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The Tramp & the Culture Industry: Adorno, Chaplin, and the Possibility of Progressive Comedy
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A man stands in front of a conveyor belt, hands incessantly tightening bolts on featureless products as they pass before him one after the other, the belt's speed increasing with each demand from a distant, vigilant supervisor. Never speaking, the man does his best to increase the speed of his quick twists of the wrist to keep up with the movement of the conveyor belt. As the pace increases, the man eventually falls behind and runs alongside the conveyor belt, desperately trying to complete the job. Instead of catching up however, the man is pulled onto the conveyor belt and is swallowed by a hatch into which the products have been falling. The scene shifts to a screen full of large cogs, the man pulled across and between them, from one to the next, his hands still turning in the same twisting motion, as if he still were able to turn the bolts on the nameless products rather than being pulled between the cogs of the industrial machinery made large. Miraculously, he is neither crushed nor spit out the other end, but pulled back to safety, his hands still turning, as he deliriously falls into a ballet, wanting to turn every bolt-like object before him—buttons, body parts, a fire hydrant—until he eventually collapses into a shell of the man he once had been, overrun by the machinery, unable to see anything but cogs until he has a nervous breakdown.

On its surface, this series of images from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times would appear the perfect expression of T. W. Adorno's conception of the culture industry, in which "the progressive technical domination of nature becomes mass deception and is turned into a means of fettering consciousness. It impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves" (Culture 106). After all, for Adorno, industrialization and capitalism meant the steady and willful oppression of the masses into a ready supply of labor, such as that represented in Chaplin's film. However, Adorno also believed that art became a means of conditioning the masses into believing in the lie of progressive possibilities derived from their own "freedom" within a capitalist system that constrained them:

People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.


And chief among the art forms that were used to deceive the masses was the new technology of film, which both used industrial processes to reproduce itself and was replicated so widely that, for Adorno, it became the singular means by which to condition the masses. In film, Adorno wrote, "the mass product is the thing itself," and rare was the film, particularly outside of Eisenstein's work, with any more cultural value than the cars that rolled off Ford's assembly line (180). In fact, as part of the culture industry, Adorno viewed films as "neither guides for a blissful life, nor a new art of moral responsibility, but rather exhortations to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests. The consensus which it propagates strengthens the blind, opaque authority" (105). Certainly, when one watches Mr. Smith go to Washington amid the Great Depression and on the verge of World War II, the lens through which Adorno viewed film becomes even easier to understand. At the same time one might expect Adorno to appreciate Chaplin's attempt to use the new form to foreground the mechanization of culture. Instead, when addressing Modern Times in a letter to Walter Benjamin, Adorno writes:

The idea that a reactionary individual can be transformed into a member of the avant-garde through an intimate acquaintance with the films of Chaplin, strikes me as simple romanticization; for I cannot count Kracauer...

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