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  • Destroy, she said: objects and subjects in silent slapstick film

Lange, Janina, 2019, Thesis, Destroy, she said: objects and subjects in silent slapstick film PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

It is the aim of this project to demonstrate how slapstick in the silent films of the 1910s and
1920s undermines the centrality of the human subject. To achieve this, the project follows three
interlinked lines of investigation. First, by drawing on over a hundred comic short films of
cinema’s silent era, it creates a map of slapstick’s vocabulary and traces how matter, things and
machines transform and transgress boundaries between humans and objects. Beyond
investigating slapstick’s building blocks and comic strategies, it also challenges traditional
narratives focused on male, Hollywood comedians by integrating the stories of female and
European comediennes. Finally, by means of artistic practice it reanimates and re-circulates
elements derived from this tradition and asks about its relevance today.
In doing this work I take up a number of theoretical positions. I am challenging a linear,
historiographical interpretation of silent comedy. Furthermore, I resist the traditional
categorisation of the films into subgenres, like the European grotesque or the comedy film of the
Transitional Era. Instead I focus on formal rather than historical links between tropes in the
films. This text follows its own taxonomy, shifting the focus to an in-depth study of the agency of
objects and destruction across silent film comedy. The conflation of historic film categories and
periods allows me to rearrange the archive and engage comedians from different times and
continents.
By increasing the visibility of non-human bodies as powerful agents in my writing and practice,
I engage with urgent ecological questions and technological acceleration. I argue that early
comic film puts forward micro-political practices like notions of kinship with objects that can be
appropriated to address these pressing issues. By focusing on the interconnection between
entities over individualism, I place the project within the line of inquiry put forward in the
philosophical project of Posthumanism. The thesis seeks to dismantle the Western hierarchical
structure, which places the human atop the ‘Great Chain of Being’.
While laughter is disregarded as automatic and complicit with patriarchal ideology by feminist
theorist such as Mary Ann Doane, this thesis reclaims the unruly, wild female body as capable of
rejecting objectification and challenging gendered oppression in real terms. Laughter grants
sudden insights and thoughts, as George Bataille and Wyndham Lewis have argued. Its ruination
of meaning can rupture dialectical thinking and generate new thought. The project therefore
argues against an understanding of comedy as a social corrective, as proposed by Henri
Bergson.
I engage these positions in my artwork through material and discursive practices. Through a
body of new work consisting of films, objects and performances I show objects to be recalcitrant
and unwilling and thereby challenge notions of human control. Drawing on comedy’s
fascination with archetypal objects and questions around elasticity and rigidity, I work with
liquid rubbers, plastics including TPU and PVC, and helium. By collaborating with experts,
including Foley artists and cloud scientists, I invite other voices and practices into the work so
that new lines of thought can emerge between objects and words, reason and silliness and
between technology and nature.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W100 Fine Art
Creative Arts and Design > W600 Cinematics and Photography > W620 Cinematography
Creative Arts and Design > W600 Cinematics and Photography > W630 History of Cinematics and Photography > W631 History of Cinematics
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Date Deposited: 25 Jun 2019 15:31
Last Modified: 25 Jun 2019 15:31
URI: http://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/3959

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