Adam Curtis's HyperNormalisation

Fri Oct 21, 2016

I had not watched many Adam Curtis documentaries until the last week or so. I’m a bit impressionable, and I may have read a metafilter comment ten years ago that described him as more of a conspiracy theorist than he actually is. To make up for that deficit in understanding, I’ve watched many of the documentaries over the last week. His subjects align with my research interests in a number of ways. He’s quite interested in game theory, public choice, and other quantitative methods of modeling human behavior and draws broader connections between these theories and political events than many scholars do. The Mayfair Set was a particularly fascinating exploration of the intersections between British mercenary groups derived from the SAS and the rise of finance capitalism. The connections are not always given in enough detail to satisfy a scholar in a textual argument, but documentaries do not have this requirement.

He reminds me of Errol Morris, though there are almost never reconstructions in Curtis’s documentaries. There are interviews, but they are not conducted via the Interrotron and seemed relatively minimized compared to Morris’s incessant probing of his subjects.1 I would have loved to hear more from James Buchanan in The Trap, for example, but Curtis seemed content to show only the alarming statement that Buchanan, in a deep Southern accent, couldn’t “put handles” on a concept like public servants being motivated to do good.

James Buchanan being interviewed by Adam Curtis in documentary The Trap

James Buchanan

The most recent documentary is called HyperNormalisation. It’s on youtube, though I’m not sure of the ‘legality’ of that, regarding the ‘intellectual property’ rights, so I won’t link to it directly. Against a background of BBC archival footage and sometimes jarring music selections,2 Curtis outlines a theory of recent history in which Kissingerian realpolitik incited suicide bombings. Though I can’t immediately remember if HyperNormalisation or one of the other documentaries mentioned kidnapped Beirut CIA station chief William F. Buckley, I was recently reading about his career and learned that he was heavily involved in the CIA’s Vietnam operations, which could yet another layer to this tangled web of causality.

What drew a bit of skepticism from me is the prominence Curtis gives to Syria in all of this. It’s clear that he wants to focus on the civil war in Syria (and particularly the Russian involvement) as part of his thesis, but it seems that blaming the Beirut suicide bombings and the Lockerbie bombing entirely on Syria (instead of, or in addition to, Iran) requires more proof. I’m more than willing to believe that Libya’s role in these matters was exaggerated for propaganda purposes, but I think Curtis is attributing too much agency to Assad’s government.

In a brief aside, he associates the role of “political technologists” in contemporary Russian politics with intellectuals who were familiar with the Strugatsky brothers in the 1970s. A clip from a Tarkovsky film (Stalker, an adaptation of the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic) is played in the background, I think, while he makes this claim; but he never follows up on it! What, exactly, in the Strugatsky oeuvre does he find that would lead people to practice mass political deception? I am more than willing to be persuaded by this argument, but it needs more flesh.

A still from Tarkovksy's Stalker showing a young girl moving a bottle with her mind

Tarkovsky's Stalker

The material about the Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov using avant-garde theatrical techniques to create a new kind of political reality is also wild and compelling, though I don’t know enough about the subject to judge it on its merits. Lem, not the Strugatskys, is who I thought of, particularly the world of The Futurological Congress. And the connection between that imposed and contradictory political reality and the current U. S. election only goes so far. As with many documentaries, it’s not so much the ideas that compel but the execution. The hypnotizing effect of so much archival footage, often cruel and almost always decontextualized, often replicates the alienation and despair the voiceover describes.

  1. An interview between Adam Curtis and Errol Morris published in The Believer. In it, Morris laments that Curtis’s documentaries had never received public release in the United States, though I believe that they were already being widely viewed on the internet at that time.
  2. The Trap featured one of my favorite Yo La Tengo songs as a constant refrain, but I didn’t like what the context was implying about the song or what the song was implying about the context.