The Mass Ornament

I won’t be embarking on my Watson year until the end of July, but of course my excitement and building anticipation has already led me to find aspects of my subject matter cropping up everywhere. Case in point— I caught up with a good friend from high school yesterday and, as is often the case, we eventually found ourselves taking turns opening youtube videos in a kind of free association game. (That’s putting it generously. ‘Dicking around’ comes to mind, too.) Anyway, somewhere between music videos of Childish Gambino and the mysterious, Transforming Owl, I noticed that a good chunk of our videos were all exhibiting contemporary examples of Mass Ornament.

The concept of Mass Ornament is most closely associated with Siegfried Kracauer, the early twentieth century German-Jewish cultural critic. (Here’s his Wikipedia page, which is okay.) Kracauer ties Taylorism/Fordism— that is, the rationalization of labor brought on through the introduction of the mass assembly line— to the mass assembly of bodies moving simultaneously in the new and very trendy chorus lines. He writes, “The hands of the factory workers correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls [a famous Chorus Line]… a series of formal operations carried out on meaningless parts. […] The operations produce abstract patterns using the same movements as machines: lines, rotations, repetitions."

Here is a Chorus Line in action:

And here is one of my favorite scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:

Both videos display a gathering of individuals attempting to function together as one unit. Such unity demands so great a bodily precision from each person that a fully operational Mass Ornament necessarily flattens individuality in service of the optimized whole. In this way, self-expression gets re-branded as a functional flaw. Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times sticks out like a sore thumb because he is easily distracted and inefficient, threatening to derail the entire assembly line. And take a look at the 5th girl on the right about five seconds into the Chorus Line.

When it’s done right, a Mass Ornament transforms the human body into (Kracauer here:) “mere building blocks," a perfect system of interchangeable parts. What might this look like, you ask? Cue the Japanese Precision Walking Competition:

I like the way this routine showcases its mass synchronicity with a hint of self-awareness. It riffs on the idea of interchangeability by choreographing moments of high risk precision (see 1:50) as well as tableaux vivant that turn the group into a living flip book (see 4:30 and 5:10). It’s actually these tableaux that I like the most; they showcase the minute level of detail that goes into such an impressive form of mechanization, suggesting that the act of sitting down should be identical to the act of standing up if one rationally follows these 10 easy steps. I think this helps explain why the group gets a round of applause at 0:55 for putting on their suit jackets— here we have the one moment in the entire performance that appears unchoreographed or at the very least, intentionally imprecise. Each person gets to put on the jacket as he would naturally put on a jacket, and I’d imagine that this is a source of relief for the audience, a confirmation that these men are, in fact, human.

Of course, they only get to have this “human" moment because a disembodied voice commands them to. Here is, I think, the entry point into understanding why such mechanization can be unsettling and, by extension, why the metaphor of man as marionette is often met with fear. The more mechanized the men become, the more urgently the question arises— just who is pulling the strings? After all, the Japanese Precision Walking Contest does, on some level, threateningly resemble a more (in)famous Mass Ornament:

Fleeing Germany for the United States in 1941, Kracauer would later reflect on the Nazi Party and The Triumph of the Will, writing in 1947 that “Certain specific human ornaments in the film denote as well the omnipotence of dictatorship. These ornaments are composed of vassals or slaves." Kracauer has articulated here the sinister third stage of this kind of mechanization, helping to sketch out the uncomfortable ease with which one might slide from self-expression to anonymity to the ultiamte dissolution of free will. With that in mind, check this out:

I go back and forth on this video. On the one hand, it displays an extraordinary degree of training and difficulty. But I can’t help shake the sense that I would feel differently— more engaged— were the video to feature a single dancer. To me, the anonymity of each individual dancer conjures imagines of a dance school run like a factory, churning out dozens of obscenely flexible dancers without paying any interest in their individuality and thus, their unique artistry. It is instead thinly veiled nationalism at it’s finest.

But then, who am I to talk? I would absolutely love be able to cartwheel into the splits or front flip without using my hands— in fact, often when I am stretching to the splits, I find myself wishing I had a taskmaster to push me, someone who might relieve some of the personal responsibility I must exclusively rely upon as one who practices “self-expression."

So the jury’s out on this one. These are the kinds of questions and contradictions are driving my Watson, and I anticipate they will remain unresolved at the end. In other words— expect these themes to crop up again and probably quite soon. To conclude, I’ll leave you with this last video. It’s fun! It’s impressive! It’s at a military base! And, at the very least, it’s evidence that Fordism/Taylorism has not exclusively emigrated to Asia; it’s alive and kicking in the USA! Enjoy!

(Marvelous— and presumably unintentional— juxtaposition between the group and the individual, no?)