Red Clowns of the Avant-Garde: On Owen Hatherley’s “The Chaplin Machine”

Tom Kohut appreciates “The Chaplin Machine” by Owen Hatherley, which offers a reevaluation of the Soviet avant-garde.

Red Clowns of the Avant-Garde: On Owen Hatherley’s “The Chaplin Machine”

The Chaplin Machine by Owen Hatherley. Pluto Press. 200 pages.

THE STORY GOES that, at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of aesthetes, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and sociopaths managed to create, by skill and by fortune, a self-consciously advanced society that promised an end to centuries of poverty, immiseration, illiteracy, and feudalism. While the politicians and generals connived with whatever power group they could convince, the aesthetes dreamed of a new human being striding through a new space. The latter envisioned a whole new life: new technologies, new ways of speaking, new ways of thinking that would negate the horrors of the previous centuries. But just as the politicians and generals were so ruthless as to undermine their ideals, the aesthetes’ fantasies were so extreme as to be unworkable — in short, a risible failure, albeit a stylish one, ripe for appropriation by artists in the 1980s and afterward.

Another, somewhat similar story goes along these lines: since the beginning of the 20th century, groups of artists and their retinues of critics and theorists, have dreamed of creating a totally new world — a pure, high-minded world, unfettered by the clutter of previous centuries. These (mostly) men were repelled by impurity wherever they found it. They abhorred popular culture, which gave comfort and joy to the masses while degrading their sensibility and destroying the integrity of art. And more than a few were also repelled by the racial impurity of the societies that surrounded them. What they recommended was a violent purging: buildings stripped of pleasant awnings and decorative flourishes; dissonant music without discernible melody; books that, when not incomprehensible, fixated on the morbid and obscene; films that were little more than an apparently random series of images and shapes. However, the true violence of this purging became evident after the revelations of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and artists turned away from the monumental dreams of purity to valorize and relish quotidian experience, refusing to set themselves apart from, or against, the masses.

These stories are, respectively, the broadly accepted “histories” of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s and of European modernism as a whole. On the one hand, we have the failure of artists to wed their aesthetic radicalism to political revolution; on the other, the modernists’ catastrophic attempt to purify the form of their art and to distance themselves from the wellsprings of mass or popular culture. In both cases, the endpoint is death, be it the Gulags or the Holocaust. This is, to be sure, a caricature of both the avant-garde in its Soviet specificity and in its European generality, but it is a caricature that is hard to dismiss from either side of the political spectrum. Left critics of the modernist avant-garde continue to regard its dissociation from the stream of the popular as its fatal weakness, while critics of a conservative, contrarian bent see the germ of totalitarianism in modernism’s negation of the past and attempt to purify the present.

In his most recent book, The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde, Owen Hatherley takes aim at these caricatures through an analysis of the peculiar role that the dream of “America” played in the work of Soviet filmmakers, graphic designers, and architects of the 1920s and 1930s. He reserves particular scorn for Boris Groys’s influential study The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), “a smart work of satire and an insightful attempt to inhabit the Stalinist mindset,” but “a book which should never be taken seriously as a work of avant-garde scholarship.”

Groys’s book is organized around the central claim that “it is in avant-garde art that we find a direct connection between the will to power and the artistic will to master the material and organize it according to laws dictated by the artists themselves,” a connection that culminates in the Stalinist doctrine of socialist realism. As Groys writes: “Under Stalin the dream of the avant-garde was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organized in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favored.” This thesis resonates with the by now traditional conservative response to the avant-garde project, and, like other conservative thinkers, Groys also blames the avant-garde for the rise of Nazism. He argues his case by making some broad claims about the avant-garde artist’s sense of power over life. In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, painters such as Kazimir Malevich and poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov attempted to abolish the old through the discovery and presentation of supra-rational forms, whether in the minimal geometry of Malevich’s Black Square or the ur-language of Khlebnikov’s zaum. This activity, argues Groys, gave the artists a “demiurgic” confidence: they believed they could manipulate the very building blocks of reality. Once the October Revolution proved a success, the avant-garde decided to cast its lot with the Bolsheviks: “The demand for complete political power that follows from the avant-garde artistic project is in effect now supplanted by the demand that the real political power acknowledge that its project is aesthetic in nature.” In essence, the artists cede their demiurgic power to the political leader — Stalin — who takes charge of the aesthetic transformation of reality.

This is, to be fair, only a cursory summary of Groys’s argument, but Groys’s work is itself rather cursory. He offers little detail. Who are these artists claiming demiurgic power over the fabric of reality? Is this a problem specific to the Soviet avant-garde, or, as Groys sometimes suggests, a problem with the avant-garde as such? Hatherley is correct to note that a synechdochal characterization of the Soviet avant-garde via outliers like Malevich and those associated with the LEF (Left Front of the Arts) journal distorts the picture to the point of unrecognizability. In The Chaplin Machine, Hatherley sets out to demonstrate that the avant-garde-as-demiurge model, in which art and politics sublate into totalitarianism, in no way characterizes the actual practice of Soviet artists of the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, whereas Groys cites examples exclusively from the realms of painting and literature — artistic practices with a strong sense of tradition and a considerable amount of cultural authority, in which the artist is often seen as a unique, solitary visionary — Hatherley focuses his discussion on the necessarily “social” or “collective” art forms of film and architecture, which could scarcely have any sort of material existence without collaboration and compromise.

So, what does characterize the actual practice of the early Soviet avant-garde? That, argues Hatherley, is where the (highly selective) dream of “America” comes in:

a collection of ideas, technologies, mass produced art objects and archetypes. The United States is the home of the Ku Klux Klan, of the Pinkerton strike-breaking gangs, of the Red Scare and the mechanization of labor; but “America” is also the home of Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford [and Frederick Taylor], Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, awe-inspiring industrial monuments, mass abundance — and the mechanization of labor.

For avant-garde artists, the constellation of Chaplin, Taylor, and Lenin produced an energetic surplus that fueled the artistic presentation of mechanized labor as both a source of material abundance and of pleasure for the imagination. Hatherley charts the efflorescence of this surplus, starting with the reception of the American silent comedies like The Adventurer (Charlie Chaplin, 1917), One Week (Buster Keaton, 1920), and Never Weaken (Harold Lloyd, 1921). For artists and critics such as Viktor Shklovsky (who developed the well-known concepts of “baring the device” and ostranenie, or estrangement), Alexander Rodchenko, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, these films resonated with their own aesthetico-political struggles. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; in terms of technique, these early American comedies were ironic and self-conscious, winking at the audience, reminding them that they were watching a film (i.e., “baring the device”), while, at the same time, shining an unexpected light on the audience’s quotidian experience (i.e., “making it strange”). But Hatherley draws particular attention to the human figures these films presented to viewers: Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Keaton’s “depressive, faintly sinister little man,” Lloyd’s ingénue in tidy suits and glasses. In these three characters, the early avant-garde of the 1920s — who had by that point endured the privations of World War I, two revolutions, and a protracted civil war — saw the awkward, hilarious birth of a new type of human being, one who was universal, potentially proletarian, and, above all, machine-like in his pratfall-punctuated traversal of the new spaces of industrialization. In Chaplin, the industrial machine becomes immanent. The Chaplin machine of the book’s title offers the possibility of an “Americanism in technology, Bolshevism in politics, [and] slapstick in everyday live.”

It is important to remember that what the Russians found in Lloyd, Keaton, and Chaplin is largely what they wanted to find, adapting what they could use and discarding the rest. The Chaplin machine required an extra, specifically Soviet supplement, the “red clowns” drawn from the circus via Meyerhold’s biomechanics. Here again, Hatherley overturns received wisdom concerning the use of Taylorism — mechanical rhythms imported from the field of industrial exploitation of human beings into the aesthetic. “Why,” Hatherley asks, “is it that accounts of biomechanical studios,” presumably the factories of corporeal disciplining and domination, “seem to present something so enjoyable, almost idyllic?” Because “[b]iomechanics is a comedy of technology, and hence is a fusion of what Meyerhold himself would codify in 1936 as ‘Chaplinism’”; indeed, biomechanics becomes “a complete revaluation of Taylorism to the point where it attains the quality of circus clowning.” However, Hatherley, who is always careful to remind us that very dark times are ahead for these artists (Meyerhold would be tortured and executed by the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs [NKVD] in 1940), points out that biomechanics had certain internal limits in its objectification and mechanization of the body, insofar as the Taylorization of the factory remained at a distance from the liberating corporeal discipline of the circus. If the red clowns were to mobilize the Chaplin machine, a further synthesis was required.

Oddly enough, this synthesis would be provided by emphasizing the disruptive (and destructive) aspects inherent in Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. And it would be enacted by the Eccentrics — a group of young actors and directors named Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, Sergei Yutkevich, and Georgi Kryzhitsky — and their Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEX), which fused “an amalgam of jarring techniques, modernist disorientation, Keystone Kops slapstick and Taylorist mechanization, albeit stressing their disruptive elements rather than the nascent sobriety of biomechanics.” Branching off from biomechanical theatre, the FEX artists turned their attention to filmmaking. Their efforts included The Devil’s Wheel (1926), which is enlivened by an appealing tension between its alleged socially redemptive message and its depiction of a Red Army soldier being duped and depraved by the Leningrad criminal underworld. This tension, of course, would put the filmmakers in danger as Soviet political orthodoxy grew ever more rigid. Films like Boris Barnet’s The Girl With the Hatbox (1927), Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924), Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927), and, to a degree, Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s The General Line (1926-’29), skewered what Leon Trotsky, who would himself soon be ousted from the Communist Party and exiled, called the “new stupidities” of Soviet life: the bureaucratic inefficiencies, hypocrisies, and outright mendacities that emerged under the New Economic Policy (NEP), a period lasting from 1921 to 1928, when the Soviet economy was treated with limited inoculations of capitalist activity, including some private enterprise and an end to the forced grain acquisitions of the Civil War. The satire in the NEP-era films was sometimes muted — and, as in the case of Lev Kuleshov’s wonderfully named The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), was often balanced by a more vicious attack on the limitations of Western, usually American, capitalism. But it was enough to make the authorities uneasy.

The situation was exacerbated with the roughly concomitant advent of sound and the catastrophic hardships of the first Five Year Plan, which spelled the end of the NEP and the beginning of rapid industrialization and collectivization of the countryside. As Hatherley puts it:

If there is an art form that attempted the apocalyptic drama of the first Five Year Plan, it is the early sound film. The transformative violence of the Plan and its accompanying “cultural revolution” became raw material for those using the new synch-sound technologies, who exploited their potential for disorienting, audio-visual attack, contrapuntal montage and mechanized rhythm. The content of the films themselves explicitly dramatize, or rather proselytize, the convulsive changes taking place, and accordingly create contradictions as tangled and intractable as the filmmakers’ montage constructions.

This is nothing short of a filmic attack, as though the compromises and stupidities of the NEP needed to be burned away aesthetically as well as politically. Emblematic of this new approach is Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (1931), a “film with an extreme level of aggression and exaltation.” What humor there is, notably directed toward the ecclesiasts’ distorted chanting as the proletariat masses dismantle their church, is mirthless; the film is largely a hymn to the most rigorous mechanization, as workers perform Taylorist routines in the smoke, flame, and fumes of the coal mine, while electronic pulses fly through the air. Vertov’s Enthusiasm, writes Hatherley, “is propaganda without sentimentality or respite, albeit with an atypical self-reflexivity. The enthusiasm is not for the prospect of socialism […] it is for the shocking and defamiliarizing process of […] mechanization in and of itself.” And even more straightforwardly slapstick films, such as Alexander Macheret’s Men and Jobs (1932), celebrate shock work for its own sake. It is here that the progression becomes darker. With notable exceptions such as Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The Deserter (1933) and Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934) — which celebrate mass movement, rather than the expectorations of the Leader — the picture is grim. And yet, ironically, the comedy films of the 1930s arguably become more accomplished.

Aleksandrov (who, it will be remembered, co-directed The General Line) made two films that demonstrate a deep comic facility comparable to that of the Marx Brothers or Busby Berkeley. Yet in both Circus (1936) and Volga-Volga (1938), “[t]he violence and disjunction, the attempts to shock the viewer awake are stripped away; the Hollywood-Soviet film is now both an organizing and pacifying force, offering a dream of better times perpetually just around the corner.” And spectacles of Soviet power, too, become eerily comic. Consider the show trials and purges of the Great Terror, “a catalogue of shocking farce, where the industrial techniques of precisely-set targets are adapted to the production of quotas for the amount of people to be arrested in each district.” Hatherley refers to J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov’s The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (2002, rev. 2010), and to Slavoj Žižek’s reading of that book’s account of the appalling sarcasm and derision directed toward Nikolai Bukharin, NEP’s architect, during his 1938 trial:

The greatest laughter is reserved for Bukharin’s attempt to secure from Stalin the assurance that he personally knows he is innocent, even if it is necessary to publically liquidate him. If Chaplin was funny because he impersonated a thing, Bukharin was funny because he thought he could act as if he wasn’t.

Chaplin invoked mirth and celebration because he voluntarily arrested movement; Bukharin is subjected to a death sentence for trying to retain his mobility. A similar petrifaction closes The Chaplin Machine with the circus, which remained “an incredibly popular form [in the Stalinist Soviet Union], much more than it was anywhere in the West.” However, instead of the itinerancies of red clowns, whose ability to move through their rapidly altering landscape had been the source of pleasure for their audiences, the building of permanent circus establishments “is where Chaplinism ended, in a spectacle of thrills and spills taken with the utmost seriousness.” Hatherley opens his last chapter by describing a photo of the Svirlag labor camp in the Leningrad region, which:

resembles, more than anything else — if you blind yourself to the huddle of hatted and headscarfed people in the foreground […] a circus, with its funfairs, its apparatus of jolly objects, advertisements, billboards, its deliberate marshalling of fear and drama into crassly exciting entertainment.

The Chaplin machine had indeed ground to a tragicomic halt.

One of this book’s undoubted strengths is the wealth of detail Hatherley offers, all of it marshaled together by a strong line of reasoning; we are rarely left unable to see the forest for the trees. However, The Chaplin Machine does, to some degree, require at least a summary knowledge of Soviet history from the beginning of the NEP to the consolidation of Stalinist authoritarian autarky. The book also calls for some degree of familiarity with the works of Eisenstein, Vertov, et al. But Hatherley’s real audience isn’t the student of history; he aims his argument at those who are accustomed to, and tired of, standard-issue bromides about modernism, both Soviet and otherwise. Hatherley shows that the artists of the Soviet avant-garde attempted to bring into being something unique — a modernism for and of the people, as enjoyable as it was rigorous, one which commented on the present circumstances and contained within it an imaginative surplus sufficient to energize revolutionary potential. Things did not work out as these artists had hoped, but that should not lead us to conclude, with Groys and others, that the entire enterprise was a terrible mistake. Instead, we might adapt the Soviet avant-garde’s practices — as its practicioners themselves adapted Chaplin’s — in a new effort to meld egalitarian politics, aesthetic innovation, and public address, so as to imagine, and then build, a new world for everyone.


Tom Kohut is a theorist, critic, and curator of new media and electronic arts, living in Winnipeg, Canada.

LARB Contributor

Tom Kohut is a theorist, critic, and curator of new media and electronic arts, living in Winnipeg, Canada. He is the co-editor of Marshall McLuhan and Vilém Flusser’s Communication and Aesthetic Theories Revisited and the author of several articles on film and video, sound art, bio art, and related topics in contemporary aesthetics.


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