In recent years my academic work has revolved around the analysis of two main concepts: ‘hyper-democracy’ and ‘normality.’ The former in relation to the outburst of forms and tools of democratic engagement in a historical period defined by anti-political sentiment; the latter relating to the common cry of those disaffected democrats – ‘why can’t politicians just be normal?’ Not only are these topics rarely discussed in the same breadth, they are also hardly likely to form key elements of any primetime broadcasting schedule. But miracles do happen, and the highlight of past month was the broadcast of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary on the topic of ‘Hyper-Normalisation.’ But just like democratic politics, hope and excitement were quickly followed by dejection and despair.
Over the past decade thousands of University of Sheffield undergraduates have been intellectually nourished by the work of Adam Curtis, as his documentaries provide a wonderful way of grounding and understanding a range of historical themes and intellectual positions. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007) is a fiercely acute and direct analysis of modern social development. It is not a comedy and the production style is raw and direct. The style is journalism as provocation as documentary. As AA Gill wrote in a recent review of Hyper-Normalisation ‘Curtis is a singular social montagist: no one else does his thing.’
But what exactly is ‘his thing’ and why does it matter?
To capture ‘his thing’ is to identify both an art form and an argument. The documentary art form is itself constantly evolving, with films embracing archive clips, interviews, aerial shots, advertisements embedded in a narrative that uses powerful sound effects to capture the raw emotion of the visual images. The viewer is almost ground down through a relentless over-stimulation of the senses in an attempt to make one simple argument: political elites will always try to impose a controlling ideology in their time, and the consequences of this has reached tragi-comic proportions. The existence of a dominant political ideology that controls and shapes the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of the masses lies at the root of Curtis’s art. He is a docu-revolutionary who holds firm to the belief that the world is shaped by big ideas, many of which need to be exorcised for the good of society. Curtis, as the exorcist, and with his films are the tool he uses to expose the existence of ideological forces that benefit the few and certainly not the many.
In a world plagued by increasing forms of social, economic, cultural – even intellectual – homogeneity there must always be a place for those creative rebels like Curtis who possess a rare capacity for mapping out a broad historical and global terrain. His work is mischievous, deconstructive and endlessly creative, in many ways public service broadcasting at its most sublime and valuable. For a man that got his first job in television finding singing dogs for Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life in the 1980s, his professional journey is as remarkable as his films.
But I cannot help but wonder whether Adam Curtis may have fallen into a trap of his own making. Or, put slightly differently, if the style of the art is now limiting the substance in at least two ways. Hyper-Normalisation is an epic endeavor consisting of ten chapters spread over nearly three-hours of content. It covers forty years of nearly everything, everywhere. From artificial intelligence to suicide bombing, and from cyberspace to the LSD counterculture of the 1960s, everything is, for Curtis, part of a universe built upon trickery and plot. The problem is that the connections between the themes and events (the chapters) becomes ever more opaque and tenuous, the viewer understands that an argument is being made but the contours remain fuzzy and the detail unspecified. If topographically translated, then Hyper-Normalisation would be a map that outlined the highest mountains and the deepest seas, but little in between.
Whether the medium is blocking the message is one issue. A second is the normative content of the message. It is undeniably negative, almost nihilistic. It grinds and grates by offering a familiar tale of ideological control and hegemony, but little in terms of any understanding of how change may occur. The nothingness of hyper-normalisation is recounted but not challenged: ‘nothing to learn, nothing to make, no hope of change’ as AA Gill put it. Curtis may well retort that to expose is by definition to challenge and to some extent I would agree but the risk with a ‘Curtisian’ analysis as currently and consistently circulated is that it provides nothing in terms of charting a way out of the trap that it so insightfully exposes.
Featured image credit: camera by Steve Doyle. Public domain via Unsplash.