An Avoidable Contradiction

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Robby Herbst reviews Machines In Flames, an investigative film about a group of saboteurs in Toulouse, France during the early 1980s.

When the machine came to eat life, did people say no? Machines In Flames is a fifty minute documentary essay film by Thomas Dekeyser and Andrew Culp. It investigates a moment when a small French cell acted to resist the cybernetic subversion of the everyday lives and opportunities of working people. In recounting this history Dekesyer and Culp raise questions regarding the nature of the massive data-archive that’s come to surround us, liberating us, policing us, or both. 

Machines In Flames is an investigation by the filmmakers into CLODO, a French group of saboteurs who operated in Toulouse, France in the early 1980s. They declared: 

We are workers in the field of dp (data processing) and telematics. The computer is the favorite tool of the dominant. It is used to exploit, to put on file, to control, and to repress.

The spinning of icons indicating loading screens, the opening of digital folders, the clicking of computer window tabs, and frozen display screens are all visual elements in Deksyer and Culp’s film. With these formal choices the idea of the computer as a ubiquitous and creative tool used in daily labor becomes an additional subject of the film. It’s  most likely that the narrator is itself a digitally created voice parading as human, if not it’s a voice actor doing a convincing job as a vaguely intimate robot. Through this form the film-makers self-consciously implicate themselves within the same system of experiencing the world that CLODO was trying to avoid: abstracting life into an orderly system of predictable, programmable, and controllable data systems for an “end user.”.

The implementation of distributed computing produced the current surveillance state.”

The film tells us that the acronym CLODO can be understood in English as “the committee for the liquidation and subversion of computers,” and that “clodo” is French slang for a “homeless bum.” The filmmakers differentiate CLODO from historic luddites, or the militant anti-imperialist group Direct Action; a more politically-oriented contemporary of theirs. The untraceability of CLODO’s members today, despite the ubiquity of searchable online archives, drives Dekeyser and Culp’s film. They argue Clodo’s agenda was about destroying the emerging surveillance state. We are told that CLODO’s first act was to sabotage magnetic tape and computers at Toulouse’s outpost of Honeywell and then at Philips Data Systems. They issued statements sighting these organizations involvement in the expansion of the police state; “We are essentially attacking what these tools lead to: files, surveillance by means of badges and cards, instrument of profit maximization for the bosses and of accelerated pauperization for those who are rejected.” In 1983, the Toulouse’s outpost for the American computer company Sperry Univac was firebombed due to its involvement with the American war in Grenada. The filmmakers tell us that CLODO believed computers were “collapsing the border between the state, capital, and the military.”

At an April 2023 screening of the film at 2220 Arts in Los Angeles Andrew Culp discussed the disappearance of CLODO; how they were busy for a short burst of years and then just vanished. Culp speculated that a cause for this is attributable to advancement in file-sharing technology which shortly made CLODO’s tactics no longer effective. With the rise of the internet the destruction of hardware (computers and magnetic tape) became pointless. While the labor of the Toulouse-based tech firms was still housed in a site, CLODO’s attacks were relevant, but when files became ephemeral, distributed on networks, a flame in an office had little negligible impact.

The effect of flames and destruction by fire, the burning of the archive, is a feature and title of the film. Machine In Flames begins with a history lesson addressing the immolation of acetate film that destroyed the Fox Film Studio’s archive in 1937. Premised as a search for a purposefully illusive organization aiming to destroy surveillance, Machine In Flames reflects on the dueling permanence and impermanence of archives and archival media. It draws on philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, and speculates that societies built on the stability of archival control are ultimately fragile. In this section the soft-voiced narrator inquires as to what it would be like to have a non-archivable attack on an archive, an attack which does not reproduce the logic of the archive itself? How this would work is not made clear.

Like many films based on obscure histories, Machine In Flames pleases the viewer by letting us into the secrets of forgotten pasts. By tone and implication it flirts with predicting inevitable social collapse which may appear to some as nihilist-anarchist intellectualized pap. Yet the story of CLODO narrated by the film is significant. It reminds us that the ubiquity of the computer’s place in our culture was contested, and that its domination is only as stable as the media it is built upon. Socially Toulouse in the 1980s had strong echoes of Stanford, CA a decade or so earlier.  Stanford University in the 1970s, as Toulouse was in the 1980s, was a site for research and radicalism, technological development and contestation. Stanford saw powerful actions against the “military industrial complex” by anti-Vietnam War militants attempting to quash the relationship between science, industry, and the state. This movement came to be known as the April Third Movement (A3M). It aimed to “get Stanford University out of South East Asia.”

“The logic of resisting the literal machine by using the machine itself, as described in Machine In Flames, only produces systems failure.”

The April Third Movement drew its name from a student meeting in 1969, which led to a nine-day, nonviolent, student occupation of Stanford’s Applied Electronics Lab (AEL), and a Stanford administration building. A3M’s targets included the AEL (which was affiliated with Stanford’s electrical engineering department), Stanford’s ROTC program, and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The AEL was expressly involved in US Navy funded microwave technology research. The Stanford Research Institute housed multiple labs involving multiple funding streams. SRI was involved in such things as robotics, advanced weapons systems, and many of the collaborative,  and interactive work tools common in computers and other electronic devices today. For example, Douglas Engelbart’s military-supported Augmentation Research Center at SRI invented the mouse, the graphical interface, and groupware, and was also pivotal for the development of the internet.

A3M sought to sever the ties of the university to SRI and the Advanced Electronics Lab, and kick ROTC off campus. Through its actions, A3M helped sever Stanford’s ROTC affiliation and the university pledged to end its relationship to military research. However, it didn’t end the SRI, nor did it end SRI’s corporate military research. By the following year The university spun it off as a wholly private entity, functioning without campus affiliation. Additionally, in 1970, a year after the university had pledged to stop participating in military research, it was revealed a campus computer system was used by the Pentagon for a war related computer simulation. Student response was militant. A building that housed the computer system was seized and vandalized. The attack didn’t go deep though; faced with the chance to trash a literal war machine, radicals demurred from touching the actual computer, calling it “politically neutral”, hence a non-combatant..

The narrator of Machines In Flames challenges this claim to neutrality, stating that “CLODO was not a group dedicated to people’s liberation, they were machine breakers whose sight never strayed from computers. They did not see computers as simple tools whose effects could be determined by whose hands they were in.” The film’s position thus differs markedly from the American and perhaps liberal countercultural mainstream. This ideology, at times even with an anti-imperialist or anti-fascist perspective, aided the development of personal computing, as human augmentation,  in and beyond Stanford by individuals who sought to democratize and commodify computing and systems thinking. The belief that computers are everyday labor-saving devices and creative tools, rather than data collectors and trackers has been the primary ideological driver behind the illusion that there is a meaningful  separation between human experience and control. It has also been the ideological engine fueling a lot of avant-garde artistic activity working with both systems-thinking and the medium of networked electronic devices; ranging in political ambitions from the heavily-loaded Sixties neo-avantegarde to more contemporary anarchistic practices of tactical media.

Machines in Flames points to CLODO’s resistance to this hegemonic ideology, but it, like a long line of phenomenologically-based systems theory before it, does so forgetting one crucial point: the seemingly irresolvable nature of this binary conflict. The logic of resisting the literal machine by using the machine itself, as described in Machine In Flames, only produces systems failure. The fantasy of living outside of systematicity by the filmmakers only makes matters worse. What is overlooked in such analysis is that it pairs far too-comfortably the destructive action with Freud and Derrida’s death drive. By confusing destruction with death, it echoes capitalism’s bio-political logic ignoring the generativity of destruction. As such, the burning of draft cards by the Catonsville Nine did little to put an end to the Vietnam War but did a great deal to bring out the Catholic left and amplify more mainstream resistance to the conflict; the use of wooden clogs by the proletariat to destroy machines helped produce the concept of sabotage itself if it didn’t erase industry. The implementation of distributed computing produced the current surveillance state and new tools. CLODO’s activity magnified a vision of the fragility of the military industrial complex’s system of bio-political control, and influenced a film. Ultimately what Machine In Flames forgets is that when systems fail it is that police states and fascists thrive. And while this failure is generative – it’s an outcome which is best avoided. The solution to the technological contradiction embedded in the documentary can only be found in sidestepping it altogether by organizing people and forms (as filmmakers and artists do, one way or another) to build power and transform the relationships we’re living with today, human and mechanical.