieces of drainpipe and string, with the bells and chains and bits of Gothic railing arranged in a similar crazy way. In practice this would be a wrong illustration of bricolage. Lévi-Strauss himself is the real Emmett engineer because he changes his rules as he goes along. For mythic though a card-player could be a better analogy, because Emmett can use his bits how he likes, whereas the bricolage type of culture is limited by pattern-restricting rules. Its units are like a pack of cards continually shuffled for the same game. The rules of the game would correspond to the general structure underlying the myths.’1

And, ironically, while the film celebrates the creativity of ordinary people as inventive bricoleurs, the plot itself is deliberately “post-modern” in that it simply (but very effectively and entertainingly) rearranges (slates…) elements of pre-existing myths from antiquity down to the modern comic book.

Given that the Internet seems to have forgotten the meaning of “Emmett engineering” (although there seem to be a couple of engineering firms in around the globe registered under said name) it is difficult to imagine that there was no anthropologist among the writers of the Lego Movie – the only available meaningful reference to the term is in Mary Douglas’ chapter.

1Douglas, Mary (1967): ‘The Meaning of Myth. With special reference to “La Geste d’Asdiwal”’, in: Edmund Leach (ed.): The Structural Study of Myth, London: Tavisstock, pp.49-69, p.66f.