Kraftwerk's Robotic Journey Into An Oppressive Past's FutureS

Kraftwerk's 1977 single "The Robots" is anchored in 1930s ideas of futurism - both Soviet and Nazi - and it illuminates something about our relationship with artificial life forms, argues blogger Justin E.H. Smith.

When Karek Capek chose the Slav term for labor, "robota," (instead of the Latin root "laborus," which he considered) for the word "robots," he anchored them for all time in a particular moment in Soviet/German history. Until the 20th century, writes Smith, the concept of artificial life had often been seen as one of realizing freedom and spontenaiety. But in the past 100 years, artificial life forms have come to be seen as laborers, and intrinsically not free (unless they rebel, of course.)

And Smith explains how Kraftwerk's early classic music video "The Robots" (over at his site, but non-embeddable) is a work of retro-futurism harkening back to the 1930s:

Look at the microphones and the haircuts and the shirts and ties. These all represent something we are familiar with from German cultural output of that era, something you might call the 'seventies thirties guy', that is, the guy who is clearly in the 1970s, in reality, but who is understood to represent someone in the 1930s, perhaps his own grandfather. In fact, in spite of the 1970s technology on display, here Kraftwerk more compellingly channels the early 20th century than any other film image from the same era that I can think of (and certainly more compellingly than the characters in the Nazi films of Fassbinder or Visconti). Why though are they channeling the early 20th century? Much of the best German art that issues out of the intense efflorescence of creativity between roughly 1968 and 1982 (only to come to a screeching halt after that) is driven by a concern to work through the legacy of some of the most ensorcelling visions of the future that were entertained in the immediate pre-war period.

The whole thing is well worth checking out, even if you're not a fan of German techno music. [Justin E.H. Smith]