Now online: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (part 3) | Bleader

Now online: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (part 3)



This is the last of a series of essays on Adam Curtis’s essay series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which you can watch for free here. I previously wrote about the series here and here.

One of Curtis’s most distinctive traits as a storyteller is to introduce all his subjects, whether they’re living or dead, as though they were fictional characters. “Our story begins...” he likes to say, a variation on “once upon a time.” Even when he’s talking about Ayn Rand (as he does in part one of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) or Richard Dawkins (as he does in part three), Curtis makes them sound as though they lived long ago and far away. His voice sounds wry, erudite, detached: I can readily imagine him narrating a series about ancient Rome. As Curtis makes the present seem like a distant era, he raises questions of the present that one might ask of societies of the past. How was this civilization organized? What did its people believe in? What did they aspire to?

Curtis raises this final question implicitly, by describing popular concepts (Rand’s philosophy of radical individualism, ecosystem science, etc.) as if they were religious or foundational myths—keys for helping people understand the world. Curtis encourages skepticism about their infallibility, usually ending his stories-of-ideas with an example of how the concept failed its own creators. For instance, Ayn Rand created blueprints for personal happiness but ended her life sad and alone; Alan Greenspan was convinced that deregulated economics were a godsend in the early 90s, then left several nations bankrupt by applying this very model; and the decentralized rebellions in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, facilitated by the new media of Twitter and Facebook, had no plan for how to reorganize the political structures they’d dismantled.

For all of Curtis’s skepticism, there remains an underlying optimism to his work. As Thomas Pynchon has noted of Orwell’s narration in 1984, Curtis’s use of the (distant) past tense suggests he’s recounting this terrible period of history after it's happened. Implicit in this stance is the belief that humanity will continue to evolve in spite of any momentary crisis it may face. Hence the images of people dancing that close each episode of the All Watched Over: no matter what, people will keep on moving.

It’s worth noting that Curtis reserves his strongest contempt in the series for ideas that stifle thoughts of social progress. As he describes them, Rand’s objectivism put personal happiness at the center of its worldview but disregarded the needs of society; while the we’re-all-in-it-together thinking inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth” sought only the stable maintenance of preexisting orders. That these ideas basically cancel each other out is just one of the dizzying paradoxes that Curtis constructs in All Watched Over: it results in an unnerving characterization of the Internet—if not 21st century life on the whole—which seems to derive its ethos from both ideas in equal proportion.

At the beginning of episode three (“The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”), Curtis directs his ire at the evolutionary biology of Richard Dawkins and his ilk. He objects to the argument that “selfish genes” steer all biological activity in the proliferation of superior genetic code. Curtis doesn’t attempt to question the science of this argument, as he did in his description of ecosystem studies—rather, he probes its spiritual ramifications and finds it greatly lacking. His conclusions are damning, as he describes the resulting spiritual crisis as a “fatalistic philosophy of [human beings] as helpless computing machines.” Yet he concedes that this is a comforting position for the citizens of democratic societies, because they live “in a world where everything we do, whether good or bad, seems to have terrible, unforeseen consequences.”

Mobutu Sese Seko
  • Mobutu Sese Seko
“Monkey in the Machine” returns several times to one of the most terrible episodes of modern history—the decades-long genocide in postcolonial Rwanda and Congo—considering the atrocities in terms of bad and good intentions that inspired them. Curtis exhumes the ugly history of Western mining companies’ support for the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and, later, mercenary armies that carried out his genocidal campaigns (this culminates with some of the most terrifying found footage of All Watched Over, a late-60s interview with a European mercenary who explains that he had no problem torturing and killing Africans because he considers them subhuman). Curtis also considers a more insidious source of the genocide: the myth created by a Belgian ethnographer that Tutsis were biologically superior to Hutus. Of all the stories about ideas that comprise the series, this is surely the most despairing. Belgian liberals, Curtis explains, tried to rectify this myth at the end of the colonial era by encouraging Hutus to turn against their Tutsi “masters” (even though, he notes, Hutus and Tutsis had coexisted peacefully for many years); but in doing so, they wielded the myth more destructively than the colonial administration ever did.

Curtis jumps between the stories of postwar evolutionary biology and postcolonial Africa (with some detours into the life of Dian Fossey), but he doesn’t dare liken the selfish gene theory to a call for genocide. He does, however, trace a disturbing development in the life of Bill Hamilton, one of the three scientists considered in “Monkey,” along with Dawkins and George Price. Hamilton developed his theories of genetic evolution in the early 1960s by “look[ing] at the world from the gene’s point of view,” deciding that “human beings were just temporary characters that allowed the genes to make copies of themselves and live forever.” By the 1990s, Hamilton had been so converted by this line of thought that he began calling for the end of “interfering” medical and social policies that kept inferior genes alive. He died (in one of Curtis’s cosmic coincidences) in Rwanda in 2000, attempting to prove his theory that HIV had came through Modern Medicine’s mingling with the natural world. Curtis concludes All Watched Over with a description of Hamilton’s final days, a Dostoevskian passage that conveys the tragic conflict between the physical world and the life of the mind:

The logic of [Hamilton’s] scientific theory led him to a small ruined town in the eastern Congo. He walked through the chaos, murder and looting, looking for evidence that Western medicine was dangerous and misguided. And all around him, the horrific consequences of the Rwandan conflict were being played out—consequences created not just by Western imperialism and greed, but also by the best and noblest of liberal ideals.

In George Price, Curtis finds his most Dostoevskian figure, and over the course of episode three, he becomes All Watched Over’s heart and soul. The “obsessive rationalist” Price had been a chemist on the Manhattan Project and a researcher for IBM in the 50s. As Curtis describes him, he’s all spiritual longing, dying to find a system that might bring order to the chaos of the world (and since he worked on the Manhattan Project, can you blame him?). After moving to London, he took solace in Hamilton’s genetics, then elaborated on it with writings that “explained murder, warfare and even genocide as possibly rational strategies for the genes controlling your behavior.”

Price’s work in genetic biology, we learn, drove him to madness. In the late 60s he converted to Christianity “in an extreme way,” giving nearly all his belongings to the homeless and reducing himself to poverty. Curtis poses that “he had been so shocked by the implication of his and Hamilton’s theory that he was, in some desperate, personal way, trying to disprove it.” He would eventually commit suicide in a painfully deliberate way that his biographer James Schwartz (a comforting, rabbi-like presence whose very human bluster seems a great relief after the run of ideologues who populate the rest of the series) describes as “taking control of his genetic destiny.” Price’s story warns us of the danger of valuing theoretical systems over real experience. Curtis depicts his last-ditch attempt to correct himself as the stuff of great tragedy—if not a lesson for the entire modern world.

Adam Curtis
  • Adam Curtis