Tuesday, October 18, 2016

BBC as echo chamber: a review of "HyperNormalisation"

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.

The thesis
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.

Deriding women
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.



Val Trotsky said...

Hi, agree 100% with your take on Curtis , just want to point out Neuromancer was first published in 1983 not 1986, further throwing Curtis's muddled timeline into disarray!

Unknown said...

Nice critique. I'm halfway through watching it and have been a little disappointed thus far. Couple of comments; you deride him repeatedly for using catchall terms and reduction but isn't this a key part of storytelling? If he were to cover every tangent / splinter group the whole thing would become even MORE disjointed. Take your point though, it is faintly ridiculous how much has been compressed and simplified. Also, he uses some great Boards of Canada tracks throughout the doc, I'd say this was reasonably contemporary music.

Anonymous said...

you state that the author was condescending whilst you write a review in the most condescending tone I've ever read.

Good job on your self-awareness

robin said...

> you state that the author was condescending whilst you write a review in the most condescending tone I've ever read.

Nowhere do I even use the word "condescending", so perhaps you did a "nice job" on reading? You might try addressing any of the content, instead of looking for reasons to be offended.

robin said...

> you deride him repeatedly for using catchall terms and reduction but isn't this a key part of storytelling?

If Curtis set out to say his film was a fiction I would hold him to different standards. But he pretends to objectivity, while skewing facts in the extreme.

> Also, he uses some great Boards of Canada tracks throughout the doc, I'd say this was reasonably contemporary music.

Good point, and he also uses Cliff Martinez, I believe. However, I would say that the Boards of Canada sound, analog synths etc., is inherently retro, which only adds to the '74 vibe.

robin said...

> just want to point out Neuromancer was first published in 1983 not 1986, further throwing Curtis's muddled timeline into disarray!

Or, indeed, published in 1984, so we are both wrong! :-)

Will correct this error. Thank-you.

In Tragedy We Turn to Tea said...

Adam Curtis is not a neoconservative. You must be watching it wrong. He makes (largely critical) documentary films about neoconservative policies. There is a huge difference.

robin said...

Um, I didn't label Curtis a neoconservative, he did. You don't even have to look that far, this quote is on Wikipedia. Whether it's an accurate term or not, he is far more conservative than liberal, and quite obviously hates what he cannot understand, namely the left and any radical politics.

ian said...

actually that AC quote on Wikipaedia is his attempt to illustrate that his politics are hard to pin down (or so he says), giving an example of a single point made in one of his docos that could be compared to an attitude on one issue that is echoed by NeoCons - but the article (I am yet to look beyond Wiki myself) says he is inspired by the politics of Max Weber

robin said...

Indeed, his position is contradictory. For instance he demonstrates many libertarian views but yet doesn't understand that the positions of the internet "visionaries" and "utopians" that he critiques would be in sync. He could probably use them in a much more positive way to support his politics, except that his anti-tech stance gets in his way.

All in all, one word is never going to sum up anyone's views. And I am hardly an expert on neoconservatism (shudder) or what it might mean in the UK. Besides, Curtis does not seem to have a unified philosophy. And I imagine, given his demonstrations of anti-intellectualism, would hate the word.

Curtis is also contradictory in his approach to individualism, which he seems to intensely dislike (certainly the current text). Yet he puts forward no communitarian alternative, and also disparages attempts in that realm!

I would say, more than anything, Curtis' driving force is nostalgia. He looks back to a simpler time, without all this technology he cannot comprehend. But most especially, a time when realpolitik had "meaning" and was conducted without "theatre". Of course such a time never existed except in a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

Curtis' anxiety is that the world is more complex than he'd like it to be. He wishes a neat through-line that he can narrate, and will go to any extent to render a singular omnipotent view, imposing this on his audience. Overtly, using the propaganda techniques he has previously praised.

There is a word for this politics. And it's not "neoconservative".

robin said...

The inability to edit comments here is annoying. There are a couple missing words in the comment above, but the meaning is still clear.

Conor McCabe said...

Excellent article. you nailed it about Curtis.

Anonymous said...

"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."
I didn't get this impression at all- I saw a woman living in abject poverty, without hope. Someone who had to get on with the business of surviving and who didn't have the time to be answering frivolous questions about "dreams". I was impressed by her derisive dismissal of such a question. The fact that you saw her as appearing "limited and stupid" says more about you than Curtis.

robin said...

In my opinion the woman did not give a "derisive dismissal", but a considered reply. It was subtle and intelligent while working within the constraints of the permissible. So perhaps I rate her as an individual more highly than even you do.

But my opinion is irrelevant and not what I was writing about. Your attempt at psychologising has fallen afoul of that most basic error: confusing the messenger with the message.

There are no doubt many ways the short clip in question could be read, but it is rather more obvious how Curtis intends it to be read, since he makes such a bold thesis statement. I even include it in my review to forestall such problems as your comment raises. He contends that in the 1980s Soviet Union "no-one believed in anything, or had any vision of the future". In the logic of the film, this clip illustrates that point.

Anonymous said...

I love this archival style. Expecting to compress all the variables in a few hours isn't possible. I thought it was fascinating even despite the generalisations. Let's not forget the audience. I challenge you Mr critic to finish something of this quality. Good write up though, cheers..

robin said...

Sure, Mr. Anonymous, you provide the funding and Mr. Critic will easily surpass Mr. Curtis in this venture. The result may not be as "entertaining" or deceptive, but will be a good deal more honest.

Tezla said...

Excellent review thank you.

Unknown said...

Interesting take on it, thanks. Here's my take on it.

Are you confused about reality? Well, according to Adam Curtis, you are supposed to be ....

In typical style, Curtis sets off, traversing a mindbending sequence of historic, and not-so-well-known events, analysing cultural, social, and political agents, whom he describes as architects of a “fake version of the world”, into which we have all retreated. Through his works, he provides viewers with an insight into the motives, and devious practices, of the elites and tyrants, that have controlled the world, and continue to do so to this present day, however tenuously. He argues that this existential existence, brought about by neoliberalism, and the wholesale handing over of power from politicians to financiers, has plunged societies into a world of loneliness. There is no denying the ever-increasing gap in global wealth inequality, and the dramatic rise of suicide rates everywhere, from West Belfast to South Korea, the latter of which is described by radical Slovenian philosopher, and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, in his penultimate book, 'Trouble in Paradise' (2014), as having the highest suicide rate on earth. Therefore, taking this into account, one could be compelled to accept the merit of such accusations. But, where did we, or they, go wrong?

In searching for answers to such questions, we are forced to consider uncomfortable truths. For instance, in over 30 years of armed bloody conflict in the north of Ireland, between 1969 and 1997, it is estimated that around 3,600 people lost their lives. The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the major nationalist and unionist parties in 1998, and in the following 17 years of that peace process, statistics reveal that 4,177 people lost their lives due to suicide. Statistics from almost a year ago. Though we cannot deny the impact that conflict has had on communities, the reality begs the questions; Is the legacy of conflict in the north of Ireland the sole cause of our shocking reality? Or, is there something deeper, that has adopted the smiling guise of politicians and 'leaders', also at work?

Anyway you slice it, there is no doubting that we live in strange times and in a strange world. We need only cast our lonely eyes on such spectacles as Donald Trump, Brexit, and the refugee crisis, to understand that the world we inhabit is plagued by extraordinary, unpredictable, and increasingly chaotic events. For the last 40 years or so, it appears that politicians have had an exceptionally difficult time exercising control, and the results are to be seen everywhere, from the skies of New York, to the beaches of Calais.

Democracy is, in fact, Plutocracy, a farce, an anti-democratic system that serves corporate power structures, at the expense of the ninety nine percent. Love, reduced, hallowed out, and in 21st century terms, is tantamount to nothing more than something facebookers and instagramers share in cyberspace. Music has become the echo-chamber of decadent values, a place where we can hear, and see, the most narcissistic interpretations of reality reflected back at us in repetitive sounds, and, of course, in images of half naked, half drugged, hammer-licking popstars. It all smacks of a fakeness, hinted at by Curtis, which severely saturates our everyday lives. Yet, do not do despair! Because through this weird and terrible, contradictory barrage of information and images, we occasionally encounter hidden gems, in this instance, the works of Curtis.

Read the rest of this article:

To Trump, or not to Trump?



robin said...

You win the longest comment on my blog ever award. I will indeed read the rest of your article.

robin said...

See also the following article. People are catching on to the fact that Curtis has no facts.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent review. People are drawn in so easily by Curtis' mesmerising style of filmmaking that they become completely oblivious to his painful oversimplifications.

The Power of Nightmares was hilariously bad, but Bitter Lake was the worst in my opinion. The way he framed the Afghanistan conflict was absurd. Here's a good critique of that film if you're interested: http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/01/adam-curtiss-bitter-lake-the-tv-equivalent-of-staging-hamlet-without-the-prince/

robin said...

I was going to make a parody video to show how easy this style of film-making is. But it's already been done:


(Thanks to the above poster for leading me to this.)

Michael said...

Curtis creates a mystifying atmosphere by ignoring important background information, like the prosaic but undeniable roles of oil and the status of the dollar in motivating imperial strategy. I enjoyed "Century of the Self" and "The Mayfair Set" but have been disappointed by everything since then. "Bitter Lake" was really bad, arguably Orientalist, and again ignoring basic geostrategic facts.

Robin, your review would have been a lot stronger if you had stayed away from ad hominem asides and parenthetic sarcasm.

robin said...

Some of the tone verges on the snide, which I think is only fitting, TBH. I might have adopted a different tone if I was writing for somewhere other than my own blog. But do I actually engage in ad hominem? Seriously, I'll edit that out.

Anonymous said...

I found it appalling, cherry picked material to back a misleading argument. What I have now come to expect from Mr. Curtis There are so many holes and contradictions in his argument that it falls apart very quickly. Uses the process of selective journalism much alive at the BBC.

Unknown said...

Curtis catapults his post-truths over the giant walls of post-truths he claims the powers that be let lose upon the world. As if anyone has control. I think he may have something in his theory on the methodology in the rise to power of Putin and Trump. But like you said above its old hat, maybe with a post-modern twist (what ever that means). As far as artists involvement in Western society, Patti, and her peers shaped a generation that in a profound way although probably in a somewhat subtle way. That did have a social impact on the Western world. Even the "big" cultural revolution of the 1960's was most of the time wayward without focus (exceptions being some gains in civil rights and women's rights) and disintegrated into the hung over 1970's. Sorry I am rambling, but I must say I was entertained by this documentary because it seems to be in the "sober BBC 1980's narrated program form" all the while showing us this dystopian world we all grew up reading about; as if it had become true. I think that is the allure to this documentary. BUT! With all of that said. I go with another artist he should not have left out: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.

The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control.

The world is rudderless.” -Alan Moore.

Unknown said...

Curtis catapults his post-truths over the giant walls of post-truths he claims the powers that be let lose upon the world. As if anyone has control. I think he may have something in his theory on the methodology in the rise to power of Putin and Trump. But like you said above its old hat, maybe with a post-modern twist (what ever that means). As far as artists involvement in Western society, Patti, and her peers shaped a generation that in a profound way although probably in a somewhat subtle way. That did have a social impact on the Western world. Even the "big" cultural revolution of the 1960's was most of the time wayward without focus (exceptions being some gains in civil rights and women's rights) and disintegrated into the hung over 1970's. Sorry I am rambling, but I must say I was entertained by this documentary because it seems to be in the "sober BBC 1980's narrated program form" all the while showing us this dystopian world we all grew up reading about; as if it had become true. I think that is the allure to this documentary. BUT! With all of that said. I go with another artist he should not have left out: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.

The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control.

The world is rudderless.” -Alan Moore.

robin said...

Thanks for your post. Your last point is well taken. The world is indeed chaotic, though we prefer the myth of "balance" and "harmony" because then we can feel in control. But I think it is wrong to be frightened by this. Instead we should appreciate our roles as pattern recognition engines, making some localised and temporary "sense" from the chaos. That, to me, is a wondrous thing. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is simply a mechanistic and inherently stupid response to the richness of both the natural and built environments.

Pindo said...

If Adam Curtis does label himself a neo-conservative please provide a web reference to this, because I cannot find evidence to support this claim.

Pindo said...

If Adam Curtis does claim to be a Neo Conservative please supply the source for this assertion. If you are not able to do that please correct your article so that it is clear that it is an opinion. Thanks.

robin said...

Pindo, that is already discussed above. It's no further than the Wikipedia page.

Pindo said...

OK, I'll do it for you, but it doesn't support your claim.

People often accuse me of being a lefty. That's complete rubbish. If you look at The Century of the Self, what I'm arguing is something very close to a neoconservative position because I'm saying that, with the rise of individualism, you tend to get the corrosion of the other idea of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own. Well, that's what the neoconservatives argue, domestically. [...] If you ask me what my politics are, I'm very much a creature of my time. I don't really have any. I change my mind over different issues, but I am much more fond of a libertarian view. I have a more libertarian tendency [...] What's astonishing in our time is how the Left here has completely failed to come up with any alternatives, and I think you may well see a lefty libertarianism emerging because people will be much more sympathetic to it, or just a libertarianism, and out of that will come ideas. And I don't mean "localism".[2] - "Interview: Adam Curtis". Film Comment. 17 July 2012. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014.

robin said...

I am not making any claim here. I use the word "neoconservative" once, because Curtis self-identifies with this term, as the quote you copied confirms. In any case, it has nothing to do with my argument one way or another.

Pindo said...

I see, I would argue that he's talking about it in relation to another film and in context. You are opening your article about Hypernormalisation with it and with no context. If it's got nothing to do with your argument then why say it, especially when he's not admitting that position but rather making a theoretical comparison in relation to the themes he develops in that film. By that argument you could say he self identifies with Neo Cons and the Libertarian view because he references that as well. You can't have it with ways.

Pindo said...

Both ways even..Hahaha

robin said...

I agree that the label is not a full and complete description of his opinion, since no label ever is. We can acknowledge that and move on, right? No, I guess not.

If I was writing about Curtis instead of writing about one of his products, I would pursue this point in more detail. But really I don't care at all about his biography, since everything I need to know is in the film I am critiquing. He could call himself a conservative, Presbyterian, or anarchist and it would make no difference to me (in this context).

There's lots of other things I say that have nothing to do with my argument, but are there for descriptive purposes. No-one has yet picked on the fact I decide to single-out his funding by the BBC, but perhaps that's only a matter of time. It also has nothing to do with my argument, and even the title of my piece is fairly off the mark. But no-one remarks on that, I guess because it's not a hot button issue. Even though it would be a valid criticism.

I guess people pick on this term because it's easier than critiquing any part of my argument.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! The only genuinely critical engagement I've found online of this documentary. There's much more that can & should be said (some of it in defence) but I'm glad to at least find some constructive conversation!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insightful piece - and the YT parody is pretty on-the-money (though having a super-recognizable style that can be parodied isn't itself evidence of the ineptitude of that style).

I found it strange that Curtis characterizes the overarching position of those in political power (post-1975-an arbitrary date - as you pointed out) as seeking to technocratically 'manage' or stabilize a chaotic world, as opposed to idealistically create a society through politics that engages with the chaos/complexity. My understanding of US foreign policy, however, is that it has actually often sought to CREATE chaos so that the US can assert its power and captured gov't officials/elite donors can, as you pointed out, profit through defense contracts or oil (not to mention the domestic political benefits of being a wartime president/political party). Actions like invading Iraq were meant, in part, to prove US power to the rest of the world and to assert its military dominance. So is it really accurate to say that Iraq, in particular, was the least bit technocratic or managerial?

And what of the Reagan Doctrine and its interference with Latin America and South America as part of Cold War containment? Why is this aspect of foreign policy completely elided? Because in Curtis' timeline, containment would either have to be characterized as pure technocracy and 'retreat' (with its implication of isolationism) which would make no sense. Or it would have to be a part of the continuation of the Kissinger era, which he more or less states ended in 1975...?

I think part of the problem is that Curtis makes no attempt to distinguish between the neoliberal technocrats that dominate many US institutions and the radical ideologues that dominate the Republican party. He seems to be making a documentary about the former but all of his historical references concern the latter.

There's also the problem with using financial super-computers as an example of an ideology of stabilizing markets/managing risk, as faulty computer modeling played a role in Long Term Capital Management crisis, and Larry Fink basically invented collateralized debt obligations which helped blow up the economy in 08. Is financial engineering really intended to stabilize the system or create elaborate smokescreens to conceal risk and fraud and nihilistically cash out- all with the knowledge that the sector will be bailed out due to gov't collusion?

I think Curtis is much more accurate when describing the problems with the media and the inefficacy of current internet structures to facilitate democratic action because of the consolidation of the Internet in the power of a handful of a few giant corporations.

As for the Patti Smith critique, you're right that his assumptions about why artists would live in abandoned buildings is classist and pigheaded. And his overall critique about artists being attracted to art is pretty circular, as you pointed out. It is odd that a director who clearly loves film and music as artistic mediums so much (his references and music cues attest to that) would seemingly degrade the role of artists in society by asserting that if they are not engaged in active revolution as their primary function, they are pathetic and worthy of derision.

Anyway, would love to know your thoughts!?

Anonymous said...

one point i really wanted to make is that I OVERALL think curtis' assessment of the blurring b/t fact and fiction and the lack of consensus reality to be absolutely correct. the idea that we live in a culture so marred by mistruths that we can't distinguish between real and fake anymore and how that has led to the rise of trump makes so much sense.

it was fascinating to see how the reagan admin blamed terrorism that was likely perpetrated by syria on libya, predating bush's false accusations of iraq's involvement in 9/11. the widespread adoption of anti depressants speaks to the inability to grapple with reality. that internet companies have enabled us to escape into our own narcissistic realities is also an important part of this lack of consensus reality. The UFO and fake-conspiracy example is good.

that said, i could have used more examples of how exactly american culture - political, artistic, etc adopt fake or phony trappings (e.g. our debt and bubble machines; the impending disaster of global warming yet utter inaction from elites; the hypocrisy of the mainstream newsmedia; the homogeneity of corporate culture). to do so would be to offer a more detailed critique of our political and economic order than curtis is really prepared to do.

robin said...

Your points are well made.

I must admit to having been more aware of the intricacies of politics two decades ago, but my relative lack of contemporary knowledge has not hampered analysis, for the simple reason that nothing fundamental has changed under the hood... despite all the chatter about living in new times.

The new colonialism, neoliberalism, corporate oligarchies, internet culture, virtual economics, cyborg embodiment, network culture, simulacra, etc. were all in place by the mid-eighties. Curtis adds nothing new in descriptive, stylistic, or analytic modes. He's annoying in how he plagiarises McLuhan, Baudrillard, etc. while failing to understand any but their simplest statements.

To address one point you make, where you give Curtis credit for "the inefficacy of current internet structures to facilitate democratic action". I can't grant this so easily. Structure and content are related but one does not dictate the other. One would readily admit that the fact that the internet was initially funded by DARPA does not make it a militaristic structure. But also consider that though major corporations control the infrastructure, the content doe not necessarily work in their favour. And further, the fact that Facebook/Google/etc very much create an echo chamber of one's own interests and desires does not mean that radical content cannot circulate. The dynamics are far more complex than such dialectics.

The internet has given isolated individuals and communities more power (personal, social, political) than they get in a democracy, which tend to crush minorities. It has provided alternative sources for news and information that gets outside the binary imperative of traditional journalism (which aims to show "both sides" of the story). It has allowed people to come together to create tools that expand the options available for creativity. And the results are not nearly so important as the empowering process that simply does not need the centralised dinosaurs of the modern era.

But it's also a tool of self-surveillance and mass marketing unparalleled by anything previous. It sometimes acts to polarise rather than bring together. One of the constraints are these small boxes we must type into to communicate. The bandwidth here is not nearly broad enough for all the feelings and ideas we generate.

robin said...

I wrote the above before reading your second post, and so a little more is due, since your engagement with the ideas is stimulating.

Politicians have always lied and people have always been willing to believe a convenient fiction that presents an outsider as enemy, preserving consensus reality within the polis. Wikipedia tells me that the scapegoat practice goes back 26 centuries! So we cannot be incredulous about such approaches to politics; they are classical.

The goat that bears our sins was originally acknowledged *as* a symbol. When we forget it's a symbol and believe the goat's evil as viridical, then we are in the second order of simulation. The sign represents something (in this case, a sin) that has no reality, but is nonetheless a useful fiction. Baudrillard helpfully describes this as the "order of sorcery", as it explains quite well the mechanics of both magic and religion. When the sign precedes the signifier without the signifier even needing to exist, we are in the third order, of simulacra. Here, signs refer only to other signs, in a system of contingent and deferred meaning.

Baudrillard said all this already in 1981 ("Simulacra and Simulation"). Though recognition is not new, few enough people have bothered to understand. Baudrillard was not (only) some dude spouting crazy ideas because they sounded cool (disciple of McLuhan), he was also providing tools to explain the world. "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place" sounds like a madman until one realises that the facts of the matter support the contention. The USA allowed the Iraqi Army to retire and did not engage them. Instead, a bunch of conscript farmers were burnt alive while retreating. And then millions of civilians were killed in the follow-up. There was no war, even if there was slaughter.

Trump is indeed the perfect contemporary example of the simulacra. The media were fixated on determining whether he "really meant" his xenophobic pronouncements or was just playing politics. If we believed in the first order, where signs have their classical meanings, the first option should have been preferable. Is it not better when someone means what they say, even if we disagree? But the media *preferred* to characterise Trump as the gamester, since they operate in this self-same mediated order of simulation. The "optics" of politics is all they understand.

The truth is that Trump's pronouncements could not be read as meaningful *or* non-meaningful. They were pure signs designed to obscure both possibilities, while focusing attention on himself at all times. Trump was completely successful in this strategy. The poor Democrats were left behind in their old world of vote fixing and political manipulation. The media was recruited, despite themselves, into the Trump bubble. Even the Russians applauded, and not entirely from the sidelines.

Curtis can offer only the shallowest version of this order of simulacra, since he still wants meaning and a totalising narrative. (Perhaps ironically I have just presented one such fairytale myself.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Robin,

(I know this is hella-long so thank you in advance for taking the time to read).

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and elucidating reply. I'm a hyperactive consumer of American political newsmedia, so as flawed as his description of the problem is (and as nonexistent as his solutions are), Curtis is at least, by comparison to the 24-hour-news-cycle driven analyses I tend to read, asking the right questions about political dysfunction by contextualizing them within an inquiry into the nature of reality. I am glad that commentators as astute as yourself are there to provide a substantive critique of his arguments because it seems that specious arguments can more readily conceal themselves in the trappings of a critical approach (ostensibly broad-minded, counter-historical, and philosophical) precisely because there is such a demand for that approach in popular, mainstream discourse.

Regarding your point/rebuttal about whether or not the Internet has enabled democratic action – I concede that it certainly has under certain conditions, and an attempt to reduce online activity to a wholesale retreat into fantasy does not comport with the very facts Curtis presents about the Egyptian revolution. I found Curtis’ inability to explore why Internet tools helped enable revolution in the Arab Spring but proved ineffective to stop Brexit or Trump to be frustrating. He juxtaposes Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street but focuses on their failures to forge a new society, which skips over a crucial difference between the two movements: how is it that the Arab Spring actually succeeded in mobilizing action through the Internet to topple regimes, whereas, to my knowledge, there has not been any comparable mobilization through the Internet to effect similarly radical change in Western countries?

Obviously there are so many political and social variables at play that have nothing at all to do with the Internet. But since he situates his discussion about these movements within the context of the Internet, why does he punt on exploring the differences?

Regardless of Curtis, I am deeply curious about the extent to which the nature of Internet tools and how they are used by differing societies has played a role in revolution on the one hand and echo chamber 'slacktivism’ on the other hand?

Anonymous said...

(part 2)

I think much of the answer has to do with the nature of the Internet structures and their status as ‘centralized dinosaurs’ which I would argue, contrary to your characterization, in fact does apply to tech oligopolies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube/Google. I'd go a step further and say that I do not think it’s a mistake or conflation to describe ‘Facebook’ as essentially encompassing the entirety of the Internet at this point, as it is also the clearinghouse or control panel for activity on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. The very design of Facebook is to consolidate all online activity and information onto one platform so as to glue our eyeballs to the screen to sell to advertisers, not to mobilize or enable direct action IRL. (By most accounts, it's successful in doing so; your site is an anomaly). Its set of incentives keep people addicted to validation or ‘likes’ which substitute for real political action while it carries a set of disincentives that inhibit nuanced discourse and mobilization.

The fruitful conversation we are having right now, for example, could not happen on Facebook. Because it is occurring in view of yourself and visitors of your site that you built to facilitate intellectual and independent discussion as part of a thread about a specific topic. This discussion on FB would be in response to a status thread that is explicitly broadcast to thousands of our respective Facebook ‘friends’ (which includes Grandma, potential dates, ex-girlfriends, former and prospective bosses, the anonymous servers who create algorithms for marketing purposes) on a social media platform that also functions as dating profile, job recruiting profile, promotional profile, and profile of personal expression.

Anonymous said...

(part 3)

The medium is the message, and the medium of Facebook, because of how and to whom content is broadcast, can dilute, distort, and enervate political discourse and political action. Having a political discussion on Facebook is standing in the middle of a public square shouting at the top of your lungs to a friend from across the square in full ear shot of everyone. Proximity and discretion are prerequisites, in my view, for having nuanced discussion not to mention organizing for change. Facebook’s design is not agile enough and disincentivizes the levels of intimacy/proximity/discretion that a fully actualized, broad-based political discourse requires. Not to mention the extremely messy, chaotic 'feed' like design which inhibits easy archiving, cataloging of discussion, events, action, and contacts.

That all addresses its disincentives. But there's also the matter of its incentives (the social opiates it provides in validation via Likes) which also stack the deck against mobilization. I believe that Facebook users in Western democracies are more susceptible to the narcotizing, narcissistic effects than other populations because of comparatively greater levels of individualism and an illusory belief in the inherent, radical power of self-expression as an end unto itself (this may be the deeper point Curtis was making about Patti Smith beneath the off-putting, classist, possibly misogynistic contemptuousness). Whereas free expression on Facebook under a dictatorship (say, under Mubarak) functions to energize and expand people’s notion of the possible by releasing people from the burden of censorship, free expression on Facebook in a country which already grants free speech rights narcotizes as it provides the illusion of efficacy and rewards people with the comfort of social affirmation.

Anonymous said...

(part 4)

A new social media platform that is non-profit (and as such, eschews mass-surveillance and marketing), exists explicitly and singularly to mobilize IRL dissident action, and creates its own set of incentivizes that prioritize IRL action vs. passive echo-chamber communication is a possible solution. The absence of a site that functions as an aggregating portal for various modes of activism (protest, donation, phone-banking, canvassing) strikes me as somewhat shocking and needs to be rectified in my view.

When it comes to Baudrillard, I know that you are a professional educator so I hope you don't mind if I adopt the posture of a pupil. I had a techno-skeptic kick a few years ago where I read Carr, Turkle, and Lanier. I then attempted, in earnest, Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulacrum. There seems to me to be a baseline of understanding of semiotics that precedes understanding his arguments. Is there a place you'd recommend starting? I consider myself fairly intellectually curious but found this text too difficult, too abstract, to fully absorb his points.

I'll try nonetheless, as that all being said, your description of Trump as occupying a ‘third’ level of reality makes sense. If I understand your point properly, you are saying that not only does a) the sign (the thing describing the thing; e.g. Trump) fail to reflect the signifier (the thing; e.g. reality) and b) the sign fail to explicitly contradict the signifier (I think this is what you mean by ’non-meaning’ and ‘optics’; e.g. Trump lying about reality) but rather c) the sign itself is not even situated in relation to any underlying signifier (the third layer or ’simulacra’; Trump has no concern for reality) - this makes a kind of sense to me. Is this a correct interpretation of your/Baudrillard's theory?

This could describe how Trump ‘defeated journalism’ as Curtis puts it because politics no longer stands in relation to reality (signifier) but rather to other things that stand in relation. But of course, back to a critique of Curtis and to affirm what you're saying, these dynamics have been at play in US foreign policy far in advance of Trump (again, I refer to Kissinger and the entire Vietnam war as a war about eschewing conceptions of reality and shaping new reality).

Anonymous said...

(part 5)

Anyway, I really really really appreciate your perspective and your willingness to engage the commentators on your site. I find that your behavior online (by virtue of the creation of your own site with its own values rather than ceding your communication to the values and structures of gigantic Silicon Valley companies) to embody the optimism you have about technology and its capacity to enlighten and activate.

Also, I wanted to let you know that i'm also a musician who has tried to grapple with the problems associated with disseminating and funding art through Internet designs that are essentially advertising/mass-surveillance based. http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/7438225/ann-driscoll-canarys-corpse-premiere


Unknown said...

I did however find the historic events rolled up quite interesting and often yet unexplored. I can still remember the confusion in the 90s about how evil Gadaffi really is, and the Syria connection.
I could just blend out the generalizations, because well, as you say, we are not as stupid as we seem and I gave up certain people to understand art, as we are all looking at the world from different angles - so for me the interesting part is just, how historically accurate are the connections?
Some of the generalisations, coming from the east, I could even underline, even if they were a bit overgeneralized, I found the portrayal of russia wasnt like super detailed, but it hit the "tone" of the time.
I couldnt really see sexism tho, as I felt, the clips he took from female artists were first confusing, then deeply humorous, especially the final one in the kitchen.
The Hezbollah/Hamas incident seems pretty key, especially after telling about the lebanese slaughter, indirectly proposing, Israel counted on Hamas being slaughtered aswell, but instead, they learned suicide bombing.
For me, especially showing up no "heroes" in the story, and no solution in the end, makes it actually quite a remarkable documentation about recent history, and while it feels indeed a bit conservative in mindset, I think if all the facts are straight, it does reveal a lot on a global scale.
I could identify with much of the critique in this text, however I think the true power of the movie is everything else - and I do think, the open ending without answers is fitting, as while it explains the last 30 years, stuff still goes on.
Oh, and Nine Inch Nails Ghost is worth mentioning, as it really seems overused nowadays. I found the start of the movie dreadfully full of thoughts, for me only the historic stuff was really motivating, to go on.
Otherwise, I did feel the author of this text was also a bit excited about Curtis personally, I do prefer a critique to shine light on the pros and cons, if only cons are part of the review, it's usually not trustworthy for me.
Also, as we have seen with Zeitgeist, sometimes lots of different people can influence an outcome, and f up a movie which was on a good track and failed to arrive properly.

robin said...


Thanks, Ann, for such an engaged and extensive response. Also for your kind words regarding this blog which is, really, a minimal expression of passing interests. I would likely find the time to write more articles if I had responses such as yours as encouragement. I hope that others reading on the sidelines (also a valid activity) might join in.

To go through some of your points:

Curtis is at least "asking the right questions about political dysfunction by contextualizing them within an inquiry into the nature of reality". This is true, and perhaps I should be happier than I am that he is making an attempt. But many other people have posed much more cogent arguments about these issues, and for some decades. Perhaps then Curtis' contribution is to bring this out of the musty world of books and research and into the glaring light of televisual spectacle. Unfortunately his propaganda techniques are out of proportion to any good he might be doing by presenting a critique.

For certain viewers he might stir interest in how political realities are created, while at the same time allow them to question his own constructions. Unfortunately the chorus of praise for his work doesn't indicate that he's being considered critically. His own slick and shiny facade has not managed to displace the one it purportedly critiques.

I certainly don't mind a bit of flash and grandstanding, else I wouldn't bear Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. A degree of showmanship might aid in presenting an idea, or giving it currency. But I think this needs to go hand-in-hand with honesty and openness.

Regarding the dynamics of the Arab Spring... I simply don't know enough about the details. Each affected country was different and full of multiplicities. Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, etc.. how can these all be summed up or integrated? We have the phrase "Arab Spring" and there were commonalities, in the sense that the protests occurred in the same general period of time, spread from place to place, and leveraged social media and other internet channels of communication. Certainly I could not foresee which might be successful or failed attempts at so-called democracy, so I watched with awe from the sidelines. I did think that the sloganeering (as represented) was too simplistic, the response expectedly brutal. Nonetheless, the internet seemed to be a positive and necessary force in play. If only in getting the word out, in regimes sometimes hostile to even simple communication.

The problem of multiplicity is the very point that Occupy tried to put across. They refused to have one leader, one demand, one agenda. This was a radical decision and caused mass confusion in both their opponents and the media. Occupy could not be easily reduced to one narrative or a dialectical position. They showed that it is possible to stage a resistance movement outside these structures and imperatives. In that they were completely successful, in my view. Curtis sees Occupy as an abject failure, since it did not topple any government or form a "real" political force (meaning an establishment party). But they did indeed demonstrate that such constructs are not needed. I believe that this energy (and some of the practical learning about tools and techniques of organisation) will be felt for a long time. It was present at Standing Rock, for example.

robin said...


Occupy seems to have been presaged by Bataille's solar model of energy, in which individuals free from capitalist imperatives instead build an exchange system based on gifting and sacrifice. This might find parallels in the open source movement sand the free (as in speech) software communities. (This paragraph is more or less a note to self: look into these possible correlations.)

I have no Utopian aspirations to "forge a new society", but believe instead that we must shape the resources already at our disposal into a suitable form. I do not believe that any arborescent structure of hierarchical control will be any better than what came before. Well, in truth some are better and some are worse, but it's a matter of degree, not kind. Rhizomatic structures are necessary for substantive change.

I don't mean that this is an either/or proposition; rather, both must coexist. Hierarchies will establish themselves in any society, but to be healthy these must be kept in strong check by other constraints. (I continue to read Deleuze & Guattari and get more from them all the time.)

This is perhaps easier to say in a country like Ireland that has proportional representation than in one (UK, Canada, USA) which does not. I have become convinced that the USA needs another revolution or civil war, since the institutionalised racism and oppression are so pervasive. There is no democratic machinery in place to change anything for the good. A clean slate is required, plus the wisdom to create something better in the aftermath. Please consider that I do not say this with any glee. But what can one do with a militaristic police state which practices complete surveillance and abrogation of all civil rights? Talk to them nicely?

This gets to your question about why "there has not been any comparable mobilization through the Internet to effect similarly radical change in Western countries". But the answer? A liberal would say that it's because people are not educated. If the population knew more about history, politics, economics, ethics, philosophy in the main... then they would not be able to put up with social inequities, destruction of the environment, etc. A media theorist would say it's because sports and entertainment act as opiates, keeping people happy and deluded, and that the extension of this to the internet as a new carrier ensures it has already been coopted. A capitalist would say that since people are so spoiled with goods and services they have no incentive to rock the boat. An atheist would say that any country in which the majority of people believe in angels is so disconnected from reality that they might believe anything at all, without justification. An economist might say that a country on a continuous war footing makes each citizen dependent on the selling of arms and conflict (domestic and foreign) for their own livelihood. All of these have something to do with why people are complicit with the machinery of their own dissolution, and have little will for substantive change. Is the internet to counter all of these? How could it be?

robin said...


Your description of Facebook etc. as the clearing-house for advertisers is in some senses correct, but articulates an ageing paradigm. YouTube is desperately trying to glue our eyeballs but I have never seen an advert there, since my browser came with an ad blocker installed. Likewise anonymisers and alternative search engines take away Google's power to shape the world. Certainly a minority of people are aware of these, but hasn't it always been the case that the tools of resistance are taken up by the few?

I can talk concretely about the protests here in Ireland that have been mobilised by the internet. I have been on marches organised through group discussions, which also facilitate bus transport and other practical matters. Protests against the water charges and the Eighth Amendment, marches for gay rights and marriage equality, all HAVE changed government policies. But Ireland is very well connected through mobile networks and is a small country. Also (again) we have proportional representation which allowed independent and splinter party members to get elected in the last general election. Social media does and can work to effect social and political change in this milieu. This is reason for hope and I indeed remain optimistic. "Democracy is coming to the USA" sang Leonard Cohen, and, if so, the same hope could be yours!

As for me being a "professional educator", I should clarify my involvement. I have taught at university level on and off for six years but currently do not. I do have a strong interest in pedagogy on both sides of the fence... so I spend as much time as a student as I can! I take teaching very seriously and try to convey divergent and pluralistic approaches to my topics.

I am certainly not a Baudrillard scholar, though I have had conversations with those that are, including Gerry Coulter (RIP). No doubt his work is difficult, because it assumes a certain previous reading history, as you say, and also because it slips registers and indulges in playful styles, full of paradoxical pronouncements. Not all of his work is equally interesting or even accurate.

The first published books updated Marx for the symbolic era, and laid a basis in semiotics. On this one should at least read Roland Barthes' "Mythologies", including the appendix. Baudrillard was a student of Henri Lefebvre, whose "Production of Space" is a landmark, even if it doesn't bear directly on Baudrillard's own work. Also important to the May 68 landscape was Guy Debord and the Situationist International, who certainly had a profound influence on Baudrillard's more ludic texts. This period led to "Symbolic Exchange and Death" (1976), Baudrillard's book on Bataille and Nietzsche.

When "Simulation and Simulacra" was published in 1981, it was really only the beginning of Baudrillard's own project of hyper-reality. This has strong implications for political action. If exchanged of symbol and meaning are no longer possible, then the available bases for critical thought and political struggle are exhausted. This stance was seen as nihilistic from both the right and left. But with Trump ascendant, who can question the bankruptcy of meaning and political process? Baudrillard was thirty or forty years early ahead on this.

robin said...


Finally, yes, I think your reading of my reading of Baudrillard is correct. :-) On Trump being a new form... One might read the Cold War balance of terror as one such, where two nations stockpiled nuclear weapons whose real purpose was not to explode but to blow up old systems of political meaning. War was no longer politics by another means (Carl von Clausewitz) but the opposite: politics is played with the symbolic value of the war apparatus. This then led on to war being "performed" with domestic economies, a war the USA won once the production system of the USSR could no longer keep up with the desire of their population. Again, it wasn't about the manufacture of any real items but who would generate more symbolic capital.

I don't see Kissinger's use of the Vietnam War as of the same order, but plain old propaganda, the substitution of one truth for another. Trump is not the least concerned with true and false and presents no coherent plan or ideology.

Perhaps there is an ultimate irony here, and Trump learned something useful from Occupy Wall Street.

robin said...

Here there is an annoying inability to edit posts. Several typos exist in the above.

"How could it be?" -> "How could it?"

"If exchanged" -> "If exchanges"
"early ahead" -> "early"

I suppose instead of "I watched with awe" I should have written "I watched with shock and awe".

robin said...

Gabor, thanks for the comments, which I hope do not get lost in the rather out-sized discussion between Ann and myself.

I agree with your characterisation of myself as perhaps too over-heated in my rant.

However, I would like to point out that the idea of "presenting both sides" of a debate is a journalistic invention designed to feign an objective position (which cannot exist) while stifling real debate (because there are never only two sides. I do not subscribe to this tenet; in fact, I vigorously oppose it.

Post a Comment