Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Modern Times, 1936 and the Angel of Progress (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This blog post was part of a series of student posts written during coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

The Progress Narrative, By Morgan O’Brien and Leslie Saunders

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress” – Walter Benjamin

That was Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the pictured painting by Paul Klee, and of progress. The piling of wreckage represents events that occur one after the other as time passes. The angel is focused on the past but being propelled into the future, both of which are out of their control. While Benjamin’s interpretations are quite cynical, in large part due to his experience as a German Jewish philosopher during the second world war, they are not uncommon.

We think about piling wreckage as a naturalized thing – events just happen. But when we look back on history there is an intentional choosing, someone is throwing that wreckage in a particular order to construct the image of the complete unilinear timeline of progress – our history. In the choosing however, there is also forgetting, obscuring, and foreclosing. The carefully constructed chain becomes a new truth, a legacy left to future generations. There is something that ignites this, it is not a neutral action. Benjamin calls us to see this as a catastrophe, a rupturing of certainty. Yet in our reflection on this “chain of events” we see only a cohesive timeline of causality, its rationality taken for granted. 

The idea of progress is embedded in our society, and institutions are no exception. But progress is relative. It draws on the past in order to legitimize a certain present and forecast a certain future. Take for instance the university apparatus. It does the decisive work of tying together past events with the promise of a better future that substantiates value claims made in the present. The melting of these temporalities into one continuous timeline is not just theoretical, it is embodied in the physical manifestations of the university. The juxtaposition of old stone castle-like buildings alongside ultra modern glass buildings is no happenstance; both are integral to the university’s present identity and narrative of progress. The old stone castles stand as evidence of a past that the university carefully crafted but is now incommensurable with the desire for diversity and inclusion.  Nostalgic accounts of histories foster a refusal of what was for so many, violent and exclusionary. When we consume constructed histories as truth we blind ourselves to destructive knowledge regimes. The wreckage that grows sky high at the feet of the angel is determined by those with the power to define, the power to dictate the narrative, the power to write history.

Visual Indices of Time in Modern Times, by Candace Arden Baldassarre, Olivia Versraete and Joseph Wilson

In Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film, Modern Times (1936), there are circles everywhere. Meant as a critique of modern capitalism, the film opens with a shot of the most obvious symbol that points to the commodification of time, the clock, with hands sweeping out endless circles. The suggestion is that, even though we move, we end up where we began.

Circles are the core motif of the factory where Chaplin and his fellow labourers work. Great fly-wheels churn through clouds of steam; dials and wheels are attended to by sweaty workers; and a lazy Susan is turned into an automatic feeding platform for the hapless Chaplin. 

In the movie’s most famous scene, Chaplin’s body is pulled through the circular machinations of the factory, until the direction of the gears is halted and reversed. Only by literally throwing his body into the gears of capitalism can Chaplin halt time, here represented not as a linear march of progress, but a monotonous, soul-destroying repetition of the same tasks, the same hours, the same day, repeated ad infinitum.  

One of the key moments depicting the circuitousness of capitalistic time in Modern Times is a scene that features an automatic feeding machine. Just as Chaplin’s character is literally incorporated into the cogs of the machine through which he is cycled, he is also physically strapped into the feeding machine. The machine’s design uses the concentric imagery found throughout the film—its design is circular, as is its movement. In being strapped into the machine itself, the worker is further subsumed into the machinations of modern capitalism—his body and his bodily functions are enmeshed with the production expected of him. 

The optimization of the human body’s performance is arguably a hallmark of the modern capitalist workplace. As seen in Modern Times, however, this mechanization of the human body’s performance is taken to a new extent by the feeding machine. Using a feeding machine is a means of overriding bodily needs and temporal rhythms. Indoctrinated into the factory’s production time, Chaplin’s bodily needs are overridden by the importance of being able to “keep ahead of your competitor.” Interestingly, however, it is in the feeding machine’s malfunction that we are able to see the disjuncture between the tempo of bodily needs and that of modern capitalistic success. 

Unlike the repetitive circularity of the worker’s movements found in the commodification of their bodies, the factory boss is pictured to have an entirely different experience of time. Physical space is used to separate the different times that are being experienced. The separation exists between the workers, who are continually moving, and the man who is in charge of the factory (the boss), who has time to himself to engage in activities. In one scene the shot switches from Charlie Chaplin moving and failing to keep up with the conveyor belt, to the boss who is doing a puzzle, moving slowly, engaged in a linear activity, piece by piece, instead of the circular madness of the factory floor. 

The sound also changes between the different spaces; it is noisy and there are multiple sources of sounds in Chaplin’s environment, whereas it is quiet where the boss is, peaceful. There is only one scene where the times overlap and exist together, which is when the boss appears on a screen to give further instructions and exercise control over the workers’ time. Although this is a place where there is a face to face interaction between employees and employer, they remain separated physically, keeping the experienced timelines separate. 

The use of the physical space is effective as it can demonstrate the different speeds of life and work that the different roles are experiencing but it also shows the power structure that exists and how that power influences both of their times. 


Chaplin, Charlie. 1936. Modern Times. Dir. Charlie Chaplin. Los Angeles: United Artists. Accessed Nov. 19, 2019: (Links to an external site.)

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