Superimposed Needs in Modern Times and in Modern America
In Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man he writes: “We may distinguish both true and false needs. "False" are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.” He then goes on: “Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs (Marcuse, Ch1).” Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. It can be shown that the needs to relax, have fun, behave and consume in accordance with advertisements, and to love and hate what others love and hate is a dominant theme throughout the film, and serves as motivation for many of the characters, especially the two main characters. It can also be shown that those needs are still prevalent in actual modern times as they were in the film in 1936.
We begin with one of the first false needs; that is the need to relax. This false need is illustrated in the film when the tramp is in prison after thwarting the breakout attempt. In this situation he is “comfortable in prison” as the film so aptly states. This relaxing situation becomes a false necessity for him once he is freed from prison. This illustrates that the character when faced with the real needs of providing food for himself and maintaining his freedom, or being comfortable in prison, he would choose the false need of relaxation. It can be noted that while in prison his true need of hunger was being met however that was not the motivation to return to prison. We also see an example of the need for relaxation in the patrons at the restaurant; they are having a relaxing evening out, as opposed to preparing meals for themselves, and not perpetuating the unnecessary servitude of a restaurant. A primary example of the superimposed need of relaxation in today’s society can be seen in the multi million dollar vacation and travel industry; an industry that provides people a way to escape and relax to socially acceptable relaxation destinations.
Next we can illustrate the false need of having fun. This can be primarily when the tramp gains employment at the department store; instead of doing his job and watching the store, he laces up a pair of roller skates and begins skating around the store. This escapade places the tramp perilously close to the balcony edge and differentiates his need to have fun over the need of self-preservation. It can also be seen in the film where the tramp decides to go for a swim. The film makes no assumption that he is diving into the pond for a bath and we are led to believe that he is just going for a recreational swim. Lastly we see an example of characters out to have fun when a football game breaks out in the middle of the restaurant. While this is a minor example it is in direct correlation with the need to have fun in todays society. Today we see more and more consumers going to sporting events and amusement parks as a way to have a good time. Sports venues are getting larger and more advanced and amusement parks compete to provide the most fun by building bigger and more exciting attractions.
The need to behave and consume according to advertisement is next; this need is not just to consume what commercial advertisements state, but also how society advertises a particular group or demographic should act. First we see the factory boss attempting to conform to the commercial advertisement by the manufacturer of the feeding machine. It should be noted that this is one of the few times in the film where actual voices can be heard; it is convenient that this voice comes from a phonograph and shows technology’s role in superimposing needs in society. This can also be seen in the scene with the radio advertisement for gastritis when the tramp is being freed from prison. Next we see the need to do as advertised when, after spending a fair amount of time jobless, the factory workers go in strike. This correlates to the opening scene of the movie that parallels the working masses to a drove of sheep. The working masses especially those in a union or trying to unionize (in the labor march scene) are doing as their told, or advertised, to by labor leaders. This is also very prevalent today not only in the commercialism and advertisement of the informational age but most notably in the American political landscape. The two party system does not allow for out side opinions. It separates the country into red states and blue states that vote as they’re told to by political ads and mass media outlets which is summed up in this quote from Marcuse: “Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination?”
Lastly we have the need to love or hate what others love or hate, or as Marcuse says: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment (Marcuse Ch1).” This can be seen can be see when the two characters are fantasizing about their perfect house in the suburbs; while on the street with nothing to eat their primary focus is on the false need of having the same home and possessions as suburban middle America. This is also portrayed in the gamin trying on the big fur coat and sleeping in the extravagant king size bed. Even when the gamin finally does get a job her first purchase is a nice dress and handbag; not what one would consider the necessity of someone on the street. This quote by Marcuse is probably even more prevalent today due to all of the new technology and gadgets that are being invented now. It is not enough to have a portable phone, computer, GPS, and whatever in the palm of your hand; no, we have to have the newest most colorful and most flashy one.
As Marcuse argues these superimposed needs are well engrained in our society. In a movie created over seventy years ago these needs are almost impossible to separate from actual needs and I don’t envision it becoming any easier to convince society to abandon these false needs any time soon.