Charlie Chaplin’s film “Modern Times” can be read as a social commentary focusing on the idea of comedy and laughter to depict the adverse effects of a mechanised future, the hardships of industrialised future due to the Great Depression, and how consumerism is instrumental in understanding social control. Narratives regarding the satire tale of an Industrial future has been effectively dealt with, using subtle humour to delve into the shared consciousness of the growing fear of a particular era. I would like to draw reference to the symbol of the Tramp to show that the physical comedy of Chaplin is not only placed against the mechanical scramble but is also derived from structures placed ‘within it’.
To focus on the comedy, “Modern Times” not only portrays comedy as a form of entertainment, but it is also based on the subtle observation of human behaviour in an industrial era. The four phases of “Modern Times” – scenes in the different areas like a factory, prison, department store and dance hall interiors serve as four broad themes that continue to work within the radius of a central theme. In this article, I attempt to locate comedy and subject of norms within the category of the tramp to understand the nature of human labour in an industrial society.
“Modern Times” declares itself as “a story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” However, as the cinema unfolds we are confronted with the idea that the film upholds how ‘individual enterprise’ is taken over by a bureaucratic industrial spirit that culminates in the act of questioning of what constitutes a secured or happy future. The scene begins with a ticking clock filling the screen suggesting the dominance of industrial time. In the opening scene, a group of employees working in a factory were seen as subjects hurdling together to work. This scene can be interpreted as one where factory employees are reduced to numbers in the workplace where the all-inclusive principle remains the pursuit of profit in large business corporations. We see all the workers hurdled together to participate in their respective shifts owing to the systematic shifts granting recognition in the system.
Yet, in the herd of sheep, the audience catches a glimpse of one lone black sheep, which could be inferred as Chaplin’s Tramp character as putting the norms into question and breaking ‘free’. But, let us problematise the dichotomy of ‘escape’ or ‘submission’ to a mechanical set up in order to understand the binary of ‘doing’ and ‘undoing’ of norms. On one hand, we find that the Tramp character is a subject who resorts to comedy to depict how abstract labour remains ‘politically free yet socially unfree’ in the ‘popular prejudice’ of a capitalist society. On the other hand, the prison set up is indicative of the fact how Chaplin expresses his interest to live within the confinements of prison whereby he is met with the ready availability of shelter and food as opposed to the world ‘out there’ where hunger and unemployment remains the normative order.
The comic depiction of the prison and Chaplin’s interest deals with how norms are not simply a social imposition on the subject but constitute the very substance of the valorised territory. Michel Foucault’s work on ‘subject’ builds on the idea that a subject does not follow a principle whereby he precedes the power relations, in the form of an individuated consciousness, but rather is a product of these relations shaping the necessary conditions of such production. So, the very processes that secure a subject’s subordination (industrial society) are also the means by which one becomes a self-conscious identity and agent. The internalisation of the socialised feature of the mechanical rhythm affects Charlie whereby, on the one hand, the human figure mechanically is subjected to its environmental setup, embedded into repetitive moves, and on the other hand, Charlie is at the receiving end of the machine. This reflects back into a critical study of industrialisation, coupled with a comic mechanism of the “Modern Times”, to scrutinise the way the notion of work unfolds.
To build up this argument further, I would like to echo Foucault’s argument whereby he suggests, “The paradox of subjectification is precisely that the subject who would resist such norms is itself enabled, if not produced by such norms.“ Marx’s idea of resistance does not refer to the empirical worker’s consciousness but rather is rooted in a process through which the capital appropriates the will of the worker. It is located in the ontological being of the capital rather than its becoming. It can be stated here, that the reiterative structures of norms serve not only to consolidate a discourse but also provides means for its destabilization.
We see when Charlie is affected by the feeding machine that goes electronically out of control, that inserts into his mouth two large steel bolts, Charlie is consumed by the gears of the factory machines. Here, the satire takes the role of a self referential agent since the newfound comedic agent is the feeding machine, the comedian now its prop. Laughter draws attention to turn back to the foundation of its own origins resulting in a constant moment of screen comedy where the element of comedy shifts from the tramp to the machine. Abstraction is part of the being itself and it is seen that the capital recognizes the ‘other’ in labour through abstraction. This recognition is essential for the relationship to forge between the tramp and the machine.
Henry Bergson in his essay on ‘laughter’ writes, “the laughable element consists of a mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect adaptability and flexibility.” This is similar to the figure of Tramp who is humorous and since he acts in a manner that seems inappropriate to a given situation. For Bergson, the idea of comedy is inherently human since it deals with the vast plethora of human interests. For Bergson, one major point that becomes important while examining comedy is the factor of incongruity to create notions of a ‘misfit’ among the established societal order. In order to understand incongruity, there must be something to be incongruous to. Therefore, for the comedy to work (in the figure of Tramp), there must be an established set of norms against which incongruities may be formed. The essentiality of norms explains why humour can become important.
Dipesh Chakrabarty in his article ‘Two Histories of Capital’ laments that the abstract labour combines in itself enlightenment themes of juridical freedom (rights, citizenship) and the concept of the universal and abstract human being who is the subject of this freedom. The first comedic scene takes place in a factory where the Tramp is seeing fixing the nuts on an assembly line, and the other two men are involved in the act of hammering the nuts, which sets the premise of the Fordism system. ‘The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body’ wrote Henry Bergson, in his essay on comedy and his remarks have passed into theoretical consensus- “are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” This implies that the body cannot be only considered a medium of signification but the essential mechanism through which the ’embodied subject’ is formed as it gets resurfaced in the form of repetitive gestures and mechanical work.
For Karl Marx, the principles of factory discipline do not focus on the abstraction of labour as inherent in the process of exchange of commodities, but rather this abstraction takes place in and through practice. In the film, the industrial age represents the upheaval in the established social order. The machine age dehumanised workers by compelling them to conform to the system and by mechanising their every action on the assembly line. As we note in the film, the Electro Steel Company compels the Tramp by trying to mechanise every aspect of work principle about him – even his washroom breaks. In the following scene, we find the Tramp lighting up a cigarette in the bathroom break, and as he relaxes, the master (President) appears on a huge screen behind him and says, “Quit stalling; get back to work!” The boss’ monitoring capabilities or surveillance can be placed within the framework of Jeremy Bentham’s concept of Panopticon. This instance serves as the context where ‘norms are not only consolidated or subverted, but they are performed, inhabited and experienced in a variety of ways.’ The end plot of the story can tell us a good deal about the beginnings.
In the penultimate moments of “Modern Times”, before Charlie and Paulette Goddard walk arm down the highway, they ultimately reach the supper club. It is first of many clues in this scene where there lies a sense of consonant nature between the profoundly self-conscious continuity and the rigorous dimensions of the factory. Waiting in his waiter’s role to deliver a duck and its occasional movements in the dinner hall, Charlie makes mechanical movements across the jammed floor. To say further, the dance’s line of movement can be parodied as the repetitive machine, similar to the dynamics of the opening factory scene. Such moments of mechanistic satire forge other links as well, not only to film’s early scenes but to the parody of machine mentality. The Tramp and Gamin are mere victims of economic turmoil as they are surrounded by material possessions, and they have no purchasing power. The mass production and consumption have shaped the internalisation of desires in the mechanical age. As noted throughout this analysis, it is evident that Chaplin’s Modern Times is more of a social commentary on an industrialized future by using satire to indicate how norms move beyond the dichotomy of ‘doing’ and ‘undoing’ to focus on how it is subjected to re-signification.
1. Bergson, Henry – ‘Laughter: An Essay on the meaning of Comic’, Published September 13th, 2005 by Dover Publications (first published May 1st, 1900)
2. Foucault, Michel in ‘The Subject and Power, Critical Inquiry, vol.8, no4, summer 1982, pp777-799
3. Chakrabarty, Dipesh – ‘Two Histories of Capital’ in Provincializing Europe, Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, New edition.