Or… considering the documentary-maker as not really a documentary-maker

The third part of ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE looked like it would take the form of its predecessors; taking contrasting stories, seemingly unconnected events, and trying to draw pencil-lines (or stronger) between them. But in the end, Curtis ran a digging twist to make you realise this episode wasn’t really a documentary at all, but an attempt to produce high art as provocation.

The episode started in the Republic of the Congo (indeed, with some material lifted & extended on from his piece It Felt Like A Kiss), and looked the near-unimaginable scale of slaughter in Congo/Zaire and neighbouring Rwanda, and the role of Western interference in the region: the Belgians’ attempts to install the Tutsis in Rwanda as political ruling class, the CIA’s anointing of Mobutu Sese Seko as leader of Zaire as a bulwark against communism, mining companies’ bloody landgrab for the mineral columbite-tantalite (used in the manufacture of chips in electronic devices such as the Playstation) in the modern Congo, and even the naturalist Dian Fossey‘s ongoing feud with Rwandans as she tried protect gorillas in the rainforest. Little to do with machines, loving or not.

The other story was more conventional Curtis fare: charting the lives of geneticists Bill Hamilton and George Price; Hamilton came up with a theory of gene-centric evolution, which Price took on further, formulating a model of altruism as a means of gene propagation. And why stop at altruism? Take it to its logical conclusion, and all manners of human behaviour can be described as evolutionary techniques and no more, and we end up being, er, gene-propogating machines. This is on much more familiar territory – the scientific establishment reducing humanity to a mere aggregation self-reproducing automata.

But unlike his usual form, Curtis didn’t attempt to draw causal attempts (the kind that usually infuriate) between the two stories. In fact, apart from Hamilton’s death in the Congo, there didn’t seem to be any link at all. Instead as the episode unfolded it focused more and more on the ongoing slaughter in central Africa, spurred on by the West’s demand for Africa’s mineral wealth. When Rwanda massacres happened in the 1990s, the developed world’s militaries stood by, while its NGOs (despite their good intentions) were powerless to stop the fighting spread to refugee camps. Curtis played a series of increasingly distressing images of atrocities with a backdrop of incongruent music.

And you begin to realise Adam Curtis isn’t even trying to make a connection, and this isn’t even a documentary. Curtis is provoking you into feeling uncomfortable, into dwelling on the loss of control, disillusionment even, with modern liberal Western society, using the history of West’s interaction with Africa – colonialism, decolonialism and the bloody end of mass capitalism – as emotional bait. Your grandparents’ generation subjugated them, your parents’ generation unleashed anarchy upon them, and now you’re fuelling the slaughter and chaos they created when you buy your Playstation. This is not a documentary designed to educate, but an art project designed to provoke – riffing off the aforementioned It Felt Like A Kiss rather than The Power of Nightmares.

And when you’re done feeling uncomfortable, Curtis gives the punchline to the film: this is why you feel so attached to bury yourself in the embrace of the machines, because deep down you no longer have faith in humanity to solve its own problems or its own inhumanity.

This is a leap of logic, a provocative one, a sign of desperation, even, but an intriguing change in style as well. Perhaps Curtis thought this the best way to make his point, perhaps he couldn’t think of any others. It’s certainly a departure from his usual form: of a triptych of tightly-wound, interconnected episodes exploring the concept. And to be honest – it didn’t work; it just made the piece look disjointed and the two storylines out of place with each other. It’s not his style – Curtis is not a polemicist – his flat, laconic commentary and his refusal to appear on camera make it impossible for him polemicise – and to use a tactic of deliberate provocation is as mechanistic a view of human beings as the very philosophy he is attacking.

And yet despite the flaws and non-sequiturs of the main story, I can’t find it easy to shake off the moral of the other tale in the episode: the demise of Price and Hamilton. The originators of the selfish gene theory were ultimately wracked by the implications of their own research: George Price’s fixation on biological determinism led to his descent into self-enforced poverty and Christian piety as a means of escaping it, and ultimately suicide when it offered him no salvation. Bill Hamilton swayed the other way, growing mistrustful of modern medicine as it was an obstruction to natural selection, leading to a belief HIV was a byproduct of vaccination programmes in the Congo, where he ended up dying. Beneath the provocation, Curtis’s underlying point, warning even, seems to be: this machinist view will drive you mad too, one day.

Coming up next: a review of episode two. Yes, I know that’s the wrong order. Consider it a homage to the man’s style…

6 thoughts on “ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, part 3: a review

Or… considering the documentary-maker as not really a documentary-maker

  1. The machines of the title have been different in each of the three episodes: financial systems in episode one, ecosystems in episode two, and genetic systems in episode three. One of the running themes of Adam Curtis seems to be never to take any theory (be it scientific, cultural or political) too far, and another is a covert assertion of the individuality of humanity over all attempts to suppress it; both of them could be detected in this series.

    By the way Bill Hamilton actually died in London – he managed to get home when he fell ill with malaria, and checked into hospital the following day, dying just over a month later from a haemorrhage provoked by aspirin.

  2. Chris – loved reading both your reviews of AWOBMOLG. Like you write about the third one, I found them all more provocative than prescriptive. On the other hand, I drew more common threads across all three programmes than you seem to have done, and didn’t find them in the least disappointing. The view that emerges chimes with the way I was taught to see the world, growing up – a view that perhaps has become more mainstream as we’ve grown up? I’m not certain about that, but I remember telling kids at school that we were animals, only to be laughed at and being told I was wrong. Anyway, great stuff by Curtis, and great reviews by you, thanks. I also thought you might be interested in a RadioLab free science programme from the end of last year – it was the first time I came across George Price, which made AWOBMOLG even more poignant.

  3. I’m normally a fan of Adam Curtis but this episode really annoyed me because he has either deliberately misrepresented the position Dawkins’ takes in The Selfish Gene, or not bothered to read it. Dawkins is very clear that human beings are unique in that we are NOT restricted by genetic programming.

    “We have the power to defy the genes of our birth…we alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” p200-201

    This is as a consequence of cultural evolution, which allows us to engage, amongst other things, in “pure, disinterested altruism” ibid. Not something you would get from the documentary.

    Also on the philosophy of man as machine, he seems to have gone out of his way to pick some of the most extreme (borderline psychotic) genetic interpretations of the idea, they leave no room for meaningful political change because to them politics is simply a manifestation of genetics.

    These are not the only Darwinistic interpretations of culture, they have been articulately criticised by for example Dan Dennett – who still holds to the general philosophy as well as Dawkins himself, Kate Distin and to a lesser extent Sue Blackmore, whose utterly mechanistic interpretation of humanity at least allows culture to remain a significant factor it its development.

    Seems to me he had enough material here for two films, one on the Darwinistic approach to the idea of man and machine, and another about conflict in Africa. In cutting stuff out of the subject I know about, he misrepresented it – makes me wonder if he did the same for the African politics, where my knowledge is much weaker?

  4. An excellent review thanks for the sharing your thoughts. I now understand why I got so confused by watching this – there were definitely 2 documentaries here about the result of western colonial/post-colonial imperialism and the 2nd about the development of genetics.

    A really odd piece of work – but also quite disturbing, in a way his other work isn’t.

    Also – referring back to his earlier work there is the undertow of Isiah Berlin here. Curtis is often caught up by the concept of negative liberty trumping positive liberty. It was the unspoken backdrop to this work.

    When he started mentioning the enlightenment though, he was just clutching at straws a bit I think!

  5. Chris, thanks for a very thoughtful and articulate review. like many people on the #feed I had a little difficulty working out where Adam Curtis was going at times with AWOBMOLG. When you write ‘Curtis’s underlying point, warning even, seems to be: this machinist view will drive you mad too, one day.’ though I have to say I agree.

    Two books echo the sentiment worth reading – Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget and Doug Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed have perhaps put it a little more succintly.

    So, being enamored by technology as a place of escape is one aspect of the social cultural peril message Curtis is peddling, the whole boiling frog thing, absolutely. The other I can’t help but wonder about is that one day the succour we look back on as having received from social media and technology today will be seen as no more nutritious as corned beef was after the Second World War.

    The question Curtis did nothing to answer is what we are going to do about it. Waiting for the boiled frog to get it is pretty futile, so there’s a big ‘so what?’ element in what the series generated for me. With this piece of work has Curtis really done much more than poke at a running sore but do nothing about the lack of any constructive alternative? That’s as nihilistic an attitude as any of the ones he’s condemning… and quite a cheap shot when it comes to making a reputation out of cut and paste video..

  6. Yes, my thoughts too. Provocative but detached from the substance of his subject matter and somewhat of a rant against something he doesn’t quite understand. As someone who digs into the rich currents of cybernetic-eco-psychological progress i really could not see his proto-thesis as at all convincing. however, if it makes a lot of people think, and investigate the topic, they will become engaged, become enthused against his provocation and go on to advance the fields of cybernetics, evolutionary theory, futures studies, and do Gaia (or Bob, whatever you want to call it) a great service. We need more of these provocative operations.

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