HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Adam Curtis at e-flux

This spring, e-flux feted the British television journalist Adam Curtis with a complete retrospective of his documentary essays. The Desperate Edge of Now, curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, marked yet another major stage in the canonization of one of the most ambitious contemporary political filmmakers.
Curtis’s two major series—The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, both made for the BBC—migrated to YouTube and Google Video in the mid-’00s, spreading via word of mouth among academics, cinephiles, artists, and politicos. Both have become part of a loose and heterogeneous canon of contemporary leftism, one that would probably also include Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, and Frederic Jameson, among others.

Still from The Mayfair Set—Four Films About the Rise of Business and the Decline of Political Power, 1999.

Curtis’s method is to reverse-engineer contemporary pathologies and illustrate the dialectics that shaped them. Century of the Self focuses on the influence of media and advertising. Curtis argues that Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were gradually embraced and adapted by marketeers and politicians and that this came to define, in obvious and subtle ways, all of Western public and private life. At the beginning of the 20th century, the conflict between fascism and liberal democracy seemed insoluble; if fascism was untenable, liberal democracy came with its own threats: dissensus, chaos. As Freud’s ideas dispersed among the creators of mass media, new, perfectly calibrated, invisible instruments of control essentially resolved the tension between fascism and liberal democracy: two became one.

 The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear traces the twin movements of neo-conservatism and radical Islam. Curtis’s claim is that these were similar responses to the same perceived threat. The anti-Western radical Islamism that began with Sayyid Qutb in the ’50s and the anti-modern neo-conservatism that began with Leo Strauss around the same time both worried about an unmooring of society from traditional values brought on by market capitalism. Each ideology proposed revivifying contemporary life by creating central, structuring antagonisms: worthy and worrisome enemies. And they found these worthy and worrisome enemies in each other: absolute mirror images ready for battle.

Curtis’s formal strategies in these works vacillate between blatant hokum and daring avant-gardism. Purely perfunctory stock footage gives way frequently to strange shock-cuts and juxtapositions reminiscent of experimental filmmakers like Bruce Conner and Arthur Lipsett. The hokum is excused by the made-for-TV format; the daring avant-garde editing seems all the more spectacular, indeed all the more daring, because of the same.

Curtis’s encyclopedic mastery of stock footage springs from the same well as his arguments. He’s a research dork who loves burrowing into strange nooks and crannies of history, and has an incredible eye for the odd anecdote and illustrative example. At one point in Nightmares, Curtis tells the story of Sayyid Qutb’s time in America, climaxing with a moment in which Qutb goes to a dance party and is disgusted by the sight of sexually suggestive dancing to the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Curtis lets the song play out, with its lyrics of bygone courtship:

Woman: I really can’t stay; Man: Baby it’s cold outside

Woman: I’ve got to go away; Man: Baby it’s cold outside

Woman: This evening has been; Man: Been hoping that you’d drop in

Woman: So very nice; Man: I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice

Woman: My mother will start to worry; Man: Beautiful, what’s your hurry?

The scene, as Curtis sketches it, is brilliant. Qutb’s reactionary epiphany is wedded to the exact elements in American culture that gave rise to neo-conservatism. It’s great television, but Curtis’s desire for scenes just like this—scenes that boil history down to a fateful and crystallized run-in between warring philosophies—can lead him astray.

Still from The Trap—What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, 2007.

In his most recent series, The Trap, Curtis wants to trace our entire conception of the self and the world back to the Cold War, more specifically to the development of game theory by John Nash. Game theory, according to Curtis, attempted to model the complexities of nuclear antagonism by assuming each side would be merciless and calculating. The conclusion reached was that mutually assured destruction could serve as the only guarantee of peace.

Curtis then shows how this model of human behavior spread through psychology, philosophy, economics, anthropology, and everything else. A long segment tells how radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s early studies of family life were based in game theory, and how his discoveries therein led him to reject psychoanalysis and develop the anti-psychology movement. Curtis then says the anti-psychology movement lead to a restructuring of medicine, the end result being over prescription of S.S.R.I.s.

Here and elsewhere, Curtis does an incredible job of showing the influence of game theory throughout various disciplines. And he has cutting observations about how Cold War realpolitik infected Westerners’ self-conception and gutted the idea of public service, replacing heroic politicians with self-interested technocrats who could be made good only by being incentivized. He’s also quite funny. That we all think of each other now as, essentially, Cold War enemies, is a humorous way of putting something very true.

And yet The Trap as a whole is eccentric, sometimes absurd. Curtis can’t actually believe that John Nash invented the idea of rational self-interest or that game theory laid the initial foundations for a Hobbesian view of life. But he sometimes talks as if he really does indeed believe these things.

Curtis’s method, as previously noted, is dialectical. But his dialectic is primarily a play of ideologies. His preferred pioneers of these ideologies, these theses and counter-theses, are isolated geniuses and mad scientists like John Nash and R. D. Laing. And his favored moment of dialectical tension is the happenstance backroom meeting. All of his movies are littered with images of long corridors and dimly lit rooms. If the entire basis of contemporary culture wasn’t, as The Trap argues, forged during the Cold War, Curtis’s imagination certainly seems to have been.

The truth is, there’s too much continuity throughout the history of capitalism to bear out many of Curtis’s claims. Curtis argues that the political order of the past 30 or so years goes further than any previous epoch in atomizing the individual. This might be true, but perhaps ideology here is a tool in a larger struggle; our present situation appears to have been the goal of previous pushes toward comprehensive economic liberalization. Curtis rarely considers, in his movies at least, that the development of new ideologies might be mere expressions of very abiding interests—economic interests, perhaps, or else interest in what Corey Robin calls “the private life of power” (gender hierarchies, white supremacy, and other wonderful things).

If Curtis is simplifying things to woo a wide television audience, he leaves the more skeptical viewers with few options but to conclude that he’s occasionally either dishonest or deluded. Still, by the time you’re having these arguments with Curtis in your head, he’s already moving on to some fascinating anecdote or wrapping around to a legitimately awesome conclusion.

The big reveal in The Trap—the moment from which Curtis obviously reverse-engineered his history—is not so much our present economic situation as it is the Iraq War. Curtis claims that it was the deeply internalized and radically simplified model of human behavior implied by game theory and related ideas that allowed Western leaders to plan on the democratization of Iraq being, more or less, a piece of cake.

This is compelling. The purpose of the Iraq War may have been privatization and not liberation, but in planning for the aftermath of the war it really does seem like American leaders thought too highly of the inherent appeal of negative liberty and rational self-interest. Curtis’s argument, basically, is that when Dick Cheney said, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” what he meant was that dangling the promise of marginal self-betterment and self-direction in front of Iraqis would erase in an instant not only the terror of the war itself but literally thousands of years of cultural history. Cheney is probably an evil genius, but this shouldn’t prevent us from concluding that he is also, on another level, a fucking idiot. The music men became entranced by their own tune.

And then Curtis is always winning when he’s beating his drum. He’s an excellent drumbeater. His conclusion in The Trap—a purely negative conception of liberty provides a shoddy basis for a good society and is itself based on a specious conception of what it means to be human—is, if occasionally based on certain oddball ideas, nonetheless right-on. And then Curtis always has a punchline for us. The end of the second part of The Trap notes that John Nash himself rejected game theory, at least as an overarching system for thinking about human behavior. Studies, Curtis tells us, found that the only people whose daily lives conform to game theory models are economists themselves—and psychopaths. I’m picturing the Venn diagram right now.

Contributor

Tom McCormack

TOM McCORMACK is an editor at Alt Screen and the Film and Electronic Art editor at Idiom. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, Moving Image Source, Cinema Scope, Rhizome, and other publications.

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