Adam Curtis is a neoconservative documentary film-maker funded exhaustively by the BBC. "HyperNormalisation" (view here) is his latest product, a sprawling collage of thoughts about contemporary political power. It displays his usual hallmarks: a totalising and reductive view of complexity, a disparaging view of artists, a dismissal of women that is essentially sexist, and an ignorance of philosophical thought, stemming from an inherent anti-intellectualism and self-aggrandizement.
His works are heralded without much criticism. This article will act as partial corrective.
Curtis states his thesis at the outset. "HyperNormalisation" begins with the classic lament that we live in troubled times. How will we make sense of this confusion? Curtis will be our guide.
"This film will tell the story of how we got to this strange place. It is about how, over the past forty years, politicians, financiers, and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world, in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it" [0:56-1:26].
This is an intriguing premise, but already we have the over-statement and simplification that are Curtis' stock in trade. Throughout the film he repeats absolutes like "all" and "every", without support or justification. For example, in the Soviet Union in the 1980s "no-one believed in anything, or had any vision of the future" [21:00]. This is an essentially stupid statement that cannot possibly be true. It betrays Curtis as unwilling to allow his viewer the freedom to consider any reading of a situation, outside his own narrow view.
This attitude is in place from the outset of the film. "No-one has any vision of a different or a better kind of future" [0:54] he states categorically. Er, "no-one"? Curtis is simply ignorant of the many thinkers from the 1970s until today, who proposed Green, anarchist, communitarian, or other alternatives to state power (a phrase I believe that Curtis never utters).
It is telling that the film quotes not a single philosopher or political theorist, leaving us in an intellectual vacuum to be filled only by Curtis and his measured inflexible tones. This is meant to reassure us. But such certitude and absolutist statements are suspect from the beginning, as they replace any deeper or broader understanding.
Politics began and ended in 1975
The narrative begins by examining how political process was subverted in two parallel cities: New York City and Damascus. He chooses 1975 as the important year in which political power was first undermined. Immediately, this comes across as an arbitrary date.
First, we must try to understand what Curtis means by "political power", since he never defines his terms. It becomes clear over the course of the essay that this phrase means party politics within a "democratic" society, but also collective action in reaction to this structure. This excludes personal and small-scale social politics; Curtis does not recognise these as politics. In fact, he explicitly condemns such attempts (as we shall see).
So, Curtis starts with a year, 1975, when political power was first replaced by something else. But surely politics has been undermined throughout human history? In fact, politics only came about as an alternative to military power and the power bestowed by God through Kings. 1975 could not have been any sort of "first", since politics is always already the excess of more potent control mechanisms. (A more radical film-maker could easily have turned HyperNormalisation in this direction.)
If it's true that 1975 was when NYC politicians gave control to the banks, the parallel case of dictator Hafez al-Assad in Syria does not match. He came to power in 1970. The fact he met with Kissinger in 1975 is put forward as the pivotal event, but this imposes an Anglocentric view. It must surely be Western politicians, even those we enjoy disliking, who have ultimate control over events in the Middle-East. Right?
This example is used to illustrate Curtis' thesis that in 1975 there was a change "between the old idea of using politics to change the world, and a new idea that you could run the world as a stable system" [12:30-12:40]. But don't all of the dominant political systems have stability as their aim? Especially totalitarian systems? After all, stability ensures the ruling elite stay in their lofty positions. So once again this sentence is hollow, containing no useful meaning.
There is nothing particularly interesting about 1975, except that Curtis chose to focus on that moment. He could have done so without the grotesquely exaggerated claims.
I have belaboured this point since it's symptomatic of Curtis' approach. He creates a fictional totalising narrative in order to "make sense" of the apparent chaos of today's society. He essentially uses the same techniques that the film pretends to critique. It's theatre with himself as the protagonist, a documentary dictator if you will.
The artist in retreat
By this point in the film, other problems are already on display. One is Curtis' disparaging view of artists, which comes across as both patronising and classist. This starts early on.
"Even those who thought they were attacking the system -- the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture -- actually became part of the trickery. Because they too had retreated into the make-believe world. Which is why their opposition has no effect, and nothing ever changes" [1:32-1:52].
This is quite an opening statement. We might expect it to be validated as some later point in the documentary. If so, we'd be disappointed.
The trickery and illusion that Curtis is concerned with in this film is largely that of the political world. Specifically, Western politicians find scapegoats in foreign leaders, and both sides adopt their roles in political theatre, masking the true power roles of these entities. (This is explored thoroughly in relation to Libya and Muammar Gaddafi.)
In what way did artists become part of this political trickery? What "make-believe world" do they inhabit? It is never explained, because it cannot be. The statement is preposterous if only because there is no one entity called "artists" who think or act in a monolithic way.
Also odd is Curtis' remark that "nothing ever changes", when his axiom is that we live in a chaotic world that we cannot control or understand. His own uncontrolled need to ridicule here leads him into contradiction.
Much evidence of this bias is available in the rather incredible sequence from 7:22-10:00. After demonstrating that even the local politicians and president of the country could do nothing to stop the bankers in NYC, Curtis then blames "the radicals and left-wingers". This alone is a telling phrase, since no-one uses such language except in derision.
These elements had apparently all "retreated, living in abandoned buildings". Oh dear. How unsanitary. (We are presented plenty of images to encourage our smug mockery.)
Curtis doesn't think to ask why this might be the case. He makes it sound like a free decision, a product of natural forces. But could it be, perhaps, that the poets and painters had no political power, no money, and no resources? Could it be that they were not even aware of the internal back-room financial dealings?
Putting the blame on those in poverty is hardly the tactic of an enlightened critic. But it says a lot about where Curtis sees himself in the class system.
Patti Smith is singled out for derision, typified as "a new kind of individual radical". Apparently Curtis is unaware of the antecedents, even though he might have studied the likes of Rimbaud when getting his humanities degree. Curtis refuses the challenge of placing Smith within the context of rock music, photography (Mapplethorpe), the gallery scene, sexual expression, or, well, anything really. Instead he claims that people like her didn't try to change anything but instead "turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society". How odd that an artist and musician would turn to art and music!
Such comments betray the limits of Curtis' thinking. For him, political action is only that conducted within a narrow sphere. Artists can't possibly be political through their work... even though obviously they can and do, over and over. Curtis apparently believes that such individuals, living in poverty, should instead have formed a viable political party to oppose the bankers.
This is so patronising and wrong-headed that it's hard to know where to start. But Curtis provides us a huge clue by including an excerpt from "Semiotics of the Kitchen" (1975) by Martha Rosler. In this portion of her video, Rosler forms the letters of the alphabet from her body and kitchen implements. Her poses are a carefully constructed choreography demonstrating concerns over women's roles in the private sphere. The video is far from naive, also acting as a deliberate parody of feminism. Its strengths lie in this intelligent self-awareness.
So what does Curtis do? He isolates a fragment of this video, without context, so that it cannot be read except as a silly pantomime.
Is it a coincidence that his examples are both women? I don't think so. Women appear in this documentary only in subservient roles or as targets of his mockery. We get sequences of Russian women doing their hair and American women obsessed with exercise. Elsewhere, we see a female Soviet worker, being quizzed about her dreams. Of course she does not admit to any. As a subject of a state in which realism is the only doctrine, to make any such an admission, especially on camera, would be dangerous. Curtis once again omits this context, making her look limited and stupid.
Later he uses a YouTube video to showcase narcissistic culture. This is reprised at the end of the film, no doubt because the young women pictured look so silly, doing their dances in emulation of video idols. This could have been an opportunity to discuss the limitations of individualism in a reflective media landscape, and how women rehearse their roles and express self-determination in a paradoxical manner. But that would be another film, made by a far deeper thinker.
By contrast, Curtis accepts the validity of certain canonical works of male artists. He takes some time to explain the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic and shows a clip or two from Tarkovsky's Stalker [24:44-26:55].
So, apparently there is a role for art in expressing and critiquing politics. How wonderful!
Cyberspace and the erasure of politics
We have already heard a lot from Curtis about technocrats, notably in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011). That series had the same characteristic flaws as the current documentary, exacerbated by Curtis' limited understanding of computer technology and the world it has created. He returns to the subject in the current film, as well he might. But oddly he ignores those aspects most pertinent to a discussion of political power.
At the forty minute mark of HyperNormalisation, Curtis lauds William Gibson and explicates cyberspace as a domain of "raw, brutal corporate power". He claims that Gibson's oeuvre encouraged "visionaries" like John Perry Barlow. The connection is then made back to the acid-dropping counterculture of the sixties and immediately forward to technical expositions at which virtual reality was demonstrated (though, oddly, VR is never explicitly mentioned).
In order to make this all fit, Curtis claims that "Barlow then wrote a manifesto" [45:50], but the timeline is well out of whack. Neuromancer, containing the first mention of "cyberspace" on page 4, was published in 1984. The Electronic Frontier Foundation formed in 1990, though not in reaction to Gibson nor any romantic idealism. Rather, the EFF was a unified response to a series of attacks on civil liberties made by law enforcement. Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" was not published until 1996. Curtis elides twelve years with one sentence, even though that was an eternity in the development of the internet and its cultures.
Barlow is grouped in with other (unspecified) "technological utopians" in order to excise the political from the discussion. That's curious, as politics is supposedly the subject of this documentary. Figures like Barlow are instead accused of a "retreat" (the continued use of militaristic terminology is itself telling) into some other reality, a "magical" internet [46:16]. His political text is inappropriately illustrated by fantastical clips from Tron. This is propagandist film-making technique in full flight.
My own bookshelf is full of critical thinking on cyberspace, hypertext, virtual reality, cyborg culture, gaming, and so on. The "left", the "radicals" and even the technocrats never abandoned this space or left it unconsidered.
Barlow and his companions wrote deliberate political provocations and responded directly to political situations. They were explicitly concerned with privacy, freedom of speech, property rights, etc. But Curtis strips out the politics, since then he does not need to deal with an uncomfortable truth, one that deserves emphasis.
Not only are there other forms of politics than those he recognises, but these might be the most effective responses to the current situation.
I was astonished to see Curtis paying tribute to the Occupy movement, since that would embody everything he hates. But soon the reason becomes apparent. His framing creates a convenient dialectic, reducing Occupy's radical actions to the very oppositional politics they were refuting. Occupy's tactics against financial control are fascinating in how they successfully, even if only for a limited time, turned the system against itself. These are not even mentioned in the very film that should point out possible tactics against corporate hegemony. This lost opportunity is very much a result of Curtis' limited outlook.
Sound and vision
The documentary is largely made up of archival footage, some of it fascinating. It's assembled in a hodge-podge manner that is at times skillful and at other times charmingly inept. The desired effect seems to be that of someone randomly channel surfing on YouTube. This produces some startling moments that are unfortunately undercut by Curtis' through-line. It's as though we are watching one presentation and hearing a narrative designed for another. It's surprising to discover that the writing and editing are both by Curtis.
The soundtrack is very 1974, over-dependent on stock Brian Eno tunes and droning sonorities. It's odd to hear so much This Mortal Coil in this context, but it "works". The occasional irruptions (Suicide) do not fundamentally disturb this honeyed soundscape. The final country tune is annoying and out of place. Curtis seems completely unaware of contemporary music.
The film itself largely ignores the topic of music and its cultural effects, no doubt because such material could not fit the thesis... if one can still claim that the film has a coherent thesis.
On this score (ahem), any given Massive Attack video has more to say about the contemporary world than this documentary (for which Robert Del Naja gets a credit). And in only five minutes.
This documentary is a cautionary tale, and Curtis offers no solutions. Those that lie directly under his nose are lost in his hyperopia. Instead, he repeats tired fears that were already played out in the last millennium.
Bitmap graphics signify "computer" but we learn nothing about the virtual. We see drowning refugees but no explanation. We see bloody rooms but no causation. Black Americans cower in custody or are misled by Gaddafi, but there is no sign of Rodney King, Jerame Reid, or Michael Brown. Oh look, another explosion, another dead body. It's a callous presentation.
We are bereft of the insights of Baudrillard, DeLanda, Deleuze, Turkle, Rheingold, Hayles, Stone, Bey, etc... as though no-one has thought of any of these ideas before Curtis.
HyperNormalisation uses shock tactics to scare us about our world, without offering any solutions, nor even a reasoned analysis of the problems. The many factual and logical flaws cast doubt over the entire assembly. It pretends to be radical while offering a deeply regressive, paternalistic view of society.
Indeed, this film is best read as a documentary about that bygone age in which BBC announcers could use their measured tones and "objective" position to reassure and comfort. The state broadcaster might still desire to create an echo chamber of ideology, but we left that room years ago.
We are not nearly as stupid as these producers think.
The date of publication of Neuromancer was incorrectly stated as 1986. This has been changed to 1984.