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Lego Bionicle, power, language, meaning and the global ‘commons’

Excellent, fascinating and thought provoking article, Rhetorical Virtues: Property, Speech, and the Commons on the World-Wide Web by Rosemary coombe and Andrew Herman which examines the particularly American libertarian values behind the current debates around co-creation and digital media.

They look in detail at the Lego Bionicle controversy and the interaction between fan communities who Lego was encourgaing to ‘make meaning’ and effectively remix their toys, and Maori and Polynesian communities whose language and signifiers were ‘appropriated’ not only by Lego but also by these fan communities in their ‘remixes’.

Kataraina’s intervention also sought to disclose the collective social conventions by which the BZ Power virtual community (a “mini-culture” in her words) established rules of communication and interaction that governed their speech. Ownership of property and the sharing of culture is not only socially produced and recognized, it is also contingent upon the specific rules of sociality, reciprocity, and respect that are characteristic of a particular culture’s social space or, to use Kataraina’s term, the norms and values that are embedded in a particular community’s “turf” upon which visitors are greeted and embraced. These cannot be established solely by corporate authors, consumers, or individual creators but will require new forms of collectivity and the negotiation of new forms of digital sociality.

Maori activists ultimately encouraged the users of BZ Power to consider their Lego toys not simply as things to be manipulated, commodities to be consumed, and fantasy objects around which to build imaginary worlds, but as a portal to learning about Maori and other Polynesian cultures, the real faces behind the mask of the commodity fetish Lego had provided them. They linked BZ Power to a number of sites devoted to the preservation and celebration of Maori spirituality. The real point of the dialogue was to introduce an ethics of contingency (Coombe 1998) into cultural circulation. From the Maori point of view, non-Native peoples should recognize the contingency and peculiarity of their own concepts of property and propriety.

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