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Those in Glass Houses Laugh

Esther Leslie27 September 2016

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Artist Zoe Beloff's A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood is a multimedia exploration of the projects undertaken by two Marxist writers who found themselves in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. Originally presented as an installation, it comprises three films — Two Marxists in Hollywood, Glass House, and Model Family; all viewable online — as well as drawings, architectural models, and archival materials.

Beloff has now published a book of the same title, which collects images and documents from the installation alongside texts by herself, scholar Hannah Frank, and Esther Leslie — author of 
Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde — whose essay is reproduced below.      

Zoe Beloff, drawing after a still from Ha Ha Ha, a film by Dave Fleischer, 1934.

Har De Har

Laughter, in Walter Benjamin’s words, is “shattered articulation.” Laughter breaks up both words and the body. Everything is disarticulated. A person in movement might be stopped in their tracks. A person speaking has the stream of words cut off. The listener hears only a clatter of stuttering sounds. Laughter is an interruption to the ongoingness of life and meaning. The flow of walking or talking is held up, stymied, while the disruptive event occurs. The body collapses in laughter, contorts and crumples, the face distends, the eyes close, the neck flips back, the arms and legs flail. Animation is often designed to induce laughter, but it also represents it. There are countless animated GIFS that loop a character’s spasms while laughing, the arms clutching the chest, the mouth as wide as can be, the eyes crinkled shut, the explosions of noise. In some depictions, the eyebrows even leave the face and judder in a space above the head for a few moments. The body is outside itself or beside itself, beside itself with laughter.

Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on the irruptive nature of laughter are surely in dialogue with the insistence of his friend Bertolt Brecht on pleasure in theatre (pleasure, discerns Brecht in note 2 of “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” is “the noblest function that we have found for the ‘theatre’”). But his thoughts also follow Brecht’s line that laughter is part of thinking, or specifically part of dialectical thinking. In fact, it is Brecht’s character the physicist Ziffel, in Refugee Conversations, who observes this, while reflecting on the philosopher Hegel who, Ziffel insists, had “the makings of one of the greatest humorists among the philosophers.”

He had such a sense of humor that he was unable to think, for example, of order without disorder. It was obvious to him that the greatest disorder resides immediately in the vicinity of the greatest order. He went so far as to say: at one and the same place! He understood the state as something that comes into being where the sharpest antitheses between the classes appear. That is to say, the greatest harmony in the state lives off of the greatest disharmony of the classes. He disputed whether one equals one, not only because everything that exists passes inexorably and indefatigably over into something else, specifically its opposite, but because nothing at all is identical with itself. As is common to every humorist, he was particularly interested in what happens to things.

Things are never identical to themselves through time. They decay. They grow. They break. They conspire against humans to bruise and bump them. They are one thing and then they are another. Things do not stay still. This is what Hegel observes. Hegel, according to Ziffel, recognises that everything contradicts itself. All peace and quiet is interrupted by explosions. And it is not just that things turn into other things for real. Things also undo themselves in thought. If a limit is imagined, then immediately the mind conceptualizes a beyond. The limit is negated. If a chair is imagined, then that chair in thought conjures up all the chairs it is not. It is itself but, at the same time, its existence is dependent on it not being something else. There is something absurd about this notion of being conceived as dependent on not-being. However, for Hegel, absurdity, error, and stupidity drive the dialectic forwards. If the dialectic moves forwards, that is because thinking and historical action are happening. The dialectic is a name for change and changeability. Something is, only to become in the next moment other to itself or exposed as dependent on its opposite, which threatens to collapse the stability of its self-identity. Hegel’s concepts, notes Ziffel, “have always been rocking on a chair, which at first makes a particularly comfortable impression, until it falls over.” The chair collapses. The figure splays. The banana skin sends the man innocently and ignorantly walking along sky high and groundward. The gag is done. But thinking is not done with. With the joke, thinking is truly catapulted into motion. In “The Author as Producer,” from 1934, Benjamin notes:

there is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more precisely, spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul.

Laughter is shattered articulation, shattered words and shattered thoughts. And laughter shatters the body. The diaphragm writhes — and in so doing undermines the rhetoric of the soul, with its penchant for identification and sentimentalism. As things break up or down, there is the opportunity to reflect on what they were and on what might replace them. Such breakage, coupled to an attitude of endless questioning and reflecting, with a humorous, sceptical, distanced mien, is annexed by Brecht to his own epic drama, and as Benjamin notes of this stripped down form: “Epic theatre is lavish only in the occasions it offers for laughter.” It produces laughter, or at least a giggle or a shrug, by breaking up the flow, by interruption, by slicing the narrative into scenes and the scenes into Gestus, stances, postures, which exemplify social attitudes and the conditions of their mutability. It breaks up the flow of what might be deemed unquestioned life by the technique of literarisation, a kind of footnoting by means of slogans or images, placards or projections, breaking up the coherence of the space, punctuating it, in order to comment internally on the action. Such is also the practice of Zoe Beloff in The Days of the Commune, which restages over a series of weekends with professional and nonprofessional actors Brecht’s play Days of the Commune in one of the sites of Occupy Wall Street and other public spaces in New York. The film is literarised, in the sense that captions, signs, labels are used as part of its work of defamiliarisation. At the same time, drawing, another means of conveying and commenting on information, is key to the film. Beloff said of the use of drawing in the film, “I started thinking back to a time when drawing was really important, to Manet and Courbet drawing the events of the Paris Commune.” Drawing relates to what is and what might be — and has its own relationship to laughter too, in the form of the comic strip, the gag, the cartoon. It needs to remain close at hand for irruptive, revolutionary practice.

Benjamin extends the thought on shattering of articulation to film and photography. If the body is interrupted and disrupted in laughter, the photograph too might be seen as an interruption — of time, of action. As such, it represents a shattering of the coherence of events, of the course of time. Photography and film crack things up. They do this by dislodging what is apprehended from its time and space, its here and now. Through reproduction, mechanical modes of representation shatter coherence, projecting a fragment of a moment into future time and other spaces. In severing the artistic conventions of originality and authorial creativity, film and photography contribute to “a shattering of tradition,” as Walter Benjamin phrases it. And they shatter too, or may shatter, appearance, in order to reveal deeper, other, more essential forces at work in the world. The film camera may slice through the surface appearance of everyday life, as does a surgical instrument through skin. In so doing, it contravenes the tendency of film to glide over surfaces, forcing what is represented to become, in Benjamin’s words, “manifold parts,” which are “assembled according to a new law.” The world is “laid open,” in order to be entered into, and viewers come away with an enhanced knowledge of the structure of actuality through exposure via the super-perceptive and analytical eye of the film camera. The world is as if of glass, shatterable. In being smashed, having passed through the glass of the camera, it releases meaning for us. The broken parts of recorded actuality are combined into new chains, or left fractured, by directors, editors, artists, by whoever works on the material of film. Disparate times and spaces are segued or montaged. Events run backwards. Never made encounters occur. Audiences penetrate other relationships between parts contained even in very ordinary reality, once it has been fractured into shards. It is through such work with shards, with disarticulations, that humour may emerge.


“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass,” notes T. W. Adorno in Minima Moralia. Adorno was a cultural critic and philosopher, best known for his negative perspective on popular cultural forms. His negativity extended, in fact, across the cultural spectrum and he was as dismayed by high culture’s sclerotic veneration of classical forms as he was by the venal motives he perceived in culture for the masses, termed by him the “culture industry.” For Adorno, genuine culture is motivated by a dialectical urge: to produce an anti-commodity, that is, to mark out something entirely other to culture as an entity congruent with modern capitalist business. But, at the same time, what is produced must commit to acknowledging within its form the current impossibility of escaping the insistent and pervasive force of commodity-society. For this reason, for Adorno, a certain pain has to accompany cultural reflection. Adorno takes the shards of culture and turns them inwards, in a painful image of splinters in the eye. His image renders a slicing through not of the web of reality, but rather the mechanism of seeing. His motivation was the distrust of the invented mechanisms of vision, the glassy lenses that intensify, illuminate, expand vision, and provide the image maker with ever more sophisticated tools for illusion. The enlargement achieved by a standard magnifying glass brings back an increased quantity of information. It enlarges details. It makes visible that which has not seen by the human eye before, or not in that way. It provides access to something, but this is not an expanded apprehension in any meaningful sense. The magnifying glass makes things bigger, but it does not necessarily allow the spectator any better access to the meaning of what is magnified. The splinter in your eye, which he advocates, is by contrast, a fragment of glass, a broken shard of lens that does not simply look outwards into the world, seeing objectively, viewing objectivity, bringing to sight the world through and behind a lens. This splinter does not give a view, as seen through a window, onto a stable world out there, transmitting this back into the viewing eye. Rather this splinter conducts between vision, eye, and world. It cuts into the eye that sees. It juts out into the world that is seen. It disrupts the body. It begins to shatter it. This splintered lens must cause pain, when it cuts into the eyeball, and, as such, in its eliciting of suffering, renders the viewer an involved spectator — or something much more than a spectator — of the scene. The viewer is affected by the scene, to the extent of being injured, if only metaphorically. In fact, the eye with the splinter in it cannot see, in the usual sense. In Adorno’s aphorism, the flaw in vision becomes the route to vision. The magnifying glass that cuts into the eye enlarges the error that is the world — an erroneous state that is always present, but unseen in usual mechanisms of imagery. Only when directly interpolated — pronged — in the mechanism of vision by the mode of seeing, can we speak of authentic seeing. Sight, then, is insight — turning inwards into the self — but it is also insight into the conditions of seeing, into mediation. For Adorno, no sight can be accepted as true if there is no flaw included. A flaw in vision, a flaw in the machine, a flaw in what is seen in a world in which all is flawed. We are far from laughing. It is not side-splitting, rather it is eye-splitting. And yet the themes of seeing and sightlessness, knowing and obliviousness have lent themselves to a certain humour — within the genre of animation, for example, there are the hapless, and yet ever lucky, myopic Mr. Magoo.

Adorno’s aphorism on the splinter indicated the extent to which the flaw in vision might be truthful, in a world that is false. This heads back to Hegel’s notion of error on the route to truth, but it also evokes dada’s sniggering play with art and anti-art. At the beginnings of modernism, art circles had been challenged by Marcel Duchamp’s paradox of art, which hitched blindness to insight, in a mode that showed Duchamp to be consciously acting dumb. Duchamp was coeditor of a magazine called The Blind Man. In the issue of May 1917 he published an anonymous letter — probably written by himself and Beatrice Wood — in support of his much-pilloried readymade Fountain, which had originated as a porcelain urinal. The letter was written apparently by a blind reader, who had not been able to see the controversial object, but nonetheless expressed “blind solidarity.” The blind apparently “see” the readymade rather than the seeing being blinded by the readymade’s refusal to return the spectator’s gaze, in the way that the spectator expects, that is to say, its refusal to provide aesthetic pleasure. Fountain does not want to be seen by the seeing, because they see blindly. The blind see differently and in good faith.

And the seeing see nothing, or rather they see but without knowing. They know not what they see and they see not what they know, but something that imitates it so effectively they might slip under its illusioning surface, and come up only for the cold air of reality, which they breathe uncomfortably until the next bath of tears and grins. At least that is how the critics of the culture industry characterized its workings, with Adorno at their helm. And his aggression towards that culture industry with its clichéd and ideologically driven outputs, its manipulative and artistically uninteresting swill, its, for him, oxymoronic culture as industry, is diverted into an aggression towards the self. The wounded self is wounded again. Perhaps this is some version of a Hegelian negation of the negation.

Critical filmmakers and other artists of the modern period sought ways of making the work of art something like a splinter in the eye. A disarticulation of art’s parts was a first step to assessing art’s possible critical qualities. In a protest against bad films, Film Enemies of Today—Film Friends of Tomorrow, written in 1929 as a manifesto for the Stuttgart Film und Foto exhibition, Hans Richter begins with the basics of cinematic form, outlining the twenty- four frames a second principle, then moves immediately into the tricks of slow-motion, speed-up, superimposition, lens distortion, animation. It is the camera as box of tricks that makes film a valid form for Richter. The camera as box of tricks leads the assault on naturalism. Richter asserts in radical antinaturalist fashion:

It is the case, then, that the same is true of film as has long been proven with every other art form. To be bound to nature is a restriction.

Yes, to be bound to nature is a restriction. But to be cut loose from it is no solution either. Here animation might step in. Animation partakes of nature, is wilful with it, and in so doing perhaps comes closer to something that is within nature, an animating impulse, a drive to form and deform, and transform. The world and its workings are released from the grip of nature and inevitability. As this happens, what occurs is a working on nature, its shattering by animation, the shattering of its apparent laws, or the quest to establish new ones. The breaking of the law has something funny about it. And as Benjamin notes:

The cracking open of natural teleology proceeds in accordance with the plan of humor.

What nature has apparently laid in store for us is bucked by imagery that deifies any and all talk of things being the way they are. The quotation is preceded by a reference to the proximity of liberatory politics and caricature.

Fourier’s long-tailed men became the object of caricature, in 1849, with erotic drawings by Emy in Le Rire. For the purpose of elucidating the Fourierist extravagances, we may adduce the figure of Mickey Mouse, in which we find carried out, entirely in the spirit of Fourier’s conceptions, the moral mobilisation of nature. Humour, here, puts politics to the test. Mickey Mouse shows how right Marx was to see in Fourier, above all else, a great humorist.

Charles Fourier’s projections, written in 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution, predicted a great defrosting, a liquefaction into Utopia, brought about by momentous changes in nature. These include a warming of the earth. The stormy gales and hurricanes turn out to be a product of civilization. These ebb and more gentle winds blow, making sea voyages as safe as those by land. The moon dissolves in the Milky Way and is replaced by luminous satellites. The poles melt, cleansing the sea and the air. Mingling with fluid from the Northern Crown, a “boreal citric acid,” the seas turn into “a kind of lemonade,” which is drinkable and renders it unnecessary to provide ships with barrels of water. This lemonade aids in the evolution of new sea creatures, useful ones who will pull in ships and help in fisheries, while the sea monsters, for whom this new environment is inhospitable, are killed in one fell swoop. We might laugh a little cynically at those aspects that have come true in the wrong way and those we imagine never possible. And yet its vision of a world reformed is motivating politically — who would not like to reach the further shores of Utopia—and makes for a good joke that might yet be illuminating.

Side Splitting

As many have argued, animation is the form in which its objects and images, drawn or modelled, are dislodged from the usual order, from the nature of things, and are motile, flexible, open to possibility, able to extend in any direction or undertake any action or none. The animated object is unnatural — or a-natural. It has its own movement, illegitimately, which in itself cracks open any natural teleology and any obedience to law, natural or otherwise. It is all this that is inherently humorous and draws laughter from viewers, just as they also struggle to make sense of the nonsense worlds. Animation’s distinctive contribution relates less to its conventional definition as the “illusion of movement” and more the “movement of illusion,” a dislodgment that exposes the illusions to which we are subject, even to the point of dispelling them. It throws into relief the conventions of viewing and logic that we mostly are expected to live with and by. It achieves this through the generation of “different nature” (Benjamin’s phrase for this is eine andere Natur. It has been variously translated as “a different nature” and “another nature”), which is different because it is unlike ours, but not distinct from it. Animation echoes nature, but shatters its laws in its physics-defying restructuring of space, time, and matter. Animation proposes small worlds, each one bound by the newly devised laws of the animator. Eisenstein wrote of “non-indifferent nature.” Nature is not dead, but alive and humanlike in many regards. And, conversely, humans are a type of landscape. Animation, which makes such thoughts palpable, can itself be conceived as “non-indifferent nature” because it appeals to us humans, speaks across all that divides us, invites us into its particular small world for the duration of the show. Animation’s small image worlds draw out certain deportments on the part of viewers, pushing them to be at least marginally attentive to the means of the image world unfurling before them, particularly as it compares to the world which they inhabit. Animation offers a vigorous unconstrained image world in which — like Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical cinema — there is a condensation of tensions that appeals cognitively to viewers. In thrusting the viewer from image to thought, from percept to concept, it replicates the gesture of thinking itself — such that viewers are bidden to meet the film in appropriating its odd otherness. In its imagining of hybrid and hyperbolic life-forms, the caricature mode — whether as caricature itself or as it plays out in animation or other comic forms —  accesses a truer truth. Such depiction leaves the realms of realism in order to speculate on inner states, on lives as they are felt, as well as on incipient lives, ones that might yet be lived or laughed at.

Eisenstein devised a category of “plasmaticness” to stress the originary shape-shifting potential of the animated, the way in which an object or image, drawn or modelled, strains beyond itself, could adopt potentially any form, thereby rescinding all back to a moment that evokes an originary future potential, beyond current constraints. If we were once like this, we might yet be so again. Or different, but at least other to how we are. All this potential is condensed in us. Eisenstein saw in animation the origins of the self, of our selves, and he truly believed that through it we accessed something of our primitive states, our ecstatic inner beings that remained with us, under the layers of civilizational distortion. Disney cast intense oranges and shining blues out into what Eisenstein called the grey squares and prisons of city blocks. Eisenstein seized on animation’s provisionality, which is thrown out, utopianly, against the rigid inflexibilities of the capitalist world. He affirmed animation’s ability to range in any direction or embark on any exploit. He saw there, in its ecstatic plasmaticness, the beginnings of time and the ends of things, and animation’s most apt symbol was fire, which, observes Eisenstein, “is capable of most fully conveying the dream of a flowing diversity of forms.” There is something more to be gleaned from the image, from time and space, something which extends backwards, reaches forwards, as stretchy and squeezy as the rubber-hose figures of Disney.

And perhaps there is something of this desire for a kind of being within being and a seeing beyond seeing, seeing into, beyond conventional outlines in The Glass House, the film Eisenstein planned in response to a number of developments, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the glass architecture of Bruno Taut and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as well as the American skyscraper. The desire manifests from the perspective of the camera. A central feature of this vertically conceived film was a camera that could move anywhere, upwards and downwards, inside and out, without impediment, perceiving objects that appeared to float in space, inside a building whose walls, ceilings, and floors were fully transparent. Optical effects using glass were to be deployed: smashing glass, frosted glass, reflected rippling water in glass. The glass of the camera lens was to be toyed with too. In one version of the plan, the camera was able to see everything that happens, unlike the human characters who are limited in their vision and unable to perceive cuckolding or the disparities between rich and poor. The extension of visions and perspectives, such that the viewers see everything and in all ways, however, means that transparency becomes not a route to clear understanding, but rather a conduit of complexity. Images overlap. Unhindered eye lines dissolve the scene into flurry. Points of view are unprecedented and difficult to interpret. The veil of commodity fetishism is lifted. In this pure exposure things go wrong as much as they go right.

Cracking Up

For Benjamin, cartoons reveal brutality in the everyday world, the domination by technology, the — admittedly exaggerated — fact that even our arms or legs might be stolen from us. The power of these strips is that the audiences recognise their own life in them, in all their absurdity. But in showing this they also work therapeutically, because they evoke laughter in the face of injustice, injustice and a rebuff of the way things are.

Collective laughter is one such preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis. The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. American slapstick comedies and Disney films trigger a therapeutic release of unconscious energies.

Something is shattered in laughing. Negativity escapes. It escapes from us, stops us exploding in rage and sorrow. This is curative, or at least protects the viewers in some way, until the tension builds again. And it will always build as long as we live in a violent world with violent social relations. We release this energy, and differently to the other energy releases that are compelled from us daily. The body that capital, our master, demands, is an elastic one. This body can be squeezed and stretched, for it is a key instrument of labour, animated by the machines that employ it and set its rhythms: “capital is not a fixed magnitude, but is a part of social wealth, elastic and constantly fluctuating with the division of fresh surplus-value into revenue and additional capital.” (Marx) Capital too is elastic, according to Marx, or it acquires the elasticity of labour-power, science, and land. Animation makes a graphic rendition of this stretching, shrinking. A strip of animation by Walt Disney from 1928, Plane Crazy, opens with a scene of Taylorised labor. The demands of labour under new conditions of industrial working life apparently go so far as to insist that one of the workers, a dachshund, insert himself in the machine, coiling himself like an elastic band inside the plane’s body in order to make it fly. The apparatus is brutal and it will also go out of control, starting, then stopping, then unable to be stopped, as it becomes a vehicle of brutal interpersonal relations. The entire world — including a church spire — kowtows before this machine, as it whirrs through the sky. What can we do but laugh at this world redrawn into reality and into absurdity at one and the same time. And then mobilize against this world.


Filed under: art, film