Thursday, September 8, 2011

Charlie Chaplin's Cane or What is the role of objects in a post-consumerist society?

Charlie Chaplin's bamboo cane was at once a cheap, generic object and a highly responsive partner in performance.  The cane was integral to Charlie's gait, his gestures and his persona as the little tramp to the point that it was less an object or symbolic 'attribute' than a wholly subsumed part of the character.  An iconographic analysis would reveal the cane as the baton of a harlequin descended from the Commedia dell'Arte, yet no one cares, since in Charlie's hands its power is less in symbolic 'meaning' than in what he does with it.  Without Charlie, the cane is just a stick.

I argue that Charlie Chaplin's cane offers an example of a post-consumerist object, something that performs with us - not for us.   The cane does not represent Charlie, nor give him special powers.  It does not work for him, rather he works it - or more precisely plays it.  Chaplin animates the cane by his motions to create multiple roles for Charlie.  With the cane, he struts like a dandy, hobbles like an invalid, fights like a swordsman, pokes his rivals and hooks the beauty.  In one scene he uses it to catch a fish.  

Chaplin performs with the cane in a relationship that has built over many years through continuous improvisation.  The novelty resides in his continuing discovery of new moves and meanings that remake his identity again and again.  The spareness of the means strengthens the force of imagination, transforming the cane and Charlie into artistic partners.

Might the objects in our lives be thus recast?  If we are mere consumers of objects, which reside as objects apart from our precious selves, then they are mute machines that do a single task until they can do it no longer and are cast aside.  If, however, we come to know them better, their role grows richer, perhaps fetishistic, more curious, and more humane.  Novelist Milan Kundera lists 'magic objects' including hats that do more and mean more.  Roland Barthes poetically revealed the modern mythology of the Peugeot and the Eiffel Tower.  Their semiotic investigations reveal the resonant and shifting meanings invested in well-imagined objects.

Charlie Chaplin's performance however centers on action, not object.  He shows us what he can do with the cane physically and expressively.  Like a favorite pair of dancing shoes, or a well-traveled bicycle, or an old car that is part of the family, the objects are not apart from us, they are partners in our lives.  They are well-made, well-used and deserve better than to be simply thrown away. 

My husband had an old Volvo station-wagon that he had driven and repaired for years.  When it came time to part ways, he couldn't bear to simply sell it or junk it, so he gave it to a local man who had several old Volvos and liked to restore them.  
As far as I know it's still on the road.

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