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.

And molluscs fly… !?! The limits of memetic complex Panglossianism (intro)

But then the Church came to the front, with an axe to grind; and she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat–or a nation

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

hat tip.1


In an earlier post I have argued that the reference to Darwinian variation and selection constitutes a commonly missed link between Max Weber’s “idealist” argument in the Protestant Ethic and Marxian “materialism”. Exploring this link may be helpful in salvaging Weber’s approach (if not his entire argument) by integrating it into a reformulated base/superstructure concept. I have acknowledged W. G. Runciman for being about the only prominent Weber interpreter who spotted Weber’s application of a Darwinian argument, but pointed out that he both overplays and underplays his hand. He overplays it in that he makes Weber yet another witness in his project of an all-and-out selectionist-adaptationist comparative sociology to parallel evolutionary biology, with socio-cultural ‘memes’ taking the place of genes and cultures and societies supplementing the natural environment as selecting agents. The commitment to the notion of ‘memes’ ironically also means that he cannot make full use of insights from evolutionary biology and genetics about the complexities in the translation of genotypes into phenotypes, convergent and parallel evolution. My initial objection to Runciman, arising from reading his two articles (2001, 2005a) relating Weber and Darwin, was therefore that in rewriting Weber’s argument as a purely selectionist one, he discards the implications of the famous metaphor of “elective affinities” and the entanglement of individual choice and social fate, reflection and intuition that it hints to. He also cuts of the potentially productive ties to Marxian theorising in that, in dismissing the cultural-sociological approach that Weber justified by his reference to Darwin2 which would make for an adequate reformulation of the base/superstructure dialectic.

In a response to Joseph Fracchia and R. C. Lewontin’s (1999) all-out critique of evolutionism in the social sciences Runciman (2005b) rejects claims that his theory amounted to a “Panglossian” scenario in which every single historical fact, cultural expression or social institution could be explained as an adaptation in an ever improving world. And indeed he had already asserted earlier, with reference to Stephen Jay Gould and Lewontin’s (1979) critique of Panglossianism in biological evolutionary theory, that

Just because (as the paradigm does imply) competitive selection under environmental pressure is the only force capable of accounting for evolutionary change, it does not follow that every observed characteristic must have a selective value.’ (Runciman 1998: 171)

This statement makes clear the claim of evolutionary sociology, namely to explain historical shifts and general directions of development rather than the specifics of any historically given society. Fracchia and Lewontin (1999: 59f.) counter this claim with reference to Althusserian philosophy – a problematic defence given the outright anti-historical and anti-empirical tendency of his structural Marxism (see E. P. Thompson’s 1978 devastating critique). In fact, we will see that evolutionary sociology fits the bill of both Liberal (Parsonsian) and Marxist (Althusserian) structuralism since here, too, structure is imposed by selection:

Nevertheless, although random empirical behavior is not theoretically part of the system, if such behavior leads to major structural changes, then it is interpreted as the structure itself which “made way” (or created a “niche”) for the behavior. In other words, it is assumed that the structure, in theory, is always already constituted of the social conditions which arise within it. That is, behavior may be random, but if “selected,” it was structurally determined.’ (DiTomaso 1982: 22)

In this paper I am more interested in the proposed mechanics of cultural and social evolution as my interest is to salvage the utility of deploying Darwinian arguments in specific cases (such as the relation between religion and economic behaviour in the early stages of capitalist development) from the overbearing claims of an evolutionary sociology that privileges such instances as the only developments of historical relevance. As Lewontin is an early collaborator of Stephen Jay Gould in the formulation of the critique of the ‘adaptationist programme’ (Gould/Lewontin 1979), Fracchia and Lewontin’s attack on evolutionism in the historical and social sciences reflects much of the critique of ultra-Darwinism that has hence been associated with Gould (1997a, 1997b).

However inconclusive the 2005 clash between him and Fracchia and Lewontin in the journal History and Theory was how successful his defence is, particularly as both sides downscale their claims so that the former feel the need to assert the reader that they do think that there is some role for selectionist arguments in the social sciences (Fracchia/Lewontin 2005: 16), while the latter asserts repeatedly that his ‘selectionist theory’ does not account for everything in terms of adaptation but ‘accommodates both maladaptations and “exaptations” (Runciman 2009: 46). In the summa of his evolutionary theory of cultural and social selection, which makes no reference to the brush with Fracchia and Lewontin a few years earlier, Runciman (2009) now claims to have integrated precisely those apparently contradicting phenomena from evolutionary biology that Fracchia and Lewontin (1999, 2005) muster up against cultural evolutionism: catastrophic events, punctuated equilibriums, exaptations (‘spandrels’). Runciman also specifically acknowledges parallel evolution (i.e. the development of identical phenotypes out of different genotypes, or in the case of cultural evolution, memes). The question is whether the way he integrates them actually saves his claim that evolutionary arguments are not just to play a role in historical and comparative sociology but should be the master concept.

In the following I will proceed in three steps. First I will make a short case for including selection among the plurality of explanatory “cranes” that allow us to displace the legacy of theological and metaphysical “skyhooks” that even the Marxist view of history has inherited from its Christian predecessor (Löwith 1949). Secondly I will reject Runciman’s assertions that he has indeed accommodated Gould’s objections to ultra-Darwinism. Instead, I will argue, they are integrated in a way to simply afford a more complex Panglossianism which makes itself even more evidence-proof than the biological Panglossianism Gould and Lewontin initially targeted in 1979. Thirdly I will restate my objection that Runciman takes the edge off the Darwinian argument in that he does not make use of the fact that where selection works it works on phenotypes and only indirectly on the generative structures that produce them. The possibility of parallel evolution (i.e. different ways to come to similar results) is only acknowledged so that the necessity of examining those generative structures can be denied – it is selective pressures that functionally explain phenotypes and what produces them can be safely left in the black box that is the human mind. My point will be that what’s inside the box does matter because, like the phyletic constraints in biological evolution, generative structures like cognitive schemata, imaginative skills, theoretical habits etc. determine developmental potential, both by setting certain limits and by opening (and even suggesting) certain opportunities. My final point will be that when looking at those generative structures the parallel to genomes that Runciman, following Richard Dawkins (1989: 189ff.), reduces to strings of information and behavioural programmes under the title ‘memes’. The central properties of these memes (which justify the parallel to genes) are replication and mutation – i.e. they are copied and passed on between individuals and the process of copying is precise enough to ensure some stability (inheritance, tradition) and some variation (recombination, new ideas). I will argue that in any version the idea of self-replicating memes cannot account for the way that ideas, beliefs, practices etc. are passed on because the notion of replication does not capture the process even of simple and plain imitation, which always involves creativity, reflection and meaning. The cultural sociology required to understand phenomena relished by self-declared memeticists such as fashion, popular music or advertising, let alone the more existential issue of religion therefore cannot be reduced to enslavement by replicators. While most followers of memetics, including its inventor (Dawkins 1989: 200) insist on the limitation of the power of replicators (both genes and memes) by the possibilities of reflection, Susan Blackmore (1999) has stringently argue that anything but such enslavement is inconsistent with genetic/memetic explanations of culture, no matter how memes are defined. Against this I will argue that what looks like memetic replication itself cannot be conceived of in any other terms but reflection.

to be completed… #wachthisspace  (author busy earning a living)

1 The need to revisit the debate between Runciman and Fracchia/Lewontin became clear to me thanks to a short conversation with Çağlar Karaca after a talk I’ve given at Exeter in last spring and after reading his paper ‘Criticism of Memes / Reconsidering Cultural Evolution’ (Karaca there targets mainly the lack of historical perspective in memetics).

2 In effect Weber presents culture (in the specific case: theology) as the functional equivalent of the genome which provides for the variation from which the functional equivalent for nature, material conditions (in the specific case: the capitalist economy) then selects the types that are adapted enough to survive those conditions

Master Detective & Race

Note: … I seem to have got that urge to demolish the innocence of my reading pleasures (as done previously with Father Brown). I still love how in the old Sherlock Holmes stories the difficulty of problems is measured by the quantity of cigarettes it takes to solve them and various quantities of brandy are a universal medicine for just any ailment. Still… that concept of “masterfulness” had it coming like the wall in the BBC’s Sherlock episode “The Great Game”. This post is based nearly exclusively on my reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories (having re-read all 56 of them) and the BBC adaptation Sherlock (having watched all episodes… at least twice). But the primary purpose of those readings was not analysis but entertainment. I do not have any claim to Sherlockist expertise in literary criticism – nor to anything approaching expertise in critical whiteness… so I would not be surprised to find that similar arguments have been made (or rejected) more competently by someone else already.

The brilliance and wit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories remains captivating and the latest BBC TV adaptation with Benedict Cummerbatch and Martin Freeman are great watching. Yet re-reading the original stories became ever ever less comfortable as I progressed. As is nearly inevitable in Victorian fiction, reading Sherlock Holmes sooner or later one is confronted with the protagonist’s (and author’s) problematic views on “race”. While you may debate how prominent they are across the canon there is no question about Holmes’/Doyle’s blatant racism in the late story The Adventure of the Three Gables. It opens with a hired thug, Black boxer Stevie Dixon, trying to intimidate Holmes. The detective teases him using the crudest racist stereotypes describing him as smelly, woolly-headed, thick-lipped. Dixie is portrayed as strong and stupid. And Holmes subdues him using his investigative prowess as an intellectual whip while Dr Watson lies in waiting with the iron poker in case physical force was needed after all. There is no debating away the racism in this story (not for lack of trying – various Sherlockians have had a go across the fanzines). Also, it cannot simply be set off against the anti-racism of Sherlock acting as noble defender of a child from a mixed-race marriage in The Adventure of the Yellow Face or his action against the KKK in the Three Orange Pips – racism is not a carbon-emissions-like quantity. (more…)

Religionen als Weichensteller der Geschichte? Die Verschaltung von Religion und Kapitalismus

Vortrag gehalten am 12. April an der Volkshochschule Tübingen

Was hat Kapitalismus mit Religion zu tun?  Ist es tatsächlich denkbar, daß die Religion des stallgeborenen Tischlers aus Betlehem ursächlich für die Entstehung des modernen Kapitalismus mitverantwortlich zu machen ist? Oder daß die Religion der  Nächstenliebe sich zu einer ideologische Stütze des Systems gnadenloser Konkurrenz gemananias und saphiraausert hat?

Zunächst spricht einiges dagegen – nicht zuletzt die heiligen Schriften. Hier ein Beispiel aus dem Neuen Testament [Apostel 5, 1-11] .  Das Ehepaar Ananias und Saphira hat seine Felder verkauft – und die Regeln der urchristlichen Gemeinschaft verlangen, daß sie den Erlös an die Gemeinde abgeben. Aber sie halten etwas von dem Geld zurück. Apostel Petrus durchschaut Ananias, konfrontiert ihn mit seiner Unehrlichkeit, bezichtigt ihn, Gott selbst betrogen zu haben. Und Ananias fällt auf der Stelle tot um. Seine Frau Saphira kommt später hinzu, wiederholt die Lüge – und sie erleidet das gleiche Schicksal: Tod als Strafe für den Versuch der Kapitalbildung.