Owen Hatherley, The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant Garde. London: Pluto Press, 2016. 200pp. $27 cloth.
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Artists, radicals and radical artists have always looked at the future, the horizon, and seen a telos of emancipation. From modern-day left-accelerationism to 90s anarcho-cybernetic to prog-rock’s discovery of the synthesizer, the future has been an emancipatory muse. Owen Hatherley’s Chaplin Machine engages what could be termed an early example of left-accelerationism: the Soviet avant-garde’s absolute fascination with America. Indeed, going with Hatherley’s beautifully written and sometimes cheeky account with this fascination that, to be frank, sometimes borders on mystification, one can even reverse the aphorism of Earl Browder, the old social-patriotic leader of the American Communist Party, “Communism is 20th century Americanism.” This is to say that to those in the early Soviet avant-garde, and indeed cultural producers in general, Americanism was 20th century communism. The mystified Americana that animated the visionaries of the Popular Front and later became Yankee Doodle jingoism in the service of the Cold War may well have its point of origin in this fascination, one equally if not more intense than French cinema’s fascination with American film noir and pulp fiction.
In the 17th century John Locke, that original theorist of capitalism, wrote that “In the beginning the whole world was America.” A perceptive observer of capitalism’s origins, Locke saw the American project – the accumulation by dispossession of Indigenous people, the popular expropriation by early capitalists of unlimited land “as far as the eye can see” – as a positive beacon. Locke explicitly called for the genocide of the “unproductive” Indigenous people.
He also formulated the original labour theory of value, but with a twist. In Locke’s schema, value was produced when labor is mixed with nature. But one could also lay claim to the fruit of someone else’s labor – let us say one’s slave or serf or indentured servant – as one’s own. As well one not only was allowed but had an ethical responsibility to expropriate “unproductive” land. This was the era of “improvement,” the early rush of the period in which petty commodity production’s quality was transformed into the quantity of capitalist social property relations. And the ultimate example of this process was happening in the futuristic petri dish of America.
Yet Locke was also, for his time, a revolutionary. His writing on regicide has the polemical tone of Machiavelli or Lenin. His work was banned and circulated amongst free-thinking and slave-owning merchants and profiteers as samizdat, through secret societies and self-declared free and sovereign networks of traders and grafters, many of who settled in this new world of America. Thus America was born in contradiction. This is not to draw an absolute direct line between the settler-colonial origin of both the concept and actuality of America in a vulgar sense. Yet it would be intellectually dishonest and historically tone deaf not to see the America that so enamoured progressives of all stripes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. America really was the land of the sacred and profane, of civic freedom, free speech and a genuine mass culture. It also really was the most intensely regimented and brutal of all capitalist societies, having organically developed this regimentation over hundreds of years since Locke proclaimed it the garden of Eden of what we now call capitalism.
Early Soviet aesthetes, filmmakers, circus performers, acting teachers and even advertisers properly assessed the absurdity within this contradictory whole, and as opposed to downplaying it, let the sheer wackiness of it all, the slapstick topsy-turvy quality of the capitalist future be something to revel in. Hatherley tells us that “these dream-images were not purely celebratory” nor were they ideal-typical. Rather, Hatherley is engaging in the old-fashioned Marxist art of the social history of cultural production pioneered by Raymond Williams, who reminds us that the very idea of “art” that we all hold is a product of the bourgeois era and it historically specific to that era.
The greatness of this text is not its originality – though Hatherley is, to be clear, a superb writer. Rather, it is a return to a proper Marxist analysis of cultural production, as opposed to “cultural studies” and so forth. Hatherley not only aspires to the Jamesonian credo as to always historicize, he does successfully historicize this general tendency and provide a vivid and multidimensional account of the conjuncture.
Equally if not more important is the enthusiasm that Hatherley brings to his engagement with the historical material. All too often critical engagement with cultural production either is all about affect but to a point that affect itself is detached from the prose. It creates a paradoxical circumstance in which one has to de-affectivize prose in order to engage affect as such. On the other hand, culture is instrumentalized, while begging a question as to why it is even possible to instrumentalize culture, why do some “rituals” become “resistance” and so on.
By judiciously selecting and brilliantly constructing a monument to the Communist avant-garde, Hatherley avoids these two traps. But in avoiding them, and also in ostentatiously differing with famed art critic Boris Groys’ reductionist and red-baiting account of the Proletkult, he replaces Groys’ reductionism with his own enthusiasm, and thus, doesn’t engage with critiques – like Trotksy’s – of the movement as it existed at the time. This is not the purpose of the text of course, that being the resuscitation of the consummated encounter between revolutionaries and cultural producers at the time of the revolution, well into the Stalin years. It is telling that these artistic milieus, while often funded by the state, largely developed in the as-yet-inadequately theorized social formation of the Soviet Union during the NEP. This was a time in which, as JP Marot argues, no faction within the Communist Party adequately understood economic development. The teleological accelerationism of the aesthetes was matched on all sides of Bolshevism. Trotsky’s Left Opposition, Stalin’s “center,” Bukharin’s right flank; all overemphasized the centrality of productive forces quite independent of whether the pool of labor matched their aspiration.
Hatherley presumes the readers’ knowledge of the conjuncture, but a broader picture of how cultural developments related to state formation and social property relations may well have been illuminating. To wit, the fetish that aesthetes had – in particular “The Eccentrics” – with bodies, with acrobatics, with regimentation, that is to say, with Fordism and Taylorism, can be seen equally as finding the absurdity and humour within capitalist social property relations. So too can it be ideologically interpellated by the presumption that regimented mass production is a necessary stage on the road to full communism. It may well be an accident of history that entire edifices of acting and directing and filmmaking techniques came about due to a mystifying fascination with Taylorist time and motion studies. Yet focusing on this would have been an entirely different book, obviously, and the dream worlds that Hatherley visits are well worth the trip. In particular as a revival of the art of appreciation, of actually finding the roots of the affect that we call “enjoyment” in anomaly. Things are in place because they aren’t, the norm is in fact out of wack and pretty funny, like a banana peel or a raised eyebrow. Yet what ingredients inscribed within the social formation that created the conditions of possibility for this encounter are left implied.
A consummated encounter between cultural production and revolutionary politics is a rare and fleeting thing. More often than not they are brief, casual, a sort of friends-with-benefits situation. In assessing aesthetic constellations by way of a philosophy of the encounter, one usually focuses on what I elsewhere call “Missed Encounters.” The meaning of this lies somewhere in between the use of counterfactual reasoning in historical sociology, and the notion of “suppressed alternatives,” tracing out a retroactively intelligible path not-taken. These paths not-taken equally include political and cultural praxis on one hand, as well as interpretation and theorization on the other. Hence, by examining, by implication, these paths not taken and why they were not taken – that is to, say, the missed encounter – we can thus illuminate the paths that were taken. This process allows us to reasonably think through, under the empirical and analytical parameters established, alternative outcomes as well as the specific instance in which an alternative set of decisions might have led to a different outcome.
In the case of early Soviet aesthetics, we do not find a missed encounter, as there is not the capitalist separation between politics and culture. The two were inextricably intertwined, whether as liberal and communist opposition to Tsarism, or the flourishing of cultural production that inspired and was inspired by the October Revolution.
Yet, if it is quite clear that Hatherley is correct in his scathing critique of Groys’ assessment of constructivism – that it was a straight line that leads to Stalinism – Hatherley nevertheless does not provide us with sufficient fodder for insight into the paths not taken. It may be Hatherley’s writing style, but everything seems “necessary” or written in stone. We do not see much contingency in this work, and thus we are unable to see, for example, why figures like Trotsky – not at all an aesthetic reactionary, indeed an admirer of avant-gardes at least in theory – was so critical of what he saw as mystification coming from advocates of Proletkult. There is insufficient examination of the “sake” of art. That is to say if, against instrumentalization, art can exist “for art’s sake,” critical and Marxist engagement must assess what this “sake” happens to mean.
To return once again to theme of “America.” Hatherley is not at all uncritical, though he is sympathetic to the fascination. But this sympathy, likely due to his enthusiasm, only allows him to get three quarters of the way there. He stipulates that none of these “Americanists” had ever even been to the United States, he doesn’t follow, as hinted above, the logic of what happened to American aesthetics. for example, during the Popular Front or high-modernist periods, and how were American aesthetics – and the very idea of “America” impacted by the Soviet pioneers of “Americanism”. Was this the America of Allan Ginbserg’s great poem? Or is it the America imagined by Paul Simon as he rides the bus with the man in the gaberdeen suit whose bowtie is also a camera?
However, as a guide for beginners as well as experts to early Soviet artistic experimentation, written in a tone of enthusiastic revelry (redolent of another superlative recent text, China Mieville’s October) this is an exceptionally important book. Its originality and contradictions, its provisional quality noted here, may well be an intentional deployment of some of the techniques that are being analysed, aesthetic trickery and surrealism as embodied in theoretical practice itself. Whatever the case may be, radical artists would do well to read this book, watch the films it covers, perhaps even go to a circus or even watch YouTube videos of acrobatics, as one will never see circuses the same way after reading this. This actual appreciation and enjoyment of cultural production is a necessary component for a cosmopolitan socialist politics, and a radical cultural practice.
This piece appears in our fourth issue, “Echoes of 1917.”
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Earl Theodore is a writer, choreographer, and social theorist dividing his time between the Pacific Northwest and Taiwan.