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.


Platon, Lego und der Prosumkapitalismus

DSC03019Varul, Matthias Zick (2015): ‘Kreative Zerstörung als Rückkehr genialer Gewöhnlichkeit LEGO, die Kulturtragödie der Exzellenz und die Expropriation des Brickolariats’ (Beitrag zur Plenum 9 »Die Krisen des Mittelmaßes« – organisiert von Anne Waldschmidt und Hans-Georg Soeffner) in: Stephan Lessenich (Hg.): Routinen der Krise – Krise der Routinen. Verhandlungen des 37. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Trier 2014.

Die Krise des Mittelmaßes – der call for papers nimmt indirekt auf Aristoteles Bezug, auf sein Ideal der Mäßigung (σωφροσύνη), nach dem tugendhaftes Verhalten immer in der Mitte (μεσότης) zwischen zwei Extremen liege. Und Aristoteles, mit seiner Vorstellung des guten Lebens, des Strebens nach Glück statt Gewinn, sinnvoll-tätiger Muße statt sinnlos-geschäftiger Arbeit, scheint tatsächlich wieder aktuell angesichts eines ständig überhitzten, sich krisenhaft zuspitzenden Kapitalismus – ein Kapitalismus, in dem die Hybris des leistungssteigernden Perfektionsstrebens einerseits zu ausufernder Arbeitslast führt und anderseits zu weitgehender Sinnentleerung angesichts der Lächerlichkeit des Exzellenzkults. Der Rückfall auf das Ideal behäbig-bürgerlicher Mäßigung ist daher durchaus verständlich. Aber es gibt noch einen anderen klassischen Begriff der Mitte – und der hat erstaunlich wenig mit Ruhe und Gelassenheit zu tun, ist aber, das ist meine These hier, für das bürgerliche Selbstverständnis wie für die Dynamik kapitalistischer Entwicklung um einiges relevanter. Für Platon war die Mitte eine prekäre Position. Das Abgleiten nach ganz unten, ins totale Chaos, ist nur durch beständiges Streben nach ganz oben aufzuhalten. In einer Welt, die nach Heraklit nicht nur in Flammen steht, sondern geradezu aus Flammen besteht (Popper 1998: 15ff.), geht es nicht darum, sich vorsichtig zu bewegen, um das Bestehende nicht zu zerstören: Was immer an Form da ist, muss beständig reproduziert, erneut hergestellt werden, damit es Bestand hat.


substantiell erweiterte englische Version

The Lego Movie as Consumer-Capitalist Myth: The Cultural Tragedy of Production and the Expropriation of the Brickolariat

[a revised version of this paper has been published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies ]


DSC03019Current Capitalism is in crisis. This is well known. Capitalism always is in crisis. From early on capitalism was experienced as unsettling, unbalancing and unstable. Gone was the cherished Aristotelian feudal/aristocratic ideal of moderation (σωφροσύνη) which locates virtuous behaviour in the considered middle (μεσότης) of two vices or excesses. It was replaced by an ever accelerating Faustian drive towards innovation, and self-transformation.[1] The ageing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed this sense of loss of the, as he felt, healthy aristocratic middle as one of moderation and balance in favour of a bourgeois middle that constantly has to keep surpassing and transcending itself only to remain mediocre while becoming both more extreme and more common.[2]

The Myth of the Producer

This corresponds to another ancient concept of the middle – that of Aristotle’s teacher Plato. Plato’s concept had very little to do with moderation, but it does anticipate the strained situation of the middle classes in the capitalist logic of development about two and a half millennia later.


sufi and cinematic imagination

Slowly making my way through Elif Şafak’s Pinhan I’ve come across these lines, in which the protagonist’s favourite Sufi teachers are described thus:

‘Kul Hüseyin ile Budala Tosun dudaklarından tebbesüm eksik olmayan, ağızlarından bal damlayan, kimsenin kusurunu görmeyen dervişlerdi. Adeta tüm ömürlerini, dâr-ül hayal ile dâr-ül hakikati birbirinden ayıran hatt-ı fasılı silmeye vakfetmişler.’ (Şafak 2001: 18)

‘Kul Hüseyin and Budala Tosun were dervishes whose lips never lacked a smile, from whose mouths dripped honey and who never saw fault in anyone. They had dedicated their whole lives to wiping away the dividing line between the realm of imagination and the realm of reality.’ (my translation)

One could say that Şafak here characterises the work of the Sufi as cinematic – in the sense that Walter Benjamin celebrates the cinematic imagination as welcome intrusion into the grey modern day life.

‘Unsere Kneipen und Großstadtstraßen, unsere Büros und möblierten Zimmer, unsere Bahnhöfe und Fabriken schienen uns hoffnungslos einzuschließen. Da kam der Film und hat diese Kerkerwelt mit dem Dynamit der Zehntelsekunden gesprengt, so daß wir nun zwischen ihren weitverstreuten Trümmern gelassen abenteuerlich Reisen unternehmen.’ (Benjamin 1963: 41)

‘Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.’ (Benjamin 2005)

In traditional Marxist manner, it would be easy to dismiss both the Sufi and the cinematic imagination as ideological veils – or one could see both as carrying a utopian potential that transcends the societal orders that produced them. As Appadurai puts it:

On the one hand, it is in and through the imagination that modern citizens are disciplined and controlled – by states, markets, and other powerful interests. But it is also the faculty through which collective patterns of dissent and new designs for collective life emerge.’ (Appadurai 2001)

Appadurai, Arjun (2001): ‘Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination’, A Appdurai (ed.): Globalization,Durham: Duke University Press.

Benjamin, Walter (1963) [1936]: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Benjamin, Walter (2005): The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marxist Internet Archive


Şafak, Elif (2001): Pinhan, İstanbul: Doğan Kitap