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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Griff says; The uses and abuses of love and power

As a grumpy old leftist with a natural suspicion of the official channels of communication I can often be overheard complaining about the servile, government-sanctioned, PR propaganda machine that the BBC has in recent times become. At other times, mainly after accidentally watching US news channels, I can become rather fond and protective of our state-sponsored broadcaster and sometimes, as you are about to see, I can even become really quite enthusiastic about it. The reason for my recent softening towards the BBC is their decision to broadcast brilliant documentary maker Adam Curtis' latest work; the three-part documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. You may recognise the title as originally belonging to a collection of poems published in 1967 by Richard Brautigan. The title poem of this work (see below) envisions a world where cybernetics has advanced to a stage where it allows a return to the balance of nature and an elimination of the need for human labour.

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Curtis' work, by contrast, is described in the accompanying blurb to the series as;

"A series of films about how humans have been colonised by the machines
they have built. Although we dont realise it, the way we see everything
in the world today is through the eyes of the computers. This is the
story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could
create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind of
global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of
the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new
kind of democracy through the internet where millions of individuals
would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems – without hierarchy."

In my opinion, having watched and thoroughly enjoyed all three episodes, the above description doesn't fully explain the core themes of this important work as I see them. Namely, the itinerant nature of power and the elusive fantasy of liberty.

Anyone, familiar with Curtis' previous work will recognise these motifs as being essential to his greatest and best known films, such as; 2002's exploration of consumerism The Century of the Self, 2004's comparison of Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States The Power of Nightmares and 2007's analysis of the concept and definition of freedom, The Trap. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace employs the same techniques as these previous documentaries; a fast-paced, cut-and-paste collage of interviews, news footage and retro pop-culture nuggets overlaid with Curtis's own cool voiceover polemics and well-chosen bursts of music. If you're any kind of music obsessive; and let's face it you're reading this blog, so it does seem likely; then the latter will drive you mad as you seek to identify each of the tracks.
Beyond this 'spot the music' frippery though, Curtis' latest work is essential viewing for its edgy, sometimes overly-complicated, but always provocative opinions, as well as for its sheer entertainment value. In a TV world of cheesy, dumbed-down, deviously-manipulative, lowest-common-denominator awfulness, this series stands out like a diamond on a dung heap. I decided to write about it because I wanted to bring it to a wider audience, and in particular, knowing that the majority of our readers are based in the US, I wanted to bring it to their attention. I hope some of you will be persuaded to have a look at it, and hopefully Curtis' other work too.

I do hope too that people aren't mislead by the title into imaging some sort of ugly mix of The Matrix and Nineteen Eighty-Four. For me, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is not about man's enslavement by technology but, more subtly, that we've increasingly given over our thinking to them and potentially that leads us to become enslaved by the people who control the input-output. I think that, in this series of films, the crux of Curtis’ argument is that the radical individualism of the Objectivists and the Computer Utopianism of the California idealists has unexpectedly combined with the values of the contemporary global Neo-liberal order. But rather than creating order and stability and transcending the old hierachies of power, this has led to chaos and instability and has shifted power to a transnational, undemocratic, plutocratic elite who ruthlessly control the resources at the expense of the disempowered masses. It's notable that modern politics completely avoids discussions of power, or of ideology or alternative economics. We are all cast now as impotent subjects of the neo-liberal consensus.
Curtis demonstrates chillingly too that power never disappears. It is transient, it is everywhere, it circulates in all forms of human interaction. We cannot escape power, every sphere of human society is colonised by power. The films force us to realise that, as appealing as the idea of a world without power structures is, power doesn't just 'go away' when you decentralise it, it just moves out of sight. Sound depressing? I hope not, as I remain an optimist. I definitely don't think that 'the machines are in charge'. Admittedly, we can get mesmerised, by both technology and by the symbols of power, but we can still strive to build an alternative. We can still attempt to make solid the elusive fantasy of liberty. We can still hope to decentralise power but keep it within the glare of the public gaze. Technology can be used for the good of the mass of the people. The communications revolution has given us Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, the multiple, contradictory but equal opinions of the blogosphere. I believe that we can still create a non-hierarchical counter power. With care and balance, we can work collectively together through culture and politics to build a better world in which power is increasingly exercised in a just, equitable and accountable fashion. Yes, the abuse of power is only too human, but we can overcome. The future is unwritten, how the story ends is up to us.

The three episodes of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace are titled: Love and Power, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, and The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. They can all be viewed on tarabg's Channel on Youtube. Curtis' previous films can be seen and downloaded from the wonderful, non-profit digital library The Internet Archive. A track-listing of the music used in the series can be found here. The insanely catchy song that plays over the end credits of each of the films is Aua by German/French indie/electro duo Stereo Total. Here's an unofficial video.

The song is from their 2003 album monokini.


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