Comedy has historically served as a critical component in the complex relationship between an individual and the society of which that person is a part. To laugh with an audience is to identify with that audience through some common understanding. In this sense, comedy not only unites the individual with a broader society, but also often does so while engaging in a pointed social critique. In Freudian terms, comedy, as with most things, represented a point of tension between the id and the superego as expressed through the ego — an incongruity between the desires of the individual and the demands of civilization. We laugh at these points of conflict that exist between our ideals and that which constitutes our daily reality, but in doing so, we also call attention these discrepancies so that they might be remedied. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. even referred to this incongruity as “The Great American Joke,” and numerous authors as far back as Aristotle have noted that humor is vital to democracy.
According to Joseph Boskin, “As a cultural index, a reflector of social change and conflict, humor provides an unusual historical ray into the complex connection between society’s concerns and issues” (17). “As a device of social analysis… humor illumines the expectations and contradictions of society, its anxieties and confusions, and offers perspective into any historic moment” (20). Continuing along this line of reasoning, in her book What’s So Funny?, Nancy Walker contends that, “Humor, like all forms of communication, requires context: to find it amusing, the audience must have certain knowledge, understanding, and values, which are subject to evolution from one century to the next or even one decade to the next” (4). It therefore stands to reason that the inverse is also true, that to study comedic films can tell us something of the social context from which it emerged and was consumed. As Gerald Mast succinctly posits in The Comic Mind, “Inevitably, the comic film ‘says’ something about the relation of man to society” (20).
In support of this claim, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times provides an interesting case study for a number of reasons. As Christopher Beach points out in Class, Language and American Film Comedy, “Comedy is often allowed a considerable latitude since subversion and transgression are to at least some degree institutionalized generic requirements of comedy” (10). In other words, as a comedy, the political content of Modern Times was able to elude the censors in ways that its dramatic counterparts would not have been able.
According to Simon Critchley, “Humour effects a breakage in the bond connecting the human being to its unreflexive, everyday exististence. In humour, as in anxiety, the world is made strange and unfamiliar to the touch” (41). Through stereotypes and surprises, patterns and incongruities, comedic films render the familiar strange and the strange familiar, holding a mirror to society and encouraging its members to laugh at what they see.
In 1934, as unemployment soared in the U.S. and labor strikes were being organized throughout the country, Chaplin began production on Modern Times — the same year that Joseph Breen took over as head of the Production Code Administration. One of Breen’s major contributions to the Code was what he referred to as “industry policy,” which was a euphemism for censoring movies that he considered “too dangerous to the well-being of the industry.” These included numerous films involving subjects ranging from labor movements to the dangers of fascism (Black, 245). According to film historian Gregory D. Black, “Each time a studio submitted a script [to the Hays office] with social or political implications, the code was invoked to tone down screen preachments” (245). Anything that might be construed as criticism of the government, the free-enterprise system, or the police and courts was deemed “Communist propaganda… to be banned from the screen” (246). Even the title of Chaplin’s film could be taken as reference to the Hays office, as there is a line in the Production Code that states: “Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.”
Chaplin went against the code in several other instances as well, including the rule: “Illegal drug traffic must never be presented,” which was clearly violated in the prison scene. The code also mandates that “White slavery shall not be treated,” but of course, Chaplin’s wage-slavery is within the framework of a free-market system. Another line in the code states that, “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot for proper characterization, will not be shown,” which was violated in the scene where his former co-workers break into the department store. Finally, another line stipulates that, “No film or episode may throw ridicule on religious faith,” which Chaplin got around by making the prison chaplain’s wife the subject of ridicule rather than the chaplain himself.
One must also consider that Chaplin was in a unique position in that he had almost complete control over his films. Not only did he write and direct Modern Times, but he was also a co-owner of the studio that produced and distributed it, he financed this film himself, and he also had a hand in virtually every aspect of production, ranging from composing the score to make-up design. In this sense, one could argue that Chaplin was among the last filmmakers to which the term “auteur” could accurately be applied. With the exception of the Hays office, there were very few people that he had to answer to. One can certainly argue that he was thus able to make this film just as he wanted it. The result is Chaplin’s contribution to the discourse of mid-1930s America about the dehumanization of wage-labor and the loss of individual identity, presented here as a comedy.
Modern Times was the highest grossing comedy of 1936 and the third highest grossing film of that year, despite its lack of escapist elements in the midst of the Great Depression. It was also produced well after silent films had been relegated to the past. The studios had all begun converting to synchronized sound in 1927, and by 1936, this was among the only feature films to be released that year that did not conform to the new standard. For it to achieve the success that it did in spite of these factors indicates how well it represented the anxieties of its audience, who were invited to laugh at what were very real issues of the time. Comedy, as numerous theorists on the subject have noted, is often driven by anxieties, and this is certainly the case with this film. Modern Times specifically reflects a discontent about the state of capitalism, as well as what has more recently been described as a posthuman anxiety, which I will explore in greater detail in the pages that follow. Fundamentally, Modern Times is about a fear of the future, and based on its box-office success, it apparently resonated with urban American audiences of 1936. It implicitly poses the question: is this the future we want?
Posthumanism itself is a nebulous and problematic term to which several prominent scholars have attached their own definitions, thus providing a means of entering familiar debates from a novel perspective. To some, posthumanism is intended to negate the humanist emphasis on individual agency, as well as mark the end of Cartesian dualism, where the body and mind are thought to exist independently of one another. Other scholars, however, take a more philosophical approach to the subject and view it as an exercise in de-anthropocentrism, thereby exposing humanity as the ultimate parasite. As suggested in the title of her book: How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, N. Katherine Hayles believes that we are already posthuman, and the issue now is to decide whether to embrace or resist the transformations in our culture and our being that have already taken place. Similarly, in Dorsality, David Wills seeks to redefine technology as to include the human body, suggesting that we have always been posthuman in terms of our reliance on technology. Wills contends that the evolutionary process has always featured an uneasy relationship between humans and machines, whether simple or complex beyond one’s ability to understand its functionality. On the other end of the spectrum, in What is Posthumanism?, rather than answer that question directly, Cary Wolfe relies the jargon of Jacques Derrida and Niklas Luhmann in order not only maintain an air of academic privilege in entering this debate, but also to deemphasize the role of human culture within the broader context of the natural physical world, as he attempts to erase the ethical and philosophical delineation between homo sapiens and all other life on earth. Indeed, among these scholars, there seems to be little if any consensus as to what the term posthumanism actually means, but one point of commonality present in all of these writings is that each of these authors appears to be fixated on certain anxieties about the role and even the existence of humanity in the uncertain future that unfolds before us. This, of course, is nothing new.
Modern Times expresses this same anxiety, and in fact articulates these concerns far more succinctly than any of the aforementioned scholars. As Simon Critchley explains, “In Chaplin’s finally all too didactic anti-capitalist parable, Modern Times, the little protagonist literally becomes an automaton, submitting himself absent-mindedly to the endless repetitiveness of the industrial production process. Chaplin satirizes the industrial machine by becoming a machine himself, in one memorable scene literally being ingested by the cogs of the industrial leviathan” (58). Fundamentally, this film is about the loss of humanity and self in an industrialized dystopia. If we accept that humanism is the celebration of individual perspective, as Chaplin offers with this film, then posthumanism, as suggested in the themes of Modern Times, is the devaluing of the individual to the point of irrelevance through a conflation of humanity with machines.
In the first shot of the film, the face of a clock accompanies the opening credits, echoing a very similar composition at the beginning of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1922), a film that explores many of the same themes. However, whereas Metropolis is presented as a serious film for a “highbrow” audience, Modern Times seems to speak more to the middle- and lower-class. As Joan Mellen points out in her detailed analysis of Modern Times, “The clock spills beyond [the screen’s] perimeters as time is to dominate the worker’s daily life. The clock continues under the credits where, once more, Chaplin’s characters have been too dehumanized to be granted names. Charlie is ‘a factory worker’, defined by his social role; the nature of his work and his subjugation to it are controlled by time. Goddard is ‘a gamin’. They represent not just themselves, but all members of their class” (38). Despite that Chaplin’s character only works in the factory for most of the first act and then in a similar environment in the third, in the context of this film, he is only identified as “a factory worker” in the credits, and later as “prisoner number seven” by the warden. Goddard’s character is only given a name as it is written on the warrant that is issued for her arrest later in the film. Beyond this, these characters are no one, while at the same time, as Mellen contends, they are everyone. It is through this devaluation of individual perspective that these figures are not only de-humanized, but rendered posthuman, for in the broader social context presented in this film, who they are and what they have to say is meaningless. As a filmmaker, Chaplin even denied them names and voices.
Once the credits have concluded, a title card reads: “‘Modern Times.’ A story of individual enterprise -- humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” One might ask what it is that humanity is crusading against, to which it would seem the answer is precisely the posthuman anxiety that I have described: the fear of a future in which individual expression of humanist concerns are suppressed. Here, Chaplin evokes the Declaration of Independence in order to assert the American, if not human, right to be free from the shackles of indentured servitude as it has manifested through industrialized capitalism in the early twentieth century. The title card is followed by a shot of sheep being corralled (with one black sheep among them), which then dissolves to the workers punching in and taking their positions at the various machines. The first medium shot that shows an individual person with some degree of detail is of a shirtless man pulling a lever, seemingly to remind the audience that the body itself has become an integral part of this machine, which is not unlike Hayles’s assertion that this delineation has become increasingly blurred – except, of course, that this cinematic abstraction about a speculated future was made sixty years prior to How We Became Posthuman, a book that is titled in the past tense.
A frosted glass door reveals that the President of the Electro Steel Corporation is also without a name, though it seems that he represents the dominant minority, who, in the context of this film, willingly embraces the posthuman condition, which I would argue is when a society fails to subscribe to the meta-narrative of a common humanity. Seated at his sprawling desk, the President, who Mellen and others have pointed out is a Henry Ford lookalike (40), works idly on a jigsaw puzzle. When this proves too difficult, he moves on the funny papers, where he reads a Tarzan comic. Shortly after his secretary delivers him a pill of some kind, the President turns to his giant monitor on the wall, from which he can keep an eye on his workers. Not only does Chaplin prefigure the work of George Orwell in this scene, but as technology such as this certainly did not exist at the time that this film was made, he is also suggesting a dystopian future in which even privacy, one of the last vestiges of the maintenance of individuality, has been forfeited in the service of industrial progress. The President tells the shirtless man to speed up the machine as indifferently as he presses the buttons on his desk.
Meanwhile, at his place on the assembly line, we are introduced to Chaplin’s character as he tightens bolts on steel plates that speed by on a conveyor belt. It is never made entirely clear what it is that this factory produces beyond mere productivity. When Chaplin stops to scratch his armpit, he falls behind and immediately has to struggle to catch up. The worker beside him yells at him in pantomime, and when he responds in kind, Chaplin’s character falls behind once again. In this scene, the workers do not even have time to disagree, despite being pitted against each other by management. Rather, it is crucial that all of their attention be focused on the task at hand. Moments later, when they have to stop the machine because Chaplin’s character has fallen too far behind, the President demands that they work even faster. After more of the same, when Chaplin’s character is relieved to take a short break, he still moves like a machine. He punches out and goes into the restroom to smoke, where he is interrupted by the President on another giant television screen behind him. “Hey you! Get back to work!” he says, and Chaplin’s character punches back in and resumes his place on the assembly line. This is among the only examples of synchronized dialogue contained in this film. As I have suggested in terms of Chaplin’s absolute control over the production of this film, had he wanted to, he certainly could have included synchronized dialogue. Mellen points out that Chaplin had even written a full dialogue script to Modern Times at one point (32), but he instead made a conscious choice to convey meaning to the audience almost entirely through pantomime, a form of dramatic art that is very much about the nuanced expression of the human form.
In the next scene, a group of research scientists comes in to meet with the President. They play a record for him on which the speaker introduces himself as “the mechanical salesman” and pitches “The Bellows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch!” the man on the record says, “Be ahead of your competitor! The Bellows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.” Naturally, when they request the opportunity to demonstrate this device on one of the workers, Chaplin’s character is chosen. As the machine repeatedly malfunctions, the scientists and the President show no concern for Chaplin, only attending to the device. Finally, after Chaplin has been repeatedly abused and debased by the machine, the President concludes, “It’s no good -- it isn’t practical.” As Mellen explains, “‘It isn’t practical’ is the line that punctuates the scene, as if what counted was the well-being not of the worker, but of the machine” (43). In the posthuman reality presented in this film, the difference between man and machine is merely a matter of economics and efficiency.
The scene that follows is among the most famous moments in the movie, and indeed the point in which Chaplin’s character literally enters the posthuman machine. After the President demands that the assembly line be run at full speed, Chaplin gets pulled through the cogs like a strip of film through a projector. Once inside, on the soundtrack, we hear what sounds like a music box, as for the first time, Chaplin’s character appears at ease in his environment. The machine then reverses direction, as does the film, and he emerges transformed. Now having embraced posthumanism, he gleefully performs his duties -- though with an element of satire, as his movements are presented through the humanist expression of ballet. Having briefly been internalized by the machine, he too internalizes its machinations. This, however, is short lived, when the vulgar humanity of Chaplin’s character reasserts itself: he chases a woman with buttons on her chest, which he apparently wants to tighten with his wrench, suggesting that even his most base human drives have become mechanized through his immersion in labor. She, in turn, gets the attention of a police officer, and after returning to the factory to cause more chaos, Chaplin is hauled away to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. The lesson here is that if humans are indeed no different than machines, then they too can be fixed in order to be more mechanically productive.
As he steps out of the hospital, we are presented with an Eisensteinian montage, highlighting the chaos of the city streets. As he continues down the sidewalk, we see that the factory where he once worked is now closed. When he steps out onto the street, a truck drops a red flag from its oversized load. Chaplin retrieves the flag and waves it in an attempt to get the driver’s attention, and unbeknownst to the tramp, he is soon leading a march of organized labor; these are men who demand to be treated like more than just mere machines. When the police appear and start beating the demonstrators with their nightsticks, the crowd immediately disperses. In this scene, and in fact throughout the movie, as Mellen suggests, “the police exist to preserve the economic arrangements of capitalism” (44). Chaplin hides in a manhole, but when he emerges moments later, the officers assume that he is the leader and take him away.
At this point, with the help of a title card, we are first introduced to “The gamin -- a child of the waterfront who refuses to go hungry.” She cuts bananas from a barrel in a boat and throws them to some children on shore. When a man approaches, the children run off. Meanwhile, the gamin evades the man and then stands on the dock, defiantly eating her banana. This is Chaplin’s assertion that nourishment is among our fundamental human rights, which of course further separates us from machines. Back at home, we see that these children are her sisters. We also learn that their mother is dead and their father is “one of the unemployed.” He sits down at the table, distraught. It seems as though a terrible thought occurs to him right before the gamin enters and shares the bananas that she stole.
Meanwhile, another title card reads: “Held as a communist leader, our innocent victim languishes in jail.” As the guards blow whistles in cadence, the prisoners all march in line to the cafeteria, where they sit down in unison. They, too, have been mechanized. At the table, Chaplin and his cellmate fight over a loaf of bread. Upon reaching a stalemate, Chaplin pantomimes that perhaps they should just share it. Two police officers then enter the room, “searching for smuggled ‘nose powder’.” An iris shot reveals the smuggler to be seated next to Chaplin, but before the police take him away, the man dumps a large amount of cocaine into a salt shaker, which he then places on the table in front of the tramp. Predictably, Chaplin sprinkles what he thinks is salt on his food, even smearing some in his mustache by accident. As the drug takes effect, he becomes fearless and insane. When the prisoners are ordered to march back to their cells, he moves like a machine on overdrive, adding extra beats to his steps and occasionally walking in circles. When the cocaine starts to wear off, we hear the sound of a cuckoo clock (yet another machine), and the tramp briefly panics when he realizes that he is not in his cell. Chaplin’s character rushes back, only to stop some convicts that are attempting to escape, thus becoming a hero in the process. He is still not afforded a name, but this is about as close to human that his character is ever treated.
A title card reminds us that “While outside there is trouble with the unemployed.” Men shout from the shore as the gamin and her sisters are taking wooden scraps from the docks. Everyone but the girls scatters at the sound of gunshots. Moments later, we realize that it was their father who was shot, though it is not entirely clear by whom. Another title card tells us that “The law takes charge of the orphans,” as the younger sisters are taken away by one of the many the ideological state apparatuses represented in this film, while the gamin herself escapes.
Meanwhile, the tramp is “Happy in his comfortable cell.” Birds chirp. He has pillows on his bed and posters on the wall, including a framed sign that ironically says “Home Sweet Home.” Chaplin’s character is reading the newspaper, where the headline reads: STRIKES AND RIOTS! BREADLINES BROKEN BY UNRULY MOB. He shakes his head disapprovingly upon reading this. We then learn through a radio broadcast that Chaplin’s character has been pardoned for thwarting the jailbreak. As he is waiting to be released, the minister and his wife visit. She stares at him judgmentally and without a hint of compassion, indifferent to the exaggerated sounds of hunger emanating from his stomach. In this scene, Chaplin’s character is further dehumanized, this time by a representative of organized religion. After she leaves, the warden tells Chaplin that he’s a free man, to which he responds, “Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here.” The warden only shakes his head and offers him a letter of recommendation to help him find work.
His first job is at the docks, where he accidentally lets a half-finished ship float away, then quits before he can be fired and possibly arrested, though a title card suggests that this may in fact be a viable alternative to unemployment. Meanwhile, the gamin steals bread from a delivery truck. Chaplin’s character, who happened to be passing by, takes the blame with the hope of returning to jail, even though an old woman tells the baker otherwise. They catch up to the police, who let Chaplin go and instead chase after the gamin. Determined to get arrested in the most satisfying way possible, the tramp asserts what he believes to be his own human right by eating as much as he can in a nearby cafeteria, and he then leaves without paying. As he is being hauled off to jail, when the officer is briefly distracted, Chaplin has time to steal a cigar from the stand next door, where he also takes candy bars that he gives to some children who have gathered beside him. Once in the patty wagon, the gamin soon joins him, and in the continued spirit of humanistic compassion, he offers her his seat.
Moments later, they fall out of the back of the truck, and after knocking a police officer unconscious with his own nightstick, the tramp and the gamin run off together. They soon come to a grassy yard in front of a small house, where they sit and look at each other lovingly. In this moment, they are without the measure of time. She admits that she is homeless, but this fact does not seem to particularly bother either of them. They are temporarily free from the anxieties of modern life. Moments later, a man leaves the house that they are sitting in front of, and his wife, in an apron, waves goodbye. After a title card in which Chaplin poses the question, “Can you imagine us in a little home like that?” the image dissolves to an imaginary sequence in which they live inside the house. Their accommodations are modest at best, but they have all that they need and more, including a cow that walks to their kitchen door to deliver fresh milk straight to his glass. Back to reality, though, all of this fantasizing is making them hungry. Another title card then says, “I’ll do it! We’ll get a home, even if I have to work for it,” a clever commentary on the demands and the ultimate futility of wage labor. A police officer then appears from seemingly nowhere and asks them to leave the premises.
Shortly thereafter, Chaplin’s character once again uses the letter of recommendation from the warden, this time to get a job as a night watchman at a department store. As soon as his first shift begins, he retrieves the gamin from outside to join him in the otherwise empty store. Once inside, they eat as much as they want, roller skate in the toy department, and then he tucks her into a cozy bed in the furniture department. Here, they are free to enjoy the spoils of capitalism without its trappings. He says he will wake her up before the store opens. She closes her eyes, asserting her right to a good night’s sleep.
As Chaplin’s character continues to skate around the store, three men break into the store and chase him, and Chaplin gets stuck trying to go down the up escalator while still wearing the roller skates. Once again, he is trapped by a machine. Shortly thereafter, one of the men forces him to stand next to the barrels of alcohol that are shelved on the wall. When Chaplin’s character again has trouble standing still, the man shoots holes in the barrel of rum, causing them to pour right into the tramp’s mouth. The drunker he becomes, the less mechanized are his movements. At that moment, a title card indicates that “Big Bill recognizes a fellow-worker from the steel mills.” He says, “We ain’t burglars -- we’re hungry,” and they all drink together. Here, humanism has prevailed over their antagonism as co-workers at the factory, though their identities are still linked to their former roles in industrialized labor.
The next morning, the gamin wakes up in a panic because Chaplin is nowhere to be found and the store is about to open. A little later, a woman finds the tramp passed out in a bin of fabric. When his boss learns of this, once again, the police take Chaplin away. After ten days, when he gets out of jail, the gamin is waiting for him. She says, “I’ve got a surprise for you. I’ve found a home.” When they arrive at the Hooverville shack, he says, “It’s paradise,” right before getting hit on the head by a board from the top of the door frame. Once again, Chaplin’s character is abused by technology. The rest of the house, it seems, is falling apart as well. She says, “Of course, it’s no Buckingham Palace,” a nod to Chaplin’s own country of origin, and when they sit down for a dinner of stolen food, his chair legs sink into the floor. The newspaper headline reads: FACTORIES REOPEN! MEN TO BE PUT TO WORK AT THE JETSON MILLS THIS MORNING. Upon reading this, Chapin says, “Work at last!” and excitedly gets up. “Now we’ll get a real home!” She waves goodbye as he runs off toward the looming factory that now fills the skyline behind their meager house, where hundreds of men stand in front of the closing gate. Chaplin pushes his way though the crowd and makes it through just in time, receiving the last available job. Qualifications are apparently meaningless; rather, employment seems entirely contingent on who wants the job the most. Laborers are merely interchangeable parts within the industrial machine.
In a factory reminiscent of that which we saw at the beginning of the film, Chaplin’s character is given a job as the mechanic’s assistant, in charge of helping to get the machines going again. Again, it is never made clear what these machines do, but that is no more relevant than Chaplin’s role along side them. Within moments, he accidentally flattens one of the mechanic’s tools; then does the same to his jacket and pocket watch. Here, the representation of time is made to seem absurd, the timepiece now flattened and expanded to be as large as a human head. A little later, Chaplin accidentally drops the toolbox into the gears of the machine, which it then spits back out. The mechanic then falls into the machine and gets stuck between two gears. Chaplin stops the device but cannot seem to get him out, only managing to get him stuck in a different part of the machine, with just his head sticking out, visually disembodying him. When the lunch whistle blows, the machines no longer operate, so the mechanic tells Chaplin to get his lunch and feed it to him, echoing the earlier sequence that featured the Bellows Feeding Machine. Here, though, Chaplin is the feeding machine, and this proves to be just as impractical. When the machine starts back up, Chaplin’s character is finally able to get the mechanic out of the gears, but only in time to find out that the workers are going on strike. At this point, once again, the police are summoned in the service of capital, breaking up the strike and bullying Chaplin. When the tramp retaliates by throwing a brick at the police officer, he is again taken off to jail.
Upon his release, the gamin helps him get a job at a restaurant where she was hired to dance. Chaplin is hired to wait tables and sing, though it is clear that his character has no experience in either. Despite this, he is able to fall over without even spilling his tray of food. As he tries to cross the dance floor with it, he gets caught up in the flow of bodies, not unlike the gears of a machine, which turn him around as he attempts to deliver a roast duck to one of his tables. When it comes time to sing, he loses the cuffs on which he had written the lyrics and is forced to improvise in a language consisting of various elements of French, Italian, English and pure gibberish. Interestingly, the one and only time that an audience ever witnesses the tramp speak, it is to sing a nonsense song in a mostly made-up language that oddly, still makes sense, again serving to remind us that language can be a superfluous element of communication that speaks more of our nationality than it does of our common humanity.
After witnessing this performance, the manager offers him a steady job, but then the police come to take away the gamin, who is charged as a juvenile vagrant. Before they can catch her, she and the tramp escape. The next morning, they sit at the side of the road. She cries and says, “What’s the use in trying?” to which the tramp replies, “Buck up -- never say die. We’ll get along!” He then encourages her to smile, that most fundamentally human of expressions, and they walk off down the road, turning their backs on it all, their silhouettes disappearing in the distance. In Silent Film Comedy and American Culture, Alan Bilton referred to the ending as, “the only two live figures in a world of automatons” (106).
Ironically, Modern Times was Chaplin’s last silent film, as well as the last to feature his famous tramp character. At its heart, this is a story about the survival of humanistic values in the face of dehumanizing industrialization. It is a fundamentally posthuman text in the same way that more contemporary titles such as Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999) or Moon (2009) address issues regarding the relevance of the individual within the context of the immense machinations that perpetuate our society. If humanism is the celebration of individual perspective, often as expressed through art, then posthumanism, in the aforementioned cases, as well as that represented in Modern Times, is the devaluing of that perspective.
With that noted, I must disagree with Hayles’s assertion that we are already posthuman, because if we were, there would be no one to write about it, or at the very least, the subjective point of view of that person would not be valued enough as to lend any significance to what she or he has to say. Conversely, the posthuman anxiety has arguably always been with us, as to fear a future that is never possible to know may in fact be part of our human nature — if we are to take a humanist position and suggest that such a thing exists. Chaplin’s film is neither the first nor the last manifestation of this anxiety, but it does make clear that although the term posthumanism is a relatively recent addition to the discourse of cultural criticism, the ideas that it explores are certainly nothing new.
There are few attributes of the human character more quintessential than laughter, and there are few things that more clearly define a person’s individual and social identity than a sense of humor. As Henri Bergson contends, “Humor is human” (4). We are the only creatures on earth who can laugh at our own folly, and by calling attention to the incongruities in our culture and ourselves, comedic films such as this can effectively elucidate the areas of modern life in which there is still room for improvement. In this sense, comedy often highlights opportunities for social progress. Suffice to say, an automaton, without the aid of a human, cannot make us laugh, and provided there is always comedy to both criticize and celebrate our human existence, these posthuman anxieties will never become reality.
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