Mythologies- Barthes on… the poor and the proletariat

Symbols in popular culture can transform the way we view social classes and their living conditions in a highly conducive way. Barthes praises Charlie Chaplin for the work he did towards the recognition of the plight of the poor. The efficaciousness of Chaplin’s work is in the combinatorial nature of his filmic semiology, his symbol manipulation. He gave recognition to the financial privation of the working class by synthesising the symbols of ‘poor’ and ‘proletariat’ into a single image.

If you imagine the connotations of the word ‘poor’, you will probably think of peoples restricted financially and/or culturally to the human rights of food, money, education, sanitation. The symbols of poverty in film are self-explanatory. We must also consider the symbols of the word ‘worker’. One thinks of the earning of money, the man in a suit with a briefcase, the commute to work, among other things. The imagery of ‘worker’ and ‘poor’ seem inherently conflicting, whether or not they are. One connotes privation of money, the other connotes the acquisition of money.

Think, however, of the word ‘proletarian’, one imagines the iconography of slave labour, inordinate working hours, low standard working conditions… one may think of factory work, or of Stalinist Russia, or of Marx and Engels lamenting rights of the downtrodden. Charlie Chaplin decided to press with the construction of a symbol, using ‘poor’ and ‘proletarian’ to represent the working class. In doing so, it gives the low earning workers the due recognition they deserve. He uses the manipulation of symbols to show that the individual connotations of ‘poor’ and ‘worker’ are not at odds, merely that we need to re-evaluate the things we recognise as symbolic truths in them.

Symbols he uses include comedically oversized sandwiches, rivers of milk, and fruit being tossed to the ground in disregard (all imagery aligned to the wealthy). These are all examples taken from his film Modern Times. They represent an excess in wealth. They are contrasted with the ‘food dispensing machine’, which gives the workers their sustenance in dull, insipid, rations. Their food is utile, uninteresting, and always insufficient. For Chaplin, “the proletarian is still the man who is always hungry”. Hunger and disparity in contents of kitchen tables are obvious symbols, yes, but they resonate deeply. At its core, we all relate to the conditions of the stomach.

The worker in the film does not recognise its plight. They are blind to it. This is a deliberate device for in not making their suffering internally conspicuous, it leads the viewer to infer the character’s suffering. The viewer sees two lives, that of the proletariat, and that of the wealthy businessman, in contrast. This makes the viewer feel indignant. Other films have shown the workers engaged in a class/political struggle to emancipate themselves, but Chaplin chose the aesthetic approach. In doing so, he compels the viewer towards an emotionally resonant lesson- they are enlightened to the social struggle, whilst being put in the place of caring for them like never before.

That the worker is depicted as unaware, represents them as needing emancipation. They are “unable to reach a knowledge of political causes and an insistence on a collective strategy”. That they are unable to reach a collective strategy shows that they are isolated from each other on one level, and in depicting this, we see contiguously and far further emphatically their isolation from the rich. The struggle, the ennui, the starvation, is all the more palpable in their lack of singularity because it symbolises a lack of recognition. It shows that they are a symbol recognised by the viewer, but not by the ruling class.

Depicting it like this is analogous to the Punch and Judy show. The children call out to let the puppets know exactly what is really happening. An ignorance is simulated so the viewer feels privy to the truth of conditions. The counterpoint to the suffering lower class worker is depicted by Chaplin himself. He is the rich man; his posture is content, he enjoys reading the newspaper, whilst reclining under a portrait of Lincoln and being pampered. However, he is in a cell, and the pamperers are his warders. His character is exaggeratedly content, yet the cell shows that he is in isolation. It is a very literal metaphor. Just as the poor are isolated from the life they deserve, he is isolated from reality, and from the true perspective of life, which the viewer has.

What we learn is that symbols are incredibly powerful things. The mere depiction of a large sandwich becomes a symbol of poverty and starvation, and a signifier of avarice and gluttony. The price of not being rich is exorbitant. Barthes teaches us that art, such as in film, can transform society’s perception of facts of life. Combining symbols can change what another symbol connotes. For example, we take the symbols of ‘poor’ and ‘proletariat’, add the depiction of the bourgeoise consuming a large sandwich. The sandwich ceases to symbolise a humble lunch, an icon of sustenance, and instead, its semiology becomes the signifier of class struggle and the privation of rights. Not long back, I asked if art could allow us to have the subjective experiences of others (CLICK HERE to read), we could also wonder if art can transform our moral viewpoint by simulating the viewpoints of others. Chaplin made people feel the struggle of the poor, not just witness it. One power of symbols is that they can represent ideas and feeling, but they can also represent reality. A symbol of struggle isn’t merely the evocation of the feeling, but a matter of fact.

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This post is part of a series, to read more, CLICK HERE.

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