“The whole effect is a Rand-esque, dream-like, dystopian feel. This is very much Curtis taking an auteur approach to his documentary — his creative personality is all over it and the effect is enthralling.” — from “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” review, The Telegraph, by Catherine Gee
Before this essay interrogates Adam Curtis’ hidden vestibules, gimpy tripods, and grassy knolls, I’d like to say that any book or film that keeps me thinking a year after I encounter it passes my substantiality test. The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self easily fit this category. (I saw All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, The Living Dead, and bits of The Trap only last week.) To survive the immediate frame of the modern attention span is to escape the charge of empty spectacle. You can’t fake sustained recollection.
Substance need not equate to wholesale affirmation, however. A good polemic dusts off the thinking caps even of its opponents. Curtis’ films provide, at the very least, dialectical lightning rods for alternate narrative threads. Can the same be said for (insert any American TV show)?
In recent weeks Curtis has been arguing for television (BBC being the originating medium for his documentary films, though an American audience can view them on Youtube and Vimeo) to refashion its storytelling techniques (“Adam Curtis Argues TV Needs ‘New Tools’ to Tell Its Stories,” The Guardian, August 22, 2012). It should be fascinating to see where Curtis’ films conduct television in the coming months and years. Now, if we could only get American TV to mosey on over to where Curtis has already been, that would be advancement indeed. Right now, stateside viewers are All Kvetched Over by Whole Reams of Will and Grace, but only on DVD due to some contractual disputes that preclude syndication and broadcast. Curtis offers many of his films for free on the Internet. Need I kvetch more?
The award-winning The Century of the Self (2002) offers a devastating critique of our subliminal cooptation from a lifetime’s exposure to “father of public relations” Eddie Bernays’ propaganda techniques. Whoops, did I just say propaganda? Bernays’ most diligent pupil, Josef Goebbels, is rolling over in his hell-pit right now. Let’s leave it at public relations. I’m particularly fond of Bernays’ quote (very crudely paraphrased here) that democracy is a wonderful system so long as he, Bernays, exerted final subliminal pull over the lever pulled inside the voting booth. Historian Carroll Quigley (mentor of a certain Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton), upon being made privy to the papers of the American elite, realized that nothing was left to chance, not even 50-50 propositions. In what’s often referred to as the Quigley Principle, this Georgetown professor torpedoed the notion of a vigorous two-party system. Both levers are vetted and fixed. Here he is paraphrasing the mindset of the government behind the government: “The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy” (Carroll Quigley, from Tragedy and Hope).
This is not a call to embrace monolithic conspiracy theories. There often is, as Quigley went on to suggest, dissension at the highest levels of power. Jealousy is after all a facet of power. Bernays too saw the value of ostensible choice in a democratic-capitalist system where everything boils down to packaging anyway.
Bernays made his bones in the vagaries of creaturely appetites. Other folks were promoting man as the bloodless machine. A key text in the Grace film explores Forrester’s unwavering faith in machine-logic and his concomitant focus on human systems as opposed to human beings. Systems and beings need not be mutually exclusive domains as suggested in Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (from which the film takes its name):
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
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
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.
In her 2010 ekphrastic poem on the movie “Dead Man” Kathleen Graber offers an updated riff on America’s strange comfort with the machine:
“But only the roar of the vacuum finally calms him,
for nothing sounds as much
like the lost world of the womb as the motors of our machines.”
Perhaps technocrats and steady-staters are enacting, in some unwitting Freudian sense, a return-to-the womb movement. How interesting, though, that the poets are often promoters of this machine and system ethos. If Bernays was still alive, we could commission a study. In The Bridge, Hart Crane offers a self-conscious “can-do” response (to Anglophile T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) by waxing poetic on the technological feat of the Brooklyn Bridge. Is it a stretch to suggest he is prefiguring, even permissioning, the trans-human, the droid and the drone?
In his 1930 essay “Modern Poetry,” we find Crane saddling poetry with functional responsibilities. Poetry, he suggests, must normalize technology as yet one more feature of the great American landscape. Listening to the poet whom critic Harold Bloom once called unequaled in “sheer gift, sheer endowment,” we realize just how well-ensconced the machine movement is: “unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function.”
Curtis implies Crane’s dictum has been fulfilled all too well. Human beings have essentially been “colonized” by machines. All across his oeuvre, Curtis assails the notion of man as merely fodder for the machine, that is, an object to be poked, prodded, arranged, sold to, and systematized. One permutation of this soul-suppression (object-elevation) strategy is evinced in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (my italics), which forms the bulk of All Watched Over‘s hour one, “Love and Power.” Bloodless rationalism is just humming along within Rand’s handpicked little coterie (among them, a young Alan Greenspan) until an avalanche of lust, jealousy, and recrimination arrives to bury the rarefaction. Of course, this bubbling cauldron is where Bernays does his best work, amassing a fortune into the bargain.
The central, explicit argument made in All Watched Over (pressed most effectively, I felt, in hour two, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”) and an implicit theme across all of Curtis’ film-work is how dubious, untested hypotheses (the selfish gene and Balance of Nature being two) acquire currency nonetheless, then course through the culture as memes (conceptual viruses), ultimately congealing into ideologies and recalcitrant belief systems. Society becomes an echo-chamber of unintended effects, misconstrued manifestos, misapplied prescriptions, and the oddest bedfellows. By the time the hypothesis is formally discredited, its societal effects have already been felt. Adherents have been seduced into its ideology. The landscape lies forever altered.
This cascading series of feedback loops, a major part of cybernetics theory, creates a maddening circularity. Cyberneticist Larry Richards sums up cybernetics with proper hopeless recursivity as “a way of thinking about ways of thinking of which it is one.” Thank you for clearing things up, Mr. Richards. How can we possibly hope to move forward when movement occurs, despite the best intentions, in erratic, half-considered circles? It’s enough to make a guy stop thinking, certainly out loud, and maybe hand the whole project over to Bernays’ subliminal machinations. To paraphrase Heidegger, “the most thought-provoking phenomenon of the present age is how few people are really thinking.” Perhaps half-baked, “eat-and-run” thinking is the real crux of the crisis.
Alas, society lacks laboratory conditions. If only ideas could be incubated and empirically verified before escaping into the streets. Instead, too many enterprising and opportunistic people are in a hurry to seize what they like and rush it to market. Thus, the managerial complexion of modern political power stems in part from politicians being reduced to putting out one fire after another.
Much like nature, human society simply careens forward with no time to dress its wounds or redress its missteps. Curtis has implied in recent interviews that the appeal of a new collectivist model may lie in its potential to stanch a billion individual opinions and train people once again on a common cause. At least system noise would be reduced. Dick Morris’ atomized, kitchen-table focus groups are no way to run a major railroad.
In The Power of Nightmares, Uncle Sigmund falls prey — should we say ironically — to his Mephistophelean nephew’s bag of tricks. Overcoming his initial misgivings (or as Curtis suggests, bought off with lucrative U.S. book distribution deals set up by a young Bernays), the good doctor clears the way for Eddie to monetize the family brain trust. Invasive psychoanalytic techniques are perpetrated on an oblivious populace. Hey Eddie, that’s my hang-up and I’ll buy if I want to, buy if I want to. Too late — he found us where we live. We are now Bernays’ subliminal bitches.
We can chastise the morbidly obese for their lack of willpower if it better comports our own modest paunches. The fact is, for a century, some of the cleverest minds have been ransacking quotidian psyches for broken hinges. As a result, the average Joe has been completely outmatched and overrun. His appetites loom infinite as his beltline strains to get a love handle on things. This is not sustenance. This is not fuel. This is Devo — certainly the devious usurpation of the conscious will. Let man serve the capitalist machine until his heart explodes, not in salt mines but in sodium emporia. We are fattened lambs on conveyor belts being fed to lion-sized growth. We have been objectified.
Everything the culture industry produces, Adorno warned, is a manipulation — even Joan Baez’ anti-war warbles. Why invest in high production values otherwise? But it doesn’t stop at our troubadours. Freud’s in the cake-mix aisle too. In fact, there’s no sales-free zone in the public space. Political leaders have long since ceded the floor to focus-group aficionados who debate pocketbook issues as though habeas corpus or the Magna Carta hung in the balance. Meanwhile, successive presidents sign huge chunks of constitutional protections away via Executive Order. Civic man’s swap-out, consumer man, does not notice because, well, you can’t eat freedom. Our consent has been manufactured away from outrage over abstract subtractions. Hard-won liberties, purchased in blood, are dismantled right before our eyes. Where there is no shrink-wrap, it seems, there is no longer anything deemed to be at stake. Are you frightened yet? Good. Anxiety boosts sales.
Large-scale public initiatives (e.g., the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System) elude the petty squalls of Dick Morris’ suburbanite group gropes. In The Century of the Self former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich relates a Sisyphean exchange with Morris. For the latter, the means justify the means all to the fulfillment of pointless ends. We are being “led” by the headless beast of will-to-power: “I would say, Dick, why have a campaign if all the president is going to do is offer up all these little bite-sized miniature initiatives that appealed to people’s desires like consumers buying soap . . . Why talk about them, they’re so mundane and they’re so tiny, and he would say if we don’t do this we may not get re-elected. And I would say what’s the point of getting re-elected if you have no mandate to do anything when you’re re-elected and he’d say what’s the point of having a mandate if you can’t get re-elected?”
This is also where I believe the chief discomfiture lies with Curtis’ work, the sense that unfair advantage is being taken or that the craftsman’s true avocation is being withheld. No one’s suggesting Curtis traipses into the BBC Archives in an open-ended search for compelling vignettes that then leap unbidden from the reels to form hypotheses that surprise their assembler. There is the danger, though, that perfectly assailable, preconceived arguments are helping themselves to unassailable audio and visual material. Inquiring couch potatoes want to know.
Caveat emptor, one might say, as, in the hands of a consummate craftsman, artistic coherence can be sloughed off for historical veracity. A masterful re-manipulator of the manipulated image — miles removed from cinéma vérité and stationary cameras — Curtis is a writer of tangled tales that manage to tie up all loose conceptual ends. Because he is a lively and eclectic political artist, his polemics go down smoothly enough. However, decades require further decades before their historic meaning can be properly evoked. Curtis’ grand hurry is a clue we are in the realm of high-order contrivance and political art.
Every polemicist launches his broadsides from a discrete locale. Despite his protestations to the contrary (which can be read online), Curtis betrays a left-leaning bias. His political druthers are important only insofar as we should be aware he is not discovering his beliefs right beside us. He is a conductor, not a fellow passenger. We’re back again to sequence, spontaneity, and sincerity. Curtis has settled his ideological battles off-screen well before he splices the tape. As we are more in the realm of art than journalism, his films stress the creative component of John Grierson’s famous dictum of the documentary being the “creative treatment of actuality.” Because his realm of “actuality” is the near-past, Curtis’ films play in a very fraught arena where creativity might conceivably be called upon to hide a host of journalistic sins.
So then, welcome to the big show during which viewers of all stripes report being held spellbound and enthralled. The effect overruns the logic as any good tale should. The assembled dialectics are often far-flung and eccentric. We are watching the flights and fancies of Adam Curtis’ eclectic mind, much as we might a good novelist’s; Upton Sinclair with a camera? Interesting that Curtis’ professed antecedents are writers and not film directors (Dos Passos is claimed as a big influence, Godard not so much). This is highbrow entertainment. It provokes thought. What the hell’s wrong with that?
Mind you, this has been a good-natured dissection of Curtis’ intentions and motives. I’m not suggesting he’s skulking around in disguise muttering bah-hah-hah, altogether pleased at his cunning deception; only that his brand of info-entertainment or journo-mash-up or whatever you want to call it warrants careful analysis.
A polemicist perhaps, Curtis is no pamphleteer. He doesn’t bore with uni-linear tracts. Yet at times he can pursue too many fronts at once. The viewing experience becomes a Rorschach test applied to an emptied can of Pick-up Sticks. However one wishes to characterize it, The Power of Nightmares stands as Curtis’ magnum opus, in no small part because he limits himself to two powerfully parallel narrative threads. A proper analogy is two intertwined serpents shimmying along the same axis (or thesis) from different ends.
The land of Manifest Destiny has reached a suburban cul-de-sac where erstwhile pioneers have taken to fetishizing their lawns. From this phosphorescent terminus, we watch Islamist Sayyid Qutb and political philosopher Leo Strauss script diametric prescriptions for a post-WWII American nihilism each readily acknowledges. Qutb wants to quarantine the West in an effort to preserve his own culture. Strauss seeks to rededicate it in fresh new moral crusades of dubious authenticity. The alternative, for Strauss, is to broadly concede through all strata of society that there’s no there there. Strauss, the Platonic paternalist, knows a broad acknowledgment of nihilism is not possible if social order is to be maintained. He and his vanguard will manage the flames that cast shadows on the cave wall.
One shadow is al Qaeda, an alleged American invention. Another is Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). With the passing of the USSR, existential evil has collapsed in a heap. The absence of an evildoer of comparable scale (comparable at least, a cynic might say, to the Pentagon’s budget) is cause, among the Straussians, for broad panic. Where can the military-industrial complex’s animus be trained next? This palpable need for an enemy is ominously expressed in the Neo-conservatives’ Year 2000 Project for a New American Century (PNAC) manifesto, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: “Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor.”
Qutb is at least armed with the comfort of belief. But is his enemy any more real? There’s evidence he was on his way to a more militant strain of Islam even before his fateful visit to Middle America in 1949. Nonetheless, Curtis knows an irresistible plot twist when he falls across one. The vignette, related as well in Wright’s book, is best told in Qutb’s own words, from his 1951 short book The America I Have Seen. At a Saturday night church dance in Greeley, Colorado, Qutb seems almost as dumbstruck by the minister’s complicity in the lustful gathering as by the openly licentious atmosphere itself: “The dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire . . . And the Father (minister) chose . . . a famous American song called ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ . . . And the minister waited until he saw people stepping to the rhythm of this moving song, and he seemed satisfied and contented. He left the dance floor for his home, leaving the men and the women to enjoy this night in all its pleasure and innocence!”
Surely Bernays could have a field day. To the Western ear, Qutb’s outsized sense of affront provokes smirks. When we learn this awkward bachelor goes on to mentor al Qaeda founder (and bin Laden mentor) Ayman Zawahiri, all smiles vanish. Such are the eccentric, crooked trails Curtis pursues with a storyteller’s vengeance.
Recognizing the imperative to use power or lose it (a PNAC trope), the Straussian elect, quite beyond good and evil themselves, weave exoteric tales, nightmares really, that serve the masses’ continued need for Manichean dualism. Anxiety happens also to be good for business. Thus, deception lies at the heart of the Neo-conservative vision. Contempt for the led by the leaders can’t be far away.
Curtis is obsessed with power and how power has lost its way, or is, at the least, taking great strides to appear lost. The try-this, then-that faddish eclecticism of the last half-century may be a diversionary game that entrenched power allows in order to foster the illusion of progress and shifting power dynamics. Curtis wonders where the democratic groundswell promised by the early Internet has crept off to. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.
Whereas Islam has this silly thing, dogged conviction, on its side; wrong-headed, pre-Reformation guff, one may say. But a conviction nonetheless which happens to enjoy strategic, asymmetric advantage: The Islamo-nihilist’s battle skitters off the mortal coil with ecstatic abandon. They are in it for the longest haul, which, to you portfolio managers out there, seems for all the world like the end of the line. Earth is a way-station. Paradise looms ahead. How can secularist humanism possibly win when Earth is “all it has,” and when the Koranic Paradise does earthly delights one damn sight better? Jonathan Raban remarks on the frequent use of the word “desire” in Qutb’s political manifesto, Milestones. Mr. Bernays, are you listening? Remember, Qutb practically hyperventilates over the church dance atmosphere “full of desire.” One realizes there’s no heaven in Qutb’s heaven, only a redoubled earth. The suicide bomber is a guy who wants to get laid, just not down here. Qutb, it turns out, is no ascetic at all, but a deferred sensualist: “It’s easy to see death’s erotic allure for a man of Qutb’s temperament, raised on the Koran’s worldly and sensual depiction of the hereafter. The Gardens of Bliss resemble nothing so much as the great Playboy Mansion in the sky, watered by underground springs (all sorts of delightful wetness abound in Paradise) . . . the Koranic Paradise remains obdurately earthbound, full of nubile girls unzipping plantains” (Jonathan Raban for The New Yorker).
Is anyone in the life-negating game full-bore? (Interestingly, Nietzsche was far more predisposed to Islam than to Christianity for a number of reasons that lie beyond the scope of this essay.) The West’s spiritual desert looks ever more despairing. Please tell us there’s more at stake here than our 401(k) plans, or worse, that our savings will greet us, with uninterrupted compounding, on the other side. We cannot sustain this arch-selfishness much longer. We need a self-obliterating cause. If our God is dead, send us a convincing Übermensch. We watch six hours of TV every day. We’re seasoned pretenders trained in the suspension of belief. In the words of David Foster Wallace: “Are you immensely pleased.”
Curtis has an eye for the tragi-comic in his Big Ideas parables, the Biggest Idea being the deterministic power of mishap, happenstance and unintended consequence. There’s Ayn Rand’s tryst with married devotee Nathaniel Branden that ends explosively, and in anything but a rational manner, leaving Rand a virtual recluse for the remainder of her life. There’s legendary evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton felled by an aspirin lodged in his gut. There are the California nuns sent to a 1960s encounter group only to emerge determined to found a lesbian nunnery. There’s Monica Lewinsky’s spattered dress that goes on to bestain the world, nowhere more catastrophically than in Asia, where a financial crisis ensues “as a result.” There’s game theorist George Price, turned altruist and hounded spiritual seeker (he forms an obsession with the Francis Thompson poem “The Hound of Heaven” before his eventual suicide).
Curtis revels in the anticlimactic human accident that proves enough to alter the course of culture. These are not dialectical so much as parallel tales punctuated with butterfly effects. Would 911 have happened if a Colorado pastor in 1949 had only played “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” instead of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? Just how provisional is this daisy-chain called history?
Sound and Vision conform the recent past to the contours of the Curtis story. This is Nietzschean will-to-power with a P. T. Barnum flair. And why not? It’s a free-for-all out there in the culture-vacuum. At the end of history, the fabulists turn pro. The Neo-Conservatives are taking a stab, as are the Randians, the jihadists, the biologists, and the computer nerds. Pick your vacuum-fillers. Today, everyone’s an auditioning auteur: “We are, instead, our own vatic visions, bumbling prophets. Our sense of ourselves as invented as film” (from “Dead Man” by Kathleen Graber).
No doubt Zouabi’s tiny band has long since run afoul of his truth. Inexorably, nihilism courts the last man standing. Left alone to the nightmare of absolute truth drumming, insistent and accusatory, in his head, this final auteur will perpetrate a suicide bombing on his blood-besotted solitude. The world will be relieved, once and for all, of this compounding error called human history. The hound of heaven will fall silent for want of beleaguered quarry.