Brian Holmes on Wed, 27 Jun 2007 15:09:21 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century

Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century

Brian Holmes

For those entranced by the essay-films of, say, Chris Marker, the
documentaries of Adam Curtis may seem rather vulgar. The insistent
visual trope of a flashlight probing erratically into a dark,
abandoned space full of conduits and wires returns one too many
times. Where Marker offers you the idiosyncratic memoirs of unique
travels and existential encounters with human beings in all their
depth and intensity, Curtis constructs a broad, abstracted picture
by splicing together bits of tape from talk-show interviews, promo
films or the odd reel of government-service footage. Where Marker
clears his throat and plunges into a poetically unfolding phrase
that releases a lifetime of historical experience into a singular
moment of visual consciousness, Curtis clips off his dramatic,
generalizing pronouncements with a chilling diction that rarely
varies--a functional replacement for the suspense-building bass
line that you end up hearing anyway, through sheer force of past
manipulations. The point is that despite the intellectual depth and
visual complexity of Curtis's work, there is no comparison with the
aesthetic subtlety of the essay-film, and cinephiles can go back to
their darkened theaters. This is TV, made for the anxious postmoderns
with their zapper and their 36-inch screen. But what great TV!

The story Curtis has to tell is always fundamentally the same, except
for the fantastic attention to details. He obsessively retraces the
intellectual history of the 20th century to find out how arcane ideas
became widespread psychiatric and managerial techniques, which in
turn produced what we call our private selves and what we feel as
our shared predicament. He has clearly read a lot of Foucault; but
not only. He is attached to social reality more than philosophical
theory. What interests him are specific thinkers and inventors, but
also commercial, political and military decisions that retrospectively
place the breakthroughs of those forgotten thinkers and inventors
at the origin of everything that currently functions and controls.
He never hesitates to follow the paths of control into contemporary
parties and governments. Political engagement, incisive theory,
historical research and the use of the televisual medium have made
Curtis into one of the most broadly influential cultural critics of
this decade.

His own technique is to isolate privileged figures and to interview
them personally, or if they are no longer alive, to unearth the
historical footage and professorial commentaries that will sum up
their discovery in a nutshell, along with its consequences for society
at large. After that he delivers an unsourced barrage of information
about social change at a given period and in a given country--usually
Britain or the USA--while gradually introducing other privileged
thinkers or inventors, and other professorial commentators on them,
either as relays or dialectical rivals of the first. Accompanying
this discourse are both standard documentary clips of whatever is
being discussed, and complex, non-linear edits from an extremely
well-researched trove of images: bits of newsreels, excerpts of film
classics, commercials, scientific, professional or military documents,
TV outtakes, experimental cinema, stills, freeze frames, all threaded
through each other in a rapid montage, agile and unpredictable
like thought itself. Through the montage approach, the audiovisual
experience comes very close to reproducing the uncanny gap one often
feels between the steady flow of inner discursivity and the startling
movements of one's own imagination.

What the filmmaker achieves with his technique are hour-long bursts of
awareness that what we are living through today has been constructed,
that behind common knowledge there are hidden sciences, and that
government is basically the choice of a ruling epistemology, about
which the public is never sufficiently informed. Curtis, like
Foucault, consistently asks: "Do you want to be governed like that?"
And he asks it with respect to the most contemporary forms of
psychological manipulation, of military and security rhetoric, of
economic doctrine and workplace organization. These are alarm-clock
films, wake-up calls for passive populations whose only recourse would
be to think sociologically: but not as their masters do.

Genealogies of Power

Like other people who live out of BBC range and don't watch TV anyway,
I discovered Curtis on the net in late 2004, when references started
cropping up to "The Power of Nightmares." The 3-part series looks
into the genealogy of the War on Terror, beginning with a double
portrait in an American frame: the Egyptian writer Sayeed Qutb, who
would become the major spiritual force of the Muslim Brotherhood,
and the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, who inspired the
neoconservatives. Both, according to Curtis, were revolted by the
commercial ignorance and tawdry sexuality of popular democracy in
the USA, as they experienced it during during the country's rise to
hegemony in the Forties. In the light of Qutb's contributions to
radical Islam, the epic political convictions of the neocons appear as
just another way of recoiling in horror from the consumerist void. But
the ambiguity of the film is that you never know whether the director
shares that sense of disgust, or what alternative he would offer.

Most of the politically scandalous material here is probably familiar
now, thanks to the efforts of people like Curtis himself. But the
series is still worth seeing for a dozen reasons, not least the
documents of Qutb and other Muslim Brothers being tortured in Egyptian
jails, or the tale of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board's "Team
B," formed under Ford's presidency to investigate the supposed missile
gap between the US and the Soviets. Team B reads as a nearly complete
list of those whom we call the necons: the operation was demanded by
Albert Wohlstetter, promoted by Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, and
staffed by vampires like Wolfowitz, Richard Pipes and Paul Nitzan, the
latter having already been the founder of the Cold-War era "Committee
on the Present Danger" that came back to haunt us in 2004. Who could
escape being obsessed by the eternal return of the politically undead?

To claim that Bush and Blair have exploited the Al Qaeda threat for
geopolitical power agendas is restating the obvious. But it has to
be done. It's absurd that "The Power of Nightmares" was never shown
on American TV, and remains largely unknown in the land of Infinite
Justice. The same holds for "Century of the Self," a 2002 series on
psychiatry's dubious contributions to who we think we are and what
can be done with us. The evil-twin relation plays out here between
uncle and nephew: the pessimistic Sigmund Freud and the cynical Edward
Bernays, inventor of "public relations."

To understand Bernays, all you have to do is read his essay, "The
Engineering of Consent," still the unsurpassed bible of the PR
profession; or check out his "Torches of Freedom" campaign to liberate
women smokers in the Twenties. But Curtis's film becomes genuinely
fascinating as it portrays the degree of authority that Freud's
iconoclastic thought could bring to the bureaucratically standardized
moralities of mid-century America. Even more compelling is the story
of Freud's rejection by the public in the late Sixties, in favor
of new injunctions to openly express and explore not only your
sexuality, as Wilhelm Reich proposed, but also your most aggressive
and competitive drives--as Werner Erhard taught in the confrontational
group encounters of his Erhard Seminars Training (EST), the psychic
crucible of a new managerial elite.

Erhard appears as the dialectical rival of Freud, less an evil
twin than a hip Californian sublation of the austere Austrian
thinker. The corporate Eighties, complete with Yippie Jerry Rubin's
timely reincarnation as a PR exec, come off in Curtis's film as
the world-that-Erhard-made. Beyond the manipulative psychology of
focus-group politics that Curtis describes in part 4, the political
point of all this seems to be that if the Right has effectively
analyzed all the negative consequences of Sixties' experimentalism and
the quest for liberation, the Left has not done so in any way that
can compete for public legitimacy, while still saving what we find
positive about those latter-day Nietzschean adventures. Curtis hasn't
done that either, but at least he's asked the question, which is what
the self-satisfied generations of the Eighties and Nineties failed to
do, leading to one of the big dead-ends of the present.

Fatal Equilibrium

Curtis takes on that impasse in his latest series, "The Trap--What
Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?" Cultural critique, as you find
out here, has become damnably complex in the 21st century. The
Frankfurt School in the Thirties had to face the socialization of
family authority, taken over by the Fascist state dressed up as your
dad or your preacher. The kind of social power that we now have to
face involves the mathematical reduction of all conceivable behavior
into probability scenarios, which allow for the computer-assisted
prediction of minority and majority trends by big businessmen and
politicians (or whoever can draw effective conclusions from the vast,
meticulous and expensive data-gathering processes--i.e. those same
two groups). On the one hand, the scientific story of an extremely
influential epistemology is begging to be told; but on the other, the
political reasons for its massive deployment remain the key to its
effective power. This is where thinking sociologically can bring you
to the heart of the civilizational predicament that we share in the
present. That is, if you're willing to tease out a few more threads
from the history of ideas...

"The Trap" begins with imagery that's familiar to anyone who has read
Paul N. Edwards' great book on Cold-War cybernetics, "The Closed
World." What you see are American military personnel operating the
Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE early warning system--the
sprawling, Pynchonesque white elephant of US nuclear paranoia that
drove the industrial development of digital computers, despite its
functional uselessness. Edwards can tell you everything about the way
that SAGE developed into both the automated SABRE airline ticketing
network and the Worldwide Military Command and Control System, out
of which came Operation Igloo White, headquartered in Nakhom Phanom
in Thailand. This was the US Air Force surveillance operation that
directed high-altitude bombing of gridded sectors of the Ho Chi Minh
Trail, inaugurating the perpetually faked American claims to pinpoint
accuracy. But Curtis doesn't even go into all that, because he's after
more rarefied game: namely, the atomic-era game theory developed under
RAND corporation auspices, by a literally crazy mathematician named
John Nash.

Everyone remembers the Cold-War premise of Mutually Assured
Destruction (MAD), and the elaborate system of reciprocal signaling
that emerged, whereby the construction of new weapons only served to
prove that one had recognized the opponent's firm expectation that
any rise in the stakes would be matched by the other side, in the
most deliberate and rational fashion. This was Cold-War game theory.
But the psychotic Nash (who according to Curtis was hardly the gentle
hero portrayed in "A Beautiful Mind") took the theory much further:
"He made the fundamental assumption that all human behavior was
exactly like that involved in the hostile, competitive world of the
nuclear standoff, that human beings constantly watched and monitored
each other, and to get what they wanted, they would adjust their
strategies to each other. In a series of equations for which he would
win the Nobel prize, Nash showed that a system driven by suspicion and
selfishness did not have to lead to chaos. He proved that there could
always be a point of equilibrium, in which everyone's self-interest
was perfectly balanced against each other."

In classic Curtis fashion, the last sentence, defining the crucial 
concept of the Nash equilibrium, unfolds against three views of the same 
busy, four-lane city street: the first, close up and agitated, from a 
skewed diagonal vantage that emphasizes erratic movement; the second, 
still off-center, at a middle distance that accentuates the globular 
flow of the automobiles; and the third, a stable, orthogonal shot from 
above, revealing a single straight line of cars and a perfect grid of 
intersections, with traffic crossing first from one direction, then from 
the other, and so on in infinite binary regress.

The German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle famously remarked that 
19th-century liberalism had reduced the state to the status of a night 
watchman. But in the original sentence he adds: "or a traffic 
policeman." Classical liberalism was already about regulating economic 
flows, ordering the business of the city. But modern-day neoliberalism, 
as it evolved theoretically in the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies, had 
to develop an abstract calculus of conflict resolution that could be 
applied via technological systems to vast populations. What the image of 
the city streets suggests is that the realization of a Nash equilibrium 
on a 20th-century scale requires the work of a traffic engineer steeped 
in the political-economic strategies of game theory.

It was in response to this requirement that economics gradually merged 
with cybernetics, to form what Philip Mirowski calls a "cyborg 
science."[1] The feedback diagram of an economically governed society 
should be completely transparent, reduced to the justice of sheer 
efficiency. But for that, an infinity of zero-sum competitions would 
have to be mapped out and integrated into the self-canceling synthesis 
of the whole. Ultimately, the only information system finely grained 
enough to permit all this coding would be the price signals of the 
market, conceived by Friedrich von Hayek as the perfectly neutral 
informational basis of society's self-organization.

"We will benefit our fellow men most if we are guided solely by the 
striving for gain," claims Hayek in the first archival interview of the 
series. "For this purpose we have to return to an automatic system which 
brings this about, a self-directing automatic system which alone can 
restore the liberty and prosperity," he continues in a Strangelovian 
accent. "What about altruism, where does that come in?" asks the British 
interviewer. "Ah... it doesn't come in," Hayek replies after a brief 
hesitation. For a moment his face, equipped with a hearing aid, seems 
also to hesitate in time, caught in a freeze frame, staring out from the 
ghostly archives of television.

Negative Freedom

The first installment of the series is largely concerned with 
political-economic theory. The second part of "The Trap" explores the 
social destinies of this market-based coding of competitive 
self-interest, whereby everyone is conceived as a little 
information-processor elaborating strategies of monetary gain within a 
rule-governed system.[2] In the British civil service under Blair, and 
more broadly, under the Nineties paradigm of "the new public 
management," game-theory models gave rise to systems of continuous 
statistical monitoring, where section chiefs were given salary 
incentives to meet improvement targets expressed by means of bar graphs; 
while the methods they should use to move the graphs were left up to 
their own initiative. As Curtis insists, this statistical reification of 
responsibilities not only alienates the new managers, but also spreads 
through society the normative model of a calculating individual, bereft 
of fellow-feeling, cooperative spirit, ideals of the public good or any 
other sense of solidarity. The result, in Britain as elsewhere, has been 
a dramatic rise in social inequality. And this whole pattern was 
introduced, we are told, in the late Eighties under the government of 
Mrs. Thatcher, who confided the reform of the National Health Service to 
an American economist, Alain Enthoven--a man who had studied game theory 
at RAND in the Fifties, and then worked in the Sixties for the Secretary 
of the Defense as the primary strategist of nuclear deterrence.

To evoke the genesis of government by statistics (the word means
literally "the mathematics of the state"), Curtis could have focused
on the aggressive mathematical genius John von Neumann, who not only
developed the basic architecture of the computers used in systems
like SAGE, but was also the author, with Oskar Morgenstern, of "The
Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" (1944). But the model of the
Nash equilibrium fits into a larger analysis, developed throughout
the series but only made explicit in the final part. This has to do
with the adherence of the Cold-War democracies to a political concept
that Isaiah Berlin described as "negative freedom." For Berlin this is
freedom from governmental constraint, the freedom to decide privately
on a private destiny--at antipodes from the revolutionary notion of a
positive freedom that would remake society and all its members in the
image of a higher ideal, even at the price of totalitarianism.

>From the liberal viewpoint, this amounts to a radical skepticism
towards the state: "I hate government. I hate power. I think that
man's existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power,
to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is
the least exerted," insists the grotesquely conservative pundit
Malcolm Muggeridge. James Buchanan's "public choice theory" would
justify that skepticism, pointing to the many ways that officials
personally profited from their positions. By these paths, the logic
of negative freedom ultimately led to the disavowal of any genuine
commitment to public service. And in Curtis's reading of the Sixties
and Seventies, radical critiques of institutional authority came
to dovetail with this anti-revolutionary position, and thus gave
an absolute legitimacy to the supposedly objective, depersonalized
equilibrium of a game-theoretical world.

Developing an historical irony, Curtis points to the way that
renegade psychiatrist R.D. Laing used game theory to analyze the
internalization by families of the political struggle for power and
control ("People induced their children to adjust to life by poisoning
themselves to a level of subsistence existence," the psychiatrist
explains in an interview). Laing then used his bleak portrait of
intimate relations to attack all claims of morality and disinterested
public service, as held up by psychiatric institutions in particular.
The fallibility of institutional judgment was criticized to the core.
But the result, for Curtis, is yet another aspect of depersonalized
society: the introduction of purely objective criteria for the
diagnosis of mental illness (the Diagnostic Symptoms Manual), and the
almost universal recourse to drugs like Prozac to help people adapt
to difficult situations in life, rather than confronting and solving
them. The dead-end of negative freedom and its private destinies would
be a life without meaning or purpose--which, for the filmmaker, is
exactly what the winners of the Cold War have sought to impose on the
rest of the world.

The assessment of Laing misses a lot of what's involved in a depth
psychologist's appropriation of game theory.[3] Similarly, Curtis
is quick to insinuate that the counter-cultural critique of empty
moral sentiments and abusive institutional authority can be blamed
for ruining the foundations of social trust, even though his own film
shows how that critique was motivated by the very real problems of
Cold-War society. The condemnation of Leftist nihilism harks back to a
Golden Age that never was. But what remains despite these ambiguities
is another sharp reminder of the way that the critique of alienation
in the Sixties helped to justify the installation of a scientifically
robust calculus of individual motivations, built over the course of
the Eighties into a powerfully normative techno-economic framework.
This is the operational framework of what is generally known as
neoliberal society--even if Curtis, in his concern to stress the
influence of game theory, prefers to avoid that blanket concept.

The strong point of the film is to reveal in the final section how
the pretense to democratic objectivity and axiomatic neutrality is
gradually shattered from within. First Reagan, then Blair and Bush
begin to seek a wider meaning for politics, attempting to export the
Western system of self-regulating equilibrium by force of arms if
necessary--attempting, in other words, to remake the world in the
image of an idealized negative freedom. In so doing, Curtis claims,
they unwittingly go down the same path that leads from the French
revolutionary Terror to the more recent calls for violent liberation
espoused by Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Pol Pot or the Iranian revolutionary
Ali Shariati.

There are two examples of this contradiction at the heart of
neoconservatism. The first concerns the disastrous restructuring of
the Russian economy after the end of the Soviet Union according to
the shock therapy dictates of Jeffrey Sachs. For Curtis this is a
radically impoverished version of democracy, in which the electoral
facade covers a predatory economic system. The result, in Russia,
was the economic collapse of 1998, then the ascension of Putin to
power, documented by impressive sequences in which the Russian leader
describes the many breakdowns of society that make firm authority
more relevant than the pretense of democracy. The second has to do
with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the extremely summary
imposition by the Americans of electoral democracies that do not
even include the right to unionized labor, and the concomitant rise
of Islamic fundamentalism as an increasingly legitimate response to
invasion on all levels. Curtis shows forcefully what most politicians,
commentators and common people in the West still refuse to accept:
that worldwide opposition to the democratic program arises not just
from fear of modernity and atavistic regression, but above all in
reaction to the intense exploitation, oppression and domination put
into effect by that same "democratic" program.

Curtis tries to clinch all this by referring to a letter written by
Blair to Isaiah Berlin shortly before the philosopher's death in 1997,
in which the Labour-party leader evokes an existential void and a need
to overcome it: "You seem to be saying... that because traditional
socialism no longer exists, there is no Left. But surely the Left
over the last 200 years has been based on a value system, predating
the Soviet model and living on beyond it. As you say, the origins of
the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and
hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have
a ready made vehicle to take them forward. That seems to me to be
today's challenge." Blair is portrayed as an idealist without a cause,
or who is incapable of a having a cause because of the very content
of his ideals. But was the "just war" of Kosovo, followed by the
anti-terrorism crusades in Afghanistan and Iraq, really the symptom of
an intrinsically contradictory and necessarily self-defeating desire
to fill an existential void, by proposing and imposing a positive
ideal of negative liberty?

As in "The Power of Nightmares," the suggestion here is that the
democratic ideologues share something with the authoritarians and
the Islamic fundamentalists, namely a kind of horror vacui before
the failings of market hegemony. But much has been added. Despite an
incomplete analysis of Blair's motivations (Curtis tends to focus on
political and governmental dimensions of the state, while neglecting
corporate influence), the filmmaker is now able to identify the causes
of the revulsion he feels, as well as the sequence of reactions that
those first causes are producing in different regions and at different
class levels of world society. "The Trap" is a largely successful
effort to come to grips with one of the great enigmas of the present:
how neolib goes neocon.

Last Look

One of the things I find intriguing about this sweeping critical
fresco is the total absence of all the filigree of second-order
cybernetics, whereby Leftist theorists in the Eighties and Nineties
tried to complexify the crude feedback systems and miserable ego
psychology of the information engineers, suggesting that games were
only interesting, in a human sense, when you could change the rules in
the course of play. The absence of those theoretical embellishments
has the advantage of revealing the banal persistence in society of
highly alienating mechanisms, for which there has as yet been devised
no practical alternative (one that would be able, for instance, to
reconcile the demand of equal treatment for all with the need for
personalized attention to singular situations). But by the same token,
Curtis ignores the decidedly minority, but extremely important work
on the ethics and technics of free cooperation, which grows from the
second-order theories and is carried out in the new counter-cultural
worlds of computer hacking and transnational solidarity movements.
Therefore he has to resort to a moralizing language that recalls
Etzioni and the communitarians at best, or at worst, the mumblings of
Prince Charles about the failures of modern architecture.

What the new alternative movements seem to lack, in their turn, is
the breadth of the political, economic and technical vocabulary
developed here, which allows one to name every aspect of the real
problems, and to analyze the solidified foundations of consensus that
would have to be dissolved before any social change could ruffle the
technocratic equilibrium of society. It is not enough to say that
capitalism inevitably destroys the very social ties that gurantee its
own reproduction; because the processes of self-destruction, installed
at the very sources of the self, have to confronted and transformed.
In particular, the more technologically enthusiastic adepts of the
new movements would have to analyze their own ideas of spontaneous
self-organization, in order to distinguish them from the extensive
treatment that Hayek has given to the same theme.[4] But what everyone
seems to lack today are credible and effective responses to the
fundamentalist ideologies and authoritarian figures that have arisen
in the face of the economic, cultural and psychic decay brought on by
predatory neoliberalism.

In his final remarks, Curtis makes a rhetorical effort to insist on
the need for such responses: "Our government relies on a simplistic
economic model of human beings, that allows inequality to grow and
offers nothing positive in the face of the reactionary forces they
have helped to awake around the world. If we ever want to escape from
this limited world view, we will have to rediscover the progressive,
positive ideas of freedom, and realize that Isaiah Berlin was wrong:
not all attempts to change the world for the better lead to tyranny."
But as the contorted visage of Hayek recedes into the backdrops of
memory, what lingers in your mind is not any new positive idea,
but the image of Putin slowly raising his eyes, then deliberately
staring at you. Cultural critique has much left to achieve in the 21st

[This was written for free distribution on the net; take the corrected
version, If
anyone wants to do the honors of paper publication, please get in
touch. -BH]

See the films:
"The Century of the Self" and "The Power of Nightmares" can be 
downloaded at (search for the titles).
Torrent files for "BBC The Trap" are available at Or 
search at (low-res versions).

???1. In Curtis's documentaries, one can often pick out the scholar whose 
book, more than any other, has provided the red thread along which the 
narrative unfolds. Here the book is Philip Mirowski's Machine Dreams: 
Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

2. Compare again Hayek: "Much of the opposition to a system of freedom 
under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective 
co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a 
commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has 
been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous 
activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that 
there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each 
individual." The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 
1960), p. 159.

3. Here is Gerald Alper's assessment of Laing's encoding practice: "We 
can not help but note the striking similarity of the stark regularity of 
Laing's pattern and the behavioral strategies which game theorists love 
to postulate. Yet, there is a huge difference. Despite the beauty of 
near precision, there is nothing quantitative, mathematical, logical, or 
even cognitive about Laing's patterns. As a matter of fact, especially 
in Knots, Laing appears to derive mischievous pleasure, in the 
self-defeating, schizoid entanglements he is at pains to unfold. This is 
understandable once it is recognized that Laing's patterns are 
psychodynamic to the core, shot through with meaning, intrapsychic as 
well as interpersonal, and have little if anything to do with 
hypothesized costs and benefits or cognitive, adaptive strategies." From 
"The Theory of Games and Psychoanalysis," in Journal of Contemporary 
Psychotherapy, 23/1, 1993, pp. 54-55.

4. Cf. "The Use of Knowledge in Society," published in The American 
Economic Review 35/4, 1945. Here, Hayek describes the price mechanism as 
"a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to 
watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch 
the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes 
of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price 
movement" (p. 527).

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