Keaton and the Masses

Bidragets oversatte titel: Keaton og masserne

Publikation: KonferencebidragPaperForskningpeer review


This paper explores conflicts between individual and mass and the process of 'massification' (i.e. the becoming of masses) as comic potential in Buster Keaton’s physical comedies. This comic potential is characterized by a person’s formalized and aestheticized de-individualization when confronted with tangible, non-human matter. As already indicated by Henri Bergson, de-individualization plays an important role in modern comedy in general. With his intense focus on massification, Keaton is not only one of the first, but also one of the most dedicated investigators of comic de-individualization by purely physical means. However, masses and multiples have not been given much consideration in research on Keaton. As this paper will elucidate, unlike other leading figures in silent comedy Keaton’s comedies are deeply marked by individual-mass conflicts and massification, from the general organization and thematics of the films and down to the comic details of each individual gag.

The paper initiates by considering the complex relations in Keaton between gag and narrative with specific regard to the conflict between the individual and the masses. This leads to an exploration of the basic compositional elements in Keaton’s cinematographic staging of individual-mass conflicts, including pacification and isolation of the individual in relation to his or her immediate surroundings.

The main section of the paper considers three basic forms of massification in Keaton, each highlighting different comic aspects: In the solid mass—typically materialized in large, heavy objects and hard surfaces—the comic potential is due to its ability to violently tumble or jam the pacified individual into de-subjectified body mass. In contrast, the comic potential of the fluid mass is found in the unmanageable character of the soft, formless and constantly transforming phenomenon. In pure accumulation, the third form of massification considered here, Keaton focuses on the comic potential of the very formation of masses as a process of accumulation (i.e., the repetitive addition of discrete, more or less identical elements). Here, Keaton’s interest lies above all in the formation of human masses (crowds).

In concluding, it is argued that not only are each individual gag in Keaton very often essentially characterized by massification; the way the different gags are interrelated throughout the films also has a profound mass character.


Bergson, Henri. Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Paris : Éditions Alcan, 1924.

Carroll, Noël. Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor, and Bodily Coping. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.

Dale, Alan S.. Comedy is a Man in Trouble. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Knopf, Robert. The Theatre and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Trahair, Lisa. The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick. New York: SUNY Press 2007.
Bidragets oversatte titelKeaton og masserne
Antal sider12
StatusUdgivet - 2012
Udgivet eksterntJa

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