This is the story of how Adam Curtis became part of the media culture he attacks
My generation of journalists (people in their thirties) grew up watching and wanting to emulate Adam Curtis. In my first year in work, inspired after watching his 2002 documentary The Century of the Self, I even sent him a hand-made job application, artily done and printed on card, which alas seems to have failed to pique his interest. So the criticisms I'm going to make might simply be personal resentment that he didn't give me a job...
His documentaries follow a clear pattern. They always begin ‘this is the story of how...’, and then, typically, they look at the idea of a thinker or handful of thinkers, whose ideas of freedom ended up being used by the ruling elite to maintain power. So his documentaries explore, and attempt to explode, the illusions by which elites maintain control over the masses. It's all done with great panache, and a very clever use of music and archive footage (Curtis himself never appears other than as a voice-over, giving himself the prestige of the omniscient narrator).
The Mayfair Set, for example, explores the illusion of the free market, focusing on a clique of businessmen that rose to power in the 1980s, who were all members of the Claremont Club in London. The Century of the Self explores the illusion of free consumer choice by focusing on the 1950s PR and ad-man, Edward Bernays. The Trap explores the illusion of freedom itself, looking at how the ruling elite hijacked the ideas of games theorist John Nash. And his latest film, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, explores the cybernetic idea of the self-regulating society - and how it too is an illusion behind which the elite continue their devious plots.
What Curtis seems to ‘stand for’ is what he calls the ‘Enlightenment idea’ of humans as rational, autonomous individuals capable of directing their own lives. He seems to suggest that this Enlightenment project is under threat, or perhaps has failed completely, because the masses have been lulled to sleep by the illusions of consumerism, or technocracy, or the perfect self-regulating society - and in their sleep they let the elite control them and make decisions in its own interests. I think this is what Curtis ‘stands for’, although it’s quite hard to know sometimes.
The illusion Curtis himself seems to fall prey to most is the illusion that, behind closed doors in some smoky room, an elite meets and conspires to control the world and delude the masses. I think this grants far too much power to the elite. For example, Edward Bernays may have claimed he was controlling the masses through his advert campaigns - but then, as a PR and advertizing salesman, he would say that. Personally, I don't think anyone or anything is in charge. Except possibly gravity. Or maybe that's an illusion too ('This is the story of how Isaac Newton invented the theory of gravity, only for it to be used by the ruling elite to maintain control'...)
At times, the weaving together of various figures into a single narrative defies belief and almost seems to be showing off. How are Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald and Enos the Chimp connected? Don't worry! By the end of the episode all will be revealed (via a lot of sleight of hand).
By trying to build a conspiracy theory out of a handful of figures and their connection to each other, he ends up over-exaggerating those individuals’ influence on society. For example, his latest documentary explores cybernetics, and blames a handful of systems theorists like Jon von Neumann and Norbert Wiener for the widespread belief that society and nature are self-regulating ecosystems.
But the idea of nature being a self-regulating system existed long before cybernetics and systems theory. It existed in ancient Greece, in the philosophy of Heraclitus and Stoicism. Through the Stoics, it influenced Adam Smith and his theory of the market as a self-regulating organism. Also perhaps through the Stoics, it influenced Friedrich Schiller and Romantic theories of nature. It wasn't just invented in the 1960s. That wildly over-exaggerates the influence of cybernetics and systems theory on western culture.
He blames the idea of the ecosystem for damaging the Enlightenment concept of humans as autonomous rational and political agents, and replacing it with the idea we're nothing more than cogs in a machine. But whose Enlightenment is he talking about? Many Enlightenment thinkers (Comte, de la Mettrie, Marx) had just this sort of mechanistic view of humans and society. Others had sentimentalist views of humans - that we're creatures led by our emotions and sentiments rather than rationality. The idea of humans as rational autonomous individuals is certainly in Kant or Thomas Paine, but is by no means a generally accepted Enlightenment theory.
This isn’t just academic nit-picking. He creates a ‘story’ based around a handful of protagonists, but his history of ideas doesn’t really hold up to rational scrutiny. And in fact, for a documentary maker apparently committed to protecting human rationality against illusions (at least, I think that’s what he stands for), Curtis’ documentaries are themselves pretty irrationalist - a typical trope is to have footage of people dancing along to happy music, and then to suddenly cut to pictures of machines while horror music plays. It’s manipulative, irrationalist, emotive, side-stepping the pre-frontal cortex and instead washing a sea of images and music over us, lulling us to sleep.
In other words, he tries to use the media and techniques of consumer capitalism against itself (a classic Situationist manoeuvre) but ends up, perhaps, creating the sort of irrational and emotive fairy-tales that capitalism manufactures.
I very much admire Curtis, and admire his ability to get such unusual stories onto primetime BBC2. In some ways, he is the only philosopher on our TV screens at the moment. But I can’t help wondering if we have now heard him tell the same story several times, and seen an awful lot of footage of people dancing. The aesthetic is punk, I guess - cutting up the footage of post-capitalist society and using the jagged remnants to ‘deface the currency’ of our culture. But it ends up getting perilously close to being the sort of arthouse collage one could play on the wall of the ICA bar, making all of the hipsters feel deep, without necessitating any actual thinking.
Does he think we're not rational enough to handle ideas without footage of people dancing?