Monday, May 27, 2013

Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I suppose what I like about Adam Curtis is that he takes a great many apparently disparate events from recent history and draws connections that reveal patterns or causality that wouldn't normally occur to people ... and I find myself doing that all the time.  To some, I'm sure, the conclusions seem "questionable," and of course to some degree they are, just as all interpretation of data is questionable to some extent.  What is not questionable is the core facts being presented - the various persons whom Curtis follows or references really did say the things they said, or took the actions they took - those things are a matter of record.  The only thing left to be questioned is whether or not you choose to believe that the actions of a person based on their philosophy has an effect.   I think it has.  I think it is long overdue that that effect is examined and debated.

There are a number of his films that I will eventually include in this series of documentaries (which seems to be the focus of the blog of late - though the reader shouldn't worry, as those docs I feel are worth posting has a finite number).  The one I'm starting with, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, is a three part series which largely examines - apart from what other sources say - how fucked up we all are due to the philosophical theories of a few driven, somewhat deranged individuals:  Ayn Rand, Arthur Tansley, Jay Forrester, William Hamilton and so on.  None of these people could be called 'stupid' ... yet all were to some degree more interested in making the data fit the theory rather than the theory fitting the data, as Curtis patiently relates.

I want to say a few words about Ayn Rand.  I have always felt that she made a terrific diagnostician.  For me, she has always had the ability to go straight to the heart of the problem and identify it.   The most mediocre people, prepared to concern themselves with gain rather than achievement, gain the greatest notariety; the incapable resent the capable; the weakest, most useless people demand the greatest amount of energy; people, by and large, seek to find their own value in the attention and opinion of others; and so on.

She is, however, a really shitty therapist.  The prescription she offers is pure, unmitigated bunk, and because it is bunk the actual value of anything she might have said otherwise is overshadowed by the satisfaction her detractors gain in dancing naked on the ludicrous grave of her proactive philosophy.  Which is a shame, really.  But that's how it goes - she herself describes exactly how it goes that way.

For those who watch the first episode and take glee in the light that is cast upon her by her actions and strangeness, I'd only point out that she does nothing in the throes of love that millions of people haven't also done - millions of people whose lives are not examined for fault because of a book they've written or an opinion they've had.  But if you put yourself out there, you have to prepare yourself for the shit-storm ... which, if you're really significant, will continue long after you're dead.

There are things I want to say about communes that only just occurred to me as I was watching the second show of the series last week ... but I'm saving it, and its relationship to dungeon mastering, for my next post.

If you want to see this, its not hard to find ... google videos will take you there.  Still, the best links can be found here, here and here.

I am curious to know if anyone out there is following along with the documentaries you haven't seen as I post these.  Please let me know.



  1. Yes, thanks for the posts, I enjoyed the first one and am busy with the American Civil War ones. Very worthwhile.

  2. I try to watch them, but as interested as I am, I've been getting pulled in many directions. Just finished this one however. The long ones tend to go unfinished, like the bible one.

  3. Is it normal to be able to identify Ayn Rand by image alone? Gonna give the interview(s) a look.

  4. That's an insightful comment you've made about Rand being better at diagnostics than prescribing action. I have long found this to be true without being able to put it so simply and well.

    That she continues to be a polarizing figure is natural. Personally, my biggest beef with Rand was with her role as an artist and not that of a thinker. That her characters lacked complexity I can forgive her, for they seemed to serve her intended purpose. But I truly don't know how her enthusiasts and detractors are even able to read through the 50+ page monologue of John Galt after already having the ideas there established and hammered home in inelegant fashion during the preceding hundreds of pages. That's beside the point, maybe, but as a lover of language and efficient word use, ouch. My half-joking but long held suspicion is that nobody has ever actually finished the whole thing, let alone the whole book.

  5. I've read Atlas Shrugged three times now, including John Galt's speech, every word, each time. I began reading The Fountainhead for what must be the 9th time after starting this post.

    I am often met with people who say that the descriptions are tiresome, that the speeches are inelegant, or that the work is repetitive and plodding. I have never found any of that to be true.

    I have strangely found that a great many Orren Boyle's seem to think they are Hank Rearden; I'm amazed that people who take money from the government, who depend on the government, who want tax credits and who insist on things like intellectual property rights can remotely imagine that they are anything like the constructivists Rand promotes. But then, the book is entirely about blindness.

    It is the same blindness of all the people who think they are Roark, when in fact they are Peter Keating. I always think its funny in Dirty Dancing when the schnook preaches the Fountainhead to Baby ... when obviously the schnook hasn't the slightest idea what the book is about.

    I wouldn't expect you to agree with any of this, James; no one ever does. People despise Rand, and everything she says about what people are. Those who love her emulate nothing of what she writes. It's a strange dichotomy.

    But then, who reads the one book that is actually about her, As I Lay Dying?

    She was a strange, irreconciable, dangerously brilliant woman; easily a target, easily painted in the worst sort of light. It reminds me of someone, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

    Strange that earlier today I was reading another place where we disagreed, James ... in the post I put up years ago about that helicopter gunship killing people on the ground. Remarkable, isn't it, that we can disagree on such things, yet respect one another.

    Take care.

  6. Remarkable only in that it is so rare otherwise.

    I wouldn't say I despise Rand; too strong a sentiment. I disliked her artistry, but have felt the ideas she advances deserve informed discussion and debate.

    I do admit I have tended to dismiss many of her adherents for, present company excluded, they are far too often of the Orren Boyle ilk than of the Hank Reardon and so blissfully unaware of the irony that its tough not to dismiss the whole of it on this basis. But I grant that, like many influential works, hers often does get misrepresented and distorted by those who hate it, those who want to use it for their purposes and by those who don't fully comprehend it.

    I think the acidic tone, the sermonizing and having drawn her protagonists and antagonists in such sharp if not simplistic and unrealistic terms ultimately did her ideas a disservice. That she was smart, brave and ambitious is obvious. That the broad stroke ideas of the value of intellect and achievement and the repugnance of coercion and conformity are attractive ones I grant you. That society often punishes and despises those they need most is insightful. It's when you apply these ideas to the complexities of everyday life, without the benefit of the strawmen Rand created, things become problematic.

    This would be an easier and more fulfilling discussion to have at a quiet bar. :)

  7. It certainly would.

    I'll keep this reply brief. When does anyone complain that Dante's Virgil was drawn in such sharp, simplistic and unrealistic terms? Or Dickens' Bill? Or Hemingway's Brett?

    Rand is held, always, to a different, higher standard that coincidentally only exists for her. That says something.

  8. Perhaps you're right and I grant you the reaction to her work can seem overly visceral. That the religious and conservative elements react badly on her view of god, sex, fidelity and marriage clouds the underlying problem... that all of her logic couldn't really properly account for the existence of a rationally-based sacrifice or altruism. To her these were morally repugnant and anathema to her philosophy... it ignores completely the complexity of the human mind and the psychological benefits there can be in such actions, which the doc cited above seems to indicate has a basis in genetics.

    We can behave altruistically and for the benefit of others, particularly those genetically simialr to us, becuase we might be programmed that way.

    Rand saw the individual rather romantically. In dispensing with God she put mankind up instead, or an idelaized version of it. She may be judged harshly and her crtics relish in her inconsistencies but setting all that aside, there is but the qaulity of her ideas to judge. Shocking and daring they might have been... the real question has to do with their merit.


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