Τμήματα από το κείμενο του υποφαινόμενου "'Utopian and Cynical Elements': Chaplin, Cinema and Weimar Cultural Theory", που δημοσιεύτηκε, σε διαφορετική εκδοχή, στον τόμο Futurescapes: Space in Utopian and Science Fiction Discourses, επιμ. Ralph Pordzik, Άμστερνταμ και Νέα Υόρκη, Rodopi, 2009.
The Cynical Relay
What prevents the conflict between reification and Utopia from attaining a classically dialectical resolution is a phenomenon we might normally be tempted to view as contaminated by temperamental and contingent factors to an extent that makes it analytically useless: cynicism. But cynicism, as Peter Sloterdjik shows, was not an indifferently private or apolitical affair for Weimar culture. It was, on the contrary, the “culturally dominating” factor of Weimar society to such an extent that the latter can be considered “cynically disposed like scarcely any previous culture” (Critique 389, 4). Unsurprisingly, the cynical relay presents a number of complications to the configuration outlined above—ones that turn out to be central both to the Weimar reception of Chaplin’s work and to its own theoretical preoccupations. Most directly, because the diagnosis of cynicism effectively reverses the hermeneutic direction I have previously traced: instead of moving from an inventory of the impact of reification on cultural production to the hopeful appraisal of Utopian counterforces, the cynical relay turns conceptual traffic in the opposite direction, from apparently Utopian epiphenomena to profoundly reifying underlying structures. In this sense, cynicism strikes at the heart of the Utopian impulse, making it appear as a ruse whose ideological functionality is augmented precisely by its capacity to placate and neutralize collective demands for affectivity, relation, pleasure, or fulfilment. Though it is most prominently Adorno who develops a draconically vigilant critique of all that promises Utopian transcendence, including, emphatically, the products of the mass culture industry itself, Benjamin and Kracauer’s work is also at times prone to submit the affirmative content of mass culture to corrosive scrutiny.
This is the thrust behind Benjamin’s “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935), wherein the sensorial barrage of the world exhibitions is interpreted as a means of manipulation at the service of global commodification, and where the resulting effect of sensory and mental distraction is read as anything but politically progressive or enabling: “the entertainment industry makes this [distraction] easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity. He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others”, Benjamin notes. It is in this context that he speaks of a split, within the corpus of Grandville’s venomous caricatures of Parisian life, between “utopian and cynical elements”. This split must be taken to correspond to the content of the capitalist phantasmagoria itself, its twin status as both vehicle of Utopian promise and of cynical, manipulative intent; yet it is also explicitly viewed as the property of a work that critically comments upon that split as an aspect of the social situation. The relationship between the cynical and the Utopian, in other words, appears both in the self-representations of the socio-economic structure and in their critical dismantling from ‘the outside.’ Grandville’s sketches mimic, with satirical exaggeration, what they wish to expose: “Under Grandville’s pencil, the whole of nature is transformed into specialties. He presents them in the same spirit in which the advertisement […] begins to present its articles” (“Paris” 35; emphasis added).
Yet such mimetic replication once again appears to introduce a crucial difference into the picture: if on the plane of the socioeconomic organisation of industrial capitalism the “Utopian” is what is betrayed by the cynical manipulations of commodity culture, on the plane of Grandville’s artistic project, it is precisely the cynical unveiling of such manipulations that sustains the spirit of emancipatory critique. The oscillation between reifying and Utopian possibilities becomes exponentially compounded by the tendency of the cynical relay at once to enforce the commodification of Utopian impulses within the realm of social reality and to destroy the false appearances that sustain such commodification. Cynicism as at once the bane of Utopian possibility and the weapon against its counterfeiting, the instrument of manipulation and of demystification, the calling card of a reified and reifying consciousness and the harbinger of the effective denunciation of the grisly state of affairs that prevents genuine change: this, truly, is “dialectics at a standstill.”
But this means that the “split within the cynical phenomenon itself”, which “pits the cynical reason of domination and self-domination against the kynic revolt of self-assertion and self-realization” , becomes both structurally inevitable and hermeneutically problematic. Peter Sloterdijk’s distinction between cynicism and kynicism, the “cynical-defensive consciousness of the old bearers of power and the utopian-offensive consciousness of the new bearers” (Critique xxvii) resolves the problem of politically mapping Weimar thought at the cost of opening itself up to second-order confusions and deformations almost in the same breath: “in the great hall of cynical knowledge”, Sloterdijk wryly observes, the “extremes” of plebeian, embodied, satirical and subversive kynicism and of the calculative cynicism of power “meet” (4). The catastrophic Utopianism of dada, for instance, involves a mingling of both “cynical” and “kynical” aspects into a “scintillating complex that evades simple evaluations and uncomplicated emotional responses” (394-395). But a similar ambiguity haunts the project of Weimar Critical Theory as well; for as Sloterdijk shows, the internal division of Utopian and reifying dimensions within the cynical phenomenon insinuates itself in the very objective of “ideology critique”, whose Utopian pursuit of emancipation remains paradoxically dependent on ethically reifying discursive strategies:
Every struggle leads necessarily to a reciprocal reification of subjects. Because enlightenment cannot give up its claim of imposing better insights against a self-obstructing consciousness, it must basically ‘operate’ behind the opponent’s consciousness. […] The radical reification of the opponent is […] characteristic of Marxian theory. […] It is here that a second offshoot of modern cynicism grows. […] [Yet] Marxism, in its origins at least, maintained an ambivalence between reifying and emancipative perspectives (Critique 15, 20).
It should not come as a surprise, then, that in developing a sustained engagement with the treacherously slippery terrain limned by reification, cynicism, kynicism and Utopia (a conflict that is already anticipated, in a certain sense, in the generic interpenetration of Utopia and satire), Chaplin’s work does not merely justify its prominent place for the intelligentsia of the Weimar left; it also, as it were, furnishes a meta-commentary on the very ambivalences the body of this criticism reveals, mirroring its fluctuating modalities of cruel desublimation and Utopian warmth, profound disillusion and the commitment to social change, ironic distance and lyrical intensity.
Dog-Life Utopia: The Kid
Take, for instance, the apparently autonomous sequence that unfolds near the end of Chaplin’s The Kid (1921): exhausted and frustrated by his vain search for his missing adoptee, Charlie falls asleep on the steps of his squalid tenement building. The intertitle—“Dreamland”—that frames the beginning of the sequence introduces an abrupt transformation of the Tramp’s environs: garlands of white flowers have improbably transformed Charlie’s proletarian courtyard into a somewhat makeshift vision of heaven, and soon enough the missing child descends the stairs dressed in angelic garb, though visibly still wearing his old, tattered clothes underneath. The happiness of the reunion is soon capped with a grotesque apparition: an angelically transformed, flying dog is shown gracefully descending on the scene.
Puzzling as it might initially appear, this ephemeral visual moment is significant on a number of levels. Though it seems to come from nowhere, the angelic dog has quite a specific origin. Three years before the release of The Kid, Chaplin released A Dog’s Life. As its title suggests, the earlier film focused on the cruelly subhuman living conditions of the Tramp and on the bond he develops with the animal world when he befriends a similarly outcast dog. The visual orchestration of the two films reinforces their intertextual connection through a number of meticulously constructed matching shots: while The Kid shows a puzzled Charlie holding the abandoned infant as he sits pondering his prospects on the pavement, A Dog’s Life depicts him gently holding his adopted dog while sitting by the stairs of a similar tenement street; the famous shot of the Kid peering mischievously behind a wall is almost identical to that featuring Charlie’s dog in the earlier film; a policeman (played by the same actor) is shown staring suspiciously at Charlie’s unlikely partners in petty crime in both films; Charlie bumps his elbow onto a cop while attempting to avenge an insult by throwing a brick in A Dog’s Life, just as the street urchin does while preparing to throw a stone at a neighborhood window in The Kid. And finally, the closing sequence of A Dog’s Life features a felicitously gentrified Charlie and his sweetheart staring down at a baby cot, which contains not a newborn baby like that featured in The Kid but Charlie’s pet dog. The Kid’s seraphic canine thus allows Chaplin to link intertextual interfaces to interspecies ones. What ultimately links the two films to each other is their shared emphasis on the crossed threshold between humanity and animality—Charlie’s own social reduction to bare, animal life on the one hand , the uncomfortable parallels between foundling and beast on the other.
But there is clearly more at stake: animalities, Sloterdijk remarks, “are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation” (Critique 105). What pantomimic point does the flying dog help The Kid make? To the extent that it functions as a means of deflating the sentimental idealizations hiding the lived actuality of proletarian dehumanization from view, it serves as an appropriately embodied pun for the oppositional energies of kynicism, that “pantomimic materialism” which pits “practical embodiment” against “the swindle of idealistic abstractions and the schizoid staleness of a thinking limited to the head” (Critique 103, 102). A dog in wings: this may well be the most apt allegory of a Utopian kynicism, a threshold thought that insists on preserving the embodied reality Utopian fantasy would forget, yet also dares dream up a reconciliation between a dogged insistence on immanence and a redemptive vision of transcendence. Doesn’t the seraphic Kid, too, after all, oscillate between the bathetic image of immaculate innocence and the canny, cheeky one that insists on registering only a street urchin in awkward costume? From a dog’s-eye view, heaven is a partial, permanently conflicted affair, and “dreamland” contains the organs of its own historical awakening.
Yet hardly has this all too precarious balance between redemptive vision and its kynical de-idealization established itself than it is turned in the opposite direction: when the Tramp queries the Kid on where he obtained the wings, the latter takes him to a neighborhood store and the intertitle casts Charlie’s angelic transformation in the grotesquely materialist terms of “shopping”. The sequence hence moves from a kynical assertion of the irreducibility of embodied experience to the reification of the very scenography of wish-fulfilment, retrospectively exposing the latter’s proximity to consumerist trivialization. Challenging Kracauer’s assumption that it is intended as merely a playful digression from real-life action (Theory 86), “Dreamland” is then profoundly attuned to the dialectical interpenetration of Utopian fantasy and “real life”, private and public experience, the Utopian dynamic of kynical embodiment and the cynical deformation of Utopian desire. But the rising intensity of such interpenetration comes at an increasingly dear cost to the Utopian content of the original dream: Charlie, whose irreparably materialist imagination dictates that his new-found wings must be itchy and deserving of a dog-like scratch, dreams of being beaten up by the neighborhood bully and chased by a winged version of the very cop who has haunted his waking life. He is eventually shot in front of the door where the dream sequence began and where it returns, literally hunted down by its own, reality-generated frustrations. The image of the cop, his badge fully visible, reaching into his pocket for his gun, marks a certain crescendo of cynical and kynical spleen. As law and order brutally assert themselves, the “as if” of fantasy degenerates into mere prop and the flight of Utopian fancy is struck, as it were, in mid-air. The last shot of the sequence is, aptly enough, that of Charlie’s corpse, spread-eagled on the pavement, its scattered feathers evoking something like the opposite number of the winged dog: a slaughtered chicken, betrayed by its all-too-heavy, earthbound wings.
The film, however, does not end before giving another turn of the screw to the constant inversions and mutations to which “Dreamland” subjects the questions of Utopian fantasy and of its sundry inversions and betrayals. Startled, the Tramp discovers that the very cop who had appeared to shoot him is waking him up. The cop, inexplicably angelic for all his current lack of otherworldly attire, fondly asks Charlie to follow him, leading him to the home where a true reunion with the Kid becomes possible, amidst general levity and jubilation. Trite as it may otherwise seem, the ending is highly effective in putting the entire structural framework of the “Dreamland” sequence en abyme: if the dramatization of a Utopian daydream ended up with the demonstration of the triumph of a conflict-ridden and violent social reality, the depiction of that social reality ends up reabsorbed into what appears as conflict-resolving day-dream. It is a testimony of the force of this abyssal chiasmus that one finds it difficult to decide whether Chaplin leaves us with redemptive kynicism or damning cynicism—the persistence of a Utopian impulse at war with the knowledge of its own vulnerability or, on the contrary, the image of its utter neutralization, its reduction to mere “happy ending.”