We are the robots...
"We are the robots..." weerapatkiatdumrong/gettyimages.com

There is only one great scene in the 1984 movie Breakin'.

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Its two main characters, Ozone (Adolfo "Shabba Doo" Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers), are working at night in a East Hollywood corner store (it is now Under the Gun Tattoo Co, on the corner of Melrose Avenue and North Heliotrope Drive). Ozone, the film's hero, is stocking shelves; and Turbo, the hero's sidekick, is ordered to stop dreaming of hitting the big time and just sweep the sidewalk.

Turbo, whose dance specialty is popping (Ozone's is uprocking), leaves the store with a broom and a ghetto-blaster. Outside, he plays Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" and begins popping (roboting, locking, moonwalking) with the broom.

Here we have the moment when work becomes play, when the oppressive becomes creative, when the human robot of labor becomes the human robot of art.

As you can see, I find this moment in the movie troubling. It also captures my ambivalence about the music and visuals of the German electro band Kraftwerk, which had its peak between the 1974 and 1983, and whose co-founder, Florian Schneider died on April 30th. (Word of his death did not spread until May 6.)

Kraftwerk celebrated capitalist progress in all of its leading post-mid-century national forms (German, British, American, Japanese, Soviet). The thing that many fail to understand is that sustained or unbroken technological progress is very new. It never existed before the 17th century. It was initiated by Dutch capitalism around 1610. Before that, there's are just fits and starts.

The spirit of improvement does not go back to the Greeks or the Egyptians or something along those lines. Progress was uneven. Parts of this culture were more advanced than parts of that culture, and the other way around. It is the achievement of capitalism to sustain technological improvement, and it had a good reason to do so. Progress was not enlightened but a blunt tool in capital's struggle with a section of production that took a huge bite out of profits, labor.

Because I have written a long essay about this in e-flux, I just want consider here the appeal of Kraftwerk's key images and sounds. The quartet celebrated the robot, the capitalist consumer society—its machines for production and consumption. The autobahn, the bullet train, the personal computer, the spectacle of mass produced images for ads and movies and magazines, and the automaton. The genius of the band was to see the Soviets as not outside but very inside this will to technological domination, if I may borrow an expression from the Canadian cultural theorist Arthur Kroker. The deification of the workforce was as much German as it was American as it was Japanese as it was Soviet.

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And yet, Kraftwerk are my Beatles. I have listened to this music for over 30 years and have found no way of getting it out of my system. These robot beats are heading with me to my grave. I understand and deeply feel this worship of machines, even though I know its flaws and political limitations. With Kraftwerk, the poetry of capitalism achieves a state of perfection.

Good night, Florian Schneider.