“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. I think he’s doing this kind of Foucaldian tracing of discourses, but I’m basically guessing, because he’s not very explicit about what he is doing. There are various things about the way the program is put together that imply certain things about the epistemology, although they’re also rather contradictory. Curtis’s signature method, the construction of a documentary largely from archive footage some distantly, some closely related to the point being made, emphasizes the intellectual configuration being constructed is partial. In particular, building the program around juxtaposition tends to push against interpreting the relationships between the elements as causal, which of course is emphasized by the jumps in time throughout the program.

However  the soundtrack pushes in the other direction. The ominous music that frequently plays under apparently innocuous scenes keys us to expect bad consequences, and so imbues the program with a teleology, in which the negative consequences are already present in potential form at the origin of an idea. This is what Nietzsche calls “a perverse type of genealogical hypothesis of a genuinely English style” in which everything is explained by reference to an essence lying in its origins, rather than by appealing to something  “first brought in under a specific set of conditions and always as something incidental, something additional” (On the Genealogy of Morals).

It’s the punctual and incidental aspects, not the teleological, that I think make the program worth our engagement. I do, though, have one concern about the intellectual collection that Curtis assembles, as I think he may be missing some distinctions in the way various concepts change over time. Specifically, he may subsume too much under the idea of the “machine.” Isn’t there quite a difference between the mechanism of industrial machinery, the circuits of electrified machines, and the information flows of networked machines and genes? And this difference would correspond to a distinction between the cybernetic systems with which Curtis begins, and the bioinformatic ones with which he ends (I think this might understood in terms of  a move from Parson’s cybernetic systems theory to Luhmann’s autopoesis, though I don’t know enough about Luhmann to be sure).

Curtis emphasizes the role of feedback in cybernetics, but he doesn’t mention that this was interpreted as making cybernetics the science of control, something which was very much of a piece with the technocratic interventionism of 1950s politics. The association of feedback systems with a form of self-regulation that eludes control comes later; at one point, Curtis briefly mentioned the move from mainframes to networked personal computers, which is  a mark of this change, from self-regulating systems which are centralized and basically comprehensible, and so controllable, to systems which are self-regulating because they are so complex they elude our grasp. In this, the failure of ecological systems theories would be a further step in the development of our contemporary homeostatic “common sense,” and not, as Curtis seems to suggest, a scientific refutation of it. (“Black ecology” would then be a further development of the same theme.)

This does not mean that Curtis’s argument is wrong, just that it could be enriched by making some further distinctions. In particular, I think this move from understanding systems in terms of control to understanding them in terms of complexity helps to think about the political implications of the story Curtis is telling. The problem Curtis identifies have, I think, a lot in common with Jodi’s criticisms of left enmeshment in communicative capitalism. It’s important, then, to recognize how close those of us on the anti-hierarchical left are to some of the ideas Curtis identifies as problematic (how could we not be, as they are ideas which really do structure much of our time), as well as ways we have of interpreting and using these ideas differently.

(The title of this post is from the poem which gave Curtis his title, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan.)

8 thoughts on ““I like to think (right now, please!)”

  1. Isn’t there quite a difference between the mechanism of industrial machinery, the circuits of electrified machines, and the information flows of networked machines and genes? And this difference would correspond to a distinction between the cybernetic systems with which Curtis begins, and the bioinformatic ones with which he ends (I think this might understood in terms of a move from Parson’s cybernetic systems theory to Luhmann’s autopoesis, though I don’t know enough about Luhmann to be sure).

    The fact that he doesn’t at all separate, but rather lumps together the meaning of the word “machine” despite their distinction is a case in point of his wider problem in drawing really specious links between things. When it is pointed out, that Curtis’ target (those naughty late left protesters who are losing) do not believe in the things he says they believe (natural homeostasis) or act in the way he prescribes or have genealogical linkages to his sources either, what of what he says isn’t just the ideal linkage of things in his mind? Can’t we just say what he says is plain false.

    “You know why the Egyptian protests haven’t been successful yet? Yeah, influence of early 20th century botany”.

    I suppose this could be broadened into a critique of the genealogical method as a whole. However, I think there even a basic check on the mutual influence of ideas between the phenomena he describes (late protest and ecology/cybernetics) that isn’t even pass basic muster.

  2. Jodi’s case is basically the same methodology: hey kids, doesn’t this sound a bit like Hayek, nudge nudge wink wink? Malcolm Bull and Zizek do much the same. Well, errr, no. It might sound a bit like Hayek, but only if you have read very little post-autonomist stuff and even less Hayek. That said, certain Deleuzians do bottom out like Hayek – De Landa – but there is a far stronger case for this. Its a complicated world out there!

  3. I’m surprised by your generally positive tone here! I really wanted this to be a great series. Having had written on my admiration for Curtis before I have to admit that I was really disappointed with this series. The second part, that dealt with ecology mostly (and you probably don’t know but that’s my area of research), was just riddled with misunderstandings and either near defamation or awful mistakes (he accuses one of the Odem brothers of making up numbers). I was going to post on it and try to correct a lot of what he says in the doc, but I decided I didn’t have enough time to spare. What I should say, though, is that we don’t need some amateurish Dark Ecology® to deal with political misuse of ecological concepts, because mainstream ecology doesn’t think that homeostatic balance is something real in nature. It’s a bit strange to me that this sort of Latourism (the ecosystem is a myth!) is catching on with victim blaming Old-Old Labour types.

  4. I think that’s always a problem with genealogies, in that if there are no essences or origins there’s always going to be more detail and context that could be provided. This makes it difficult to evaluate genealogies, too, but I took it to be a good sign that adding more detail in the areas I know something about (like cybernetics) seemed to support Curtis’s overall thesis; I was hoping the same was true in other areas, like ecology. Is Curtis’s claim that ecologists believed in a homeostatic balance simply false, or did ecologists believe that at one point, but don’t do so any longer (which I think is what Curtis was saying, although he annoyingly attributes the change to the early ecologists just not paying attention to the apparently neutral evidence, as if just applying the scientific method would allow you to get outside the ideologies he is describing)?

    I think it’s worth distinguishing Jodi’s argument from Bull (or Žižek when he’s being annoying about Deleuzians), in that Jodi has a fairly developed account of communicative capitalism independently of criticisms of the left, whereas Bull is just, as you say, noting superficial similarities. I think Curtis is closer to Jodi; in the Guardian article, for example, he only mentions the autonomist left a couple of times. So you have an account of a discourse which is sufficiently broadly spread that it could plausibly influence people even if they claim to disagree with it. I think this is helpful in understanding debates in the anti-authoritarian left – not in the sense that we’re just dupes of Ayn Rand, but in the sense that the really hard questions do concern some similar ideas: how do we organize from the bottom-up if not spontaneously, how do we deal with the kind of power relations which are made less visible by horizontal forms of organization. I think All Watched Over by machines of Loving Grace does go some way to explain why these questions are both pressing and difficult (not that I think Leninist centralism is the solution – it duplicates capitalism at least as much as network organizations do, just different bits of capitalism).

  5. No, it isn’t false to say that ecologists assumed a certain kind of equilibrium in early studies. What might be called “balance”. But this belief was common to science at the time and inherited from philosophy. When it didn’t work, they tried to come up with some other way to deal with the stability of systems (stochastic order is now popular as is state systems theory which finds the limits within which seemingly big changes take place while still retaining some kind of coherence with how the system functioned the day before). I did catch that Curtis tried to signal this change, but it was done so quickly and in such a way that I’m not sure it could balance out the ominous music. And it doesn’t deal with his rather poor, Oxbridge commonsensical philosophy of science that you mention. I need to try and watch the third episode. I fell asleep the first time.

  6. As I said before, the major problem with Curtis’ thesis is that none of his targets (the anti-authoritarian left) believe any of the things he ascribes to them. Once this has been established, I am afraid this thesis boils down to nothing more than highly detailed snark from the old left. The questions you ask, for example, “how do we organize from the bottom-up if not spontaneously” are the bread and butter of left communist or anarchist politics that have always stressed rational direction and democratic planning and worried about how this is possible and attempted to establish practice to enable this. The same is true of ” how do we deal with the kind of power relations which are made less visible by horizontal forms of organization” – on going debates over the meaning, practice and value of consensus decision making are one such debate that has been going on for at least ten years, and recent flared up again during the UK student protests – discussing how one might counter these structures and acknowledge them is the subject of thousands of zines on ZineInfo. The claim that “anti-authoritarian leftists don’t talk about the problems of organisation without hierarchy and checking those hierarchies where they emerge” is an odd claim considering their politics are all about discovering, monitoring and abolishing hierarchy. They don’t get it perfect, but to claim they aren’t addressing the problem when this is the problem when you are a left communist is very odd. The more important question he raises (which is discussed in these circles) in the original article is how horizontal power can win against hierarchical power. This is a tough one, no denying it – but again, its not like this has never been considered.

  7. By the way, I have never, ever been to a meeting of anarchists or autonomists where the actual question of the potential for hierarchies in the room/movement hasn’t come up. It comes up with such regularity that it becomes quite trying, and older school leftists get really tired of it.

    For example, consider the debate (since 1999!) on the nature of activism itself – contained in the zine article Give Up Activism, where the crux of the argument is that activism itself creates hierarchies! (an analysis I am inclined, as are many of my friends, to agree with)

Comments are closed.