Silicon Breakdown

By Bruce Elwell, April 1968

Never published

[Author's note added 1988] The accompanying text was written at the end of April 1968 -- days after the birth of my son Tristan. US troops had been battered by the Tet Offensive . . . and the Afro-American ghettoes -- again -- burned, this time in reaction to the attentat which felled Martin Luther King.

This text was only circulated in manuscript to three or four friends . . . and then forgotten, stuck in a file folder, placed on a pile.

As has happened as long as I can remember, May followed April -- but that year there were differences. Ruth and I had a month-old child. The US inter-city uprisings of 1964-68, which so propelled the writing of "Silicon Breakdown," seemed historically overrun by events, particularly in France. A mere eleven million workers were occupying their factories . . . and other workplaces, including the national arsenal. The bourse (the Paris stock exchange) had been burned. I'd barely made it through high school French, and all of a sudden I was having dreams, real dreams, in the language of love.

The text's youthful ruminations on the history of Western painting and its allusions to magic and alchemy seemed to bespeak a contemplative tendency out of step with the tumult of the time. Tony [Verlaan] thought such a tendency might make me less than reliable in the Great Days coming. Comrades had, after all, painted cartoon balloons containing slogans on the works of near-Old Masters hanging in the Sorbonne. The art and science of insurrection were the only items left on the agenda.

Translation, distribution, critical reporting . . . the arms of the critique passing through the critique of arms. The bitch of revolution strolled arm-in-arm with us every day. I wasn't about to be left by the wayside of the Autobahn to Xanadu, swollen thumb out. By this time twenty years ago, I had joined the Situationist International. But that, friends, is another story, best told face-to-face -- over empty glasses and full ashtrays and vice versa and again.

That was then; this is now. So why propose to publish a manuscript judged dated mere days after its completion over twenty years ago? What goes around comes around. "Art" and its supersession, its realization in life, are again on the social agenda of the Lower East Side [of Manhattan]. Tristan, named after Dada's founder [Tristan Tzara], is in his second year of . . . art school. And a riot of sorts -- with real blood spilled and consequent radicalizations -- came again to Tompkins Square Park this past summer.

The body of "Silicon Breakdown" is hereafter published, without changes, in an attempt to give a younger generation a sense of the repressed in history. The pair recently appointed President and Vice President of these United States for the next however many years [George Bush and Dan Quayle] shamelessly acknowledged their professional "handlers." It seems only appropriate that amateurs would likewise seek to teach new dogs an old trick or two.

Glass and its manufacture are integral to the craft production of the era of "formal" domination. Some have seen the movie, and more than heard Debbie Harry's homage in song [Blondie's "Heart of Glass"]. The shards the text alludes to become mere chips when ground by enough human feet . . . on their way to sand, were the world still only natural. But abstract labor and concrete genius have transformed everything.

Silicon chips now have memories, even though humans alone desire. Quartz, natural home of silicon, is now known not by its rose or smoky variations, but by its watches. What goes around, comes around. In the 1860s and '70s, the watchmakers of Switzerland and the Jura were the center of the anarchist faction of the First International, partisans of Bakunin. History has trampled finely meshed gears and libertarian craftsmen alike.

Now the intelligence of our class is again purely destructive. There is a sense in which the computer hacker is today's hobo, with a chip in his pocket rather than on his shoulder. We have "Trojans" and "viruses." Destroy capital's memory and reappropriate historical intelligence for human use. Then we can have our day at the beach.

Silicon Breakdown

It often happens that a particular image encountered in reading, conversation, in a painting, a friend's face, lodges in my mind and becomes pivotal to every expression for a number of days. It seems that everything else passes through the single image, enlarging and deepening it. Unitary moments of intelligent inspiration in a world ruled by a duality of boredom and confusion. I, for one, wait on such random moments and cultivate them as best I can, seeking to engage another through them.

In such a way the window as a symbol of our present condition now directs my projection to the as yet anonymous you. It is in the form of window glass that the fragmentations, separations and privatizations of the contemporary order materialize into our daily lives: the glass walls on the 27th floor of a high-rise, with a perfect view of polluted clouds and perhaps another 27th floor; the UN Building; the television; the supermarket windows; separations; and the constant aching in my arms, the throbbing desire to throw something.


The center of a circle can be reached from any point on the circumference. The circle is, in terms of magic, the containment of the power within, the power of "uncontrollable forces" -- in our terms, the power of life itself. Only from the center can the prison be exploded. And so, the movement must always be to origins, the expedition to the source, the axe to the root.


The transparent window adorned the burgher's house. The transparent window faced the sea and the returning ships of discovery, allowing the gold of commerce to glitter in an indulgent sunlight -- and still be safe, inside the walls. Those windows open, and this is important. But more important for us: they close. And lock.

The paintings of Vermeer move one by one through my mind. Rembrandt, the German and Dutch portrait painters follow. It is not unlikely that from a study of paintings of the dawning bourgeois age, a man [sic] could have prophesied the entire qualitative development of the several hundred years to follow: from the disturbing primacy of the window alone, the fertile imagination could have warned the bourgeois -- and thereby all his heirs and products -- of the totalitarian prison which is the spectacle of the commodity.

Gone are the late Gothic women whose all-knowing faces and marvelous bodies promised to carry you through the canvas into some earthy exctasy; gone are the mad apocalyptic visions. The Reformation in its triumphal march conveniently found a graven image in the portrayed light of God (both the God of the battered official Church and, more important, of the myriad heretical sects, cults and individuals). The painting became a window on the then-smiling faces of a bourgeois daily life.

A man [sic] 300 years ago who gazed upon a painting -- a woman standing at a window, light pouring in -- could have dreamed the condition of modern man: the isolation, the passivity, the closed world that ends in cities under glass bubbles and fallout shelters with transistorized television sets. My heart goes back into history to any whose sleep may have been broken by such dark prophetic images, for in their Space/Time of opening possibilities such troubled minds would have been alone in the most disturbing sense of the word.


The window is an invisible but real separation. In the paintings of Manet (and that parcel of 19th Century urban life they more or less accurately reflected) the window often opens unto a balcony -- it is a box at the theater of the streets below. And as theatre a separation of actors and spectators, the burgher and his wife at the window 200 years later. Yet the feeling emanated from a Manet balcony that, were the passerby to return later, he might see the same lady in another window calmly undressing. "If she discovered that we were looking at her perhaps she would be shocked enough to blush and move very slowly toward the window and close the shutters, but certainly she would not be so shocked as to go and have herself psychoanalyzed or join a nudist camp" (Confound the Wise, Nicolas Calas). The faces have lost a certain innocence and childlike confidence present in the early bourgeois -- the harsh reality of the seizure of political power has intervened. But in Manet's world the unabashedly human makes a last appearance in the window of art, the reflection of passing life.

It is only when what is happening on either side of the window ceases to have human importance -- ceases to inspire, when life (in all class societies something played out, in a sense, "on stage") becomes more and more a mediocre play with increasingly worse actors . . . and a drowsing audience -- that the window as separation, the window in its general function in commodity society, becomes accessible to many. And sours the taste for the windows of Manet, for the transfiguring light of Northern masters.


In the present century, Rene Magritte, Belgian surrealist gamester, while appearing to work entirely within the painter's framework, subverted the painting of the bourgeois era and, with it, the ruling illusions of that era. Magritte replaced the bourgeois on Manet's balcony with their own coffins, rendering a concrete image of the need to close that life cycle in appearance as it is in essence. Here is the detournement, the conscious turnabout. In dealing directly with the problem of the window (in his "Human Condition" series), Magritte places in front of a window a canvas on which is reproduced the details of the landscape blocked by the canvas. And thus appearance as separation is subversively played with as it is portrayed.

At his best, Magritte was probably one of the greatest secret agents in the history of bourgeois culture, a master of "malicious mischief." His rearrangements of the furniture of mundane existence will continue to inspire the disquieting dreams that lead to a break with -- and a turning upon -- the past. An image of a condition pursued with a passion turns into an image of that condition's negation. In a world of autonomous fragments, it must not stop there.

We are told that art is dead. As long as the corpse is continuously served up to us at an ever-increasing price, we will know that the new cliche is just another cheap marketing trick. Magritte stole objects from the bourgeois world and turned them upon it. Yet his painting are bought and sold, and accumulated in museums, galleries and the homes of the rich. As the taxidermist "preserves" for us the marvels of the animal kingdom, so the collector saves the stuffed skin of the creative in man.

The hazards of a consciousness that precedes its general realization are great. Not to be in the world negated is impossible; to be one of it is the constant danger. Rene Magritte and so many of those with whom he once played are dead.

Art in the bourgeois era a window: Spectacular survival as a window: all human separations in a sheet of glass. An overextended image perhaps. The problem is not in the possibility of overextension, but in the introduction of a given set of images into the reigning climate of confusion. Today, the image, the metaphor, alone, means nothing. Only those images are worthy of release that reenter reality at the service of the conscious project to change life. The image of the window is after all another form of window itself; it must remain an open window, a window with its glass removed, so that a man [sic] may pass through it into his own transformed life.


The proletarian project, which is the living negation of the dominant (bourgeois) organization of existence, summons as its first act the creation of openings, channels for human communication -- in a manner of speaking, doors. Elementally, this necessity manifests itself -- in the streets of every American city regularly now -- as the smashing of windows, the passing through them to seize those objects until now separated from their intelligent (and inspired) human usage and elevated to the status called commodity. On the level of a single block in the transfigured moment, the modernized popular mechanism unfolds: something happens (a fire, a drunkard is arrested, King is assassinated) and people start smashing the large windows, the shiny separations faced daily, always reflecting the poverty of existence that continues on either side . . . a few real steps past the symbolic separation and the individual rioter confronts the material representation of the root of the plight we all share: the "living" object with its price tag. Through the symbol to reality in a matter of seconds! And then, as quickly, the gasoline and matches.

The so-called speed of events both makes for and conceals great unevenness of development, serious separations. This new popular activity must become conscious of itself (as total assault on the general wrong) or each newly created opening will close again, fill with confused debris, and disappear. In all honesty, it must be said that for most the openings disappear soon enough.

It is not difficult to see that the world opposed is one of countless fragments; what must be realized is that this fragmentation is the unifying quality of that world. The commodity, the salable object, is its basic unit, and the Spectacle is the quasi-religious glue that holds them all together and engages man in its inhuman mechanism, in which each object-as-commodity is invested with fantastic powers -- sexual, subjective, life-fulfilling, revolutionary powers -- until it is actually owned, whereupon it re-becomes a heavy object, a chain of payments, and is immediately replaced by the next ultimately desirable object. This perverse cycle attempts to render permanent (unresolvable) the antagonisms created by its commodity basis through marketing the image of its permanence: even though you cannot buy a given object, you are "given" (by your existence in this world) a ticket to the Spectacle, the show, for which you will pay -- in time. Here is the wish of the aging bourgeois and his son the bureaucrat that the antagonisms had never appeared: the closed, pacified, perfectly hierarchical -- and impossible -- world.


The communal and public theft of commodities is their immediate disappearance as such, their demystification and potential reinvestment as objects at the service of the living. It is the adequate form and necessary base of the proletarian transformation of the world. Yet as long as these acts of popular appropriation remain unconscious of the totality of the mechanism opposed, they appear to be, and thus become, isolated, separated -- and salable. The rebellious hand that does not grasp fully the hated world is soon enough rechained to it. The commodity reality cannot be stated enough times, enough ways, until the vast majority of men [sic] have personally apprehended it.

But as our world more and more appears to be a vast sidewalk covered with broken wine bottles and shattered window glass, scattered individuals emerge from the angry crowds, conscious of (and largely because of) the accumulation of broken glass. And conscious of the still unbroken quality of glass that surrounds us. This consciousness must move through the new openings to others, must remake the whole man and move into life as conscious existence. The emergence of lucid men and women [hic!] only matters when, in organizing, they perform a turnabout on the window and engage each other in complete transparency, consciously building a new subjectivity. This is crucial, for it has been the failure to thoroughly negate commodity reality in concrete organizational practice that has led all those who earnestly sought to create a new world into projects that objectively only strengthen the old one. The transparent organization of lucid individuals generates the progressive demoralization, disillusionment and ultimate desertion of the prevailing order as it engages the deserters as individuals. [The transparent organization] thus appears magical to the oppressive world it plays with, and yet remains invisible to it.


The quality of glass begins to crack before the invisible bricks, to wear away under the acid strength of a new wine. The accumulation of windows yielding before conscious assaults, the filling of the jagged openings with fluid networks of life -- I know this will intensify the proliferation of lucid individuals, and feed directly to the qualitative transformation of the world.

It is here that alchemy, freed from the religious trappings of dead worlds and from the dominance of its metallurgical metaphor, re-finds its human content. Alchemy, that early expression of the dialectics of revolution: the search for the precious amidst the mundane, a precious that in no apparent form previously exists in that mundane, but which will utterly displace it in a radical transmutation (transformation) directed by and adding to the consciousness of men.

Today, the prevailing order waits anxiously at the window, in front of the TV, unconscious that it awaits its own destruction. Every night, the guardians of the Spectacle, bored by the endless parade of lifeless images, fall into a shallow sleep in front of the TV. The dreams of any of these partisans of passivity who saw or even heard of an art exhibit in Watts following the 1965 insurrection are haunted by an image from that exhibit: a gutted television set -- the screen, the picture tube, gone -- revealing nothing but a human skull.

During some future night, we, the inmates of the prison that otherwise passes for reality, having discovered each other in a clandestine network of tunnels each of us digs in our secret lives, will return through the cracks to systematically yet passionately destroy every vestige of separation, to take the axe to the root of every memory that has ever made men [sic] desire to forget. And those servants of the Old World whose fevered dreams cannot even admit the merest taste of liberation, of self-activity, will come into the light of morning following that night of global change, electric night of life's reinvention, peering hollowly at a level of existence they could never comprehend . . . they will on that day be what their slavish existence always promised to become: empty, bleached skulls, watching everything, changing nothing.

The image of one night may well become reality as a decade or more. . . . It does not matter. We will have invested a cliche with its subversive meaning and truly "lost all sense of time." And the bloody vengeance of which I dream may find its energies spent in the creation of new connections; the fatigued remnant of a culture that clothes its fragmentation would die the uneventful deaths of all defeated societies left without even the dream of reconquest. Such an occurrence would be its own retribution for the similar fate of all the "primitive" peoples, of all the broken dreamers, ever in the path of separate power and its ultimate form, the commodity economy.

Yesterday, a man in the world of windows, a consciously lonely man, could say with Confucius millennia past: "The way out is via the door. Why is it that no one sees it?" I can feel the approach of the day when all the windows will have been smashed, all doors torn from their hinges in a living flood -- indeed, the last prison burned out of the minds of men by self-kindled flames. The day you and I construct the open architecture of subjectivity which shall creatively, playfully, lovingly remake the universe in infinite variation.

In the infancy of the race, man marveled as, in cataclysmic storms, the four elements clashed and formed glass. The mystery is no more, the spell is broken and initiation is open to all those who dare. It is now man's turn to display his wonders and astound the elements.



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