One of the most unique documentarians working today, the BBC journalist Adam Curtis has for decades produced films which are compelling commentaries on modern civilisation, a body of work which provides insights into the forces that have shaped the post-war era. His controversial documentary The Power Of Nightmares (2004), in which he attacked Western politicians and the media for exaggerating the dangers of terrorism, was described by a critic as “a Noam Chomsky lecture channelled by Monty Python” and by an admirer as “taking the Red Pill in the movie The Matrix.”
“My job description,” says Curtis, “is to make people aware of power. To let them see the forces around them. The things they don’t see.”
Curtis’ latest film, the 166-minute HyperNormalisation showcases his talent for doing this by making connections between cultural trends and political events that most observers would not notice. His narration opens,“We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world — suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even Brexit. Yet those in control seem unable to deal with them, and no one has any vision of a different or a better kind of future. This film will tell the story of how we got to this strange place. It is about how over the past 40 years politicians, financiers, and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system — the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counter-culture — actually became part of the trickery, because they too had retreated into the make-believe world. Which is why their opposition has no effect, and nothing ever changes.”
The documentary then breezes through a wide variety of subjects which serve to enunciate Curtis’ theses, if sometimes only tangentially — the rise of suicide bombing under the auspices of Ayatollah Khomeini and its subsequent use by Hamas; the conflict between Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger due to the latter’s “constructive ambiguity”; technological utopians such as John Perry Barlow and their dream of online freedom; the rise of Artificial Intelligence and its use by software companies to monitor and influence people’s online habits; former radicals such as Patti Smith and Jane Fonda who abandoned revolution for a cool detachment; the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.
However, Curtis does not place the blame for this predicament solely with politicians. HyperNormalisation also discusses how the withdrawal by radicals into self-centeredness, coupled with the rise of an insular Internet culture reinforced by the intelligent algorithms of various websites, corporations and networks, has led to a world where people are detached from political reality and obsessed with the frivolous. Recurring throughout the film is the relationship between Colonel Gaddafi and the West, which is used as an example of how the United States, “paralysed by the complexity” of the situation in the Middle East, constructed a more manageable “super-villain” in order to explain events which had intractable roots. Gaddafi did nothing to discourage this, thus helping to create a fake world in which both sides tacitly accepted lies as truth. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi became a friend and fake hero when he promised to dismantle weapons of mass destruction he didn’t possess, and then a few years later was branded again as a villain when the Arab Spring arose.
The result of such “perception management”, according to Curtis, is a general disbelief in the narratives spun out by politicians, leading to the rise of political technologists such as Vladislav Surkov in Russia and Donald Trump in the US, both of whom deliberately act in a bewilderingly self-contradictory matter. In a 2011 article for the London Review of Books by Peter Pomerantsev titled “Putin’s Rasputin”, Surkov is described as being at the centre of a fusion of despotism and post-modernism, “sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
Curtis makes a connection between this approach by Surkov and the language of Trump, which at turns bears resemblance to both the Occupy Movement and the far right. The 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal carries the following confession by the President-elect: “I play to people’s fantasies… People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
Aptly, The Art of the Deal was ghost-written, and its author Tony Schwartz, in a mea culpa expressed in The New Yorker, stated , ‘“Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?” Unsurprisingly, Trump, according to Schwartz, loved the phrase, and Trump biographer Timothy L O’Brien described the book as a “nonfiction work of fiction.” “Welcome to the post-truth world,” declares the trailer for HyperNormalisation.
However, Curtis does not place the blame for this predicament solely with politicians. HyperNormalisation also discusses how the withdrawal by radicals into self-centeredness, coupled with the rise of an insular internet culture reinforced by the intelligent algorithms of various websites, corporations and networks, has led to a world where people are detached from political reality and obsessed with the frivolous. As one astute online observer — Carmen Hermosillo — noted as early as 1994, “Cyberspace is a black hole. It absorbs energy and personality, and then represents it as an emotional spectacle. It is done by businesses that commodify human interaction and emotion, and we are getting lost in the spectacle.”
This technologically-driven insulation may explain the footage in HyperNormalisation of the tearful British citizen dazed by Brexit, and the wider shock at the election of Trump as President of the United States. It also explains why the armchair philosophers and Facebook warriors who poured out on to the streets for the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring were unable to produce lasting structural changes.