Now online: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (part 2)



From a rhetorical standpoint, the second part of Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (which you can watch here) is an even greater disaster than the first. It begins and ends with grand proclamations that Curtis can’t possibly support, each one speaking about the whole of humanity as though it were a single person. It’s worth quoting at length from Curtis’s concluding monologue of the episode, which epitomizes his line of thought: “Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this [self-]organizing principle has risen up to be the ideology of our age. But what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system that it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things—even rebellions—but it offers no ideas of what comes next. And... it leaves us helpless in the faces of those already in power in the world.”

Note the two iterations of “in our age” in the first sentence and the liberal use of the first-person plural. In these lines, Curtis bypasses the grandstanding of Michael Moore and goes straight for the prophetic rage of Leo Tolstoy’s late period (e.g., The Kingdom of God is Within You). I’d be lying, however, if I claimed not to identify at all with his sentiments. As the conclusion of All Watched Over’s first part reminded us, there’s been no serious reform of the investment banking industry that’s ruined millions of lives while maintaining the wealth of a handful of elites. And the reformist sentiment sparked only a few months ago by the Occupy movement seems to have ebbed as suddenly as it arrived. Right now, it’s difficult to believe in large-scale reform in Anglo-American politics, and Curtis speaks, however hyperbolically, to this crisis of faith.

It’s worth noting, too, that Curtis’s exaggerations mesh quite naturally with those of the episode’s major subjects. Part two, titled “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” begins with the origins of two terms practically taken for granted in the early 21st century, ecosystem and feedback loop. Curtis traces the terms to two lesser-known scientists with apparent messianic complexes, the botanist Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) and the pioneering computer engineer Jay Forrester (born 1918). In the film’s portrait, Tansley emerges as a paranoid neurotic whose longing to make sense of his life led him to the writings of Sigmund Freud, which he interpreted as an instruction manual for the brain as electrical machine (to emphasize the unhealthy desire at the heart of Tansley’s story, Curtis scores this passage to Georges Delerue’s theme from Contempt). He would then apply this interpretation to the whole of nature, coining the term ecosystem to describe the interconnected web of natural phenomena.

Throughout the episode, Curtis raises serious doubts about this concept, bringing in scientists who critique the selective (if not dangerously reductive) reading of data that made it possible. One ecologist contends that nature lacks an underlying order and that arguing otherwise is to assert what Curtis calls “a machine-like fantasy of stability.” And near the end of the episode, two biologists who worked on a massive field research project in the 1970s (in the purportedly stable environment of the Colorado grasslands) share a laugh remembering how their mountains of data produced only nonsensical conclusions when they were fed into a computer model. It would be overreaching to say these commenters debunk an entire school of thought through their brief appearances (whose logic is that forceful?) but they successfully reiterate the central theme of Curtis’s work, that all schools of thought are man-made and ultimately fallible. This message is always worth restating: it belies an Orwellian faith in common sense.

An example of the geodesic dome structure pioneered by Buckminster Fuller
  • An example of the geodesic dome structure pioneered by Buckminster Fuller

But like Orwell, Curtis understands that there are times when common sense must give way to sentiment. The middle section of “Use and Abuse” focuses on several utopian philosophies that emerged in the late 60s (in large part as a result of the notion of the ecosystem)—and while his tone remains ever skeptical in these passages, his filmmaking allows for a sense of awe. The disparate subjects include Buckminster Fuller, whose “Spaceship Earth” manifesto argued for a global conception of human society; hierarchy-free communes that sprouted across the US in the early 70s, which acted upon some of Fuller’s ideas; and the first experiments with video chatting, which occurred in California 1968. The images of these experiments are especially shocking, recasting contemporary society as the impossible dream of a former generation.

This passage climaxes with a recording of counterculture author Richard Brautigan reading the poem from which All Watched Over takes its title. Describing a utopian world in which plant life has fused with cybernetic technology, Brautigan both ridicules and exalts the philosophies presented here. Curtis, who’s cited the poem as one of his favorites, uses it as the basis for one of his most stunning montages, cutting furiously between scenes of nature and shots of early computer technology. For all the frenzy of the images, what dominates the sequence are Brautigan’s voice and the languid piece of symphonic music on the soundtrack (aside from Wes Anderson and Olivier Assayas, Curtis might be the best working filmmaker when it comes to the use of music). The film’s utopian sentiments briefly coalesce, inspiring hope—albeit guardedly—for a united humankind.

In characteristic fashion, Curtis follows up this section by looking at the birth of environmental alarmism, which steers today’s predictions of global collapse. This school of thought, Curtis argues, draws from compromised statistical analysis comparable to what was used by the first-generation ecosystem proponents. Jay Forrester returns in this section, describing his original computer model for predicting environmental change. His methods seem comically simple—at one point, he shows Curtis his original hand-drawn diagrams of ecosystems, which evoke nothing less than a science fair diorama—yet they proved remarkably influential. Curtis then traces the development of how major governments responded to ecological crises: by and large, they sought to maintain order (as in an ecosystem) so that things wouldn’t get worse, rather than alter the makeup of their societies so that things might get better.

Curtis comes to blame this mode of thought for everything from the failure of the early 70s communes to the unsuccessful 2003 revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Implicit in this critique is another utopian sentiment: The problem with the ecosystem mentality, Curtis argues, is that it denies the complexity and wonder of the world (of which Curtis reminds us almost constantly, through his mosaic-like editing). This allegiance to personal revelation might be the cornerstone of Curtis’s thought—even more than his contempt for conformism—which ultimately makes All Watched Over a work of Romanticism in the tradition of Wordsworth or Emerson.


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