Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man explores the problems with the increasingly technologized societies of the mid-1960s. Made almost thirty years previously, Modern Times starring Charlie Chaplin illustrates much the same view as Marcuse that, “…the uncritical and conformist acceptance of existing structures, norms, and behaviors,” was a problem in the early to mid 20th century (Marcuse Synopsis). While Modern Times lacks speech and dialogue (besides a few spoken and written words), One-Dimensional Man lacks visual clarity. Together, these two works create a comprehensible conversation about the issues of industrial society, many of which are relevant today. Both suggest that the elimination of individuality has made humans disposable objects, and that the only way to be happy is to question and act against the status quo.
A large issue with industrial society, according to Marcuse, is automation. He writes, “Within the technological ensemble, mechanized work in which automatic and semi-automatic reactions fill the larger part (if not the whole) of labor times remains, 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” (Marcuse 25). Here, Marcuse is demonstrating how mechanized work, like the assembly line for example, has made humans into slaves. They are controlled by the overpowering purpose of productivity. Even the machine operators are slaves to this purpose. As technology becomes more advanced, machinery becomes quicker and more efficient, requiring workers to increase their already exhausting labor. This passage in One-Dimensional Man is depicted in the beginning of Modern Times as Chaplin tries to keep pace with the machinery on the assembly line. He is comically distracted by the unyielding work – a bug flies in his face, his tool gets stuck, etc. – demonstrating the ridiculous requirements of the labor. Even when he is given a short break, he is almost immediately reprimanded and told to stop wasting time and get back to work. Chaplin’s tendencies to be distracted from his work are, apart from their critique of the inhumane conditions of industrial society, arguably an example of how humans need to question and act against the status quo. When he lights a cigarette in the bathroom or files his nails before relieving his coworker, he is opposing the ‘correct’ behaviors, which he is supposed to know and preform. Furthermore, Marcuse’s suggestion that machine operators, like workers, are controlled by the ever-present need to increase productivity is exemplified when the president of the company declares, “Section five, speed her up, four oh one” (Modern Times). Although he might seem in charge, the real power is the purpose of productivity, which every so often prompts him to command “more speed”. Marcuse’s discussion about automation and human slavery is illustrated through the film and shows how humans have become nonentities.
Another example of the power of technology and productivity is the lunch machine in Modern Times. The machine is presented to the president of the company and is demonstrated on Chaplin. It is important to note that when the invention is shown to the president, it is not explained by a person but by “the mechanical salesman”, a machine itself. The purpose of the machine is to eliminate the need for workers to take lunch breaks, instead they can continue working while eating, increasing production – always the primary concern. Marcuse writes, “The machine process in the technological universe breaks the innermost privacy of freedom….” (Marcuse 27). With the lunch machine, humans are further debased and controlled or as Marcuse calls it, “…annihilation as a human being” (Marcuse 28). The machine fails when tested on Chaplin. It malfunctions, spilling soup all down his front and splattering him with cake; though the mouth wiper unfalteringly works. Like Chaplin’s comical presentation of the pressing conditions of the assembly line, the lunch machine suggests that the treatment and conditions workers are subjected to are ridiculous. Humans have become comparable to animals and disposable. Even at the very beginning of the film, humans are equated to animals when the image of herding sheep melts into the image of a mass of humans flocking to work. Marcuse’s view of the machine as the controlling force in industrial society and the consequential dehumanization of people
are depicted in Modern Times.
Both works’ critiques urge people to question the structures, norms, and behaviors of industrial society. One is comical and one serious, but together they offer a relatable and extensive discussion about the problems facing our increasingly mechanized world.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. New York: Beacon, 1991.
Modern Times. Dir. Charles Chaplin. Perf. Charles Chaplin. 1936. YouTube.