A Vital Materialist goes to <em>The Lego Movie</em>

A Vital Materialist goes to The Lego Movie

Christopher Leise

A serious (and playful) consideration of the power of “things,” Christopher Leise reviews Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things through the lens of the Lego Movie. The implied dynamism of the manipulable modularity of the Lego world provides strong resonances with Bennett’s take on “thing-power” and distributed agency, while the crisis in the plot of the Lego Movie offers an apt illustration of the dangers of human exceptionalism discussed in Bennett’s text.

Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not. It draws attention to an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve. (Bennett 20)

This is an essay to be taken with a child’s, or Gilles Deleuze’s, naïveté.“I wasn’t better than the others, but more naïve, producing a kind of art brut, not the most profound but the most innocent” (Deleuze qtd. in Bennett, 128 n.45). To those who fail to find such thinking sufficiently serious, take heed—you may well find yourself neatly aligned with The Lego Movie’s antagonist, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who is also the nameless father, who is also “The Man Upstairs,” who wishes you only to follow The Instructions and build a perfectly ordered, endlessly fixed modern city of…toys. To those of you who wish to see The Lego Movie but have not yet, I urge you, please read on. Even though you do not know how the struggle between the yellow-faced construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) and the evil Lord Business plays out, and even though I expose that narrative’s resolution, I hope this will make you only more eager to see the “film” (if such a term remains apposite) and to read Jane Bennett’s remarkable Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. A theorist who yokes Deleuze’s chaotic “anti”-metaphysics to ongoing debates concerning agency and how matter matters in environmental thinking, Bennett might appreciate how, much as Deleuze does, I find illustrative the probably unintentional critical effects of an entertainment-driven movie.In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari clarify the concepts of “becoming-animal” and “assemblage” in a brief, joyful, and helpful reading of the “B-movie” Willard (257-8).

Which is more complicated? Perhaps Bennett’s book, though no less so is The Lego Movie, irrespective of the issuing thinkers’ erudition. Bennett is herself a writer of incomparable clarity, whose urgent plea to imagine the agency of the world’s countless things as political “actants” warrants both summary and serious consideration. Reading, among many other “things,” the inherently unpredictable action of electrical current within an enormous, deregulated grid, Bennett deftly invokes John Dewey’s politics-as-problem while also building upon Jacques Rancière’s notion that politics are defined by events that transform hitherto unintelligible noise as transformative political expression from previously unrecognized speakers.

The Lego Movie, meanwhile, offers a dialogue between toys and the people who play with them. The toys are actants on both the nameless father and his pre-teen son—this is to say, the toys affect the adult and the child in distinct and different ways. The elder understands the Lego kits as mandates, whereas the son sees in them opportunities. Both perceive chaos underlying the toys’ possibility; while the father recoils against chaos’ threat to order, the son heeds the toys’ call to disrupt, refigure, and reconceive. In this way, both The Lego Movie and Vibrant Matter both outline a call for expansive responsiveness to the things of this world.

The Lego Movie begins with a messianic prophecy, delivered to the evil Lord Business by lead “master builder,” Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), who failed to protect a mysterious artifact with the power to “end the world.” Vitruvius foretells the coming of a Lego-person who will find “the Piece of Resistance” and defang the world-threatening “Kragle”: this person, whom Vitruvius names “the Special,” will, by dint of his superior building imagination, topple Lord Business and save the world.

As the movie’s title implies, the characters’ world comprises a seemingly infinite number of colored plastic blocks, sheets, wheels, and other interlocking parts; the characters themselves feature three-jointed bodies and heads that swivel 360 degrees. Though simply plastic, they enjoy vitality, including the ability to self-fashion and rearrange the world around them. This vitality plagues Lord Business, who has conspired to wrest control over the large city in which the movie’s world primarily consists.

Lord Business harbors a Baron Haussmann-like desire to raze the city’s irregular arrangements and erect an orthogonal, utterly controlled and controllable space. Under threat of death, the city’s inhabitants wake each morning to follow The Instructions, a codified set of behaviors that requires maximum happiness, courtesy, and fealty to the established order of things. Ever eager to fit in, a conspicuously well-mannered, if lonely, construction worker named Emmet Brickowski nevertheless finds his world utterly rearranged upon meeting the beautiful and charismatic Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). Reaching out to arrest her attention, Emmet falls through a hole into the city’s underground, whereupon he discovers the long-lost “Piece of Resistance.” Quite unlike all the stuff around it, the Piece is a thing that calls out to Emmet, inspiring him to touch it.

The Piece offers Emmet a vision; the lines of his meticulously manufactured world blur and bend, its bright and uniform colors variegate. He then awakens to find himself impressed and under the interrogation of one Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Lord Business’s top enforcement official. Emmet also finds that the Piece of Resistance, roughly half his size, has become fused to his back. Now our adventure is truly underway, as overt allusions to The Matrix trilogy find Emmet amongst the group of elite master builders who exploit the untapped potential of stuff, ever mindful of the world’s ubiquitous “thing-power.”

Bennett articulates her concept of “thing-power” within the context of a rich intellectual lineage including Lucretius, Deleuzean interpretations of Baruch de Spinoza, and the aforementioned hybrid of Dewey’s and Rancière’s political philosophies. Herein I differentiate “things” from mere “stuff”: stuff obtains to objects as manipulated by human subjects. To the extent stuff does things in the world, it does so in an epistemology that renders it wholly without agency. Things, on the other hand, are what Bruno Latour has labeled “actants”: seizing upon the slippage between noun and verb playfully rendered possible by the English gerund, I think a thing can be best apprehended doubly. At once, things are an arrangement of material (which Bennett also terms “assemblage” and, leaning on Spinoza, “body”); as well, they are processes, becomings, they reveal an “agentic swarm” which unites bodies with other bodies in systems of clustered affects.

In the past couple of decades, theories of affect have proliferated within criticism. Bennett seems to see affect as cognate (if not identical) with Spinoza’s conatus, which she defines as “a power present in every body” (2). Affects, then, should not be solely understood in an emotional context, but rather distinguished from “effect” and “effects.” Effects seem to require explanation (and are thus subjugated to representation and reason), whereas affect flags a thing’s potential to make new assemblages, conditions, politics, publics, and so on. Affects relate to the tripartite “agentic swarm”: we must recognize all things’ efficacy, distributive agency, and causality (31). Seen in this totality, her materialism resists worldviews wherein human perception relies on an illusory fixity:

“Objects” appear as such because their becoming proceeds at a speed or a level below the threshold of human discernment. It is hard indeed to keep one’s mind wrapped around a materiality that is not reducible to extension in space, difficult to dwell with the notion of an incorporeality or a differential of intensities. This is because to live, humans need to interpret the world reductively as a series of fixed objects, a need reflected in the rhetorical role assigned to the word material. (58, emphasis in original)

By way of explaining these ideas, I offer an imagist poem by H.D., entitled “Oread.”

Whirl up, sea—

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines

on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

The speaker, probably the Greco-Roman mountain nymph indicated by the title, would appear to have the perspective on mountains co-temporal with the age of mountains themselves; to have a view of the life of mountains as they emerged through tectonic collisions and crumpling over millions of years would appear to her, as does the movement of the sea appear to a human. For the Oread, trees grow and topple as foam whirls to the human eye, even more fleeting than the waves that generate it.

H.D.’s juxtaposing mountain life with oceanic activity recognizes the “creativity of agency” (Bennett 31) inherent to the earth’s crust; it recognizes that the subject (Oread) is not the root cause of the effect, but instead that “causality is more emergent than efficient, more fractal than linear. Instead of an effect obedient to a determinant, one finds circuits in which effect and cause alternate position and redound on each other” (Bennett 33). Hence agency is “distributive”: as the sea beats against the mountain’s rocks in its ancient rhythm, constantly (if imperceptivity, to the human subject) reshaping its contours, so the mountain pushes the ocean back. It contains the sea in an active process of mutual shaping and reshaping.

Lord Business fears this dynamic; he labors to “end the world” not by destroying it, but by bringing to a halt the endless dynamism of ongoing creation. The vital materialist would see that he does not fear a known; recognizing thing-power’s agency admits that the world is headed in an always unknowable trajectory. “In naming the unfillable promise as the condition of appearance of anything,” Bennett clarifies, “[Jacques] Derrida provides a way for the vital materialist to affirm the existence of a certain trajectory or drive to assemblages without insinuating intentionality or purposiveness” (32). The master builders constantly remake the world contrary to the will of The Instructions. Spoiler alert: Vitruvius “made up” his messianic prophecy. Wyldstyle assumes that the Special was foreordained by something like Providence, but Vitruvius knows that he does not know what the future holds.

Vitruvius casts his faith as a call to apprehend the full potential of the parts that make up his world; he knows for sure that he has not yet seen all of what assemblages of things can do. For this reason, his “made up” story nevertheless holds as “true”: while his prophecy lacks inherently salvific qualities, it nevertheless retains an abiding sense that things are headed somewhere. The emptiness of his signifiers become goals to which others’ aspire; they become a model for a solution that his colleagues long to become.

Yet another spoiler alert: the Lego world is but one universe among a set; it exists nested in a human-dominated reality wherein a son (Jadon Sand) defies his father and rearranges a basement-filling Legoscape. The boy invents Lord Business not to allegorize his father, but to parallel him; the father assembles his ideal city in the image printed on each kit’s box, then Krazy Glues (or “Kragles” them) into stilled order. The boy animates the city into a certain level of activity, pulling the kits apart into new assemblages; he not only anthropomorphizes the plastic people, but his play reveals the stuff’s latent “thing-power.”

The Piece of Resistance, a rectangular cube whose purpose eludes the toy persons (as well as the viewer, until the crossing of one diegetic level into another) reveals itself to be a cap to a bottle of Krazy Glue. Here, I contend, the Piece fulfills the criteria of both stuff and thing—a fact manifest in the movie’s magic realism.

The doubled plots converge and ascend to climax along the plane of the father’s recalcitrance. Though his son argues that they toys demand constant rearranging, the father persists in his effort to “end the world” in its malleability. At this point, Emmet has been flung beyond the bounds of the Legoscape to the basement floor; he is no longer animated by the boy’s creative play and is instead picked up and left on a workbench as the father binds parts inexorably one to another. Emmet’s consciousness remains active, despite escaping the son’s apparent narratorial control. He wills himself to move, managing to cast himself to the floor and inspiring the humans to reintroduce him to the Lego universe, wherein he resumes his heroic effort to preserve mutability.

Bennett’s vital materialist might read this as mere exaggeration to compose an obvious point. Emmet’s vibrating against the table heightens the plastic’s constantly vital motion. That motion that may be invisible to humans, but the plastic’s atoms never cease in their constant decomposition, nor do the electrons in the toy cease in their pushing back against the field of electrons that comprise the table’s surface. As the Emmet-toy rattles against the table he rattles the father’s attention. While his efforts at first merely distract the father from his task, the toy’s constant striving leads to his reinsertion into the Lego narrative—a narrative that, owing to the boy’s creativity—ultimately forces the father to reevaluate his goal of ossifying his perfectly ordered world.

Emmet demonstrates the kind of politics Bennett advocates in Vibrant Matter. For one, he illustrates the concept of politics-as-problem that Bennett draws from John Dewey. In this model, there is not one public but many; publics arise as assemblages affected by a given problem. In The Lego Movie, father and son, Lego persons and their world’s manifold parts, even the glue, its cap, and the table on which it rests, become mobilized around competing visions of ideal being (of and) in the world. Each entity “never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (Bennett 21). As Bennett explains, “assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (23-24). In The Lego Movie, one such persistent energy takes the form of what will likely motivate the film’s coming sequel: that is, the dangerously creative toddler whose vision for the Legoscape more radically reconfigures the city’s parts.

Emmet’s rattling to life rises from meaningless clattering to the kind of intelligible communication that Rancière identifies as politics. For Rancière:

The democratic act par excellence occurs when the demos does something that exposes the arbitrariness of the dominant “partition of the sensible.” This is the partition that had been rendering some people visible as political actors while pushing others below the threshold of note. Politics, as Rancière frames it, consists not in acts that preserve a political order or respond to already articulated problems, but “is the name of a singular disruption of this order of distributed bodies.” (Bennett 105)

Emmet truly becomes The Special when he becomes The Lego Movie’s great political actant. Emmet’s exaggerated animation inspires the vital materialist to insist on his plastic body’s having what Deleuze calls “a life.” The Lego Movie might have simply made the toys an object of the son’s play, but it instead renders them political agents. While Emmet clearly evidences his own intentionality, the movie locates that intention both in and outside the son’s narration.Bennett defines “a life” in concordance with Deleuze’s essay “Immanence: A Life.” While her explication is useful, I find she selects too heavily from his thoughts on infancy and too little from his account of dying—especially the dying of a loathsome man. Her analysis might be better textured by accounting for Deleuze’s implicit claim that my nine-month-old daughter and Dick Cheney share, at base, similar affective properties (see 28-29). And though the son clearly sits beneath the father in the movie’s political hierarchy, the father nevertheless hears him as a voice of dissent. Consequently, if unintentionally, the boy elevates his little sister into the Lego-family assemblage’s body politic, as well.

Thus efforts to stifle dissent ultimately fail; despite the preponderance of typed, printed, and taped signs prohibiting play with the Legos, nevertheless the boy transgresses. Emmet, as thing, enacts politics by highlighting the Legos’ thing-power. The meaninglessness of his rattling becomes a resistance to the father’s reified ideal of being. It also cries ridicule to the father’s mode of consuming the toys. His business-suit trousers, starched-collar shirt, and power-red tie clash amusingly with the toys that the boy indicates are for children “ages 8 to 14.” The father buys, hoards, withholds; as “Lord Business” he acquires joylessly and uses his resources to display and deny access to his accumulated capital. In uncritically following The Instructions, he recapitulates William Gaddis’s boy-capitalist J R who destroys companies (and lives) for profit because “that’s just what you do.”

One thing remains to be discussed, which stands out as a strange feature of Vibrant Matter and its philosophical politics. For all its careful citation and summation of very difficult sources—the extended description of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics comes to mind—Bennett seems to play the matador with Heidegger’s multiple and extended analyses of “the thing.” Granted, his prose is abstruse; nevertheless, Bennett claims familiarity with it, if only in a single footnote in the book’s first chapter. This dodgy quality strikes me as too bad, inasmuch she missed the opportunity to clarify how her concept of “thing-power” either borrows from, complicates, or contradicts Heidegger’s famous analyses from “The Origin of the Work of Art” and “The Thing,” both powerful but (at times) baffling essays from Poetry, Language, Thought.

To my mind, the specialness of The Lego Movie’s The Special resonates with the thingness of Heidegger’s Thing. Ultimately, Emmet emerges as the master builder par excellence because his mind has never been polluted by “original ideas.” Whereas his compatriots merely advance extant concepts in the service of resisting Lord Business, nevertheless they prioritize potential as ingenuity; they must make things new and do so in accordance with a known utility. Emmet’s ideas seem bad to people in the present arrangement of stuff; as things, they strain against utility.

For Heidegger, objects escape their objectness when their utility expires; we know things as things when they reveal the limitations of representational thinking. A hammer ceases to become a hammer and becomes a thing when it no longer serves the function of driving nails. What remains resists classification as tool; though composed of the same material, the absence of utility transforms the object from “tool” to, perhaps, “waste.” And yet, what has changed? Has it become something else, even though its substance has not changed? Is it nothing? What of the material eludes the domain of the concept estranges the thinker from the world of determined relations. The stuff of the hammer reveals the thingness of things—things expose the always-becoming of matter against an arrangement of ideas.

Absent any notions of perfected stuff, Emmet himself tarries in nothing, which leads to the Lego-world’s ultimate salvation. Like Wallace Stevens’ famed “The Snow Man,” which has “a mind of winter” (l. 1), Emmet thinks of “nothing himself, [and] beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (ll. 14-15). Stevens’ poem productively indulges in what Bennett’s anthropomorphizing to underscore Heidegger’s explication of “the thing”—before either theorist offered their thoughts on (the) matter to the world. Much as the snow-man’s, Emmet’s is also a “mind of matter”: when prompted, he “beholds nothing”—a quality of empty-headedness that the movie both jeers and reveres. Contrary to Lord Business, whose plans rehearse the concrete and catastrophic tactics of modern capitalism, Emmet has simply no idea. In that clearance, Emmet can see the world as no one else does.

Naturally, comparing The Lego Movie to Vibrant Matter has its limitations: Emmet eventually must come to take on a leadership role and lead his miscreant troupe to ultimate triumph. The popular movie’s form—especially one made for children—requires a reversal of fortune in Emmet’s development. And The Lego Movie neither philosophizes nor advocates; it just tells a appealing story. Note, though, that the successful plan to thwart Lord Business’s efforts begins not with creatively engineering a new idea, but rather by recognizing the ordinarily unseen power in the familiar arrangement of stuff. Emmet leads the break-in into the seemingly impervious tower by leveraging a nearly invisible transport ship’s “thing-power” against uncritical robot “eyes.” 

Though Bennett recognizes that consciousness as such cannot know the not-thinking of an actant’s animated non-will, she offers that we can anthropomorphize in such a way as to better hail the “thing-power” of assemblages. Within these assemblages, we can also better perceive the nature of “distributive agency.” As swarms of bodies operating in interactive fields, the vital materialist recognizes how things resist or elude human intentionality, and how our efforts to bend nature to our will not only bends us back, but can also inspire “a theory of action and responsibility that crosses the human-nonhuman divide” (24). This can serve as a “counter to  human exceptionalism” (34) and thereby “broadens the range of places to look for sources” of  harmful effects (37).

Will this vital materialism serve to unseat environmentalism as a discursive leader in sustainability debates? However persuasive Bennett’s case in the book’s conclusion, I think not. It does, however, make a significant case that we’re better internalizing the effects of Foucault’s famously called “Deleuzean century,” the shape of which retrospect has nowhere near yet defined. Moreover, Bennett’s book might help us hone our sympathy for worms, and molds, and metals, and all manner of things that affect us (and the world) even though they may not will  their effects into being. And it really makes The Lego Movie a surprising think-piece for parents too often subject to the political—and aesthetic—will of preadolescent children. 

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles. Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Intro. John Rajchman. Trans. Anne Boyman. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987.

Gaddis, William. J R. 1973. Rpt. New York: Penguin, 1975.

H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1986.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997.

The Lego Movie. Dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Perf. Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson. Warner Bros., 2014.