A Lego Theory of Academia & Fandom
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Lego Bricks

Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.

I am talking to a man about a piece of writing. He is concerned about the possibility that this piece of writing is perhaps not the final word on the matter. Perhaps someone with more power and authority than the author of this piece of writing will have a different interpretation of the thing on which the piece of writing is based. How will it account for that? It won’t, I tell him. This piece of writing is simply one possible take. Other people having different takes, and sharing them, and talking through their differences, is the point of the exercise. Nothing is final; everything is communal.

Academia, or fandom?

It’s academia! Your hint was that I rarely, rarely talk to men about fanworks unless they are already in fandom, in which case they do not need me to explain how fundamentally iterative transformative fanworks are meant to be.

One of the most consistent dings on fanfiction is the fact that it derives from a source text, the implication being that a piece of art can’t be worthwhile without that new-car smell. Fanfiction’s champions tend to argue for its legitimacy by citing undeniably canonical works from the history of literature: The Aeneid is a fic of the Iliad. Samuel Richardson corresponded with and encouraged a woman writing fic of his work. Byzantine literary culture had a whole genre around assemblage. For my own list in fan studies, I’m perpetually seeking out scholarship that expands the genealogies of fannish history as far back into the mists of time and into as many spheres and disciplines as humanly possible.

None of this is false or invalid, but as an academic gatekeeper for fan studies (among other things), I’d love for the legitimacy of transformative works to be proved by an avenue that doesn’t reinforce the concept of single authorship. The myth of the solitary genius rarely holds much water, examined too closely, but fanfiction’s very being calls it into question. Moreover, the insistence that thingswithwings is doing something quite similar to Virgil—while true!—elides one of the most central facts of transformative fandom: its emphasis on community and the shared ownership of the stories being told.

Flight from Troy

Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.

The best parallel isn’t literature at all but academia, which at its best is both derivative and communal in many of the same ways as transformative fandom. Derivation from work that has come before is central to the scholarly project. A piece of scholarship that fails to acknowledge its fellow scholars won’t get past peer review. Its ability to be in conversation with its community isn’t just a strength; it’s a necessity.

The concept that a text—or a history—is never closed, but is inherently multiple, is one of my favorite things about both academia and fandom. As a scholarly publisher, LSU Press strives to promote work that advances the conversation and pushes other scholars to think in a new way about the disciplines we think we know. You could make the argument that the humanities have no canon, only a series of ever-evolving headcanons taken up and discarded by the fannish community. Or you could say that the canon is reality, and there are no showrunners, just a series of BNFs (published scholars) periodically upsetting the applecart by tracking down brand new canon for all the fans to chew on. Medieval history has thoroughly upset the segment of fandom that yearns to nostalgically retcon Europe in the Middle Ages as an all-white space; Civil War historians are in the process of jossing the fanon of Robert E. Lee as a man of conscience who opposed slavery.

Fandom and academia share a communal ability to keep poking at a text, whether that text is the ever-growing oeuvre of the Russo brothers or the history of European colonization of North America. There is no single story, no final version with which everyone can be contented. Instead there is space to work/play with everything that has come before, in the hopes of finding out some new insight, some new version of the story that resonates differently or creates new connections. Anytime my press is considering a book we ask, “How does this add to the conversation? What makes this matter?”

The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

At the risk of throwing my metaphor-hat into an overcrowded metaphor-ring, I like to think of creating like playing in a vast pool of Lego bricks, where every Lego is an idea, and the things you and your pals can make with them are infinite. (My parents were very broke when I was growing up, and they did not like to step on Legos. I have played with Legos maybe once in my life ever, so please bear with me if I do not accurately describe the Lego-playing experience.)

The cult of originality likes to insist that their baller Lego fighter jet was created in complete isolation from community; they insist their jet has no component parts, no matter how clearly Peter Wimsey is descended from Bertie Wooster. At most they will concede that once they saw a Lego submarine with a similar kind of propeller as the propellers on their fighter jet. By contrast, fanfiction and academia show their work, and their participation in a community of thinkers, as an ineluctable part of the process. The square yellow brick is Hélène Cixous. The long thin red brick is a square from a Bingo Challenge. The builder loves like their own child possesses an affective engagement with their creation, while simultaneously hoping for it to be hacked up and reconstituted by other members of the community.

The wonderful thing is that nobody is ever alone with their Lego sets. Fundamentally, academia and fandom are both about community. They’re about many minds coming together to produce new ideas and help each other with new creations. To hell with the solitary genius. We stand on the shoulders of giant (Lego tower)s.

Image Credits:
1. Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.
2. Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.
3. The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

Please feel free to comment.

Reflections of an Unintentional and Underqualified Social Media Micro-influencer
Lego Grad Student / Somewhere on the West Coast

LGS vignette

Checking his Twitter page, the grad student contemplates how many more people follow his account than will ever read his lifetime body of research

This “article” is an indirect result of a dark personal joke. [ (( I would put the word “article” in ten sets of quotation marks if it were typographically acceptable.))]

In the summer after my fifth year in a Ph.D. program, my dissertation work had hollowed out my soul. I sought a distraction from my feelings of despondence, only to realize an even harsher truth: I no longer had any hobbies, and I had lost my past sense of creativity. Not only was I failing at academia, but also at being a complete human being.

Feeling moderately hopeless, I took refuge in my childhood. I drove to a local LEGO Store and purchased a large $160 set that would have sent a younger me into some form of shock. (I had spent my entire childhood leveraging birthdays and holidays to slowly accumulate a five-gallon tub of LEGO pieces. The day I was forced to give my collection to some cousins was one of the sadder moments of my life.) Building the LEGO set gave me a childlike sense of joy and freedom I had not felt in months—if not years. [ (( Note that LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this written piece, my posts, or my social media accounts.))]

Dissatisfied with how quickly I built everything, I promptly tore apart the 2,300-piece set, as well as another 2,500-piece set I had purchased several years ago. With almost 5,000 pieces on hand and inspired by bathroom humor, I built a small scene of a mini-figure draped over a toilet. I wanted to keep building, so I decided to come up with a short story for why this nameless mini-figure ended up in this dire condition. The story was simple and uncomfortably familiar: A grad student is having trouble with his research, meets his advisor, and is crushed by his response (which led back to the first build). I constructed and took pictures of four additional scenes, each of which came with a dark and existential caption. [ (( I took these pictures using a glorified digital camera that I had previously purchased through a research grant. There is some poetic irony that.))]

Another LGS Vignette

The second thing I built: the grad student’s office

I found a strange sense of joy in seeing this collision of my childhood innocence and my adulthood cynicism. I posted these images and captions on my own Facebook page. My friends, many of them graduate students, suggested that I post them publicly. I subsequently opened several social media pages using the name “Lego Grad Student” (LGS), but harbored no expectations that anyone would see them.

Through an extraordinary stroke of luck, this personal joke called LGS now has almost 100,000 followers across all social media platforms, and I have been invited to write something for this special issue of Flow. I remain bewildered and grateful by this turn of events. People much more adept at social media say this makes me a “micro-influencer.” This term, as well as “brand,” were unsettlingly corporate words that highlighted how unfamiliar I was with social media. [ (( Given what little influence I felt I had with my dissertation committee, maybe “micro-influencer” is not a completely inaccurate term.))] I only used Facebook in my personal life, and I had never attempted to promote myself online.

As such, the last 16 months have been a jarring crash course in learning how I want to live in this completely unfamiliar realm. I will now pretend that I am thoughtful enough to reflect on these experiences. Apologies in advance to anyone, but particularly art and media studies students, that may find my discussion to be shockingly primitive.

A Change in Possession

LGS began as a private distraction and a semi-subconscious effort to wrestle with internal strife. Even so, it was clear that many people strongly related with the existential angst I captured in my posts, and that I was providing a source of solace to many academics that felt alone in their suffering. The comments and messages I read to this effect have been one of the most rewarding surprises of LGS.

At the same time, I have struggled with how to process this unexpected inflow of followers. My posts were no longer exclusively mine, but part of a collective experience. Because the posts were relatable on an emotional level, many people also seemed to feel a unique sense of ownership or connection with LGS. I was not prepared for this shift, and I initially felt new pressures to keep making new posts in order to appease the audience. I realize this may sound self-important, but it indicates my level of utter confusion when momentum began to build. It also attests to my own fears about striking a balance between my already busy academic life and a side project that was quickly threatening to get out of hand.

I ultimately made a very conscious choice to keep treating LGS as a personal hobby—something I am doing for myself that incidentally happens to provide solace to others. This seemingly ungracious philosophy is my attempt to prevent unforeseen social media success from undermining the original point and appeal of LGS: to unwind and to document/process my own turmoil. The more people that follow, the more I try to ground myself in this philosophy. It does not always work, but this mindset is what keeps LGS from becoming an obligation, which is the quickest way to kill it.

A Change in Consistency

My first post had this caption: “Suffering from writer’s block, the grad student stares at a screen as empty as his hopes and dreams.” As I built more scenes, I decided to tie everything together by sticking to the same structure as the first caption: “[Present participle] ____, the grad student ____.” I essentially thought of LGS as an actively growing photo exhibition that featured a consistent running series of images and words documenting the injustices of grad student life. This worked well enough, and followers seemed content with this scheme. But looking back, this was a very strict, unidirectional, and inexperienced approach that did not fully recognize social media’s flexibility.

LGS Vignette 3

Purchasing his sixth coffee of the day, the grad student categorically, indisputably, and vehemently does not have a dependence

Things forcibly changed after the 2016 presidential election. LGS was no longer fun to create and felt even more trivial than ever before. After some time passed (including a period where I considered ending LGS), I returned to it as a conduit to help me process my turmoil—except now, that turmoil was political. Even so, I wanted to stay within some broad confines that kept the page’s general tone. I decided that if I wanted to post something involving politics, it needed to either feature a LEGO build or have some tenuous academic angle. That is, if it was not LGS, then it needed to have at least the “L” or the “GS.” This rationale sounds far more thoughtful than what I felt back then. In the moment, I was blindingly upset and did not care whether any change in LGS’s so-called “brand” would kill the page or not. I suppose my creative sensibilities just refused to stay silent, even in the midst of a crisis.

LGS Vignette 4

Posts on the morning and late night of Election Day: These flag images have evolved into a parallel running series

LGS Tweet

When politics and academics become uncomfortably similar

The fact that it helped to gain followers is a testament to how poorly I understand social media. My political posts appeared to provide a sense of solace and togetherness that was similar to my typical LGS posts. But more importantly, I think I have realized that many see my personality, expressed through my posts and my responses to comments, as the real core of LGS. [ (( That said, I chose to keep Instagram and Tumblr free of politics for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to leave a space where people could choose to only look at the LGS posts without thinking about politics. Second, I found Instagram and Tumblr to be terrible for social interaction.))] That provides a great deal of latitude in how I (ab)use my social media presence beyond the typical images and [present participle] captions that I continue to post. Of course, I could be wrong and one day do or say something that alienates all my followers. It does not take an expert to know that social media is a fickle beast.

A Change in Identity

LGS started anonymously as an act of self-preservation: I was going on the academic job market and feared that a humorless search committee member would discount my ability to engage in a professional career. I also saw no reason to voluntarily disclose my identity.

It took time for me to discover that this decision to remain anonymous would actually become a quiet but essential part of LGS. As I gained followers from a spectrum of fields, I sensed that my anonymity also enhanced my relatability. [ (( This stands in contrast with academia, where anonymity in the review process enhances vitriol and bitterly destructive comments.))] People were able to insert themselves into my posts much more easily when they could not think, “Well, LGS studies [discipline] at [location], so this is not really about me.” I feel considerable joy (mixed with a twinge of sadness) from seeing people across so many fields react similarly to my content.

My anonymity also seems to invite followers to create their own image of who I am. It is not impossible to figure out my identity based on what I have publicly posted, but relatively few people have asked me about it. Most followers appear not to care or perhaps prefer not to know. I do not blame them. In fact, I almost appreciate the gesture. I can categorically say that I am not as interesting in real life as I may seem online. That is not to say that I adopt a fake persona online, but rather that people only see an incomplete version of me and tend to be generous when they try to fill in the blanks. It is mystifying when I respond to comments, only to see the original commenter get excited that LGS spoke to them. I know myself, and I do not merit that level of enthusiasm. That said, I have gradually done things that have exposed more of my identity (including a guest appearance on a podcast), so perhaps I should not lean on this point too strongly.

In conclusion, this “article” boils down to five thoughts.

  • I am unsure how I got here.
  • I do not know how social media works, much less what it means to be a micro-influencer.
  • Almost every seemingly good choice I have made regarding LGS has been inadvertent.
  • My only plausible qualifications to write for this special issue were owning a decent LEGO collection, trying to stay true to myself, and being swept up by the random whims of the internet.
  • Sorry.

Image Credits:
All images are the author’s own work.

Please feel free to comment.