Adam Curtis on the history of ideas, the limits of academia, and the importance of trash
The online journal e-flux has a great interview with BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis, who is one of my heroes (thanks to @lelaissezfaire for the link). As usual, Curtis' subjects range far and wide, but two things caught my eye. Firstly, I didn't know that Curtis was originally an academic at Oxford:
When I was a student, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that politics and power were interesting. I didn’t mind the academy as a student, because you made friends and you had time and space to explore things. But after continuing up at Oxford, doing a PhD and starting to teach politics, I very quickly realized that I hated academia. To get a PhD, you have to find something that no one else has done, possess it, and then build a ring fence of quotations and references around it to protect it. In the 1980s, the academic world was facing uncertainty and because of that becoming increasingly cynical and corrupted. So I decided to leave, but without knowing what to do next.
Someone suggested I apply to the BBC, so I did, at random, and they gave me a job. I made a very silly film for one of the BBC training courses, comparing designer clothes in pop music videos to the design of weapons—I literally got a designer to discuss fashion with a weapons designer who made weapons that killed people. I was being silly, and the man who was running the training course thought it was so ridiculous that he sent me to work on the silliest program in the whole world, which was called That’s Life! with a woman called Esther Rantzen. And I ended up making films about talking dogs. So there wasn’t a moment of epiphany, but it was more like a strange drug-induced experience of lurching from one extreme to another, from teaching politics at Oxford and getting bored to making films about talking dogs and dogs that could sing. But I loved it, I just thought it was simply wonderful. My mother hated it. She thought I should be a serious academic. I had done very well at Oxford, so all the academic people there thought I had gone completely mad, leaving to make films about talking dogs.
Secondly, Curtis describes himself as a historian of ideas. He says: "if you had to reduce what I do, I spend my whole time just looking at how ideas have consequences, not necessarily what the promoters of them intended, because I think that’s a really big thing in our time. " I have my reservations about Curtis, which are well-encapsulated by this video piss-take of him, but I think he shows what a proper cultural historian of ideas needs to be and do today. If you want to study the impact of ideas today, you need to go beyond academia, beyond the study of academic authors, and be able to study aspects of popular or trash culture too. Curtis says:
I entered academia at the moment when the way power works in the modern world was basically becoming much wider and far more intricate. It flowed through culture and consumerism and public relations. It flowed through scientific ideas, and how those scientific ideas were then taken up and turned into technocratic dreams—and dystopias. It flowed through modern ideas drawn from psychotherapy and how to express yourself as an individual. I instinctively recognized that this had happened, but I had no idea how to deal with it, because academia hadn’t realized it yet. So in a way I turned my back on academia and went into television, went to the other extreme. I learned how to do trash. A few years later I worked out that one of the the ways you could tell stories about the workings of modern political power, in ways that political journalists didn’t understand, is through bolting it together with trash techniques. I put jokes in, silliness, self-referential bits about modern culture, and storytelling and emotion—all things I learned through doing trash television.
If you want to explore the history and impact of ideas on contemporary culture, you need to bring together a feel for the intellectual with a feel for the popular and trashy, and have a genuine interest in and even love for both sides. You can't just study the 'great books'. You need to see how these ideas play out in real life, and the strange popular movements and communities they lead to. Curtis does that. So does Tom Wolfe - his essays from the Sixties and Seventies and books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are masterpieces of the history of ideas. So does the cultural critic Greil Marcus. So does Geoff Dyer.
I think Charles Taylor does this to some extent in books like The Ethics of Authenticity, where he talks about the human development movement of the 1970s (one of Adam Curtis' favourite subjects) but he's still pretty cut off. I don't think he ever went and actually attended an Erhard Seminar Training course, for example - he watches it from his ivory tower with a telescope (then again, I'm not sure Curtis ever attended one either, he just watches footage of it in his TV archive bunker. Only Tom Wolfe actually goes to these things and watches with his own eyes). At the other extreme, think of Allan Bloom, and how ridiculous and out-of-touch he sounds when writing about popular culture and sneering at the Rolling Stones in The Closing of the American Mind. He's an example of how not to do the history of ideas.