an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552-5112 

 

 

 

Overcoming the Logos – Overcoming Lego:

From Imagined Space to the Spatial Imagination of the Bionicle World

 

            Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

 

 

 

For several generations, the interconnecting plastic bricks called Lego represented not only an educative means of developing imagination but also one of developing children’s capacity of logical thinking. The first Lego catalogues from the early 1960s praise the small bricks as “good toys.” The reason can be found in the preponderant heading: because Lego is the “simplest thing in the world.”

“Simple” – yes, but not for simpletons.  During the 1960s and the 1970s, Lego built itself a reputation as a toy for people who aspire advanced levels of grammar through the successful combination of abstract and concrete ways of thinking. Lego helps you to master your creativity like a language: being imaginative without losing sight of the most basic rules of logic, you will manage to remain coherent even in complex situations. Playing with Lego does perhaps not make you a poet, but enables you to master a practical as well as a theoretical “language” with a certain degree of sophistication. The idea must have been that, once we reduce the elements of our children’s games to the healthy level of the “basic” (providing at the same time a maximum of modulability), children will become imaginative without becoming insane. Their imagination will develop “reasonably well” without losing itself in the wide space of “play” which remains, just because in this space things are only “imagined,” frightening because infinite.

For parents this has been extremely convenient because here play and fun were delivered with an incorporated self-control. This conception, unconscious as it might have been, was strong enough to provide Lego with the status of the “educative toy” as such. It was strong enough to inspire and lend its name to a large number of educative programs for children, various computer softwares, as well as training courses for business people attempting to enhance their business performance by using this brick-game as a thinking tool.What it actually is that makes Lego “logical,” is difficult to spell out. Secondary features might be as important as primary ones. Though the word “Lego” has been derived from the Danish “leg godt” (play well), its phonetic resemblance with Latin words like “logos” or “logic” might have helped from the beginning to lend it a more scientific air. Very early the company began to point out that in Latin “lego” also means “I study.”

Then there are the primary features. The basic elements (bricks) are rectangular and not round-shaped. Deciding to reject any amorphous shapes (you will not learn “logic” through pottery), Lego managed to force play (together with the intellectual capacity supposed to be shaped through this play), into more rigorous, geometrical structures. The choice of colors had a similar function. Far from refusing colors straight-out (and thus killing imagination), Lego reduced colors to shadeless “basic” ones that remained abstract in the sense that – apart from the green for trees – they had no relationship with anything concrete.  But most obvious became the logical rigor within the organization of the play itself. Lego bricks stick together through an invisible structure, they create their structure so to speak out of themselves. This means that they provide the fragile brains of 2-14 years-olds just enough logical support to follow the laws of reason without forcing them into abstract, pre-existing rules.

Somewhere between the primary and the secondary features is settled the general quality of Lego as a “serious game.” Adults must have jealously looked at these children who possess a toy that permits them to be serious and to have fun at the same time. Soon businessmen began using Lego because “playing with Lego” is an “efficient, practical and effective process that works for everyone.” 1 The transcendental power of play, known since the ancient Greeks, is here somehow lead ad absurdum, which might be inherent already in the original Lego-bricks themselves. The popular-scientific outline of a business-studies program using Lego offers summaries of the works of almost all major thinkers – from Huizinga to Piaget – who have analyzed the exceptional status of play, and attempts to draw links between the “lightness” of play and its “usefulness” for cognitive development as well as social competition.

In spite of the geometrical shape of the bricks on which you can count the dots as if you count millimeters, Lego constructions never became “mathematical” but always maintained the structure of an organic whole. Technical construction toys (often coming in gray) that first necessitate the creation of a “skeleton” that will subsequently be fleshed out, were never as popular as Lego (Lego’s own Techno-line remained rather marginal). Lego has never been the game of the future engineer but rather that of the well-thinking analyst who is scientifically minded without being dull, creative without being romantic, and who manages to apply his creativity to the everyday world. As a kind of logically trained humanists, Lego-children were designated to become the ideal people of the 21st century.

We understand very well why those people born between 1965 and 1975 hated Lego. According to the German writer Florian Illies (born in 1971), this generation, raised long after the last waves of hippidom had curled away, vehemently rejected theoretical buildings of any kind.2 The first thing that this generation had to throw on the rubbish was, of course, Lego.

The alternative became Playmobil that contrasts with Lego on several levels. Playmobil offers no spaceships, no futurism and no technology of any kind. Instead, it specializes in traditional values like farms, Blackforest houses, and post-offices. Contemporary brochures of Playmobil read as if they have been written fifty years earlier. In Playmobil grocery stores we find several kinds of sausages, cheese, “and other heartful dainties.” The hairdresser’s salon is ideal for active role-play. Kids are supposed to create their concrete playworld as realistically and detailed as possible. Finally, play will turn out to be what it actually is: imitation, naturally creating full-fledged, atmospheric, play-landscapes in which no Martians have introduced things like “structures.”

Lego had launched its own town systems and castles in 1981. The problem with these systems has always been that Lego-space is anti-concrete by definition. Always changing, unfolding itself magically, Lego-space has always been intellectual, future-oriented, and abstractly-organic. The only things that remain stable in Lego-space are “creativity” and some vague notion of logic. Lego made some further cramped attempts at becoming Playmobil-like. The most decisive act took place in 1978, when the Lego-persons learned to walk. Before that date, Lego-persons (and there were not many of them) had two legs made of one single piece of plastic. In 1978 the legs got separated and got joints. Space now became more concrete because people could walk through it, which influenced, of course, the entire way of playing with Lego. The accent was removed from the linguistic-structural activity of creating abstract-organic spaces, and put on the empathic-experiential way of perceiving created environments composed of concrete objects.  But the play-mobilized Lego was no success. Playmobil itself became the game for concretely human people who see life not as determined by ideologies but by role-play.

In the 1990’s Lego changed again, and this time more than ever. Some of the bricks became “intelligent,” interactive, and able to move. More and more “special parts” were introduced, making “basic” parts almost a rarity. A large part of the ambition to appear “logical” was abandoned and the initial idea of Lego as a creative toy appeared as utterly weakened. Observers expected that the entire concept of Lego as a pedagogical principle flowing out of the optimistic humanism of preceding generations had simply ceased to make sense. The use of Lego bricks would soon be restricted to alternative education programs and business courses. As a popular toy Lego was bound to die out. Then something unexpected happened: Somebody invented “virtual reality.” In the 1980 Lego boasted to give “imagination space to soar.” Now Lego designers recognized what Lego’s mission should really be in the contemporary world: to spatialize imagination.

When Lego invented the universe of the Bionicles, children began to desire Lego again. However, this time, kids (and it was only them because adults do not understand much of these new Lego) were not so much fascinated by what could be identified as the traditional Lego-logic but by Lego-space.

The new Lego-line is called “Bionicle.” Bionicles are sleek and stylized robots that developed out of earlier Lego-robots called “Throwbots.” As real cyborgs, they live in a typical AI universe in which the boundary between humans and machines are fuzzed. The aesthetics as such is in no way original but developed since the 1970s especially in Japanese techno-pop culture. Originally, these strange and threatening techno-pop cyborgs built a contrast with the simpler Disneyian aesthetics of robots. Equipped with samurai swords and insect carapaces, they thrived particularly well in Japanese mangas and animés like Tekkaman and Evangelion. First, these android, biomechanical monsters had mainly negative connotations and were forced to adopt the roles of enemies; only later could they appear also as sad and problematic creatures.

Human bodies wrapped in technology or exoskeletons, hybrids of skin/chrome, flesh/metal, organic/inorganic, etc. are not new; but so far, they did not necessarily enter the rooms of young well-educated Lego-engineers. Still, Lego decided to invest in this kind of imaginary – though not without undertaking some changes. The Bionicles’ existence is based on a story that takes place somewhere “in space” far away from earth. The plot comes along as a mixture of Polynesian mythology, African religion, Eastern philosophy and Greek polytheism, which distances it completely from the Japanese animé world. The story itself is simple and trivial which seems to reconfirm the Spartan aesthetic of Lego as the “simplest thing in the world.” The spiritual mixture of exotic cultures that is woven into the good-vs-evil-story, on the other hand, remains strangely alien to the spirit of Lego.

In any case it is utterly opposed to the idyllic, hedonistic world of Playmobil. Empathy and simple identification are still forbidden. The characters being robots, their facial expressions are metallic, and display emotions only with much difficulty. What is more important than emotions are powers – and these powers define the basic data of a certain spatial environment.

A large part of this new Lego-space could be conveniently recuperated from the era of traditional Lego. The new Lego-space still has affinities with the self-forming, organic, abstract space of traditional Lego (as much as it is utterly opposed to the idyllic, concrete space of Playmobil). However, through an immense coincidence, Lego-space turned out to be highly compatible with the kind of space that fascinates us at the age of cyberreality, that is, with the computer related social field generally referred to as cyberspace. The Bionicle planet is almost entirely made of water with just one island sticking out of the surface (a situation difficult to reproduce in “real time” in the children’s room). The god Mata Nui is supposed to have fallen from the sky landing just on the island. Unfortunately, his ill-bred brother soon joins the island in the same way and sends Mata Nui to an eternal sleep. But the Tohunga villagers and their Turaga leaders are prepared to fight this bad god. They even decide to call their island Mata Nui in honor of the sleeping god.  Within this story the six basic Lego-colors have not only been maintained, but have even been complemented with more “elemental,” that is, “spatial” qualities. Blue is the color of the Toa of Water, white is the color of the Toa of Ice. Brown is for the Toa of Earth, red for the Toa of Fire, etc. The blue Toa lives in and controls water, the brown Toa lives in and controls earth, etc. The “bad guys,” the Bohroks, as well as other groups, are divided according to the same scheme. To each color corresponds thus a certain spatial environment and the “power” or capacity to control this environment. “Non-spatial” remain those phenomena that cannot be controlled, like fate, light, darkness…This grammatically constituted spatial environment becomes more complex at the moment more efficient methods of orientation can be acquired by wearing certain masks. You’ll get around faster in this space with a mask of speed, more elegantly with a mask of levitation; and you experience the whole space in a more subtle way when you have a mask of ex-ray or of nightvision.

The patterns of the plot as well as the space within which the plot develops, follow the logical lines dictated by this spatial grammar. All “metaphysical” powers that are beyond control are clearly defined in a non-spatial way. The bad god Makuta for example, negates even the most abstract spatial qualities when he declares that he appears as what cannot be imagined: “You cannot destroy me, as much as you cannot destroy the sea, the wind, the void… I am nothing.” Though the Toas hasten to explain they have emerged from the water, Makuta insists that also they have “come out of nothing.”

Compared to the old, organic Lego-space, space has here become more abstract and more “logical” than ever. But there is more to this space than simply its logic: the logic applied in this game has itself become spatial. The Bionicle-world still appears a typical Lego product because it provides a well-structured, abstract space of an imagination that advances, uninspired by elements from the concrete world, solely through the power of intellect. New, however, is that here a spatial universe is created through a large number of abstract indications. These indications remain dynamic at every instant because they correspond to the rules of a game. This means that to “play” with Lego has a meaning different from the one it had before. True, children still reconstruct objects, build new ones and act out certain parts of a game. However, the kind of empathy or imagination required, is now much more spatial than it has been in traditional Lego. Children no longer create abstract-organic spaces with bricks into which objects can be inserted. On the contrary, they look at the Bionicles and are aware of their spatial capacities. In other words, the space they produce through the game is no longer the manifestation of a constructivist logic developed through the combination of some pieces, but space is contained in these Legos. In this sense, the new Lego-space looks much more like a Greek chôra.

All this accords very well with the fact that the Bionicle story is distributed on the internet (it is also available on DVD). To play with these Legos is absolutely uninteresting if one has no possibility following the cartoons that provide, so to speak, the space for these Legos. “Play” takes place, to a large extent, on the internet: it takes place in the corresponding Mata Nui online game as well as on the buzzpower site on which Bionicle fans discuss potential plotlines, construction projects, and philosophical questions related to the Bionicle civilization. The buzzpower site gathers one of the largest brandname communities in the world. Here again, “Lego-space” stretches over an abstract sphere and playful imagination has to adapt to this fact.

In a way, the Bionicle-game is a play so perfect that Huizinga could have dreamt of it. In this world, the lightness of play is so absolute that it has become purely spatial. While conventional Lego-bricks can be stuck together in order to form a structure on their own, in the new Lego universe one sticks together abstract quantities of space in order to form a virtual play-space that produces space in the form of a spatial grammar. While in traditional Lego, space developed organically out of a para-logical activity, and in Playmobil it developed out of imitation, in the Bionicle-world space is “virtually” given like a grammar that is not applied to language but to space. We no longer move around, as humanist Lego-engineers or practically minded Playmobil players, in the wide space of imagination, painstakingly taking care not to transcend the most basic rules of linguistic logic. Within the new Lego-space we are freer than ever. We no longer need to take for granted the organic structure of the mental space that develops out of logical patterns, that is, of those patterns that are supposed to exists “somewhere in the mind” and which make us believe that “play” is beneficial for the development of such mental, linguistic, structures.

For these reasons, Bionicles might count among the most postmodern machines that one can think of. In the 1980s Donna Haraway claimed that “our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electro-magnetic waves, a section of a spectrum.” 3 The best cyborgs, she concluded, are pure “ether,” they are a “quintessence.” This is what Bionicles actually are: basic powers that manifest themselves in space and determine this space. More than anything else, the new Lego-space is a silent dream-space, which develops spatial structures out of itself.  For this reason it represents the ideal space of a generation for whom “the virtual” has become a part of everyday life.

 

 

Notes

 

1. http://www.seriousplay.com

2. Florian Illies: Generation Golf (Berlin: Argon, 2000)

3. Donna Haraway: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s [first published in 1985] in Steven Seidman, The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory (Cambridge University Press,1994), p. 88-89.

 

 

 

an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552-5112