Writer in Residence

Class, History, Fiction, and Form Part 3: "To See Someone Who Does Not See"

By Geoffrey Morrison

So now I have to do what I said I would do and start offering some ways of escaping the individualist narrative conventions of the bourgeois novel. They will by no means be the only ways. Not by a longshot. They are simply some of the ones I personally feel most confident describing, insofar as I ever feel confident describing anything (I don’t, not really).

Today I will focus on the piece of writing that completely opened up my thinking about these things: Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Poor and the Proletariat.” The essay is about, of all people, Charlie Chaplin, and especially his film, Modern Times (1936). For Barthes, Chaplin’s little man has a more profound effect than the heroes of, say, socialist realist novels because he has yet to realize he is a proletarian. He just thinks he is a poor man, and gets swept along in a march of striking workers and beaten by the police almost as an iron filing gets picked up by a magnet. As Barthes puts it, “Ensnared in his starvation, Chaplin-Man is always just below political awareness.” This is the key to everything for Barthes:

"But it is precisely because Chaplin portrays a kind of primitive proletarian, still outside Revolution, that the representative force of the latter is immense. No socialist work has yet succeeded in expressing the humiliated condition of the worker with so much violence and generosity. Brecht alone, perhaps, has glimpsed the necessity, for socialist art, of always taking Man on the eve of Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the ‘natural’ excess of his wretchedness."

In other words, Barthes thinks the socialist art that anxiously gives its pre-formed heroes perfect opinions, perfect actions, and unambiguous class identification will lack the “representative force” of the characters in Chaplin or Brecht, who are this close to realizing what is happening to them. Meaning that we in the audience are yet closer, and therefore yet closer to understanding ourselves. It’s striking that in addition to the plays of Brecht, Barthes refers to yet another communal (and very, very old) story form, the puppet show:

"To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see: thus, at a Punch and Judy show, it is the children who announce to Punch what he pretends not to see."

Even though puppet shows and Brecht plays and Chaplin films are focused on individual characters, all the things that these characters do not know invite the audience into the artwork en masse. The “representative force” of “someone who does not see” finally takes us from seeing to thinking, feeling, and knowing ourselves and one another.

Detail from the original theatrical poster for Modern Times (1936). Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character wears blue overalls and has his hands on two heavy industrial switches behind him.

Detail from the original theatrical poster for Modern Times (1936)

Of course, unlike films, plays, or puppet shows, reading a novel is not normally something we do in a big room together with a lot of other people all experiencing the same work of art. But I do think Barthes’s basic insight about the “representative force” of a character just coming to consciousness of themselves as a worker, a proletarian, a person on the losing end of a class society, is very potent for contemporary fiction. For one thing, so many people in the world are in exactly that position.

In so-called post-industrial countries, the shift to a service economy has meant that many people in retail, care work, education, hospitality, and numerous other white-collar, pink-collar, or no-collar fields are unsure if they “count” as working-class when the traditional image of a worker is a person with big overalls and a hammer (all too often imagined as a white, straight, able-bodied cis man, which is also part of the problem), making sparks fly in a factory. And the greater accessibility of post-secondary education, and the simultaneous devaluing of those credentials, has meant more working-class people than ever are highly educated while also having prospects barely better than they did before. Not to mention that many people still cling to an idea of class that is tied to mannerisms and aesthetic preferences rather than actual economic interests. This probably manifests worst in Britain, and maybe specifically England, but it’s everywhere, it’s wrong, and it’s incredibly convenient for anyone who doesn’t want to see workers in different sectors stand together.

But of course all of these doubt-filled workers – blue-, white-, pink-, or no-collar, educated or not, Cheez Whiz enjoyers or not (I like it) – count as workers. If they depend on their own labour to live, rather than the labour of others or on the dark magic of their own capital multiplying itself, then they are workers. Marx is himself very clear about it in his Theories of Surplus Value, using the examples of a teacher, a singer, and “the literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books (for example, Compendia of Economics) under the direction of his publisher.” Yes, there are internal contradictions – well-paid workers, especially those who start to earn enough that they can make money off of other people (as, say, landlords or investors) are liable to become invested in keeping things as they are. The fundamental, colonially-based inequalities between rich and poor countries mean that we ignore the international dimension to class relations at our peril. And at every income level there are always workers who could go either way. Or think that they can’t do anything to change things. But it’s exactly on this terrain of confusion and despair where the lost Chaplins of our generation dwell. We will need books about this. Instead of bourgeois narratives of accumulating individuals, these books will take the form of the movement from the part to the whole. We may not get to scream out warnings as we would at a puppet show, but as readers we will nevertheless be invited to participate. We will be given all the materials we need at home to solve for X, where X is whatever it is, as a collective, we need – courage, solace, knowledge, a sympathetic voice in our ear, an amenable space to move around.

I have so much more to say that will have to wait until later. For one thing, Barthes’s approach is still kind of dependent on the individual character – albeit as a zone of shared identification – and I also want to consider some approaches that offer a much more radical departure from character as such. But before I do that, I think I have to talk about Lewis Grassic Gibbon. So tune in next time.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Geoffrey D. Morrison is the author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). He was a finalist in both the poetry and fiction categories of the 2020 Malahat Review Open Season Awards and a nominee for the 2020 Journey Prize. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver). Falling Hour is his first novel.