Thursday, February 20, 2014

Marcuse and Modern Times

                Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is an exceptional parallel to one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest films entitled Modern Times. As a reader and a viewer we can begin to see the how the employee is put in compromising situations within a society which is heavily relying on industrialization and machinery. Marcuse’s narrative dives the reader into an alternate way of interpreting Modern Times from a philosophical perspective. The importance of this perception is more-or-less an unveiling of a harsh concept: Does man control machinery or does the machinery control man?

                In the film Modern Times, Chaplin is a factory worker who works vigorously on an assembly line. Although the film is meant to be comical, the way Chaplin can barely keep up with his work portrays the stark realities of work conditions during times like the Great Depression and the Industrial Revolution. The entirety of this ordeal, specifically the amount of work he was exerting, can be seen as a Marcusean representation. Marcuse writes that being an integral piece of machinery (the worker) you’re actually subject to be “as a life-long occupation, exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery—even more exhausting because of increased speed-up, control of the machine operators (rather than of the product), and isolation of the workers from each other” (25). The notion that machines and technology are supposed to alleviate the strain of work by increasing efficiency was actually shown to be quite the opposite during the film. In this sense, the rapid pace of the machinery makes it virtually impossible for the average laborer to do anything worthwhile, basically becoming enslaved to the master of mechanization.

                During the beginning of Modern Times Chaplin’s supervisor would frequently approach him to complain about the job he was doing, or lack thereof. In actuality, here the worker was faced with less than ideal conditions and often being demoralized when it was apparent the average man couldn’t keep up with the equipment, and so it was more the culprit. Relating back to Marcuse and the film, Chaplin was never truly in “isolation” from his fellow workers. In fact, there was always a fellow coworker next to him. His inability to keep up, however, created a negative work environment and often caused his coworkers to become disgruntled. So in a physical sense he is not in isolation, but you get a sense that he is. By constantly annoying his fellow coworker with his lack of efficiency he actually was further isolating himself from any engagement or positive relationship between coworker and supervisor. Another interesting scene was when Chaplin even struggles to have a smoke break in the bathroom without being harassed by his boss. Marcuse alludes to particular slavery when he writes, “the former ‘professional’ autonomy of the laborer was rather his professional enslavement” (28). Chaplin is nothing more than an expendable piece of equipment and can be looked at as a slave in the hands of his master (his boss) as he is working on the assembly line.

                 One of the most entertaining, yet crucial parts to Modern Times was the reoccurrence of Chaplin’s imprisonment. It’s significant as to why he ended up in jail because of two particular instances. The first one involved giving a false confession of stealing bread in order to save gamine girl from being sent to jail. The second instance was shortly after when he enters the cafeteria to devour as much food as possible without paying. These petty attempts were an outcry to be seemingly removed from society (or the workforce) because he knew life on the inside of jail was better than the outside. He is basically revoked of any technological engagement and limited to means of survival. Chaplin was “no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization” (Marcuse 2). By removing himself from the “market” he no longer had to be subjected to the enslavement of machinery. Essentially he “would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him” so he “would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own” (Marcuse 2). Chaplin’s imprisonment was a means to an end. The end meant freedom; freedom from enterprise, the market, and economy as a whole. Being sent to jail was ironically in and of itself an act of emancipation.

                Modern Times can be seen as an abridged visual depiction of some of Marcuse’s ideologies from within his narrative. Marcuse is able to vividly portray machinery as a vessel which leads to enslavement. These views must be considered important as we watch the film Modern Times because it not only allows us to appreciate and understand Chaplin’s personal motives in creating the movie—which align with Marcuse—but realize as technology becomes increasingly more popular and useful it is exploiting and making man obsolete.



Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.

2 comments:

Kristen Welsh said...

I was really impressed with your essay! I also, coincidentally, also wrote about how Marcuse relates to Modern Times, although I took a different approach and analyzed the artistic aspect of the film. However, I really enjoyed your analysis of the “man vs. machine” concept. A point I particularly liked was when you mention that Charlie’s imprisonment was actually a small success because it removed him from the enslavement of machinery. I also found that Charlie is liberated at the end of the film. Additionally, I liked the way you incorporated Modern Times and Marcuse together, as I thought it flowed very nicely. If you were to improve this essay, I suggest that you stay a little more focused. While you make valid points, I don’t think all of them necessarily have to do with machinery. For example, you mention that Charlie was inefficient at his job, but do you think this has only to do with the fact that he is using machinery? I think it would also be beneficial to mention the machine that feeds the workers while working so that they no longer have to take breaks. That is an interesting machine and I was surprised it was not mentioned in your essay. But overall I enjoyed it very much!

Adam said...

What I most liked here was your analysis of the desirability of prison to the little tramp. Up until this point, your analysis was solid but maybe a little on the easy side (not that I should really be calling any aspect of Marcuse easy) - but there is a danger of being excessively shallow if you're just going to point out that both Marcuse and Chaplin are ultimately concerned with a world in which workers are dominated by machines.

Your analysis of Chaplin's freedom *from* the economy when he's in prison rises far above this, though. It's a deeper insight which connects a *specific* moment in Marcuse to a *specific* moment in Chaplin's film, and does it very well.

An ideal revision would ideally want to build on the strength of this material. So you might cut some (or even all) of the more general material, to build upon the theme of freedom *from* the economy in Chaplin's film, while analyzing what it means. What do I mean by that? How do we understand the film differently once this particular theme has been both noticed and given a theoretical explanation? This could be an explanation of how you *personally* understand it differently, or it could be less personal - the idea is that now you are at the brink of not only arguing that Marcuse *can* help us read Chaplin in a somewhat different way (through the concept of freedom *from* the economy), but that we *should* read it that way.

So you show a good understanding of Marcuse and Chaplin - but more importantly your showing the beginning of a really substantial and interesting argument not only showing that we can connect them, but why it *matters* that we might connect them.