HENT DE VRIES: Good afternoon. It is my pleasure and distinct honor-- I knew I was beginning one minute early. [INAUDIBLE]. It is my pleasure and distinct honor to introduce our fourth plenary speaker, during this 2015 summer session of School of Criticism and Theory, namely, Eli Friedlander.
Professor Friedlander is the Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor of Modern Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University, writing his dissertation under the supervision of luminaries such as Stanley Cavell, Burton Dreben, Hilary Putnam, and John Rawls, surrounding the topic of the different manifestations of the distinction between showing and saying in logic, ethics, and aesthetics.
These three fields of interest subsequently translated into three to four separate books, each of them with the greatest interest and scholarly quality. As a matter of fact, having found it difficult to write a one-topic dissertation, Eli Friedlander, as he explains, availed himself, quote, "of the option of writing three long papers instead, one on the relation between feeling and communication in Kant's aesthetics; one on the personal exemplification in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequalities; and one on the limits of language in Wittgenstein's Tractatus," end of quote.
I am citing, here, a recent interview with the online journal, 3:AM Magazine, the well-known journal that portrays only the most innovative thinkers in contemporary and mostly analytic philosophy. And they characterize Professor Friedlander, I think somewhat rightly, as, quote, "a very soulful"-- soul-full-- "kind of philosopher," end of quote. I like that word. I give my [INAUDIBLE].
His first book, entitled Signs for Sense, Reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus, published by Harvard University Press in 2000, articulated internal relation between logic and the ethical in Ludwig Wittgenstein's classical Tractatus [INAUDIBLE], arguably one of the most significant works in early 20th century philosophy. In my promise to you, Professor Friedlander's book on the subject is the very best book on this very elusive order and topic, at least in this early phase.
The early Wittgenstein has been endlessly studied. And the continuing reception of his work is, by now, characterized by different warring camps and schools split between the old or standard reading on the one hand and the alternative accounts propagated by the advocates of the so-called New Wittgenstein on the [INAUDIBLE]. Their controversies have contributed to no small amount of tedious scholasticism and a somewhat fruitless impasse over all. Not so, Friedlander, who approaches the subject afresh, in his own voice, and with a lucidity and an intellectual openness that is truly remarkable.
I, for what it's worth, consider the work to be exemplary and, so far, simply unsurpassed. And I would add, if there is one single book one wants to read on Tractatus, on the early Wittgenstein, or for the Cavellians among us, if you ever wanted where a truly Cavellian sensibility might have taken our understanding of Ludwig Wittgenstein, if only he, Cavell, had ever gone there, this is the book.
In his second book, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Afterlife of Words, published by Harvard University Press in 2005, Eli Friedlander investigates the problem of exemplarity in philosophy by way of a close reading of Rousseau's autobiography, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker. I will not comment too much on it here or on its contents and overall argument, [INAUDIBLE] enough to say that his writing is, again, intensely beautiful and painstakingly precise.
Starting out from Rousseau's opening words-- I quote-- "Here I am then, alone on Earth," Friedlander unpacks this author's autobiographical turn in relation to other autobiographical moments in philosophical tradition, with Augustine's Confessions and Descartes' Meditations as important stations. Indeed, as Friedlander notes, this might actually shed a new light on the history of modern philosophy as this juxtaposition-- and I quote-- "of Rousseau and Descartes brought out how underplayed the skepticism concerning [INAUDIBLE] and the threat for madness is in Descartes' mythological power," end of quote.
Professor Friedlander's third book, entitled, Walter Benjamin, a Philosophical Portrait, was published by Harvard University Press in 2011. And it draws together Benjamin's corpus of writing so as to present it as a great reconfiguration of philosophy with an overarching coherence and a deep-seated commitment to, again, engage the philosophical tradition. I've had ample opportunities to read through this book as it came out, during a year I spent at Princeton, surrounded by well-grounded Bay vineyards, and consider it, again, to be absolutely the best and most balanced book on this very difficult subject.
Together with the recently published biography of Walter Benjamin by Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland-- and Michael Jennings lectured on this subject, on Benjamin, in this room last year-- Friedlander's book will, no doubt, be the most detailed and most comprehensive philosophical reading for years to come on this author's, for whose writings and overall thought few have been training the tenacious patience and conceptual rigor it takes to unlock their riddle.
So while Friedlander's study, like his previous books, takes his point of departure in a single purpose, here, Benjamin's un-published [INAUDIBLE] or Arcades Project. It sheds light on this author's valuable thinking, more generally, and, I will claim, often offers compelling models as to what philosophical thinking might mean to us today.
The book had it's germ cell, it's [GERMAN], in an article on the dialectical image in the journal [INAUDIBLE], where it soon was the most-read article online, and, in spite of itself, received rave reviews in journals such as Book Forum, The LA Times, Modern Language Notes, and others. It also came out in a German translation, published by [INAUDIBLE] in 2013.
Professor Friedlander's most recent writing and published research has been devoted to Kant's aesthetics and, notably, to his Critique of Judgment, the book that encapsulates, for him, nothing less than, quote, "the present moment of philosophy, as well as the Kantian legacy in the history of analytic philosophy." His book on this subject was published last year, likewise by Harvard University Press, under the title, Expressions of Judgment, an Essay from Kant's aesthetics.
It should be noted, however, that Professor Friedlander's skills and interests range even more widely, well beyond the confines of academic philosophy, narrowly defined. Professor Friedlander has written numerous essays in art criticism and on film, just as he has been working, in recent years, as a stage designer for several opera productions.
As to the first topic, he reviewed, in the aforementioned interview in 3:AM, that he often thinks of himself as, quote, "more of a visual than a literary person," having been well underway in studies in an art academy before turning to philosophy proper. Quote, "Not one of my most reflective decisions," end quote, as he jokingly added. And indeed, the enormous breadth of his curiosity and wide-ranging competence in such different fields makes him one of the most open-minded contributors to conduct [INAUDIBLE].
As to the second topic, he has been involved in putting together a performance of [GERMAN], together with his spouse, Professor Michal Grover-Friedlander, whose wonderful lecture on opera we heard and recorded last week, just as he has remained actively involved in a host of other dramaturgical projects of productions of Ravel and [INAUDIBLE], among others.
Building on his earlier philosophical portrait of Benjamin, he is currently planning a truly spectacular and unprecedented reconstruction-- or rather construction-- of Benjamin's incomplete text and missing arguments out of this first fragment of separate essays that he devoted to Charles Baudelaire, the poet of modern life in the Paris of the 19th century and the author who best captured and expressed the spirit that Walter Benjamin sought to convey and bring back to life, as it were.
Professor Friedlander's accomplishments are many. From 2010 through 2014, he chaired the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He received a fellowship at the School of History at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. And this coming September, he has been invited as a faculty distinguished visiting scholar to give three lectures and a seminar at the University of Melbourne.
In addition, he has just received an invitation from the prestigious [INAUDIBLE] in Berlin to spend there a year as a fellow as well. We are, therefore, very happy and lucky to have him on the faculty at SCT, as the leader of a 6-week long seminar this summer. This afternoon, his title will be "The Only Angel of Peace Suited to this World, Walter Benjamin on Charlie Chaplin." Please join me in welcoming Professor Friedlander.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Thank you so much, Hent, for this wonderful, so generous, introduction. I also want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the invitation to take part in this session of the School of Criticism and Theory. It's really great to have this opportunity both to teach the seminar, enjoy it tremendously, and also to present my work here and on Thursday in the colloquium. So again, I'm very grateful for that.
The following quote from Walter Benjamin's "Experience in Poverty" may serve as a longish epigraph to my talk. "Poverty of experience-- this should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience. They long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty-- their outer poverty and, ultimately, also their inner poverty-- that will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced.
Often, we can say the very opposite. They have devoured everything, both culture and people. And they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught-out than they by Scheerbart's words, you are all so tired just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.
Tiredness is followed by sleep. And then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day, a dream that shows us, in its realized form, the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality," end of quote.
In the essay from which this passage is taken, Benjamin conceives of Mickey Mouse as such a dream for a contemporary man. It is in the same spirit that I wish here to understand the historical significance Benjamin finds in Charlie Chaplin. I want to suggest, in my paper, how Chaplin concentrates and realizes, in his person or cinematic figure, many of the tendencies that Benjamin diagnosed in his investigation of the 19th century.
This consummate realization of what may, at times, appear as a cursed environment of life is inseparable, for Benjamin, from Chaplin's recognition of the technical possibilities of the medium, which he puts into play in his films. Let me lead into these matters by considering a note from 1935 that explores, I quote, "the formula in which the dialectical structure of film finds expression." Namely, that in film-- quote again-- "these continuous images replace one another in a continuous sequence."
The formula primarily refers to film's technical dimension. It seems to express the way a film is being made or constructed or to state its principle of composition or montage. But as it stands, the formula is so schematic as to be almost empty. In wishing to bring out its force, it will be necessary, therefore, to tackle several questions.
First, what would it be for the formula to apply significantly in an individual case, in terms of specific cinematic contents? Secondly, how would the technical dimension of the medium of film be related, through that formula, to the prevalence of the technological in modern social reality? Thirdly, what is it to conceive of the formula as expressing the dialectical structure of film?
Now, Benjamin appears, at first, to establish a simple parallel between the conditions of production in society and the consumption of film. And I quote, "it cannot be overlooked that the assembly-line, which plays such a fundamental role in the process of production, is, in a sense, represented by the filmstrip in the process of consumption. Both came into being at roughly the same time. The social significance of the one cannot be fully understood without that of the other.
Now, since the conditions of production in the assembly-line, we speak of the alienated character of social existence. One might be tempted to similarly conceive of the commodity character of the cultural product or the way that it is consumed as a further factor in this alienation. But this would be to ignore the mediating role of the technical basis of film. In other words, we must leave open the possibility of the medium's transformative character.
This becomes evident as Benjamin next introduces the figure of Chaplin-- I quote-- "whose films have met with the great success of all up to now. He is then, on the one hand, if one can say so, the most consumed artist of film at the time. But on the other hand, he's the most consummate, the one who has most significantly incorporated the technical basis of film into his bodily presence on screen." And I quote again, "in Chaplin's work, the human being is integrated into the film image by way of his gestures, that is, his bodily and spiritual posture," end of quote.
To have the human being integrated into the film image is much more than having a given content determined by medium or form. Rather, if the medium is to provide a truly dialectical mediation, it should allow taking up the problems of the structuring of life by technology, translating them, as it were, into what pertains to film's own technical existence and resolving them by the production of a higher affirmable image of human existence, which can be judiciously consumed.
Let me try to articulate more concretely the kind of structure I have in mind by considering the example of testing in the production process. Benjamin notes that the actor's ability to perform for the camera is assessed in a screen test. One might wonder how such testing relates to the prevalence of performance testing in society. Testing assumes the dissection of behavior into measurable parameters. The more technology structures and divides the work process, the more performance is capable of being tested and measured.
The stability in the workplace goes, then, hand-in-hand with the increased division of labor. And therefore, it goes inherently against the possibility to exhibit the total social character of production. The more testing is introduced into human experience, the less can experience, exhibit, or present its conditions of possibility in specific instances of productive activity.
Now, what would it be for film to incorporate this state of production and reverse it dialectically in consumption? The screen test is testing the performance of the actor. But more specifically, it tests how the actor shows on screen. The key to the dialectical reversal, then, is that the screen test makes the capacity to be exhibited as such, that which is tested.
"Film, Benjamin writes, "makes test performance exhibitable, by making a test of exhibitability itself. The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in front of an apparatus. It is a test performance of the highest order." So in other words, the film actor is open to testing. He relinquishes the unity of what Benjamin would call erratic or unified theatrical presence and submit to the cinematic technology.
Benjamin describes the exposure to cinematic technology as inflicting a division of the whole living presence. The actor suffers the fragmentation of his bodily presence by the camera or the editing process, in ways that, structurally, at least, would be analogous to the alienation produced by an extreme division of labor. But since what is tested is how one shows on screen, the actor also brings forth that which testing procedures in general occlude, namely, exhibitability.
The actor excels precisely by taking into himself testing by the technology of film and reversing its significance in his radiant cinematic presence. His excelling at being shown means that he exhibits a coherence of another order or that he is, as it were, capable of integrating the discontinuity inflicted by the cinematic technology into a new, intense, bodily presence.
"To accomplish this test performance," Benjamin writes, "is to preserve one's humanity in the face of the apparatus. Interest in this performance is widespread." So if one calls technology and its social use the apparatus, the performance of the actor allows us to envisage his cinematic presence as a triumph over the apparatus. And I quote again, "the majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanities in the face of an apparatus.
In the evening, these same masses fill the cinemas to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf, not only by asserting his humanity-- or what appears to them as such-- against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the surface of his triumph." Initially, it might have seemed that Benjamin construes an opposition or a simple antagonism between the human and the technological apparatus, so that the human triumphs over the instrument.
But the last sentence quoted makes, I think, clear the dialectical moment, as the technological apparatus is put at the service of his triumph. So that humanity does not have the upper hand by, now, using the instrument for its own ends. Rather, the dialectical reversal is to be recognized, insofar as technology yields in the presentation of the human figure, new possibilities for human significance, and you field for freedom and play.
I think this incorporation of technology into a new coherence of bodily presence to be the point of the description that Benjamin gives of Chaplin's spiritual physiognomy in the fragment I discussed at the beginning.
I quote, "The innovation of Chaplin's gestures," he writes, "is that he dissects the expressive movements of human beings into a series of minute innovations. Each single movement he makes is composed of a succession of staccato bits of movement, whether it is his walk, the way handles his cane, or the way he raises his hat. Always, the same jerky sequence of tiny movements applied the law of the cinematic image sequence to human motorial functions," end of quote.
The emphasis on gesture in this description is-- I take it-- to suggest the contrast with the meaningful unity of action. Coherent bodily movement determined by a unity of purpose in action is here replaced with staccato bits of movements or with a jerky sequence of tiny movements.
For that disjointed performance to acquire a coherence of another order-- that is, for it to be a truly triumphant manifestation of humanity-- gestural presence would have to be composed into something like a higher continuity or into an image that convincingly echoes and answers to the interconnected space of human significance in action, intention, thoughtfulness, planning, resolution, decisiveness, and freedom.
I want to think of this triumphant assertion of something like humanity or of what humanity must turn into in order to freely incorporate the apparatus as the utopian perception opened by film. For sure, utopia never provides a political solution to the ills of society. Yet, it is an experiential image of a higher natural existence, a particularly intense manifestation of the imagination or of that kind of imagination which Benjamin calls "fantasy," a term which I will discuss in greater detail in my colloquium paper on Thursday.
As the example of performance testing suggests, such affirmative cinematic presence depends on the capacity of the actor to take upon himself, by way of the cinematic technique, the fateful environment of existence, structured by technology, and to transform it. "Chaplin," Benjamin writes, "has become the greatest comic, because he has incorporated into himself the deepest fears of his contemporaries.
Such incorporation and concentration of the life environment and its translation into radiant cinematic presence is matched in the reaction of the audience, whose laughter Benjamin describes as an energetic discharge, a therapeutic release of unconscious energies. The parallel to catharsis in tragedy is suggested. Just as in tragedy, catharsis assumes the over-precise and fatal coming together of a demonically ambiguous-meaning surroundings, as they converge on the person of the tragic hero.
So in comedy, the discharge in laughter is a physiological response to the way the simple existence of the comic character consumes and, thereby, make vanish the burden of a whole environment of meaning. What is at issue then is how to productively inhabit the space opened by the cinematic technology. The eccentric Benjamin Wright was the first to inhabit the new fields of action opened up by film, the first occupant of the newly-built house. This is the context in which Chaplin takes on historical significance," end of quote.
The photographic technology, it should be stressed, does not open automatically new possibilities or a new field for human involvement. It is one thing for the technology to make visible what can hardly be captured with the naked eye and another to understand what it is to be at home in it or befriend the new environment opened by the instrument-- to make your house there, as it were.
The photographic technology by itself can give us sensational sites, like a microscope or a telescope would. But it is the task of art to reveal, in this extension of vision, an environment that is habitable, that is permeated with human significance. It is only in this latter condition that we can truly speak of the therapeutic release of unconscious energies by way of film.
And a last general remark in this first part of my paper-- the new environment or habitation need not be construed as artificial because it is constituted by instruments. Clearly, Benjamin writes, It is another nature which speaks to the camera, as compared to the eye."
The other nature is another that is a new manifestation of nature. The possibility of an opening, as it were, a natural preserve, by the uses of the cinematic technology in art would thus contrast with more familiar accounts of the instrumental, in which what is stressed is the mastery of nature.
Thus, Benjamin can also write-- I quote-- "that the instrument-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality, the blue flower in the land of technology." This is not to say that we are getting, in film, an ideological construct, masquerading as nature. It should be read, rather, in the same spirit as Benjamin thinks, for instance, of Fourier's fantastic Utopia that also involved machinery.
They would be illustrating a, quote, "labor, which far from exploiting nature would help her give birth to the creations that now lie dormant in her womb." This opening of or onto a dimension of the natural by photographic and film technology is, I take it, of great importance, at least if we conceive of nature further as that which can afford significant human pleasure independently of an heritage of culture or of training in the complexities of tradition.
Therefore, it ties in, I take it, with Benjamin's sense that film-- I quote-- "changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film."
OK, I turn now to the second part of my paper, in which I propose to rehearse some of the better known themes in Benjamin's account of modernity, but to do so in such a way as to place Chaplin, as it were, at the vanishing point of the lines of perspective of the picture that emerges.
Benjamin conceives of the crisis of modernity in terms of an overall impoverishment of human experience, this being correlative with what he calls the thickening of tradition. If an experienced individual is one who has acquired a lifetime of experience, what makes for a significant experience in life in common is the availability of the past in the form of tradition. The crisis of tradition is, therefore, in part at least, correlative with the transformation of the world, which makes past ways of making sense of it useless.
This lack of the resources of tradition leaves the individual exposed to contingencies. Or to put it in terms of a well-known characterisation, it is manifest in the prevalence of shock, of immediacy that needs fending in modern surroundings. The fence, in such an environment of experience, involves-- as Benjamin thinks of it-- giving prominence to consciousness in our engagement with the world.
Consciousness makes events manageable by reducing their meaning to information content. It therefore, also, makes for experience poor in its significance potential. This is why the demand for meaning takes more and more the form of craving for intense immediacy. A [INAUDIBLE] significant experience is ceding, more and more, the place to [NON-ENGLISH], or lived experience.
What the reduced experience loses in significance, it gains by heightening its liveliness or impressiveness. This is familiar in the form of the sensational, say, newspaper, with their eternal return of the new. This isolation of the impressive is also what makes the factor of sheer quantity gain importance in human experience. The presence of a mass element in our experience of the world is recognized by Benjamin in the role of the crowds or the roll the crowd comes to have in it.
An early attempt to draw significance out of that mass element is elaborated in his writings by reference to the figure of the flaneur, a well-known figure that is, many times, mistakenly identified with physiognomy of Benjamin himself, the thought physiognomy of Benjamin. The flaneur takes the encounter with the crowd as an occasion to celebrate both the variety of human social types and his own perspicacity in recognizing them. He, so to speak, botanizes on the asphalt.
His relation to the crowd-- out of which emerge types, which he reads or identifies-- is essentially contemplative. It, thus, requires-- in Benjamin's words, elbow room. It does not experience the violence of the crowd or the demonic character of the presence of this element in the fashioning of experience. The flaneur, one could also say, averts the new form that the threat of skepticism about other minds takes in modernity, by adopting an aesthetisized model of mind-reading based on physiognomy.
Now, it would be tempting to identify the figure of the tramp with that of the flaneur, insofar as both engage in wandering in the streets of the city. But Chaplin is no flaneur, primarily because jostling and stumbling are already so much part of his bodily presence. Chaplin's jerky cinematic presence, his staccato bits of movement, can be seen as giving body to the encounter with the masses.
Stumbling has been so completely incorporated into his mode of existence that Chaplin, like Baudelaire's poet in the poem, "The Sun," stumbles even when the street is empty and where there is no visible obstacle. So I show you a first clip, which starts with something like a scene of the intensive and, as it were, shock effect of modern surroundings, and then moves to Chaplin in the empty street.
Oops, sorry. Yeah.
OK, there is nothing there. And yet, stumbling is part of Chaplin's way of walking. I give you another example, which I particularly like. In a scene of Modern Times, Chaplin fantasizes a bourgeois existence for himself and Paulette Goddard, an existence, really, in which everything is resolved in the simplest manner. When you need milk, for instance, a cow shows up at the back door. And yet, when he enters this house of his imagination, he stumbles.
OK, we'll return to the significance of this complete incorporation of stumbling into one person, which makes it the case that Chaplin, as it were, stumbles over his own feet. The flaneur, turned, as he is, to the scene of the street and its crowds, has a dialectical counterpart in the individual's tendency of existence towards the self-enclosed or in a mode of being towards the interior.
The interior is both the private dwelling, but also that place, as it serves to reflect what is most one's own, spiritually speaking. In the face of the sense that the individual can no more leave traces of his existence in the public sphere, the private home becomes the shrine in which such traces are preserved. The house, everywhere, is in intimate contact with its inhabitants.
So Benjamin writes-- I quote-- "If you enter a bourgeois room of the 1880s, for all the coziness it radiates, the strongest impression you receive may well be, you've got no business here. And in fact, you have no business in that room. For there's no spot on which the owner has not left his mark.
These traces of existence generate habits of preservation, which, as it were, encircle or entrap the inhabitant. The interior forces the inhabitant to adopt the greatest possible number of habits, habits that do more justice to the interior he's living in than to himself." This was Benjamin.
The turn to the interior involves fantasies of inwardness, privacy, and uniqueness. And Benjamin attributes the highest importance to the destruction of these distorted ways to conceive what is truly one's own in existence. And this urgency is something he shares, I take it, with Wittgenstein. He calls the type of individual that inhabits the interior the etui-man.
Etui is the case in which you put various objects. And they were made in such a way that this kind of velvety interior has already the imprint of the object that is to be placed in it. So it's a theater binocular-- you would see the form of it in the velvet of the case. And so, this kind of fit between the person and his house is like the etui that has, already, the trace or the imprint of what belongs to it.
The counterpart of the etui-man, the enemy of habit, is the destructive character. And so, the question for us then is whether Benjamin sees in Chaplin a destructive character. In other words, is Chaplin's relation to the open not just a result of having no dwelling, of being a tramp, but also in being destructive in relation to the habitual? And for sure, Chaplin has a distinctive form of cataclysmic effect on any environment in which he finds himself.
But the difficulty is to attribute a destructive animus to him. For this seems inconsistent with his affable nature. Thus, the commotion generated by his eccentric presence is to be distinguished from an active attack on the surroundings. This latter form of the comic will be found in satire, usually taken to be the form in which comedy has bearing on the political.
Similarly, to my mind, Chaplin's comic bodily presence is not to be thought of in terms of the category of the grotesque. Louis Delluc, an early cinema critic, writes of Chaplin's honest and mathematical naivete. And I would say, naive simplicity has its own power to unsettle the complacency of habit. I'll come back to that.
The impoverishment of experience is manifest in the decline of modes of acting in the world that presuppose a long process of acquiring experience. This is often identified in the structure of work organized by technology. The destruction of traditional forms of crafts that involves training, apprenticeship, and expertise makes for work structure that is highly repetitive and would require new experience to engage in.
The problematic face of a world in which one has no need for experience, in which experience is worthless, then shows in the division of labor brought to an extreme. Already, the flaneur, who makes idling his profession, embodies a form of protest against the division of labor. But Chaplin's naivete is really a celebration of the lack of experience. And it is all the more powerful in that he is never idle.
The accidents of his encounters with or stumbling upon different types are such as to change briefly the trajectory of the tramp and have him take up, briefly, a specific occupation. Chaplin can be, in the same film, a factory worker, a shipyard employee, a night watchman at the department store, an honorary jail guard and prisoner at the same time, a waiter, a singer, and a leader of a workers' protest. In another film, he can be a socialite, a boxer, and a street cleaner.
Given that we recognize Chaplin to be the same character throughout all his films-- again, a matter of much importance I will return to-- he gives the distinct sense that he can do anything, in his way, of course. He is transforming, continually, his occupation, as though giving us a glimpse into the utopian state Marx envisages, in which it is-- I quote-- "possible for me to do one thing today and another to tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic."
For sure, in order to make this utopian existence convincing to us, that is, to experience it as utopian perception, we need to have a way of identifying the unity of mind, as Marx puts it, over and above any occupation or to sense a unity of character in taking up every imaginable social role.
Now, Benjamin diagnosis the overtaking of human activity by repetition, not only in the space of work, but also in its opposite-- namely, in play. Both literally and literarily, the gambler comes to occupy an important place in 19th century life. Gambling is play in which experience does not come into play. Each bet is essentially disconnected from past ones. Nothing can be learned from previous occurrences.
Thus, its structure is essentially distinct from an experience in which the past bears on and informs how we open onto the present. The simple yes-no, winning or losing, with its stark polarity and its drastic consequences, has the immediacy of the sensational. Benjamin notes, indeed, that the movie in the game of chance is called a "coup." A sensation become sensational. Meaning is reduced to the most basic information content, say, to a mere number on the roulette wheel.
Yet, gambling is not just a further example of the destruction of experience, for it reveals new ways of affirming the lack of experience. What is particularly significant for our context is the way the gambler exemplifies a new form of embodied mindfulness, utterly distinct from behavior directed by consciousness. It suggests, as it were, where to look for the involuntary intelligence apparently lost in the prevailing role given to consciousness on the modern scene.
With the gambler, the involuntary is to be sought in-- I quote-- "the high level of motor innovation emancipated from optical perception governing his responses." An example of such quasi involuntary discharge of motor innovation is the way in which a true gambler puts his bets at the very last moment. His movement is responsive to signs and keenly sensitive to the moment of danger-- that is, to the need to show presence-of-mind and be decisive in the face of the threat of missing his opportunity.
Imagine, the number you wanted to put came out on the roulette, and you didn't put the chips on it. And this is the real danger of missing one's opportunity. Such form of mindfulness is not reflective or based on observation. It is, rather, a mode of bodily comportment. And I quote, "The question is not whether mind is present or what form it takes, but only where it is. Only the body can generate presence-of-mind."
This mindfulness of the where is a matter of bodily comportment in surroundings, of fit with the situation. While Chaplin might not strike us as a gambler-type, his existence is exemplary of such embodied fit with the world. And it is epitomized in moments of comic fortune.
I show an example of the kind of fit I have in mind, which is wholly a matter of situation, of occasion, of the opportune moment. Call it the transformation of a tramp into a leader. This is the same scene which I showed you the beginning of. But then, now, I'm going to play it all the way to the end.
OK, so one might argue, with good justification, that this is not quite to count as success in the world. Chaplin's comic fortune would land him in jail. It is, therefore, all the more important to clarify the distinction between succeeding and what I call "fortunate fit with the world." One succeeds in a specific purpose of behavior. Success is the achievement of what one aimed for.
But Chaplin is a figure of fortunate existence, in that he can fit the world, come what may. Benjamin thus remarks that-- I quote-- "Chaplin's clothes are impermeable to every blow of fate." He looks like a man who hasn't taken his clothes off for a month. Wet through, sweaty, in clothes far too small for him, Chaplin is the living embodiment of Goethe's "a percu." Man would not be the noblest creature on Earth if he were not too noble for it.
Chaplin, then, is in consistent mismatch with any specific circle of existence in which he happens to find himself. But therefore, following the logic of Goethe's aphorism, he embodies a nobility of spirit, a deeper fit to the world as such. To fit the world like a glove is to be out of line with any partial social world.
As Rudolf Arnheim points out, he's not simply poor. He not only lacks a collar and tie. He does not fit into his world at all, not even into that of the poor. The shoes he brought into the world are too big for him. He turned out to be two sizes too small, from head to foot, and is always out-of-sorts in the midst of the muscular diligence of policemen, bartenders, shopkeepers, and crooks.
In a short prose piece of the "Ibizan Sequence," written in the early '30s, Benjamin draws, as it were, a rose of wings of fortune. Its directions are given by various figures of scoundrels or fools. We find they are Shrake, Lucky Hans, Bouvard and Pecuchet, and-- not surprisingly-- Chaplin. Benjamin charts the various directions along two axes, success and conviction, each capable of taking an all or nothing value.
One can either seek to adopt all convictions or have none. One either succeeds always or fails always. Each of the four possible combinations gives a simple unity to one's world. Fortune, one would say, manifests itself when one is not partial, when attunement is to the world as such.
Importantly, then, fortunate existence is not assessed by how much one achieves success or how much one avoids failure. What is essential is not the holding to specific convictions that gives the best chance of success. There is a fit with the world that is completely neutral, with regard to success and lack of success, and is rather identified in a certain constancy of spirit.
Success would bring in its wake the contentment of achievement, which, as Benjamin notes in another context, is also a temptation to hubris. It would tempt fate. Fortunate existence, irrespective of success, is to be released from fate altogether. Now, Benjamin entitles the direction in this compass, occupied by Chaplin, the genius of failure.
And I quote, "Chaplin or the schlemiel? The schlemiel takes offense at nothing. He just stumbles over his own feet. He's the only Angel of Peace who is suited to this world." To consistently stumble over one's self, as though before another has the chance to hurt you, means that you take no offense from others. And this is, for sure, important in making you a peaceful character.
But more is at stake here, for, to call Chaplin an Angel of Peace, is no small matter, at least for Benjamin. It puts him in the company of such other angels as the Angel of Melancholy and the Angel of History. Yet, wouldn't that make him an allegorical figure? Or a mere type? Is Chaplin, then, not quite an individual, but rather the illustration of an idea?
These questions make it all the more important to distinguish typicality from what Benjamin thinks of as the true anonymity of character, as well as to understand film's singular capacity to vividly present types in individuals, to present what Stanley Cavell calls individualities.
The various aspects of Chaplin we have developed-- his turn to the open, his lack of inwardness, his destructive relation to habit, his peculiar fit with the world beyond the polarity of achievement and failure, as well as his simplicity of being-- can all be summed up in the claim that he has the natural spirituality of character. Just as tragedy involves heroic individuation in a field of non-moral guilt, comedy is the manifestation of the non-moral, yet spiritual, in a sense of character.
Character is not a psychological notion. Nor is it, for Benjamin, an ethical one. Indeed, in comedy, characters lack complex psychological motivation. And some of his comic examples for persons of character are scoundrels. Character is humanity or spirit presented solely in terms of a simple ruling trait. And I quote, "The sublimity of character comedy rests on the anonymity of man and his morality, alongside the utmost development of individuality through its exclusive character traits."
What is crucial to such comic presence is that every manifestation of the life of the person is deployed out of the single character trait. There's, thus, a rigor or consistency in character. This is, I take it, why Benjamin speaks of it as akin to logic.
Here, we might also recall Chaplin's mathematical naivete or his almost mechanical reliability. If one is to speak of the inner in relation to him, it would not be as a space of reflection, self-consciousness, or spiritual struggle, but rather, as Benjamin puts it, in the way a machine is everywhere determined by the law of its interior-- namely, by the function of the engine.
In the image Chaplin projects, affable nature and politeness is consistent with mechanical behavior. "Chaplin," Benjamin writes, "greets people by taking off his bowler. And it looks like the lid rising from the kettle when the water boils. This consistency of something that works wholly according to one simple inner law raises, for sure, the threat of determinism. But properly understood, I think, simplicity is liberating.
The person of character is not judged by the complexity, richness, or depth of his inner world, since he's fully turned outside. He opens, by his presence, a meaningful circle, meaningful surroundings. Tailored to his measure, he makes things happen at his own pace. Character," Benjamin writes, "develops in comedy like a sun in the brilliance of its single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity." It's kind of uniform illumination of a world out of your inner logic.
OK, in the last part of my paper, I want to briefly suggest how some of the themes we have discussed are played out in Benjamin's interpretation of The Circus or, more precisely, in a short note he has written, after he attended the showing of the film when it came out in 1928. So this is a half-page note.
Benjamin considers The Circus to be the first work of Chaplin's maturity. He even refers to it, in the related context, as the first mature work of the art of film. And he further explicates this maturity in terms of an acknowledgment of limitations. I quote, "The most moving thing about this new film is the feeling that he now has a clear overview of the possibilities open to him and that he is resolved to work exclusively within these limits to attain his goal.
Working within the limits of the possible, while intensifying his significance, is achieved by refining the construction of the film. Chaplin was the first," Benjamin writes, "to construct a film with a theme and variations, in short, with the element of composition. And all this stands in complete opposition to films based on action and suspense. At every point," Benjamin adds, "the variations on his greatest themes are displayed in their full glory."
So let me first describe some of these variations and then reflect on the significance of this principle of composition. The variations are to be understood in terms of the way Chaplin's simple essential being manifests itself anew or is recognizable again in any environment he finds himself in. In the case of The Circus, the environment is an amusement park or fairground in which there is also a circus.
The brilliant variations on the Chaplin themes, with which we are probably acquainted, also, from previous films, will then make evident his constancy of being, his having character. And three interrelated themes are chosen as fundamental to Chaplin's externalized mode of existence-- the chase, the surprising apparition, and the noninvolvement. Their variations are explored in relation to a short segment from the beginning of the film.
Now, a chase is something that appears practically in every Chaplin film. The extreme variation of the chase in a fairground environment is to set it in a mirror maze. Chaplin even escapes in an environment of endless reflection.
OK, maybe of interest, this figure of the reflecting mirrors that create some kind of illusion of infinity is quite important for Benjamin in the Arcades Project. Something like-- because a figure for demonic reflection, for a certain way in which you sense there is infinite possibility that is actually the same thing or your self being reflected again and again.
Another related figure he has is the idea of a kaleidoscopic mode of experience in which you sense, as it were, a kind of perfect order, when all there is is this catastrophic bunch of shards. But they are glass shards that are dispersed. So it's interesting that he focuses on that moment of escaping from really demonic reflection, at least if we follow the intuition that there's something about the relation of Chaplin to fate that is important to Benjamin.
OK, we are also well-acquainted with how Chaplin appears out of nowhere. He appears or walks into a situation, since he never belongs to anywhere in particular to start with. And again, this theme receives this extreme variation in the environment of The Circus show in that-- I quote-- "His unexpected appearance would astonish a magician." And this is the scene he has in mind.
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A last variation is Chaplin's noninvolvement. Far from being a sign of egoism, it is a mode of his being in an environment. His simplicity gives him a trajectory of his own. He can stumble upon a situation, often when being chased and running away. But he does not enter it out of prior interest. He has no ulterior motives or planning and so on. And in these opening moments of the film, Benjamin writes, the mask of noninvolvement turns him into a fairground marionette.
OK, this is, also, a great example for this way I was speaking of Chaplin's affinity to the mechanical, the way in which, for him, something like spirituality is not inconsistent with some form of appearing like a marionette. And this is something that's developed in many of his films after The Circus. Something like, how can you embody the vision of the innocence of the mechanical? The simple grace of the mechanical that Kleist speaks about on the puppet theater.
Now, the choice of themes, as well as the restriction to the beginning of the movie, is a function of this being for Benjamin, I take it, merely an example. And an ambition, interpretation, of the movie would extend the implications of that method of composition to every scene in it. Instead of doing that, I want to consider, now, the point of this method of composition.
As I've already hinted, I take it to be geared to the presentation of the unity of world of a person of character. A space of variations on interrelated themes allows us to conceive of encompassing into a unity all situations contingently encountered by that person. It is as though the whole circle of existence comes, thereby, to be colored by Chaplin's existence in it. It becomes, through this variation on his essential being, something like "his" world.
Since Chaplin's trajectory is never in sync with any specific circle of existence he enters into, his movement in it, as it were, dislodges or de-centers the environment, releasing or dissolving the tensions constitutive of it. The seeming intractable complexity are made to vanish by the way Chaplin's simplicity gives the environment a new unity.
So this suggests a peculiar form of completeness in Chaplin's existence. He's not complete by realizing gradually, through the unfolding of events in time, certain specific human perfection. In that sense, he does not have any individual history. His life cannot be told or narrated. As the idea of theme and variation suggests, it is not epic but musical. His presence completes by, as it were, consuming an environment and concentrating it all around his simple presence.
This mode of consummation of what is otherwise left constricted and languishing has a distinctive energetic manifestation, to which testifies the intensity of Chaplin's presence. Indeed, Chaplin is something of a human perpetual mobile. As Benjamin notes about The Circus, he is unfamiliar with beds. When he lies down, he does so in a wheelbarrow or on a seesaw. So even Chaplin's resting place is an object made for movement.
In his essay on Kafka, Benjamin makes much of the line in one of his stories that fools don't sleep, for how could fools get tired? That they never get tired is, of course, related to their simplicity of existence. The idea of completion as consummation might explain why, for Benjamin, the most wonderful part is the way the end of the film is structured. And so, I show you now the end of the film. And we're going to discuss this.
An ending of the movie, true to Chaplin's character, cannot be identified as the ending of a narrative sequence, such as, let's say, the wedding of the acrobat girl and the tightrope walker, the departure of the circus, and so on. After all these things have been taken care of, Chaplin is left to himself, sitting on a discarded box. This is a dangerous moment, potentially a moment of reflection and melancholy, which would be out-of-line with the presentation of Chaplin as having the natural innocence of character.
But Chaplin makes it a final variation on the eccentric's relation to the circle of existence. Note then that this sitting on a box relates to another moment early on in the film. As he prepares himself for his first day of work at the circus, Chaplin sits on such a box to eat his meager provisions. The box marks no specific spot. It is something discarded, out of circulation.
This is particularly evident insofar as we are in the vicinity of a circus that has a circular area that is an arena where the real show takes place. As the film is about to end and the circus leaves with all its wagons and equipment, you may have noticed that the box is now found close to the center of a distinctly drawn circle on the ground, inside what Benjamin refers to as-- I quote-- "the rot of the circle earlier drawn by poverty."
I take this to signal how the environment of the circus has been dislodged from its earlier bounding limit and shifted or taken up completely by the unity of world of the eccentric character. And it is this translation that must show the way to the completion of the film.
This is not as far-fetched a reading as it may seem, if we further take into account that Chaplin does not immediately stand and leave. He picks up a torn piece of paper with a star on it, the torn part of the screen of a hoop, through which the acrobat girl had to jump. And this bit of paper refers us back to the very opening of the film. I show you a brief moment of that opening.
OK, so the ring of the circus opens for us in the tearing of that screen, at the same time as the space of the movie does. But the two should not be identified. Indeed, a bit further, when the manager of the circus throws his daughter, the acrobat girl, to the ground through a similar hoop, we recognize something like the violence and constricting character of this or any circle of existence.
Taking further into account that a screen on which appears a star is one way of referring to a movie, it is particularly important that the next thing that Chaplin does is to crumple this torn bit of paper and kick it away, in one of his more familiar gestures. The tearing of the screen at the beginning and it's crumpling at the end form, therefore, something like a further frame for the movie after the end of its narrative sequences or of its space of action.
But since there is still something going on after that bit of paper is kicked away, it follows that we are given a glimpse of Chaplin's presence beyond the end, so to speak. Benjamin remarks on this by saying that, in his advance toward the horizon, his own walking trademark, just like the company trademark you see at the end of other films. Now, being one's own trademark would be one way of describing the coming together of type and individuality in the true anonymity of character.
And the familiar gradually-closing circle of light on a human form walking right towards the horizon becoming smaller and smaller might even, at this stage, appear to us not just as a convention of the medium but also as signifying how Chaplin's world recedes from view. It is as though, only then, we recognize him in infinite perspective, as a vanishing point of the struggles of existence, as what I called earlier, the utopian dream image.
Thus, Benjamin writes, and now, at the only point when there is no break and you'd like to be able to follow him with your gaze forever, the film ends. But Benjamin also gives us a less fantastic or more materialistic way to read the end.
So the bit in which we are shown the trademark of the movie company is not usually taken to be part of the movie itself. And so, another way of understanding how Chaplin exists beyond the end of the movie is to identify him there with the company. Chaplin doesn't just act in the film. He is, as is known, also the author, the director, producer, and the composer of his films.
As Benjamin puts it-- I quote-- "Chaplin's relation to film is fundamentally not that of Chaplin the actor, let alone the star. You might say that Chaplin, considered as a total phenomenon, is no more an actor than was William Shakespeare." The possibility of this total phenomenon is, as I've tried to argue, also dependent on the instrument itself, let's say, the camera, being a principal actor. Thank you very much.
AUDIENCE: What would Benjamin make in the [INAUDIBLE] and the jerkiness of Chaplin? Although it seems, in modern times, a kind of lyrical grace, like the roller skating in the department store or the soggy scenes when he's a waiter.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: They're incredibly beautiful, but they're extended.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. So for instance, the scene in the department store, the skating at the department store, is, I would say, a scene in which you actually realize something like this fortunate fit with the world I was talking about. Just because, if you remember, he's blindfolded. And he skates and gets, really, to this edge of-- yeah-- this place in the department store where, I guess, the rail is missing.
And the girl, Paulette Goddard holds herself, not to scream or something. And it's really this sense that something about his way of moving through the world without something like the intentional direction of consciousness or something of that kind of understanding of what-- spirit comes to reflectiveness, thoughtfulness, and so on, is what makes him an image of this perfect fit. So this is, I think, one way in which I would go with those moments, really, of choreography almost in Chaplin's existence.
I think of another beautiful case at the beginning of City Lights, not the very first scene where he's uncovered, sleeping on the statue, which is being-- I don't know how you would call it-- unveiled in front of the whole city crowd. Another way of showing that something in his relation to sleep is bizarre. He's not anxious in any way, being woken up in front of that crowd.
But the scene after that is a scene in which he has this way of mimicking what aesthetic judgment is. So he's standing in front of a gallery window. And there's, I think, a statue of cowboys and diligence and horses. And then there's the statue of a naked woman. And he makes as if-- this gesture of appreciation, walking back and forth and, from time to time, looking at the naked lady there.
And you can take it as this making fun of-- I don't know-- the problem of disinterestedness in aesthetic judgment. But really what happens there is that he walks, also, all the way to the edge of a kind of trap door that opens in the street. And whenever he takes the step back, it's luckily the time where the trap door goes up.
So something about-- I would call them the choreographical moments-- something like those extended moments of, really, grace have to do with, I think, his relation to fortune or luck. But the song at the end of Modern Times, it's interesting.
I have to think of it. I mean, there's a way in which you want to say he is improvising there. But I think this is too strong a term to attribute to him at that moment. Or if you go with this idea of the kind of spirit or character he has, improvisation is-- even it's kind of freedom requires a bit too much. But, yeah, I'm not--
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] dropping into a fake language.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, yeah. So that definitely-- for sure, the question where muteness comes in in presenting Chaplin as something like having a certain unity of spirit, which you can very difficultly achieve when someone speaks. So I thought of Harpo-- would be the other figure that really can have this angelic quality.
And it has to do with, really, projecting another kind of unity or mindfulness, which is very hard to recapture once you have language, I would say. Yeah, and therefore, in City Lights, you have something. You have jibberish coming out of the people that unveil the statue. Or in this case, in Modern Times.
AUDIENCE: Maybe I need [INAUDIBLE] of Benjamin and [INAUDIBLE]. This-- it's interesting, especially for me-- the part that you connect Chaplin stumbling with, then, the science of modernity being [INAUDIBLE] or modern.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Mm-hm.
AUDIENCE: Can you discuss this?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] have these a remarkable [INAUDIBLE]. My question is, since you hold the experience that Benjamin calls a violent shock of modernity to us [INAUDIBLE], does Benjamin have any idea about how to diminish the fact of-- fight against the fact of the violent shock of modernity?
And also, he keeps talking about this past memory and experience, along with tradition in essays like "Storyteller." [INAUDIBLE] visual thing. Does this idea of tradition in experience have anything to do with his conceptualizations of history?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Of history? OK, these are excellent questions, very big ones. So let me say a few things about this essay, "Experience and Poverty," and this whole way of addressing the issue of something like the poverty of modern experience.
What I was trying to do is to get away from something like a picture in which reality kind of hits you in the face. Something about walking in a big city is terrible, because you kind of get in contact with the crowd. In some sense, this is not quite right, phenomenologically. And I wouldn't want to think of Benjamin going this way, as if shock is really something that has to do with actual physical or affective intensities in reality.
I take it that it has much more to do with some way of being in meaning, some ways in which, really, you can make a distinction between an experience of significance in the world or in your involvement with it, which always depends or seems to depend on bringing something like the wealth of the past, of tradition, of your own course in life, with you to judging certain situations and so on.
And so distinguishing that from a situation where, because of the unavailability of the experience of generations, something like the reduced experience becomes the center of your way of finding meaning in the world. So the reduced experience would be not something that is quite shocking, again, in the physical sense of the term.
On the contrary, something like the problem for Benjamin would be that, actually, you bring too much consciousness to make out the meaning of things, when you have this disconnection of the space of experience. That some way in which you experience the world, as it were, poorly, because you organize things too much, according to something like the form of your conscious existence.
Now, what do you do with that state or that kind of poverty of meaning? I don't go for some kind of model in which what you're seeking is really to absorb those energies in a really lively way, as it were, bypassing consciousness. That would be one model of what you do in these conditions. You affirm something like the force of immediate experience. And that seems to me to be romanticizing something about the situation, its problem, and so on.
The other way to go would be what Benjamin calls a way of affirming barbarism. So yeah, we have reached this condition of barbarism, in which we have culture, as it were, there. But it's there as though it's there in a museum, in some way in which we do not relate to it so that it comes to inform our present experience of the world. What this affirmation of barbarism would be, he gives several examples.
Again, I would say not as real solutions but as certain kind of images. And Chaplin, I think, is one of them. But he also mentions a certain tendency of art to think or to relate itself to something like the work of engineers or to think, if we speak of the work of art as, say, to think of the relation of art to testing, to experiments, to training, various kinds of term that belong to, let's say, the conscious realm of scientific practice.
How you make that into something that can actually hold the force of traditional arts and of the significance we endow it with is something like what he's trying to do when he speaks about various forms of modern art, especially when-- if poverty of experience has to do with the presence of technology, then especially in cases where technology is involved in the production of the work of arts, of films and photography and so on.
But then, the models are going to be, how can you have something that is both related to experiments and also to the opening of what we traditionally call beauty or the aesthetic? So there's a great piece of his, very short, on Karl Blossfeldt, on this photographer who did enlargement of plants, hundreds of those photographies. And he thinks of him, as it were, in between aesthetics and science or opening up a new form of connection between those.
This is what I think of as affirming something like poverty, so taking into account this prevalence of the conscious and some kind of reliance on the machine or the machinery to open up something that is besides the conscious or not quite. But it's not, well, the usual kind of unconscious or involuntary. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, this is really [INAUDIBLE], because as I was watching the beginning and the ending of The Circus, it struck me that another way of thinking about this comparing of the relationship between three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality. As he turns his back to us, he becomes a silhouette. And certainly, the figure of Charlie Chaplin himself is almost made to be a silhouette.
And then, in thinking--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Great.
AUDIENCE: --about photography, you're thinking about the ways in which the world around you is kind of flattened. And so I wonder-- and then, of course, there's the image that flatness pervades these clips that we saw and the image of him in the mirror and everything. And I'm just wondering of a way-- if we could think about this-- oh, and of course, [INAUDIBLE] character, and say that's a kind of flatness.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So I was wondering if there's a way in which we can think about what you're talking about as also a kind of embracing of the limitations or the conditions of representation itself? And [INAUDIBLE] of not just the [INAUDIBLE], but-- yeah-- the necessary abstraction occurs in relation to this.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Mm, OK. It's great. So there is, I think, a model for making flatness or the surface something crucial in our experience of art. I mean, in painting. And this comes out of Clement Greenberg and his Kantian way of speaking of what it is to acknowledge something like the conditions of the medium. What is involved? Or what is constituative of our practice of making paintings?
And then, he would say, well, one of the crucial things is that painting is on a flat surface. Somehow, the practice of painting or the modernist way of thinking of the history of painting is as a continuous discovery of this very basic fact of the medium surface or flatness. Now, it's an interesting question, I think, whether film fits this same kind of model.
That is, can you say, first, that flatness is part of our sense of what a film is? I don't think so. So I would say, transparency is much more important than a sense of the surface of the screen. And so, if you want to go that way and, as it were, think about what is brought out by reflecting, in film, on the conditions of possibility of film-- yeah-- at least something about the way Greenberg takes surface and flatness is going to be problematized in relation to film.
And it seems to me that he actually speaks of the problem of film as getting, as it were, through the screen and onto what's happening. And therefore, it's not really a modernist form of art. It kind of does away with your sense of the conditions of possibility, because the screen is transparent.
But then, the question will be, well, is there another way now to conceive of how film brings out-- or maybe not quite. It does not exhibit conditions of possibility of its own mode of being. But maybe it relates, somehow, to reality in a certain way that, as I was tried to suggest, allows its reversal or dialectical transformation.
This is also evident when you think of, for instance, how someone like Greenberg treats kitsch and how Benjamin thinks about the importance of kitsch in relation to film. So if you have this view in which what you recover is the conditions of possibility of the medium, then you oppose to that some attraction, sentimental or other, to contents or to something that happens in the work of art, then draws you in, as it were, through the surface.
And that, he would call kitsch. And that's problematic artistically. And that's problematic politically. For Benjamin, one of the most important things about film is that, he says, it can take kitsch into itself and, as it were, transform it. That is, it has this possibility of-- and it's not clear how that works. I tried a certain direction of thinking about it in relation to Chaplin. But it can take something like the demand of the masses for something with immediate and 100% consumption and, as it were, transform it into something significant.
And so, yeah, I would say, there's something that tries to get away not only from, lets say, a Kantian or Kantian-oriented picture of what the work of art is, which is basically what Benjamin sums up in the notion of the aura, but also to get away from a certain type of Kantian-oriented criticism and its understanding of the way in which significant art relates to or resists something about the presence of the masses. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: OK, just a question to follow that. But I think you mentioned in your talk that Chaplin is not that type of signal or [INAUDIBLE], right, if I--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yep.
AUDIENCE: --heard it correctly. Actually, it reminds me-- in the interpretation [INAUDIBLE] in the [INAUDIBLE] novels. And I think the character bears a lot of similarity to that type of character who has no physical appearance and/or intellectual dazzle. Of course, [INAUDIBLE] that pretty much strive for survival.
So I don't know whether you see this in that same cinematic choreography as [INAUDIBLE] interpretation of that type of character. Or would you call that kind of mindfulness a gymnastic one? So instead, to have [INAUDIBLE] conversations using [INAUDIBLE] physical aspects? [INAUDIBLE] in the cinema. So--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, great. OK, so this problem of types and the typical in general is something, I think, that is worth thinking about broadly in Benjamin's reflections on modernity. There is a way in which-- I just mentioned that, speaking about the flaneur. It's a way in which you can give some beauty and significance to something that appears in masses.
So the experience of the flaneur with the crowd would be something like this sense in which, OK, you can have this whole human comedy of types. And Benjamin really goes into how, in the mid-19th century, you have all this literature of types from, of course, Balzac, but also all those books which were illustrated by the great caricaturists of the time, by Gavarni and Daumier and Grandville.
There's a series of books like that. One of them is called [FRENCH], Frenchmen Painted by Themselves. And it really is a gallery of all the types you find in society, lower, higher, whatever. There's this fascination, I would say, with typicality and the ways it has a certain beauty to it.
And what Benjamin emphasizes is that, of course, this is a bit of a romantization of what the experience of typicality is, to be so enamored as if you're still the romantic promeneur in nature. And you pick flowers. And you have a sense of all the subspecies of the human. And you make social existence into something like the natural.
And he says, no. This attraction to type must undergo transformation or must also incorporate into itself something like the violence of this experience, of the presence of masses in your experience. And so he has a discussion of Baudelaire's painter of modern life, of Constantine Guy, who really is presented as someone who's fencing with his impressions. So he draws those types of Paris by, as it were, sitting at night and dealing with all he experienced during the day, as though he's fencing with something that's about to disappear or submerge [INAUDIBLE], whatever.
But then, Benjamin says, no, this is not enough. Really what you have to realize is that this leads to another sense of the typical, which he finds, for instance, Edgar Allen Poe, "The Man of the Crowd." "The Man of the Crowd"-- so the story is about someone who is, as it were, an obsessive flaneur. So he tracks a certain person that he sees passing by the coffee shop or whatever he's sitting at.
And this person keeps being swallowed by the crowd. And he follows him and follows him and to no avail. This person just wants to be taken by the crowd. And what Poe, or the narrator, says at this point, this is the man of the crowd. And the man of the crowd is the one who seeks the crowd as a place of hiding. That is, the crowd becomes something like a signification for guilt for someone who wants to hide himself.
It's, let's say, what will lead to the understanding of, now-- well-- the whole direction, which he develops as the presence of this other figure, the detective. But it's also-- I go around too much. It's also this issue that it's a failure of typicality, of attempting to deal with the crowd with this beauty of types.
Benjamin refers to this poem of Baudelaire, [FRENCH], where the flaneur turns into someone who has this apparition of the same hideous old man showing up again and again and again. So something like repetition, eternal return, fatality, guilt, and so on is the trajectory of this way of being taken by types.
And so the question is, well, does photography or film take us another way? And can it really represent something like-- what I wanted to talk about is something like character as this peculiar way of having simplicity or, in some sense, typicality, but really completely embodied as individuality or determining completely the form of a single kind of humanity or a spirit-- not something abstract, not something stereotypical, not something problematic, in that sense-- but a conviction that you have human spirit, but in a very simple manifestation.
Why photography or film are good for that-- I think Cavell's discussion of this matter is the best I know in The World Viewed. And I think the chapter is called-- something-- "Cycle Types," and so on. But from the beginning, photography is, in some sense attracted to typicality. There's this-- I don't like to call him exactly a photographer-- Francis Galton, who really took photography to be able to present types of human beings.
What he did is to take a family of people of the same kind-- Jews, criminals, or whatever-- and superimpose the negatives, one on top of the other, so that you would get something like the type of the kind of person you want, but somehow embodied in a visible form. It's kind of, averaging of photographs would offset whatever is different and leave you with the typical.
And Benjamin wants to go to places where you have a thought of types in photography and in film, but which do not give you that kind of prejudice or stereotypical way of exemplifying a type, which you already know, as it were. So for instance, he would turn to August Sander and his collection of the types of the Weimar Republic, which is magnificent.
How [INAUDIBLE] think of it, in terms of Goethe's understanding of types and empiricism and something like the unity of types of experience. With regard to film, I would say, just maybe briefly, it has to do with the technology, with finding something that-- this is what I meant by making something like an artistic revelation through the technology. Because what the technology does-- the camera, let's say-- is really to separate the embodied presence of the actor from his role.
So if, in theater-- that's something like Cavell's argument-- the actor enters a role and, as it were, projects it towards the audience, what you have in film is that the camera can catch something about the actor, over and above his actions, his intentional behaviors, talking up a character or role. So you have this dissociation, in film, between a certain presence and typicality as role. And therefore, you have the opportunity of some deeper presentation of types, pertaining completely to something like the individuality that arises in this involvement of the camera.
But then, of course, the type is going to be-- let's say-- something which importantly doesn't have the unity of active involvement, consciousness, and so on. So that would lead to, for instance, Chaplin or the fool or the naive unity of the type. But the picturesque novel-- I don't know enough about that. But yeah, I'd love to hear more. I don't know-- go ahead.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] to go?
So one of the things that struck me about your quotation from Benjamin, concerning the circle in The Circus is that Benjamin pictures the circle as representing-- you said, poverty-- something that imprisons, that confines. But when I think of Chaplin, especially in the first scene in the movie, and the sort of ballet and the gears in Modern Times, I think of a circle as something to be walked around or pulled around by gears and [INAUDIBLE]. Something that represents more of a circuit than--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: A circuit-- that's nice.
AUDIENCE: Like a journey or a cycle, rather than a prison. I'm note sure there was a question.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. [DEEP SIGH] What's the first scene, which you refer to? The circle that opens up--
AUDIENCE: Opens up--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: --this--
AUDIENCE: Yeah, where the woman jumps through the circle.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: But, OK, you have to take that with what happens about 15 seconds after that. She bows and walks out. And then, the circus manager, her father, is all mad that she missed the hoop once. And there's another hoop kind of leaning there on the side. And he violently throws her to the ground through that hoop.
So it is, I think, expressing something like the circle as constricting, as, in some sense, related to some figure of the violence of the circle of existence, or whatever circle of existence you find yourself in or you're compromised by being part of or your relation to it is one of falling into whatever. But then, you had the circuit as an interesting figure, I think. Which, I take it, you want that to be some way of introducing movement or a certain freedom into what initially looks like a production chain or something like that? I--
AUDIENCE: What I meant was, like, the idea of patterns and the character who doesn't learn anything necessarily, because he's walking a circle over and over again. And it is a little bit played out in the assembly line, where you have this sort of circle. And it is a circle prison.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, so one thing that's usually pointed out in relation to the scene of Modern Time is that this going through the cogwheels is just like a celluloid film that goes through a projector. So in some sense, there's a way in which Chaplin signals there that something about your position regarding this relation of the human to the machine is going to hinge on how you take the cinematic technology to be involved with the human figure.
And there, I agree with your intuition that there is something of an attempt not to-- Modern Times is often taken as Chaplin introducing various ways of halting the machine, of destroying it, of antagonizing this way of-- so he makes the machine stop working. For instance, in the feeding scene, where they try a feeding machine, when people can still work and then be automatically fed at the same time. And when Chaplin is, of course, the one you test the machine on, then everything blows up.
But I would say, no. We don't have just the antagonistic relation to the machine. We have the intimacy to the machine, in the way in which something like the cinematic technology opens the possibility of, really, this new form of-- let's say, a conviction in the individuality of a type. It's not stereotypical. It's really, one and the same time, a completely human phenomenon and something that is also very simple.
I wouldn't say going around in circle-- this image bothers me a bit. Because the implication of eternal return is usually something you associate with something like the fatality of repetition of an environment. There can be a happy face to it. But some work needs to be done to go there. Yeah.
I was thinking-- the figure of the flaneur, the idler, that heart strapped to the nobility who were characterized by leisure-- they did not work.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, that's true.
AUDIENCE: And the idler seems like the debris, the detritus, of the nobility in this single figure. And I was wondering-- we don't want the nobility back, because all the connotations are exploitation of the labor and the peasantry. But flaneur, the idler, seems to simplify and distill that notion of idler's [INAUDIBLE] as highly valued. And so there's this sense that culture maybe carries the debris, the detritus.
So perhaps, Benjamin's Angel of History was looking back at all that detritus piling up with, we assume sometimes, a sense of despair. But is there a sense in which these debris, these detritus of history, contain within them nuggets of earlier values-- excellence, [LATIN]-- that, in a way, can't be separated from the negative connotations they once had as well.
So is there a way in which art, the idler, dresses in a way to capture our attention? But also, we're looking. Can the spectator, can that relation between the figure in art and the spectator-- can that be used as the Angel of History, as if it breathed on it, to renew some of those qualities, those ideals, that are almost carried as detritus right now?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. Can I confess something?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: I am really trying to avoid-- like, fire the Angel of History. It's so over-used in trying to think about Benjamin, that you need to leave it aside. And maybe, at some point, some understanding of this figure will be useful. But it's overlaid with so many ways of reading it that there's something there, which-- yeah. So I'll put this aside and address the--
AUDIENCE: But not the Angel of History then, if that's a cliche, but the idea that melancholy is memories that you enter and, in a way, recognize the phenomenality of envying itself. And so, that way, these figures-- if you don't want to call them detritus-- but that are remnants, say, that can open to insight.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, no. I think one way in which the emphasis on fantasy seems to me interesting is that you emphasize something else than what is usually taken up as the attraction of the fragment, of melancholy, immersion in something like the detritus of, the ruins of history, or whatever.
Not that this should not be itself considered, but when I think about fantasy and comedy, the main affective tonality is that of the ephemeral, of the passing, of some idea of wholeness or infinity that experience can acquire in passing away, and a figure that, as it were, makes us believe in this passing away of the world, rather than this melancholic immersion and its materiality and its ruins and so on.
This is something that, maybe, we can talk about on Thursday. But this whole approach to Chaplin is, for me, very much connected to bringing out what this register of fantasy or dream image is for Benjamin. Which is crucial for his understanding of history and, of course, a sense of the possibilities of aesthetics in the age of technology but, in some ways, the opposite of where thoughts about fragmentariness and melancholy immersion, things like that, would lead to. Those are two poles, as it were, which are equally important to Benjamin to get something like a complete image.
AUDIENCE: Come [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Oh, thank you very much for your talk. It's a similar question, but a little more poignant, in so far as it's not enlisting the Angel of History. I'm more--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, OK.
AUDIENCE: So Benjamin disagreed with Marx on a number of issues, one of them being this idea of resolution and this notion that experience almost [INAUDIBLE] an emergency break that the masses are using. What's the difference between the way that you present the flaneur in Chaplin as this person who occupies this outsider position, or a position outside of production, but also is like an owner of their own trademark?
Different from Marx's notion of the [INAUDIBLE] proletariat-- but with regards to the monarch, who occupies the same position on the outside?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: OK, I don't think I can-- I'm not familiar enough with how those things--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: --work. I can try to answer, if you focus more on the problem in Benjamin. But--
AUDIENCE: Maybe for the colloquium then.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, OK.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
HENT DE VRIES: If you've come to a close, I want to, nonetheless, not leave the room without asking you about the [INAUDIBLE], whether you could shed more light on it. And [INAUDIBLE] we are constantly speaking in this room, in this summer session, about what is it that it's so hard to get in Benjamin, for example, by the tradition that reclaims him. For example, the Franklin School theory or [INAUDIBLE].
And I was reminded, listening to you, of an anecdote that I heard many years ago. It's a short piece by [INAUDIBLE], who was, at the time, the director of the Horkheimer Archive. And he becomes that student who gets to turn for a time. He enters the Institute for [INAUDIBLE]. And apparently, if you entered the door, there was a corridor somehow barricaded by some dark curtains before he enters the library proper.
And as he enters through the door, on the other side Adorno comes out of the library. And there's a moment of fascination. But the young [INAUDIBLE] reaches out his hand to greet Theodor Adorno. And Adorno petrifies, freezes. And [INAUDIBLE] recounts very beautifully that that's a sign of rejection in a student that [INAUDIBLE], reach out to Adorno to shake hands.
And then, much later, apparently he's been told an anecdote that Adorno [INAUDIBLE] at a party where someone introduced Adorno to someone. And it turned out, that person had a prosthetic arm. And Adorno shakes the hand and freezes. And Chaplin was right there and somehow saves the situation by, kind of, mimicking, reacting. And for that moment, everyone moved on.
And I always felt that, without the psychologizing, even though there are moments in Adorno, when he speaks about the clown or when he speaks about non-involvement and freezing at the moment of-- somehow the proper response to a world that is not in order. I always felt that this revealed so beautifully what it is that Adorno [INAUDIBLE]. Whereas, Benjamin probably-- as you beautifully described now in this reading of Chaplin-- thus, whether-- maybe [INAUDIBLE] psychology.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, yeah. Right.
HENT DE VRIES: Or at least, as a fairly new rhetoric-- that model of this natural spirituality of character is neither psychological nor ethical. That is, anonymity begets individuality that relies on this special reliability, which is fairly close to the scenes that [INAUDIBLE] seem to thing. But somehow, he does not grasp in this immediacy-- if that's a word that you laid out specifically in the [INAUDIBLE].
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Thanks.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] the impression that--
ELI FRIEDLANDER: That's a great story.
No, no. Can I quote you on that?
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Thanks.
AUDIENCE: So thank you so much.
ELI FRIEDLANDER: Thank you.
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Eli Friedlander, Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor of Modern Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, spoke at Cornell on June 29, 2015, as part of the School of Criticism and Theory public lecture series.