Book Review: The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the International Communist Avant-Garde

| October 11, 2016 | Comments (0)

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June Butler takes a look at Owen Hatherley’s The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the International Communist AvantGarde.

Owen Hatherley has left no stone unturned in this marvellous book on Charlie Chaplin basing it on the rather novel angle of ‘Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant Garde’.

For most authors, tackling one aspect of this subject would be a daunting task – Hatherley however, simply takes it in his stride. And to say he keeps his promises is an understatement – the opening lines present a rousing soliloquy from Charles Chaplin himself as he breaks character in The Great Dictator (1940):

“Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

Hatherley leads with an in-depth study of Frederick Winslow Taylor, (an American industrial theorist and engineer), who recounts how he succeeded in persuading an ‘ox-life’ Dutch immigrant called Schmidt achieve a seemingly impossible output of work based on Taylor’s mathematical calculations. In these sums, Winslow estimated the ‘precise measurement and recording’ of Schmidt’s physical abilities in order to maximise the worker’s capabilities. Taylor constantly teases Schmidt by asking if he is a ‘high priced man’, thus leading the poor fellow to consider lifting 48 tons of pig iron per day for $1.85, an increase of merely 70c on the previous output of 30 tons. The goal as Winslow puts it, is to deflect Schmidt from considering the impossibility of the task and instead dangle a pay rise in front of him so it becomes all he sees. Hatherley posits the idea that there is something essentially masterful about effectively duping the hapless Schmidt into working harder for not much more money. He feels that were it not for the context, it would be almost as if Taylor has become a stage hypnotist with Schmidt as his gullible victim. Hatherley makes the statement that his book concerns those people who envisaged ‘turning industrial labour into a circus act’.

Taylor’s principles came to be applied within the Ford Empire as ‘time and motion’ and was strictly adhered to in accordance with Henry Ford’s own work ethic. Such was the success of Taylor’s theories, they were diligently put into practise when the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics set up their own institutes. A former metalworker, trade union leader and poet in the Proletkult (‘proletarian culture’), Alexei Gastev founded an Institute of Labour in order to train workers in the new concepts of Taylorist principles and, as his ideas grew in success, they came to be applied outside the factory walls and into daily life.

Hatherley maintains his book is based on an unplanned cultural exchange between three poles. Two consist of the Trans-European route that went from Weimar Germany to the U.S.S.R. The third refers to America but without denoting the actual space of the country itself, the allusion is accredited to a collection of ideas, concepts, technologies, and the mass-production of goods and art objects. ‘America’ was the place where mankind had begun to truly take control of nature and attempt to bend it to its will yet, astoundingly, very few Russians who welcomed American theories had ever actually visited the country which meant that for a number of these, America was a dream, not an actual place. 

For the moralising Soviets, however, ‘America’ came under fire for its supposed exploitation of labourers and minority groups. Dziga Vertov’s 1926 documentary film, One Sixth of the World, offers a panoramic view of the industries and peoples of the Soviet Union and opens with images of that which it is not – a black American jazz band energetically plays as affluent whites dance and shimmy with gay abandon. According to Vertov’s condemnatory intertitles, this is the descent of a dying class – the danse macabre of an era coming to an end. While Vertov extrapolates what he needs from these images, the mesmerising rhythm and pace of the dancers, essentially he is also creating a heartbeat which resonates for the duration of the film. Vertov and others, including Elizaveta Svilova who edited One Sixth of the World, were part of a sect called the ‘Kinoks’ otherwise translated as ‘life caught unawares’. Vertov et al, wanted to depict post-revolutionary life in all its comicality – a veritable banana skin applied to a world turned upside down.

It is this positioning and careful placement of American mass culture against a backdrop of political critique, a nod towards labour and contemporary urban life as comic or ‘slapstick’ containing plenty of ‘new stupidities’, and the creation of a new comic space as well as innovative forms of architecture, that have provided the core theme running through this book. Americanism can be thus referred to as Chaplinism.

Hatherley has researched his topic thoroughly and relentlessly – points are made and supported with pithy quotes and examples. Nothing is left to chance. This truly is an impressive read and an excellent research guide to those who would like to investigate the topic further – a lot further!

 
 

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