Truth and Knowledge in LEGO Bi-Dimensions

Curator's Note

In the excerpted scene from the LEGO Movie, Emmet follows what is a longstanding trope in cinematic storytelling: the fulfillment of a previously unrealized ability at a singularly critical moment. This scene, which occurs against concert with the LEGO Movie’s overall theme of parodying cinematic tropes, nevertheless can be read as an alternate epistemological and ontological potentiality and gives rise to our own understanding of truth and knowledge.

Emmet’s dimensional trip from the “real” or live-action world affords him in part to recognize his dormant ability as a Master Builder. Upon his return to the LEGO universe, Emmet immediately puts his new ability to use and transforms machinery from ordinary heavy equipment vehicles into a weaponized colossus, able now to combat the Matrix-like micromanagers on more equal terms. Here, Emmet’s manipulation of physical reality points to a substantive philosophical problem: in such a world where everything is open to revisioning or repurposing, what counts as truth, and how is knowledge produced?

It is perhaps in this line of questioning that the LEGO Movie is most subversive. In an earlier expository scene, Emmet explains that as a common worker he has only built using official written instructions. The instructions, as viewers learn, are artifacts of slave labor forcefully composed by captured Master Builders to literally shape the world for Lord Business. Once the city is complete, Lord Business plans to use the superweapon “Kragle” (Krazy Glue) to seal the world in perpetuity. In resisting Lord Business’ plan and with his transformation into a Master Builder, Emmet refutes the perception of knowledge as textual and singular. As he retrieves The Piece of Resistance (Krazy Glue cap) to stop Kragle, Emmet seems to accept a radical reading of knowledge as not produced by a single ruler or elite class but as an anarchic enterprise in which everyone participates.

This sudden insight—another cinematic staple—also bleeds into the live-action world. For “The Man Upstairs,” his impulse to immortalize his LEGO city with a coat of glue is reversed once he notices his son Finn’s unconventional, yet well crafted, LEGO builds. The metanoiaic scene coincides with a less obvious but equally profound realization that there are many ways to build. While the movie’s message ultimately aligns with an inclusive epistemological outlook, such a message nevertheless is saddled with its own attendant concerns. After all, where does truth reside when everyone is a producer?


Thanks for a great post on the LEGO Movie, Alan! Hye-Jin's post from Monday also discussed the creativity vs. conformity issue, which is one of the major themes in the LEGO Movie, as you describe here. LEGO seems uniquely adept at walking this fine line. I'd like to draw everyone's attention to LEGO Ideas. This site, formerly known as LEGO Cuusoo, is a LEGO-sponsored site where amateur builders share ideas for sets. Members of the Ideas community vote on the sets they'd like to see LEGO put into production. Once a project reaches 10,000 votes, it is reviewed by LEGO to see if the project would be commercially viable. There are also prizes and incentives to keep users engaged. I kind of have to marvel at the genius of this scheme. LEGO has effectively created an R&D department, but one that is completely fueled by the (free!) creativity of its diehard fans. So no matter where you come down on the creativity vs. conformity debate, LEGO has figured out how to harness that passion and profit from it.

Thanks for a great post, Alan, and you've identified some productive tensions in THE LEGO MOVIE. In trying to make sense of the film, I've found it difficult to reconcile the positions the film takes in regards to the production of knowledge. On the one hand, the film strongly critiques conformity and blindly following pre-written instructions. On the other hand, the film also preferences the creativity and power of the Master Builders. They are the elites with the knowledge to (quite literally) build the world. However, the film also offers a more democratic version of building: "everything is cool when you're part of a team." Emmet has to teach the other Master Builders to follow instructions, and this is how they learn to come together as a collective to battle Lord Business. As a further complication, as you point out, Emmet comes back, MATRIX-style, from the "real world" with the knowledge of a Master Builder and equipped to defeat Lord Business. Thus, the film displays a tension between individual and collective knowledge, and it doesn't quite seem to know how to resolve this tension. This tension is also neatly embodied in the earworm song, "Everything is Awesome." While Wildstyle professes to dislike the conformity the song preaches, she ends up singing the song at a crucial part in the narrative. The song is also infectiously catchy, encouraging viewers to sing along as a part of a collective. Ultimately, the film and its theme song seem to be arguing that certain kinds of collectives are more productive than others. I don't want to draw the political analogy too closely, but film seems to stage an encounter between fascist and democratic collectives, and, barring the invasion of the Duplo collective, the democratic collective appears to have won the day.

Thanks Nedda and Drew for the helpful comments! The trend that seems to be threaded throughout your responses (and appears in some form in my notes as well) is the speculation over LEGO's motivation in encouraging a culture of participation. As Nedda rightly points out, with LEGO Ideas, there is a clear monetary incentive to tap into the crowd for R&D but also to ensure the presence of a hardcore fanbase to support the sale of a new set. A similar principle appears in the movie. If the most obvious message is the power of the crowd (or what Drew calls the democratic collective) over tyrannical models of leadership, how do we reconcile this message with the overall satirizing of groupthink found in the opening 1/2 of the movie? Is the crowd a sleeping giant or the unwashed masses? What is clear is that the movie does not provide a suitable resolution. Perhaps then it is better to revisit the premise of LEGO Ideas for some clarity. If we ignore the immediate financial benefits for the moment, the model of LEGO Ideas seems to best fit the ambiguity of the film's message. The creativity of a few, supported by the masses, is ultimately decided by a group of elites before being executed by the professionals. In this enthymetic-like setup, the productive potential of the crowd is actually much smaller than it appears yet can easily be reframed as part of a fundamentally democratic process. As I hinted but didn't have the time to develop in my post, inclusionary terms like "democracy" and "working together" can be normative, offering perhaps the most pleasant answer at the expense of critical nuance.

Thank you for sharing! I love the Lego Movie because it delivers an aspirational message that addresses the significance of improvisation. The transition of Emmet’s character from ordinary to extraordinary sees the importance of learning to trust your own instinct and embracing your individual uniqueness. Although routinized structures in which one plays safe by following instructions can potentially yield predictable but standardized outcomes, in the multidirectional flows of knowledge in an era of globalization like today, fluid responsibilities and dynamic flexibility also play a vital role. I always believe that a ‘truth’ has multiple layers. When ‘everyone is a producer’ as you said, he or she is only producing a certain representation that is made visible, obvious, and explicit. What is truly significant is the invisible that underlies the explicit. For each invention, each improvisation, we dig deeper into the invisible and turn it into a visible appearance. A ‘truth’ is not definitive. Which is why after connection and disconnection, inventing and reinventing, and as different layers unfold, new possibilities emerge. Likewise, great ideas are built on existing ideas. Creativity comes into play when one recognizes the uncertainty and unpredictability are fun parts in life.

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