Monday, March 26, 2007
Adam Curtis's documentary 'The Trap' is over now, but you will undoubtedly soon find all three installments on Video Google or Youtube or some such. This post isn't a review, but I can't suppress a few criticisms. In the last episode, he has returned to the themes of The Power of Nightmares, and recapitulated the weaknesses thereof and added some howling errors to boot.
In particular, he gives the neocons far too much importance, and takes them at their word as 'democratic revolutionaries' opposed to US government support for militaristic, torturing regimes. There is no mention of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a revered neocon who explicitly argued in favour of supporting such regimes. Huntington is featured rather bizarrely as a sort of neoconservative despite his avowed anti-universalism and with no mention of his support for tyranny in South Africa and Palestine. Michael Ledeen is taken far too seriously, full stop - never mind his alleged connections to the Italian far right, it is simply doubtful that anyone in Washington considers this moron a font of policy wisdom. In pursuing the limits of this capitalist notion of freedom, (although Curtis doesn't frame it in such terms), he accepts that governments are serious in pursuing it. This leads him to the absurdity of claiming that neoconservatives thought it was wrong and immoral to support torturing, murdering regimes, while discussing American policy in Latin America but looking no further afield than Nicaragua! If he had looked at El Salvador for a second, he might have had to reconsider the whole thesis. He credits the Reagan administration with dropping America's former allies, Marcos and Pinochet, forcing both to stage elections which led to their downfall. Now this is fantasy, and damned arrogant too, to remove the opposition in both countries from the scene. For the record, Pinochet lost a plebiscitary referendum in 1988 which had been scheduled since 1980. The reason he wasn't able to fix the result the second time was because of mass strikes and opposition that had developed since then. In fact, if there was ever a willing pioneer of the Reaganite notion of 'freedom', then Pinochet was it. Reagan dropped Marcos after having supported him for four years during periods of martial law and extreme repression, in the same way that Carter had dropped Somosa before he fell (was Carter too a 'neoconservative'?).
Curtis paints a fairly heroic portrait of Blair as a man with fine ideals trapped by his own limited vision, and submits that the distrust of him was a result of Thatcherite anti-statism, a bizarre and wretched claim if you think about it for a second. (These cynics had never distrusted Blair over Kosovo, much less marched in great numbers against him). He never once challenges anything fundamental about Western foreign policy claims, accepting for instance the rhetoric about preventing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at face value - bizarrely, he even manages to say that Blair persuade Clinton to bomb Yugoslavia in 1998. Either he knows something that we don't, or he got the date of one of his main plot points wrong by a year. He is good at pointing out how badly the 'freedom' in Russia went, and how much worse it went in Iraq, but seems to accept those promulgating these 'freedoms' were acting as sincere ideologues rather than hegemonists. The destruction of Russia and then of Iraqi civil society and infrastructure - an excellent and choice connection, actually - is seen as a kind of unintended consequence of myopic thinking. Also annoying is that Curtis repeatedly uses the words 'rational' and 'scientific' as if these were the appropriate phrases for the model of human behaviour constructed by game theory or such as is elaborated by Berlin or Hayek. And to claim without qualification that there is any sensible connection to be traced between Fanon's ideas in the Algerian revolution and the policies of Pol Pot is to cast an appalling slur on the anticolonial movement. Curtis is excellent in tracing intriguing, important and subterranean histories, but ultimately pedestrian in politics, and apparently rather lazy to boot (although perhaps the last episode was knocked up in haste).
And yet, and yet. A pregnant, wistful pause. The defense of a form of 'positive liberty', the defense of a freedom far more meaningful and broader than the one we are imprisoned in, which has something to do with deep equality and genuine political empowerment, the insistence against all cynicism that it doesn't have to lead to tyranny - this deserves sustained applause. For what Curtis has shown throughout is that the ideologies that sustain capitalism, that in fact train us to accept it as a natural and universal development to which we all tend, have as their basic premise that human beings are unfit for anything better. We are inadequate to the task of creating a world beyond selfish, narcissistic, consumerist narrowness, in which we are all mutually exploitative and indifferent, in which some thrive in the struggle better than others. Because human beings are self-interested, 'rational' creatures, constantly devising strategies, sizing one another up, figuring off ways to rip off the mark and track down the latest born sucker. Because this is the assumption, utopias that capitalism permit us are frequently technophilic masturbation fantasies, based principally on the transformation of the self. From eugenics to racial purity, from national service to the furnace of war, from EST to shopping therapy, from evolutionary psychology to neuro-modification - human beings must be forced to adapt. This was, in so many words, the thesis in Curtis's excellent 'Century of the Self'.
Ultimate self-improvement, new hope for brain repair, the quest for a smart pill, genes for the psyche, brain stimulators - not my words, those of headlines picked by the neuroscientist Steven Rose to illustrate the ubiquity of this fetish for tinkering with the brain as the source of all inadequacies. He hasn't suddenly come to this topic in 'The 21st Century Brain' - for much of his professional life, he has had to fight a bitter war against all forms of biological reductionism, from 'social Darwinism, to the genetic determinists, to the medicalisation of social ills, and latterly the attempt to prescribe a vision of "human nature" rooted in adaptive strategies that consolidated in the Pleistocene era some 100,000 years ago.
Such is the claim of the evolutionary psychologists: human behaviour includes an array of constants so fundamental and so 'ordinary' that we don't even notice it. These are shaped and determined by an evolutionary process that halted a hundred millenia ago. Every form of behaviour from self-aggrandisement to war to rape to social domination is firmly rooted in unmodified mental modules. One can easily see the appeal of such thinking: they offer certainties upon which to base policy choices, powerful explanatory forces for human behaviour, and also rather uncomplicated ones. They would appear to offer a Hempelian covering law in inductive-statistical arguments: if the covering law is that under circumstance C, agent A has a very high probability of acting in x fashion, then the incidence of circumstance C involving agent A can either be encouraged or discouraged. They also offer comprehensive and titillating explanations for diverse and minute phenomena. So, for example, Stephen Pinker writes of these modules not as a literal entities (they couldn't be, any more than the texts of Hermes Trismegistus described literal entities) but as nevertheless structurally isomorphic to brain capacities that determine such matters as the allegedly universal human propensity to prefer pictures containing green landscapes and water, developed during humanity's infancy in the African Savannah. Pinker has never taken polls among Brazilians or Chinese people on this matter, and even if he could and did, and they did indeed admit a preference for green landscapes and water, there would be some doubt as to what he had found - if he had located a universal human preference, or a temporally bound cultural development. But that is by way of a light-hearted example of the circularity inherent in evolutionary psychology.
More serious by far is the claim that men rape women as a result of adaptive strategies designed by sexually unsuccessful men to copulate and produce children. This is what a couple of evolutionary psychologists named Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer claimed in a book published by MIT some years ago. They raise some intriguing reasons for initiating their search into the possible evolutionary basis for this form of forced sex. In the first instance, lots of animals engage in forced sex for reasons of reproduction - and the specific instance of the scorpionfly is given - so there are reasons for thinking that humans might. Secondly, "Most rape victims are women of childbearing age", indicating an attempt by the rapist to find fertile women. Thirdly, "In many cultures rape is treated as a crime against the victim's husband", indicating the fear that their life partner has been impregnated by an undesirable, thus removing opportunities for them. Then, "Married women and women of childbearing age experience more psychological distress after a rape than do girls, single women or women who are past menopause", indicating a fear of being impregnated by an undesirable mate. Furthermore, "Rape victims suffer less emotional distress when they are subjected to more violence", supposedly a result of the adapted need to keep a permanent male partner by reducing suspicion of adultery. Finally, rape is said not to be an act of violence but an act of sex, and one that women can encourage by dressing up in fancy clothes. They insist that the claim that rape is about power or violence is disproved by figures (obtained by interviews of rape victims conducted by one of the authors) indicating that only fifteen percent of those interviewed claimed to have been beaten more than was necessary to accomplish the rape: thus, rapists "seldom engage in gratuitous violence". There follow plenty of grand claims about what "people everywhere understand", backed up by "could be" this and "may be" that, and such and such "could explain". But the political claim is that women put themselves in situations where rape is a likelihood by dressing revealingly, drinking lots of alcohol and going on unsupervised dating. They did not get round to adding that this explains the curious propensity for art beautifying rape scenarios among early modern painters.
Well, let's assume that Thornhill and Palmer haven't distorted any of the data they appeal to for this case. The first thing to note, as Steven and Hilary Rose point out in 'Alas, Poor Darwin', is that forced sex among scorpionflies involves such drastically different dynamics and circumstances to human rape that comparison for the purposes of asserting continuity is ridiculous. Secondly, as Rose & Rose also point out, to claim that "most" rape victims are of child-bearing age is not as automatically auspicious as the authors of the study seem to think: much seems to depend on detection and definition, and since we now know that many victims of rape are elderly women and children, and many are of the wrong sex for procreation with the rapist, we have to ask at what point the evolutionary process, er, 'failed'. These are plainly instance of sexual violence in which there can be no reasonable hope of advancing the cause of the sacred gene. Thirdly, figures based on limited sets of data derived from answers given to surveys are not necessarily useless but neither do they automatically conduce to the thesis being expounded. How meaningful is it to ask someone about the 'intensity' of the psychological pain they experience or the precise 'level' of the beating? Having got one's answers, how reasonable is it to insist that this reflects transhistorical human realities? Can one be sure that such surveys taken, say, no more than fifty years ago, would have produced similar results? Isn't there a possibility that answers to surveys reflect cultural changes in the interpretation and social meaning of violence such that a person could articulate the same horrific experience rather differently? Steven Rose argues that the evolutionary psychologists specialise in attributing a huge array of contemporary behaviours to 'distal' causes when proximal ones much more readily and clearly explain the phenomena in question. There is, moreover, a huge difference between recognising that evolutionary development creates the conditions of possibility for a range of human behaviour and insisting that it 'causes' them. And how useful is it in this context to point to what goes on in "some cultures"? If we are speaking of universal human propensities conditioned by an evolutionary process that not a single human being is excepted from, then what happens only in "some cultures" is by definition excluded from the matrix of evolutionary psychology.
It is not difficult to detect a misogynistic and socially conservative ideology masquerading as scientific inquiry here, and so it goes for the racist Bell Curve thesis and the whole array of dubious claims based on meaningless metrics such as IQ, or the claims for a gay gene or a Tory gene or a plumber gene. Within this essentialising episteme, the circular assumption that their forms of knowledge are relevant and salient inevitably becomes the circular conclusion that their forms of knowledge are relevant and salient. One can assume that there is a coherent biological entity that corresponds to the notion of 'race' against the best evidence, and one will find that, lo and behold, such and such phenomena co-constitute the qualities of one 'race' or another. One can assume, with no evidence at all, that "human nature" is a term with a real referent and one will necessarily find the proofs (and say of countervailing evidence that everything is of course very complex, and there probably extraneous factors inhibiting the usual evolutionarily determined course). One can always say, "our model predicts reality except when it doesn't". Every model of society does that: antisemitic conspiracy theories predict reality except when they don't, and the same goes for astrology, Kerlian photography, the Observer's comment page, fortune cookies.
Yet, as Curtis implies, capitalism requires us to accept such outrageous and irrational models of human beings. Any sense that we are capable of utopian promise without being chemically or genetically enhanced by the pharmaceutical industry and the military-industrial complex, any sense that humanity is adequate for collective, democratic enterprise with affordable energy, clean water, healthy food and peace is an outrageous heresy that must be extirpated.