GUINEA PIGS UP THE CREEK

Friday 19 March 2010, 18:51

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Here is a lovely fragment of archive I found. It is in the middle of a very serious BBC documentary called "Flightpaths to the Gods" made in 1997 all about the Nazca Lines in the high Peruvian desert. The film tries to explain who or what made the mysterious geoglyphs. After dismissing Erik von Daniken's theory that they are alien runways, the film suggests that they are the product of a drug-taking shaman culture - and that they are really giant drawings that show the visions the shamen had when astral flying on psychoactive drugs over the desert landscape.

Then suddenly we cut to a Shaman using a live guinea pig in a new and unique way - as a diagnostic tool for illnesses in the human body. It is short but it is great.

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I found it when looking for footage of the Yanomamo tribe who live on the borders of Brazil and Venezuala. The Nazca film argues that the Yanomamo are the remnants of that drug taking shaman civilisation.

I am fascinated by the way the Yanomamo appear again and again in the BBC film archive. And each time they turn up they play a new role as different Western concerns and ideas about human beings and nature are projected onto them.

In the Nazca programme the Yanomamo hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of an ancient civilisation that knew more about the world and its spiritual dimensions than we do.

But the Yanomamo have played other roles.

They are very much the archetype for the Na'vi tribes in James Cameron's Avatar. An indigenous people that has been ruthlessly exploited by Western commercial interests, but who are also somehow better than us. They are an innocent people with a clearer vision than us. A vision that we have lost because we have been corrupted and driven mad by the sophisticated and amoral society we live in.

This was the version of the Yanomamo that television gave you throughout the 1980s. I just wanted to show two bits of this. The first is from Breakfast Time in 1983 - it is part of "Yanomamo The Musical" performed by some British schoolchildren. The lyrics talk about the Yanomamo worshipping trees and animals (very Avatar).

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And this is from a Def II episode in 1989. Six years had gone by and another musical had been written. But this time it is performed by ageing rock stars. It films them in a recording studio and it is the high point of the alliance between rock music and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

I particularly like Iggy Pop's revelation that it was the trees of his home state of Michigan that helped him through an emotional crisis.

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But prior to this there had been at least three other - very different - versions of the Yanomamo presented by the BBC.

Throughout the 1970s western TV producers paddled up the river with their cameras. And each time the Yanomamo were reinvented to fit with the changing and contradictory demands of those making the films.

The first is from in 1969 (but shot in 1968). It is a film called RIVER OF DEATH - a documentary about an odd collection of Britons, including a reporter called Arthur from the People newspaper, who want to find out about this strange people called the Yanomamo (the commentary also refers to them by another name - the Guaica). They start off in a hovercraft, but switch to small boats and arrive first at a Yanomamo village run by the New Tribe Mission - a group of American evangelicals who had been working with the Yanomamo since the 1950s.

Here is a bit from that part of the film. The crew interview a missionary family. Standing around them you see the Yanomamo trying to please the western missionaries, all dressed up in western clothes

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But this is 1968 and the West's expectations and dreams are changing. The journalists want the Yanomamo to be something else.

The documentary makers have heard that upriver there are groups of Yanomamo who have an extraordinary drug. And they want to get hold of it.

It is an odd film. There are two voices narrating it. One is the producer who sees the Yanomamo as noble savages who have been corrupted by the missionaries. The other is Arthur from The People who projects onto the Yanomamo a much older vision - they are primitive savages who know nothing about the world, have never met a white man before and ask him (so he claims) whether he's killed and scalped his wife.

In reality, as some anthropologists have since pointed out, the Yanomamo had been regularly meeting westerners for over a century.

Here is the bit of the film of the explorers finally arriving at the "lost" village only to find that all the Yanomamo men have disappeared (They are "out hunting"). The westerners find the drug - but there is noone around who will take it. There is a wonderful bit of one of the western missionaries demonstrating its effect. But that is all - the Yanomamo men fail to deliver. They remain hidden in the trees. The Yanomamo are a mystery.

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But four years later the Yanomamo had got their act together.

This time they give western television exactly what they want. The Yanomamo act out the counterculture hippie dream

The BBC put out a film called SONS OF THE BLOOD. It is narrated by David Attenborough, and in it the Yanomamo men do practically nothing all day except take vast amounts of psychoactive drugs. While the women do the cooking.

The commentary makes it clear that the Yanomamo are a violent people, that they fight wars. But once inside the confines of their own commune - sorry, village - they create a new kind of society based on "trust and loving". The Yanomaomo fight wars because they are proud, but they are also a gentle people.

The film portrays Yanomamo daily life in the village as an idyllic dream world. They have no experts, they do practically no work, they just lie around in the hammocks smiling. The drugs, the films says, are central to their culture and they allow the Yanomamo to experience other realities that are denied to us, fallen westerners.

Here is a bit from the film.

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But also in the early 70s the BBC made another film called THE FIERCE PEOPLE in which the Yanomamo played a completely different role. They were shrewd, cunning and above all highly political.

It was at that moment in the Cold War when America and the Soviet Union were beginning the process of Detente. As a result the international tension was easing - but the west was riven by the question of whether one could trust the Soviets.

The film follows a group of scientsists from the US Atomic Energy Commission who have come to study the Yanomamo. A central part of their study is to examine the politics of Yanomamo society and see what it can tell us about our own political behaviour.

The film does this by examining how "primitive" peoples negotiate and form alliances. Here is a bit from the film where the Yanomamo from one village give a feast in order to make an alliance with another village.

It is a different version of the Yanomamo, but yet again underlying the film is the belief that the Yanomamo are a simplified reflection of us and our dreams and aspirations. Simplified because you can see them in their natural clarity.

And yet again the Yanmomamo act out their roles perfectly.

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But things changed quickly in the west. And only three years later a new version of the Yanomamo was required by TV.

This time they are no longer political, instead they are programmed robots. And they are used to prove scientifically a new truth about us. That we "civilised" people are also robots driven by immortal codes deep inside our bodies.

The Selfish Gene had just been published, and science programmes had got very excited by the rise of Sociobiology. Horizon made a film called THE HUMAN ANIMAL - and in it the Yanomamo played a central role.

Village life is no longer and idyllic dream. Instead it is full of individuals attacking and defending one another in a continuous churning state of tension. The programme focusses on the work of an American anthropologist, Napoloen Chagnon - and an experiment he conducted about a particular fight in a village.

Chagnon said that the behaviour of each individual Yanomamo in the fight was really controlled by their genes. Who they chose to attack and who they chose to defend was mathematically determined by how closely or distantly related the individuals were.

Here is a bit from a series I made called The Trap - where I use extracts from The Human Animal - about Chagnon's experiment.

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In all these examples we in the West - both scientists and TV producers - are projecting our ideas and our dreams and our fears onto the Yanomamo. But the Yanomamo are not just passive in this. Each time they seem to work out what the westerners want and then give it back to them perfectly. Or, as in the case of Chagnon they play with him and trick him in funny ways.

Which makes you wonder. Maybe they are just as sophisticated as us in the west? Or maybe even more so?

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    Comment number 1.

    Great blog Adam. I look forward to these the way I did to the weekly World Cup '90 binder collection that was out when I was 10. I can assure that means I get quite excited.

    Are there any presentations of this, or anything you've read that you feel reflects these people and their lives in a less subjective way? Any books or films you could recommend?

    I found an interview where you were talking about how you were thinking of working Ayn Rand into TPON. She's someone who fascinates me, and I wonder what lead her to form Objectivism? I don't know a great deal about her life in detail but it seems there's a BDSM element in some of her stories, and that there's something about the fetishising of power in her broader philosophy. Rationality as responce to shame and desire? I could well be barking up the wrong tree, or simply being facetious without knowing it. I must admit I hate some of her ideas. Not sure. Anyway, any chance of dedicating a blog to her story with some of what you omitted from TPON? Would love to see it.

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    Comment number 2.

    Fascinating stuff. Like Alex above, I'm something of a Curtis football fan :P. It really nails something that has been bothering me for a while regarding our western attitudes towards indigenous people and nature in general. I was quite shocked by how patronising (and in the case of Arthur, racist) some of these early programmes were.

    To break off on a total tangent, have you heard of the recent controversy regarding a French show that sought to reproduce the Milgram experiment? Here's a link giving a brief overview of what I'm talking about:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-heffernan-/recreating-milgram-the-fr_b_503761.html

    I've had an ongoing dicussion with people on online forums over this, and it seems to me that this is great example of an area that you covered in great detail before: the use of science to justify and even form certain views of human nature. Time and again some anonymous online avatar will blather on about how this reveals the "true" face of humanity, expressing a deep pessimism about our capabilities as human beings. Having had a brief look at the subject, I've come to believe that this is something of an exaggeration: replications of the experiment show that the subject's reactions are often dependent on the context they are in. Subject who are closer to the target of the torture are less likely to see it through; when the subjects are distanced from the source of the authority odering the torture they are less likely to carry out orders, and when they are with someone who refuses to see it through they are more likely to stop as well, and so on. To me, that emphasizes the need for strong social networks and the value of empathy as an ideal, as well as the need to decrease the influence strong sources can have on an individual's decisions.

    Or maybe the experiment was wrong in the first place? Either way, it strikes me as a fascinating bit of social history, having as it did emerged from the Cold War period. In some ways it reflects that strange mix of paranoia and pessimism that was the signature of that age, and which is still a part of us to this day. And now it has come back to haunt us in the form of reality TV.

    I'm not asking you, like others have, to "research" this or do a piece about it; it's just a fascinating tidbit of current affairs which I thought would be interesting to note down in your blog. :)

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    Comment number 3.

    And in 2010 another vision of the Yanomamo came along. A blogger and broadcaster, Adam Curtis, sought to derive meaning from all the previous attempts at classifying and projecting 'Western' ideas and ideals onto this 'primitive' people. By searching for connections in the archive footage he had found, Curtis aimed to extrapolate that the tribes had been knowing all along, as aware of the Westerners motives as they were themselves. In doing so, he projected, they sought to reflect to these Westerners what they wanted to see. By doing so, Curtis drew a parallel of sophistication between the two peoples, showing that while one was studying this 'other', the other was equal and as explicitly conscious of the game-play as the observers.... the moral being presumably, don't be such sanctimonious pr**ks in the west please!

    Seriously though, great blog, interesting and excellent as ever.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thank you Adam, great as always.

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    Comment number 5.

    The sequence in the Trap featuring Chagnon was certainly one of the most illustrative (not to mention most entertaining) in AC's work.

    Chagnon's facade of scientific objectivity crumbled immediately it was challenged ("How do you know your father's your father", I nearly choked laughing at this playground challenge from a grown man) and I almost felt sorry for the guy as he completely lost the ability to articulate an argument and storms off camera.

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    Comment number 6.

    The bit with the "pop stars" singing about the spirit of the forest has to be one of the most disturbingly nauseating bits of footage I ve seen for a long time. My soul was cringing for them. Looks like someone trying to do a Geldof for the rainforests but didn t look like they had managed to rope in any big "stars", (unless you count Fish out of Marillion). Typical of the idea Mr Curtis has covered before, when celebrities thought they could solve the problems of the world by holding a concert and releasing a single. No doubt many were sincere in their wish to help, but how much drugs do you have to take before you think you singing a song is actually going to make much of a difference to complex economic global issues, especially a song a shit as that. Ha.

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    Comment number 7.

    Another AC fan here but unless I'm missing something the explanation might be rather simple and obvious, but not down to some amazing form of sophistication that we are not aware of, as Adam suggest.

    The reaction of the Yanomamo as far more primitive social creatures could be just similar to the way very young children often reflect upon their parents' emotional state. Especially babies have the inner ability to detect when their parent feel tense and insecure, as the their lives depends on their guardian's ability to look after them. When the parent feels tired and tense, they start crying without any obvious reason.

    Animals also have this sense, for example a dog can detect when a person fears them and they usually attack exactly those people from a larger group.

    It is in fact our sophistication that distances us from this instinct to detect other people's inner feelings. The Yanomamo never lost it.

    Just a thought.

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    Comment number 8.

    The noble savage, anyone? Children closer to nature, and all that? Did someone mention Rousseau, somewhere? Funny how that hypocritical old fraud still poisons contemporary thought 250 years on.

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    Comment number 9.

    Saw this and thought some people might be interested.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNC3Ur2Uc6A

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    Comment number 10.

    Is AC not guilty of exactly the same fallacy as all the other broadcasters? No disrespect to man...

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    Comment number 11.

    @plamskI: As Morpork has pointed out, you're talking nonsense and committing the same mistake as those who believe the noble savage myth. And there is no evidence to suggest that the Yamomamo are "far more primitive social creatures" than us. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    @Alby: What fallacy? I think he's just suggesting (note the use of "maybe" and question marks in his reponse) that these people are just as intelligent as us, and so are capable of cunning ploy. Maybe even more so, but that's probably down to their unique circumstances. They are faced with a power much greater than their own, so they may have recognized that the best strategy in this situation is to roll over and play dead whenever the situation dictates it. Like those small fish that attach themselves to sharks, they've learned to adapt themselves and form a mututally beneficial relationship with the foreigners. The fact that they've had over a hundred years of contact with the West may have informed their responses. Personally, this reminds of that other bit in "The Trap" where people in social services play the system in ingenous ways in order to meet the targets the government has set them.

    I'm just fascinated by what AC may have to say in his second part on Russia, which he promised will be coming soon, in light of the tragic Moscow bombings which have struck this morning. Has anybody read any good bits of journalism regarding the separatist Chechen war? It's interesting to note that the first attacks happened more or less right after the Soviet Union split up.

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    Comment number 12.

    11. At 1:29pm on 29 Mar 2010, Juan Neira wrote:

    @plamskI: As Morpork has pointed out, you're talking nonsense and committing the same mistake as those who believe the noble savage myth. And there is no evidence to suggest that the Yamomamo are "far more primitive social creatures" than us. Quite the opposite, in fact.
    ----------------

    And what is YOUR evidence suggesting the opposite? You only just said it. And you can't look through their eye, so you can only assume, whereas from our eye they look more primitive, as their lives are simpler.

    And if you just don't believe in something i.e. primitivism, what gives you the right to label it nonsense? Men living closer to nature are not all good but definitely less wicked as the nature of game is more straight.

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    Comment number 13.

    8. At 9:19pm on 28 Mar 2010, Morpork wrote:

    The noble savage, anyone? Children closer to nature, and all that? Did someone mention Rousseau, somewhere? Funny how that hypocritical old fraud still poisons contemporary thought 250 years on
    -----------------

    To be honest I wasn't even aware of the idea of "noble savage". I merely expressed my OWN thoughts, born then and there. Ha!

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    Comment number 14.

    @Planski: I don't know what sort of fantasy world you're living in, but I thought the "evidence" for my argument would be obvious: it's in the blog itself. You can see how the Yamomamo have constantly adjusted themselves to the expectations of westerners, which belies a certain sophistication in their social interactions. In one video you can see them wearing western clothes and watching the incoming foreigners with a polite expression. In another one a whole documentary is dedicated to how their political machinations work. And in the last piece of footage you can see them play games with a western researcher, feeding him false information for the fun of it.


    In other news, have other people heard of this?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8598843.stm

    Doesn't exactly bode well for Afghanistan.

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    Comment number 15.

    Very interesting connections between the different takes on the Yanonami. One other good source of information (and maybe one new take on them) is the work of Villas Boas brothers, from Brazil, anthropologists focused on Brazil´s interior. They did several works with Amazon tribes, the most prominent being Kuarup (about funeral rites). Worth the search (i think google video has something)

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    Comment number 16.

    Hello Adam,

    You make an interesting point about the Yanonami. I've spent much of my academic life studying anthropology and found that the projection of western knowledge structures upon different groups are often done so for a myriad of reasons. Either by opportunistic academics who need to fulfill social passage rights for their advancement in their society or the use of the 'other' as mirror of reassurance to firm up uncertainties of human behaviour in our own society.

    This last one is well covered in your work in "The Trap" were we have been inundated into believing that we cannot trust ourselves or the people around us.

    There is a French Anthropologist who has been interacting with Yanonami for years named Bruce Albert. You may know of him already but if not check out his.

    Keep up the good work.

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    Comment number 17.

    Hi Adam,
    Hope you read this, its not related but I read about this book today & immediately thought of The Trap. Its about how the RAND Corporation advised New York to remove fire protection from its poorest areas, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 people. If you hadn't already heard of it, thought you'd be interested. Here's the full title:

    The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-And Determined the Future of Cities
    by Joe Flood

    Keep up the truly great work.

    Thanks!

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    Comment number 18.

    Presumably the BBC have the Yammermen under long-term contract, preventing them working for any other channnel.... :-)))
    I recall that in about 1969 we had a *special assembly* at school and were shown a documentary film about the Aztecs and Inca etc.. Then, the film segued to footage of dusty and dirty South American peasants, not having the best of times. The missionary message was that not believing in God and taking drugs will lead to this same sort of collapse of civilisation in the west. It's beginning to look like it was only my school they ever visited...... :-)))

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    Comment number 19.

    Anyone who found this blog post informative should take a look at this:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/may/07/amazonas-opera-world-premiere

    ...and the Yanomami do it again! Truly they are smarter and more sophisticated than us. :D

 

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