Sunday, July 17, 2011

Adam Curtis: Revise and Resubmit

Controversial British film maker Adam Curtis has created another thought provoking television trilogy: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which was screened on  BBC2  beginning on Monday May 23rd.  As with his former series, The Trap, he touches on systems and cybernetics and gives them a strong critique - some justified but much intellectually spurious.  However, let me say from the outset that it is good that these programmes are made.  I only wish there was more TV that engaged with the important themes that preoccupy Curtis.  That said, television is problematic as a medium for material that purports to be intellectually serious.   Had these programmes been academic papers submitted for publication I would have recommended 'revise and resubmit'!

Curtis's meta-theme is compelling: that theoretical positions and associated narratives are taken up and institutionalised in uncritical ways - and in the process we have been seduced into believing we have no agency for creating purposeful change.  These theories, or explanations, become the new orthodoxies of the times and the understandings that arise shape technological designs, the ambitions of the designers, generate new research programmes and create adherants and prosletysers.  Although he does not say it in these terms explanations if accepted change who we are.  Curtis's example in his third programme, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, about Armand Denis's films that told the world about Africa particularly his 'fanciful stories about Rwanda's Tutsis being a noble ruling elite originally from Egypt, whereas the Hutus were a peasant race', is a compelling example of how explanations are taken up and become institutionalised in our practices with, as in this case, appalling unintended consequences.

Similarly Curtis' example of the ecosystem concept explored in his second programme, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts is a fascinating story except that the surrounding scholarship is shoddy and, from my perspective, leads Curtis himself into proferring explanations as worthy of critique as those in his spotlight.  

As I outline in a recently published essay, there is "replete within the academic literature confusion over the concept ‘system’ and whether ‘system’ is an epistemological device, a way of knowing about the world and thus a choice to be made in context sensitive ways, or an ontological claim i.e. a claim that systems are ‘real’ and thus describable objectively.  This confusion extends to the concept ‘ecosystem’ itself.  The term ecosystem was coined in 1930 by Roy Clapham to mean the combined physical and biological components of an environment. British ecologist Arthur Tansley (1935) later refined the term, describing it as "the whole system, … including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment". Tansley regarded ecosystems not simply as natural units, but as mental isolates.  In Tansley’s original conception ‘ecosystem’ was a neologism coined to work as a conceptual or epistemological device, and which, like all systems involves boundary judgments – a bringing forth – by an observer.  However, over time the concept ecosystem has come to be reified as existing independently of those who make the boundary judgments that distinguish any system of interest."  In pursuing the common practice of making concepts real we deny our own capacity for learning and change, and thus agency.

Curtis' scholarship breaks down because he fails to see how explanations and their reification operate in social systems - through institutions and social and artifactual technologies.  He is also somewhat out of date in his critique of systems and cybernetics, as are many others.   Perhaps it is the demands of TV that  consistently takes Curtis into profering conspiracies or conspiracy-like scenarios.  Like Curtis I deplore many of the explanations that we have conserved, sometimes over decades if not centuries, and that plague contemporary life and our abilities to be political in a small 'p' sense.  Curtis's own strategies for resistance (his films aside) are rarely made entirely clear and the inklings we are offered hardly seem inspired.  His own theoretical, epistemological, possibly theological, and ideological  commitments are never clearly articulated.  Hence the ground on which he chooses to stand to offer his critique is  hidden from view except that he rails, in a limited way, against the failure to take power into account, to believe that we can make the world a better place and do politics. 

An up-to-date enagement with systems scholarship, as exemplified say through the OU's new MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice, would reveal for Curtis that other pathways to resistance (in the Foucauldian sense) are possible - and in my view more productive than framing all possibilities through a limited lens on power.  Curtis reminds me of some current and former academics I have known who in their concerns about power consistently enact the very theories that concern them: the world seen through a narrow lens of power predisposes practices that are all about power games rather than say cooperation, mutual concern and accommodation of difference. 

From my perspective Curtis would do better to highlight the lack of epistemological and systemic awareness and pluralism that creates a perverse scientism - as exemplified by Dawkins et al - and the lack of reflexivity in just about all that we do.  These limitations also apply in the systems and cybernetics fields, as I outline in my recent book.  For that reason members of the systems and cybernetics communities would do well to view Curtis's latest offering and use it as a trigger for reflection on what it is they do when they do what they do!

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