All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace Episode 1


Until last night, I was eagerly awaiting Adam Curtis's All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

The first episode is already available on YouTube. See below or go to the site.

I'm sad to say that I was disappointed by this first episode and am not sure I will want to spend the time to watch any further. 

In "The Century of the Self," Curtis perfected a style consisting of appropriated music and film clips—as another filmmaker told me yesterday, this is made possible by blanket licensing rights possessed by the BBC—over which the unseen Curtis narrates in an ominous voice, simultaneously calm and urgent, sounding the alarm with regard to vast conspiracies of right wing forces attacking to exploit us for their own intersets. 

In the Century of the Self, the enemy was Freud and Freudianism and with it, the strange dialectic of pleasure and control so endemic to twentieth century life. I was riveted by Century of the Self and watched a number of Curtis's other documentaries. Generally speaking I didn't find these as compelling and I must admit that the style began to wear on me after a while.

But I had high hopes for this series. It had been some time since he had made a new one and I thought that by now he would have reworked his style and produced something of striking originality. I had hoped for a fresh take on network culture. After all, I will be the first with my hand in the air to accuse network culture of promoting elitism and individualism. Its influence on our society, particularly on the academy and the creative fields, has been pervasive and pernicious.


All Watched Over, alas, almost descends into self-parody. The first episode seems to loosely take Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's fifteen year old Californian Ideology article as a reference point (although he fails to mention that they coined the term in a critical essay and misses the point about the critical influence of the counterculture in forging Silicon Valley's libertarian mindset) but he veers off into a protracted discussion of Ayn Rand.

Granted, Rand's work is commonly read in Silicon Valley (and of course among architects), but methodologically this is where the show goes awry. The gist of the first episode is that this rather misguided and insane woman's ideology of pure individualism and selfishness led us down the road to ruin. Curtis drags out Alan Greenspan as one of her followers. Fair enough, I suppose, although a more critical approach would be to look at the Chicago School, but I suppose that has already been done to death and Curtis wanted something more original. Still, by this point I was wondering just where Curtis was going. Although he would eventually reintroduce computers as these HAL-like entities controlling Wall Street, this wasn't terribly convincing (I think the real masters of the universe on Wall Street know very well what they are doing and rarely place blind faith in machines to save us all).

Worst of all, Curtis veered off into left field with a misinformed section on President Bill Clinton. Curtis weaves a tale of a president who had come to change society for the better but wound up so convinced by Greenspan's success with the economy and, by implication, so taken with the ideology of individualism, that he wound up leaving behind his ideas of making the country better and indulging in the earthly pleasures of Monica Lewinsky. After footage of Hilary giving a tour of the White House and even of Socks the cat, I was ready to call it a day. Somehow I made it through to the end, but I doubt I will want to cringe my way through another episode.

The changes in network culture are not the product of a conspiracy theory (if you like conspiracy theories then please spend your time on Geoff Waite's Nietzsche's Corps(e) for a much more self-reflective and compelling work). For a time better spent, try out David Harvey's A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, Fred Turner's From Counter-Culture to Cyberculture, Barbrook and Cameron's Californian Ideology essay and compliment these with a good analysis of economic history like Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence

I hate giving bad reviews. My mother taught me that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say it. Moreover, it pains me that I have found Curtis's work so compelling in the past and, as I stated at the outset, my whole network culture project is a sustained critique of the field. But in episode one of this series, Curtis reduces history to a caricature. 

If only Ayn Rand hadn't been so mentally unfit, if only her darting eyes hadn't been so convincing, then perhaps all these bad things wouldn't have happened and the man who had come to change society for the better would have done so. 

History isn't so simple. 

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Not the Last Word

For Cite 75, Summer 2008

Sanford Kwinter, Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, edited by Cynthia Davidson (ACTAR: Barcelona and New York, 2008), 196 page paperback, $33.00.

For a New York writer to review a book by one of Houston’s great architectural thinkers in Cite is unquestionably risky. But given Sanford Kwinter’s own dual allegiance to these two cities and his fascination with the potential lying in the concentrated and dissipated forms of urbanism that these cities respectively epitomize, perhaps it is not impossible. And where better to talk about Kwinter? After all, it is in Houston—both the city and the intellectual milieu—that Kwinter rethought urbanism.

Kwinter’s fundamental contribution to architecture is to redirect urbanism away from an image-based notion of the city (I am thinking here of urbanism from Garnier and Corbusier to Lynch and Rowe) in favor of an understanding of cities as products of dynamic forces.

Far From Equilibrium is a collection of essays surveying the evolution of Kwinter’s thought. Most books of collected essays come up short, reflecting less a coherent body of work than a wandering mind. But this is not the case here. Selected from his writings in the nineties, these essays form a new document, as relevant to us today as they were in their first iteration—perhaps more so.

Most, but not all, of these essays are from editor Cynthia Davidson’s ANY magazine, for which Kwinter regularly contributed a column called "FFE" (originally titled "Not the Last Word," but renamed at Kwinter’s request). Intended to accompany the conferences and the books that Anyone Corporation produced, ANY began publication in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s influence on architecture, giving life to the suggestion that writing and theory were the highest forms of (architectural) intellectual work. Initially designed by Massimo Vignelli as a graphically flamboyant tabloid, ANY visually announced that the writing in its pages would be radical, not merely observing but rather agitating for and inventing a new architecture.

Kwinter’s role in ANY was crucial. After his brief response to a query from Robert Somol on the status of form in architecture was printed in Issue 8 as "Form Work: Colin Rowe," Kwinter arrived in full force in Issue 9 with "Urbanism vs Architecture: The Bigness of Rem Koolhaas." This was a pivotal issue for ANY, marking a change in editorial staff as well as a shift away from deconstruction toward a broader interest in culture, technology, and diagramming. The graphic language of the magazine was redone, the formalist Vignelli design replaced with a more gridded approach by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgianna Stout. This new look reflected the influence of Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, both already associated with Kwinter.

But ANY was formulated as a ten-year project, and when that point was reached in 2000, it was shut down. Davidson and Kwinter then reunited as editor and writer, shaping the "FFE" columns—together with other essays that they felt applicable—into this new product. The result is hardly a complete selection of Kwinter’s thought, nor does it comprise every text he wrote for ANY. Instead, this book picks out a particularly vital thread in Kwinter’s intellectual narrative, reframing key texts from the ANY period that emphasize Kwinter’s current commitment to resistance. Thus, the book bypasses the aspects of Kwinter’s work in the 1990s, such as his "new pastoralism," that could be misinterpreted as supporting less critical motifs in contemporary thought.

Far From Equilibrium’s rewriting is not revisionism. In the essay that’s the key to the book, the 1996 "Radical Anamnesis (Mourning the Future)," Kwinter concludes, "Through (selective) memory the future becomes possible, a future that the past could not think and that the present-alone-dares not." In this spirit, working with Davidson as his editor, Kwinter has discovered a radically new book among these decade-old essays, unabashedly facing up to the dangers of technology while challenging architecture to justify itself today.

During the publication process, Far From Equilibrium passed to Actar Publishers, where editor Michael Kubo and designer Reinhard Steger punctuated the book graphically. In line with the editorial mission, the design moves the book forward to the present day, expounding on the work of Bruce Mau, who designed Kwinter’s Zone Books starting in the 1980s. A series of gatefold pages reveal projects by architects such as Diller Scofidio+Renfro, Ábalos & Herreros, and Toyo Ito, work forged in the same milieu as Kwinter’s writing. Just as these gatefolds disrupt the flow of reading, they also mark a transition in typefaces. These disturbances are registered at the threshold of the reader’s consciousness, affirming, as Kwinter does, a faith in the powers of design itself to reconfigure our thought.

This is only a mere overview. Throughout, Kwinter’s critical, incisive voice questions what design can do for society today and calls for us to make a stance-to take the road not taken by criticism, which has moved to a vacuous endorsement of the lowest common denominator, either embracing post-criticism or banal journalism. If Far From Equilibrium was once "Not the Last Word," we can be sure that this magnificent work is, if nothing else, not the last word that we will hear from this brilliant thinker.

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Archidose Blue Monday Review

Saturday means I’m finally at my friend Paul and Viola’s retreat and am recharging. Maybe you are too and you’re starting to think about summer reading? Well, of course, that means another plug for our book, this time in the form of a long overdue link to John Hill’s Archidose for his review of Blue Monday.

A brief excerpt:

As an alternative research practice, AUDC’s focus and methods may be difficult to understand or grasp initially, but this book skillfully explains their point of view. The three moments—LA’s One Wilshire Boulevard "telecom hotel," the Muzak Corporation, and Quartzsite, Arizona—offer alternative urbanisms that have, in one way or another, been incorporated into contemporary life without our knowledge or any voluntary participation.

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