City Lights (1931) is one of Charles Chaplin’s most celebrated films. It is often remembered for having been made as a silent film (in pantomime) after spoken cinema had already been established. And, this, despite Chaplin’s choice for synchronized music (which was also his composition) and the inclusion of some sound effects, such as the ones we see at the beginning, during the monument’s inauguration: an effect which, by the way, is a satire of the speech itself, that in this case becomes more powerful insofar as it is, specifically, the speech of those who address the people – or, taking this idea to its extreme, those who intend not only to talk to them but for them.
“Peace and Prosperity” is the name of the monument offered to the city, appearing at the moment that the drape is raised. In the same moment that, close to the three figures, a fourth body – strange, dark, an intruder – also appears: a tramp that sleeps over the lap of the female statue (the tallest form, which is sat down with an erect trunk, whereas the tramp is lying down). He scratches himself, stretches his leg and takes his time until he realizes that he is not welcome where he is. Afterwards, a succession of clumsy mistakes prolongs and highlights the distance between the tramp and the solemnity: during the hymn, a hole in the back of his pants keeps him suspended, and after, escaping from the sword that was poking through this hole, he sits down on the face of the male statue, steps between its legs and moves himself to the third figure, then using it as he wishes, disrespectfully, we could say, ridiculing the situation. People seem to laugh, but authorities throw him out. He then escapes the scene, jumping the fence.
The solemnity of the monument’s inauguration also could be called consecration: a ceremony, or else, a religious liturgy wherein something is separated to a sacred field and as such must remain, distant from the common man’s reach, from the profane world. “Religion can be defined as that which removes things, places, animals, or people from common use and transfers them to a separate sphere”, Giorgio Agamben reminds us in In Praise of Profanation: “Not only is there no religion without separation, but every separation also contains or preserves within itself a genuinely religious core” (2007, p. 74). In City Lights, after all, the monument is offered to the people, but, in a paradox, no one will be free to use it in their own way, individually or collectively; in other words, no one may touch peace and prosperity, much less take shelter in its lap; people may only regard these figures at a distance, respectfully. And the State of Exception’s author goes on to point out a possible lecture of the tramp’s behavior:
"The term religio does not derive, as an insipid and incorrect etymology would have it, from religare (that which binds and unites the human and the divine). It comes instead from releqere, which indicates the stance of scrupulousness and attention that must be adopted in relations with the gods, the uneasy hesitation (the "rereading [rileggere]") before forms – and formulae – that must be observed in order to respect the separation between the sacred and the profane. Religio is not what unites men and gods but what ensures they remain distinct. It is not disbelief and indifference toward the divine, therefore, that stand in opposition to religion, but "negligence", that is, a behavior that is free and "distracted" (that is to say, released from the religio of norms) before things and their use, before forms of separation and their meaning. To profane means to open the possibility of a special form of negligence, which ignores separation or, rather, puts it to a particular use" (2007, p. 74-75).
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In The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, a 1935/36 text in which Chaplin’s film is quoted more than once, Walter Benjamin tells us about the forms of reception related to architecture, emphasizing how the concentrated attention (a contemplative and respectful posture) is far from common (through use or touch):
"Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically. Such reception cannot be understood in terms of the concentrated attention of a traveler before a famous building. On the tactile side, there is no counterpart to what contemplation is on the optical side. Tactile reception comes about not so much by way of attention as by way of habit. The latter largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation" (2008, p. 40).
As soon as it is incorporated into the urban architecture assemblage, the monument “Peace and Prosperity” is used by the tramp in a very particular way. His indolent habit allows him to intervene with the figures unusually (an intervention that applies itself not only over the forms, but obviously widens over the meaning of them: it is necessary to read the sequence of the tramp’s actions in connection with the peace and the prosperity which was promised), and thus the sacred aspect attributed by the ceremony is neglected (“sacred” or “artistic”, in the sense of the work that is recognized, one that is collected and kept available only for admiration at a distance – this seems to say “do not touch” –, such as in a museum).
In the same text about the work of art, Benjamin comments on another notion recovered by Agamben, the distraction. For Benjamin, the distraction corresponds with a sort of sensorial liberation that must not be disassociated from its political aspect, since it is a variety of social behavior, contrary to the bourgeois concentrated attention (antisocial). It is a comportment that indicates the adaptation of the senses before the continuous stimulus of modernity (that is, a preparation of our perceptive system for new tasks or dealing with new techniques) and it is a slacking in the observance of the tradition’s “religio of norms”:
"Reception in distraction – the sort of reception which is increasingly noticeable in all areas of art and is a symptom of profound changes in apperception – finds in film its true training ground. Film, by virtue of its shock effects, is predisposed to this form of reception. In this respect, too, it proves to be the most important subject matter, at present, for the theory of perception which the Greeks called aesthetics" (BENJAMIN, 2008, p. 40-41).
Chaplin redounds the distraction that the spectators look for in film by exposing in his film the distracted tramp. And, maybe, also in this sense we may understand the sympathy and the identification moved by the character. To profane is to touch, to disjoin, to be humorous; as it were, such as in City Lights, to lie down and rest on what was simultaneously offered and separated. The point is that this thought about the aesthetics does not refer to an autonomous space of human activity (an area that is both surrounded and policed, with rules of conduct and specific masters of ceremony), that is, it is about a free and negligent aesthetics that always creates unexpected contacts with that which was intended to be untouchable.
AGAMBEN, Giorgio. In Praise of Profanation. In: __________. Profanations. Translated by Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007, p. 73-92.
BENJAMIN, Walter. The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility [second version]. In: __________. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 19-55.
Michael Robert Warren