HyperNormalisation

Ultimately, Curtis’ argument is that the oversimplification of complex problems breeds oversimplified solutions, and when these overly simple solutions are implemented—often violently—they produce unintended consequences that further complicate the calculus. I would like to keep this front and center, because while Curtis has many aesthetic and methodological weaknesses, the framing of his thesis remains sound, even if he himself is not fully beholden to it. The case for complexity is a flexible position, one that does not divide political and ideological camps into categories of right and wrong—or even of more right and more wrong—but flattens them, from communism to fascism, across political parties and religious and cultural divides. He is not saying they are the same—a false equivalency to be sure—but that the root of their failures lies in their shared commitment to uncomplicated diagnosis and prognoses.

HyperNormalisation both presents the complexities of our political reality and yet grossly oversimplifies others.

HyperNormalisation, like much of Curtis’ body of work, is as enjoyable and meaningful as my ability to engage with it critically. I don’t mean to paraphrase Jodorowsky here: “if you are great Adam Curtis is great, if you are limited Adam Curtis is limited”. However, I am making a case for a way of seeing; an approach and strategy for both making meaning and enjoying a film. And let's be honest, Curtis has style.

The films of Adam Curtis are best approached like scholarship, which does not elevate the material but rather presents a very particular mode of critical viewing. While Curtis is first and foremost a television journalist, his films occupy a place of essay film journalism, but unlike the great polemical essay filmmakers Curtis is far less transparent and reflexive of his own positionality. The reception of his last three films (HyperNormalisation, Bitter Lake, and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace) has been met with more or less polemical factions: one that uncritically embraces his work as messianic in an age of post-truth image manipulation (a Brian Oblivion throwing wrenches in the nerve center of media fabrication) and as an Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. Both criticisms work because his unique style is so visceral, frenetic, and seductive. In short: Curtis is a master filmmaker whose chops reveal an ever-evolving agitprop polemicist. But to return to my suggestion of viewing his work as scholarship: it is best to weigh the strengths and limitations of his methodology, not just his aesthetic, but the actual critical tools he employs to produce meaning from a century of images and ideology.

What makes Curtis so compelling is that he takes a Foucauldian approach to knowledge production: all of his films are critical genealogies of ideas. He traces the fundamental ideologies of our time back to the charismatic individuals who first articulated them. Along the way he examines how they have shifted, mutated, and intertwined with other—often contradictory—sets of ideologies. In perpetually asking 'how did we end up here', Curtis charts the consequences of ideas and how they’ve lead to the current state of affairs. As a method this is a strong approach. Foucauldian genealogy remains exclusively an academic method of research, and Curtis remains a journalist. This means that the weaknesses of his films (i.e. their arguments) is largely an unintended consequence of melding the practice of genealogy with that of journalism, which is the up-to-the-minute production of narratives to make sense of current events.

Also like Foucault, according to his strongest critics Curtis has a tendency to show power without agency, to present a world view with no escape. To essentially critique Leftist movements for having no vision of an alternate future while he himself presents no vision of an alternate future. (I'd argue that Foucault is more nuanced than this, but the criticism is one that demands attention).

When Curtis’ films work it is because they establish clear boundaries of their subject and diligently trace the evolution of a core set of topics. When they don’t work, like in HyperNormalisation, it is because his genealogies are too disparate and he makes leaps in order to connect them. Sometimes this is the product of shorthand: HyperNormalisation is essentially a synthesis of his previous works, but lacking in the detail and diligence that he has shown in Bitter Lake, The Trap, or The Power of Nightmares. In many ways, his latest film plays like late-period Zizek: endless paraphrasing of his own body of work (in short: lazy).

HyperNormalisation suffers from several key oversimplifications. Curtis alternates between a hyper-focus on individual figures and broad strokes generalizations. By bringing in the personalities and peccadilloes of key individuals into a close scrutiny of their own personal philosophies, he allows for an illustration of how human subjectivity shapes social engineering programs. But at other times he paints with such a broad brush that he effectively removes all agency from entire generations or populations of people. Americans are now shaped entirely by runaway ideologies of individualism. Arabs are now infected with a virus of bloodthirsty martyrdom. The West becomes a brooding corporate villain and the “Middle East”, while recognized as a construction of the Western World View, is comprised of mobs of impressionable trauma victims and radical thinkers. Curtis rarely, if ever, shows exceptions, mavericks, or rebels. Individuality is granted only to his important figures, which are venal at worst or misguided dupes of history at best. This creates ever more frustrating layers of omission and over-simplification as the complexities of national populations disappear under the shadows of Great Men.

A key example in HyperNormalisation is a strangely gendered one; one that feminist and Queer scholars have been writing about for several decades. In the film, Curtis only provides two examples of opposition to the historical wave of egalitarian cyberspace individualism: Author William Gibson and counter-cultural hacker Phiber Optik (both men). Yet he provides an endless string of examples of women and girls who represent the abandonment of Leftist critique and the destructive embrace of individualism. These women include feminist avant-gardist Martha Rosler, recording artist Patti Smith, activist-cum-workout guru Jane Fonda, and a number of young girls dancing for YouTube videos that represent the apotheosis of Western self-indulgence. Those poor men of the cause, they didn’t stand a chance against those hyper-consumerist neoliberal women! What this film really needs is more Thatcher, but that might’ve added an additional hour, and two hours and forty two minutes is already kind of pushing it.

This problem also illustrates another of Curtis' omissions: academia is largely painted as a complacent or cheer-leading force in the West for the ideological problems that Curtis highlights. This is not unique to Curtis and has become a common feat of the most authentic Left. War correspondent and radical activist Chris Hedges pulled a similar stunt in his books The Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion: highlighting similar issues as Curtis, he quotes the most abstract academic theory in order to prove how out of touch it is with reality. While jargon can become exclusionary and pretentious, do we fault medical doctors for using the terms of a specialist in their academic journals? What about all those thinkers and activists that studied, named, and challenged all the ideas that Curtis is presenting as his own?

Yet these significant problems do not wholly undermine Curtis’ work. HyperNormalisation is one of the most important films of 2016 if not because of the topics it is tackling than at least for its stylistic approach. Political Cinema is practically non-existent in an age of viral videos and contemporary documentaries are largely under the spell of objectivity and driven solely by content, preaching to their respective choirs. With Curtis we have an avant-gardist and committed critic of the left. The genealogies that he traces in his previous works are essential viewing, but should be viewed critically in the same way that any piece of scholarship should be read. The difference being that good scholarship is transparent so that its methods can be clearly evaluated. Even HyperNormalisation has its crucial highlights and I will always have the time of day for a film that attempts to properly historicize Western interventions in the Middle East and critique neoliberal ideology.

What I derive from viewing HyperNormalisation in this way is that it has a lot of important things to engage with and consider and it’s a pretty brilliant feat of agitprop cum essay-reporting, but it also has serious limitations in its methods of analysis and of narrative construction.

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