Archives for the month of: June, 2011

Over on the Format stream, a quick reflection on the developments in ‘pseudo-reality’ TV, and how it accords with a world of our desires.

So, the last of Adam Curtis’ recent ‘documentary’, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, aired this week (importantly) on terrestrial TV (Thank you BBC2. Really, thank you!). Over the course of around 175 minutes in total, we’ve swerved from Ayn Rand’s ideologically authored affairs to Monica Lewinsky’s effect on the Asian bubble-crisis, from Buckminster Fuller to Richard Dawkins’ selfishness, gorillas, Belgian documentary film-makers turned genocidal phrenologists, vengeful nature, cute bunny rabbits, and lots of images of very old computers that would fill football pitches and the minds of zealous techno-Utopian social engineers hell bent on turning reality back into the system it actually already is.

Much can be said about Curtis’ waywardness with ‘the truth’, and much of it would be true, so to say. He skips across cultural, political and scientific history with irregular bounces. Scrutinising the selectivity of the sources would lead you to make your own Adam Curtis like documentary on his documentaries, exposing their fallaciousness and fine-tuned factual fuzziness. However, this is to miss the point.

In a lovely interview with him in the new issue of Tank, what emerges is the import on how a story is told – as much as what is being told:

‘TANK: So you’re a storyteller?

ADAM CURTIS: There are lots of wonderful things on the internet, but the one thing that can never, ever die is, “I want to tell you a story.”

In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I have a go at internet utopias. Internet utopians think we can make our own stories up, or have multiple endings in which you make the choice. That’s naïve. What you see on Twitter and Facebook is the modern equivalent of what, under Stalin’s time, was socialist realism.

TANK: I’m not sure I understand – you mean instead of buxom fieldworkers and strapping steelworkers we now have lots of people communicating in 140-character thought bubbles?

AC: Twitter is a happy little universe where everything is incredibly innocent and comes from within you. Well, no it doesn’t! What shapes your feelings are the structures of power around you. The tubes down which your feelings go are built by large businesses – these businesses shape how you see the world. It’s not manipulation, it’s just the way the world works. The way we see the world is as much shaped by the structures of power around us as the feelings we have within us. What shapes those feelings is reflected by the ideology of our time: that there is nothing more sacrosanct than our inner feelings. These days, the idea of immersing yourself in something grander than yourself is alien.’

All this is deserving of a longer rumination – for now I’m just going to bullet-point why I think AC is so GRT:

1. It’s on mainstream TV: I’m old enough to remember when there were just four channels in the UK. Less choice, numerically speaking, but, a much clearer territorialization. BBC2 and Channel 4, up till the very early 90s, made incredibly smart TV without the constitutional obligation of making it all palatable for a ‘mainstream audience’. This smacks of elitism, and so what? A healthy culture is one that allows the vital expression of heterogeneity as itself for itself. Adam Curtis reminds me – nostaligically, winesomely – of a time when intelligence didn’t have to justify itself or worse disguise itself (cf The Culture Show. Eek.)

2. It’s bloody reflexive! (But doesn’t bang on about it):  So much of AC’s films seem to be about the way in which power, and its obverse (traditionally we might call it ‘alienation’), find enthralling forms with which to en-trance us. Whether it is Freud’s theory of the unconscious in AC’s Century of the Self, or, a kind of Agamben-lite in The Power of Nightmares, the disjoint between what we are told, how we are told it, and what the actual power structure is that serves and is served by such propulsions, all this swirls around like some galaxy of glittery ungoodness that is simply known to all of us by the word: reality. Therefore, we have to bear this in mind when we are watching AC tell us stuff. If we don’t, we haven’t learnt anything, aren’t learning anything, other than how to continue to be aggressively passive. Oh!

3. It’s so unforeboding: I put this down to his voice. I find it strangely calming, yet authoritative. It’s never hectoring, or portentous. It is almost casual – and I think this is because it is slightly highly-pitched. This last statement is beyond scientific proof.

4. It’s neurology reified: How does the internet – its search engines, its correspondences between words and images, its windows, the pornography of sounds and images, the sounds and images of pornography piped directly into your eyes only – how does all this go into our brains and then come out as something like an understanding of the world, of ourselves, our inter-relationships with things and people and language and time? Our neurology must be modifying in weird ways according to (here comes an AC cited phrase) the feedback loops that pulse from our screens to our fingers to our eyes to our brains (and on to our skins, voices, and groins, depending on the time of day. Or not.) We take an image for a word, a word for an image. Yadda! All this, a tapestry of intake. An impoverishment of output. AC says he uses montage because it is pop – but it is the pop of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, those retinal screens of screed. Stuff happens in between the stuff you think is stuff.

5. It’s not about machines: Nope. That’s a massive McGuffin. A neat thing to pitch to the BBC bosses. And it worked!


Thank you Adam Curtis. [Fade out to the sound of St Etienne].

In the new Tank magazine, I talk to the founder of Demotix, Turi Munthe, about today’s news ecology and how, during the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak made a major mediaeval mistake. Here is an excerpt:

SB: Is it too easy to turn what we are seeing in the Middle East into a triumph for social-media technology over long-term historicity?

TM: By enormous good fortune, I happened to read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 in early January this year. Two big take-away messages for me were, one: revolutions have the kind of failure rates of high-end restaurants, and if they ever do succeed it is all in the long game, and two: revolutions have always been contagious. 1830 was a pretty much continuous, European-wide explosion, and they did it without YouTube. So, caution. And caution also for the way these “technological/Facebook/Twitter revolutions” have been framed. No doubt, the fact that millions of young Arabs all have cell phones and Twitter accounts has made them more recognisable, and therefore more attractive, to the spectating West – some describe this as the famous “Arab street” finally getting a face – but there’s more than a hint of narcissism in the “Facebook topples Mubarak” story; as if the revolutions in the region were in fact the triumph of Californian values over despotism.

SB: Has social media played any part?

TM: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that social media has had a foundational role in what’s been happening, both in terms of news gathering and in terms of the actual protests. The theme here is flatness. Social media allows mass movements to coalesce without all the old pyramid structures required for past mobilisations. Nobody led these movements because nobody needed to. There are huge advantages here: when Mubarak, a week into the Egyptian revolution, declared that he and Omar Suleiman were meeting with opposition leaders, we all laughed – there were none; there was nobody to co-opt! But the downside is that it’s far harder to formulate policy thereafter. I’ve heard of a number of attempts by some of the Tunisian opposition groups to Wiki-write and Google-doc their proposed manifestos and constitutions, but we wait to see how effective that will be.