Abstraction and mass culture: Chaplin’s reception and the international language of film

Ori Levin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Among the historical writings that address the concept of ‘Visual Esperanto’, numerous texts have focused on Chaplin’s films and the character he portrayed: the tramp. The tramp has become emblematic of the international language of film. It maybe that this emblem’s ubiquity has lent it a commonsensical armor that has averted critical questions, as no research has focused on this central topic. Yet the fact that the tramp has come to symbolize universality and the international language of film raises questions: Chaplin’s tramp has been repeatedly linked to migration and foreignness. Siegfried Kracauer, for example, regarded him as the personification of the outcast, the pariah. The image of the other, the stranger, is often used to delineate the social body from the outside, i.e. the group defines itself in contrast to the outcast. Therefore, the question arises as to how the character of the stranger helped define the boundaries of universality, not from without, but precisely from within? Through an examination of writings from the silent era and the years of transition to sound film, this paper will trace the paradox that lies at the heart of the concept of the universality of ‘Visual Esperanto’. An analysis of the tramp’s character traits against the backdrop of the formation of the Hollywood star system will shed new light on the deep connections between the esthetics of abstraction and the historical role of the masses at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-38
Number of pages15
JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2 Jan 2018


  • Chaplin
  • Visual Esperanto
  • abstraction
  • reception studies
  • universality
  • vernacular modernism


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