Adam Curtis – Pandora’s Box (part 1: The Engineers Plot) 1992

The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.  (Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent”, 1947)

You can call Adam Curtis whatever you like. A fear-monger, a paranoiac, a leftist stooge, a rip-off maniac, rabid critic of the liberal system, irrational, cliche-istic, nihilistic, mash-up art BBC documentary conspiratorial director. I mean who the fuck knew about Edward Bernays, Freud’s obscure nephew and the founder of PR (public relations) before The Century of the Self series?

I wonder why I couldn’t find anything about A Curtis posted on this interplanetary blog. Maybe it is some technocratic-system-chaos-management-bots who managed to erase his name from Neukolln archives (what is this name anyway – hm smells like German nazi rocket science hehe). Well first about some funny but somehow hard to ignore critical deconstruction of his no-sources, all-collage, brutal cuts style.

After a brief introduction to his fallibility, let’s have a longer introduction to his talents. Even if you will get bored with his archival, collage-style material in the long run, it is undeniable that Adam Curtis has got something. And let’s get straight about something, he is not a conspiracy theorist, because he gives room to contingency, unintended results and paradoxical situations. His Pandora’s Box series is not based only the classical sorcerer’s apprentice theme found in many cultures. Politics meets science on several inglorious historical rendezvous, about the rich embroidery of global Cold War politics and scientific solutions always brimming on disaster, and about the sheer cussedness (Robert M. Young) of technoscience.

His documentaries can be viewed as a continuous and protracted Jeremiad against technoeuphoria and readymade answers to complex questions. With time, his recurring themes & disciplines (control, scientism, market economy, modernity, individualist ideologies of every hue, game theory, system theory, counter-insurgency, death of politics & rise of market values) becames more and more familiar and well-rounded to the viewer. Even if he is skimming trough 20th century celluloid history and propaganda he still manages to pull out relevant materials, draw some powerful and unexpected causal links and punctuates recurring dialectical forces. His style is not the coldly analytica onel, in fact he is truly submerged inside a world of blaring propagandistic and plainly subliminal mind-tricks. He reinterprets basic raw footage (from Prelinger archive for example) and how close current Fox news channel can be to a MacCarthy era movie. And, hey, notice that most of the bulk educational, commercial, scientific materials look suspiciously propagandistic in retrospective. He is also clearly a tributary to a certain history of ideas – looking closely at institutional, personal and political contingencies as well as their unexpected and unintended and sometimes disastrous outcomes. Pandora’s Box is his 1992 BBC series about important 20th century cautionary tales.

The first in a row is roughly about the scientist roots of both Revolutionary Russia and its development into a fully strangely technocratic and always planned economy in need of even more planing. He manages to attack similar industrial models – a strage fusion of heavy industrialism reaching from the Ford era. Even if it sounds like heresy, for some 20′s era Soviet Taylorists Ford was next to Lenin in importance. The new Communist economy was modelling itself on the US one – like the huge Magnitogorsk industrial city built by dedicated American and German engineers during the Stalinist era. The jewel piece of Stalin’s five year was based on Gary, Indiana. In fact there is a book written by John Scott Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel – that tells the incredible story of that period of hyperindustrialization, accidents but also parallel lives of foreign engineers and local workers near the Ural mountains before the purges of 1937. You can also see Soviet Russia as an incredible experimental state – using artists and engineers to steer everybody into some futurist nightmare and deeply industrialized world. And “steering” is the word, because just after the October Revolution, Lenin is confronted by the nearly complete destruction of Russia’s economy and starts the so-called NEP plan. In parallel, as a shock therapy method to optimize and re-skill the working class he is introducing Taylorism – the latest scientific management theories from the capitalist West. Aleksei Gastev was a key figure to this introduction, he was both employed in the avant garde and the introduction of new methods of optimizing work at the Central Institute of Labor (C.I.T.) and NOT(scientific instute of labor). He was interested in social engineering, in the biomechanics of labor and ergonometric testings and believed in the extreme biological conditioning and “mechanization” of human movement.  He was also part of a sort of “time police”, a unit that would register on punched cards exactly all the time-planning necessary for different institutions. Gastev was killed by Stalin during the purges, but his legacy and ghostly optimization credo lived on. Adam Curtis also reserves a pretty stunning and dramatic encounter with Gastev’s son living in a small garden. The situation of engineers in the Soviet Union shows the transformation of a technocratic class, that had certain privileges in the whole East(Romania included), precious intermediates and specialists whose expertise made them both – inherently dangerous and necessary – to the status quo and party line. First it was electricity – and electrical energy had an almost magical ring to revolutionary ears, it meant instant and guaranteed enlightenment.

Computers start to arrive into the game in the 60s (please don’t forget our own Romanian brand of cold war Centre de Calcul – they first places where many of us learned about the first computers), seemingly ready to offer a new cybernetic number-crunching power to the hyper-bureaucratic and trifling(planing the shape of toothbrushes!) dilemmas for an entire continental state. This documentary is well documented but offers just a starting place for more in-depth research about technocratic elites in the Communist world and their self-made traps, Cold War era cybernetic convergence across the iron curtain, big industrial failures both East and West, and the link between current management schools and 20th century histories of social engineering programs as well as forgotten legacies such as the Soviet Taylorism.

Here a free book about Taylorism, Peasants and Lenin written by one of Althusser’s students.

Here more on the Aleksei Gastev and lots of incredible photo’s documenting his experiments.

Download Алексей Гастев – Как надо работать (1923) [Aleksei Gastev – How to Work]

If you can’t wait for the other parts here is all of them: PANDORA’S BOX: A fable from the age of science

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