Their aim was to create a new world... but this was a fantasy...
February 11, 2021 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Documentarian Adam Curtis (many previouslies - here are just a couple) has a new series - Can't Get You Out of My Head with all six episodes available now on iPlayer.

Curtis, whose previous work includes the trilogy comprising The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap, as well as Bitter Lake and Hypernormalisation, is back on iPlayer with a new series of hour-plus documentaries which explore, in his unique style, the power structures, political forces and cultural movements which have shaped the contemporary moment.

Per Lucy Mangan's review in The Guardian:

Adam Curtis’s new series of films (released en masse today on BBC iPlayer) are a dazzling, overwhelming experience. The six hour-and-bit long documentaries set out to tell no more and no less than how we got from there to here. “We” being largely the west, both under our own political, industrial and sociocultural steam and as influenced and inextricably linked to China and Russia, “there” being roughly the mid-20th century and “here” being the polarised, tech-crunched, fragile, teetering edifice we call “now”.

Also in The Guardian, Curtis in conversation with Diane Morgan on the new series.

In Vice, Curtis in conversation with Charlie Brooker on the new series.

BONUS, for those who have not seen it, the pitch-perfect Curtis parody The Loving Trap (of which Curtis is a fan).
posted by deeker (86 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat???????? I didn't know this was coming and now I know what I'll be diving into over the weekend. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:46 AM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I should add, for the uninitiated, that Adam Curtis is one of the foremost sense-makers of human culture over the past century or so. The Century of the Self really helped me to understand the world we're all from.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:51 AM on February 11, 2021 [6 favorites]

Drat. BBC’s iPlayer appears to still be a UK-only affair.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:15 PM on February 11, 2021 [6 favorites]

I really enjoy Adam Curtis, but I feel (in a positive, affectionate way) that his work is a bit like James Burke's Connections. It's a helpful and extremely compelling way to navigate history and understand it as a huge, interconnected network of ideas and actions, but the paths and parallels they illuminate are by no means the only or definitive ones (though they are usually alternatives to the paths that wrongly claim to be definitive). They're so smart and unexpected that they inspire me to find and credit other threads through history.

The interview with Brooker is super interesting, by the way. Those two really make for a cracking conversation.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:17 PM on February 11, 2021 [8 favorites]

In the conversation with Diane Morgan, he responds to a question about what's next for Adam Curtis with words that include "I do have a brutal theory that culture has reached a dead end."

As my defaultism declines and cis-het-white-educated men aren't controlling what we celebrate as the peaks of artistic effort, yeah, I think that kind of culture has hit a dead end*. I'm aware that there more going on than I have time to absorb and process much less seek out and curate good things. I guess I can get behind a vision of participating in a culture where we amplify previously-stolen voices as we make equitable changes because of past injustice.

*: while also ofc no it hasn't, people still want to shape the rails along which our shared culture rolls.
posted by k3ninho at 12:23 PM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

> In Vice, Curtis in conversation with Charlie Brooker on the new series.

I have to admit that until this moment, I was kind of--this is going to sound silly--under the impression that Brooker and Curtis were the same person. Now that I think about it, it's quite obvious that they're different people.
posted by Sterros at 12:31 PM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thorzdad, I'm in the UK so can't check if they're available elsewhere, but the new films seem to be listed on ThoughtMaybe (which also, AFAIK, has copies of all the rest of Curtis' back catalogue).
posted by amcewen at 12:38 PM on February 11, 2021 [7 favorites]

Dang! How can we see this in the US? Oh wait I see you answered that above.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:42 PM on February 11, 2021

The interview with Brooker is super interesting, by the way. Those two really make for a cracking conversation.

Curtis contributed short films to Brooker's Screenwipe (Brooker's satirical news review show back before he made Black Mirror) - which is how the two became friends (and also explains how, as per their conversation, Morgan and Curtis first met at a Screenwipe wrap party).

If you haven't had - or can't get - enough Curtis, he had a short-lived BBC blog, "a selection of opinionated observations and arguments... including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives."
posted by deeker at 12:46 PM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

In Vice, Curtis in conversation with Charlie Brooker on the new series

Adam also spoke for a good hour with Blindboy about this new series of films.
posted by progosk at 1:08 PM on February 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Curtis' indisputably dazzling films are so wide-ranging and all-encompassing they feel like society's own equivalent of the Knausgård novels. They seem to cover nearly everything that has happened and have a distinct feeling-tone, but I never know quite what I am supposed to take away from them other than "Yes, for good and for ill, that's the way humanity has behaved in this era."
posted by PhineasGage at 1:35 PM on February 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've seen two episodes so far, and will need to see them all in order to have a clear idea of it - I had to watch Hypernormalisation quite a few times. I was startled to hear the stories of familiar characters - Mrs Mao, Michael X, Baader-Meinhof, Peter Rachman - told in such a way that they seemed new. Or the way he tells the story of British imperialism and post-war racism as if the viewer hasn't heard of it before. I think it's just that we're so used to hearing the story told in a particular way, that it seems new. Or perhaps it's the interplay between Curtis' carefully modulated voice and the atrocities he's referring to.

Although he's not a radical, the conclusion he seems to be edging towards, and carefully laying out the groundwork for, is: however violent his characters are, their violence is a rational response to a real systematic oppression that they ultimately can't escape.

(Yes, they're real people, but they're also characters in a story, or a number of interweaving stories.)
posted by Grangousier at 3:27 PM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I like Curtis's films but I also like this parody of them.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:55 PM on February 11, 2021 [11 favorites]

OMG that parody is brilliant - I haven't laughed out loud like that in ages. Thanks!
posted by PhineasGage at 4:08 PM on February 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

This analysis of Curtis' previous work, Hypernormalisation, has some good points. On the whole I'm a bit tired of Curtis's schtick, in the same way that I'm tired of Brooker's work - both were a revelation when I first saw them, but seem to have been stuck at the same point and not moved on. Especially with Curtis, who seems to have ripped off most of his style from the 1997 art film about skyjacking, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

An even more punishing critique of Curtis on Open Democracy, which has this great point: "he is fascinated by the intellectuals, and thoroughly bored by the masses. Ordinary people are without agency or distinction..." - this is the kind of thing that gets a kicking in the pages of something like the LRB or New Yorker, but because Curtis is doing a massive 6-hour infodump it's hard to write a review other than 'great, really made me think'.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:19 PM on February 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

That feels a touch unfair what with Pandora's Box dating to 1992 (though I don't entirely disagree with the rest!).
posted by carsondial at 4:47 PM on February 11, 2021

OMG that parody is brilliant - I haven't laughed out loud like that in ages. Thanks!

ditto for me.

I love that I can both love Curtis's work and laugh out loud at it getting skewered. I do think his stuff probably functions best as an introduction toward getting people thinking critically about culture-history-politics-ideology -- the notion that so much of what we take for granted about everyday western "reality" has been deliberately constructed (certainly moulded) by interests whose aims we really ought to be questioning. As for his actual conclusions, I'm sure I've watched at least a solid day's worth of this stuff over the years but couldn't really elucidate any (conclusions that is) beyond "people really need to get a handle on how ideological things are".
posted by philip-random at 5:49 PM on February 11, 2021 [5 favorites]

So I've seen the first three episodes so far, and it's a thoroughly trippy experience: slow-motion ballroom dancing, Chinese revolutionary opera, and Curtis's voice (which always reminds me of Peter Jones as the Voice of the Book) intoning lines like "for her, too, the distinction between the real world and the dream world was becoming blurred".

One thing that Curtis's critics don't always get is how playful he can be. There are some moments, like the Russian version of 'Let It Be' inserted for no apparent reason, or the title card reading '73 YEARS EARLIER', that I can only interpret as Curtis sending himself up. I was irritated by the portentous tone of some of his earlier documentaries, but I find his newer, trippier style utterly entrancing. I also get the sense he has taken on board the criticism about 'fascinated by the intellectuals, bored by the masses' and made an effort to address it. There are some very well chosen pieces of archive footage showing people with little formal education speaking eloquently and directly to camera.

That said, the overall mood is pretty dark. The basic theme is power: the message, as I read it, is that people who possess power will never willingly relinquish it, but that any attempt to deprive them of power by revolutionary force will almost invariably end up reproducing the old power structures in a new form. In short: recommended, but best taken in small doses with spliff in hand.
posted by verstegan at 5:51 PM on February 11, 2021 [7 favorites]

One episode in and really looking forward to the rest. I really enjoy the way all the detail washes over me, the associations that form between sound/image/narrative/text, and how seemingly disparate history is threaded together. Thanks for posting - I'm going to be busy this weekend!
posted by Otherwise at 7:13 PM on February 11, 2021

I need a list of all the music he uses in this.
posted by gucci mane at 10:11 PM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I really enjoy Adam Curtis, but I feel (in a positive, affectionate way) that his work is a bit like James Burke's Connections. It's a helpful and extremely compelling way to navigate history and understand it as a huge, interconnected network of ideas and actions, but the paths and parallels they illuminate are by no means the only or definitive ones (though they are usually alternatives to the paths that wrongly claim to be definitive).

That sums up my feelings about Curtis and Burke very well. I enjoy their work while watching it, but always come away feeling the links made were pretty arbitrary and that nothing I've seen really adds up to much. In Curtis's case, it's more or less unthinkable to give his stuff a bad review, simply because no-one wants to risk looking stupid or appearing to be a dupe of the status quo. The result is that his work's often credited with a profundity that's not really there, I think.

It's still fun to watch, though.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:35 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

It’s on youtube
posted by thedamnbees at 5:09 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

The thing about Curtis is he's generally trying to tell a really zoomed-out story of grand cultural change that likes to turn conventional narratives around, especially narratives justifying power. I think the charitable reading is that he's using a broadcast medium with strong emotional resonance as a counterweight to the way it's normally used, i.e. on Fox News or in advertising.

The grand scale told through through conspiratorial narratives does make for some slippery arguments and it can feel pretty manipulative. But I do think he's an important social theorist or at least popularizer (not that he ever presents the narratives he follows as anything other than his own ideas...). In many ways he is just recontextualizing history and many of the things he highlights have stayed with me as meaningful in their new context.

It's hard not to see his work a bit differently in Q-Anon world, though.
posted by ropeladder at 5:56 AM on February 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

I wish I had the technical skills to code a "make your own Adam Curtis film generator" - it would overlay stock video snippets, portentous plummy-voiced random audio sentences, intermittent auto-generated title cards, and moody ambient music.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:24 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd totally watch an AI generated Adam Curtis film, though I'm guessing there aren't enough of them to build a data set.

That might not be an issue, though, since I would also be happy to watch a faked AI version of an Adam Curtis film.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:45 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have to say that I do like his pieces. I watched the first episode last night, when I was shocked suddenly hearing the name Thornley... Discordians??? And there they were. More shocks came. The author of The Gadfly, a notable bestseller in the Soviet Union, was the daughter of George Boole, one of the founders of computing. Yeah, it’s just a seeming coincidence, but like in surrealism, this intellectual meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table wakes up your mind to other pathways for thinking. And thus comes conspiracy thinking, which appears to be the thread across at least episode one of this series. Furthering the surrealism here are all the dance clips woven through the episode. They seem to be just there, almost hypnotic while he talks on. If you go with his flow, you may find yourself doing what he’s talking about. Operation Mindfuck on tv. Quite fun.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:09 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

That might not be an issue, though, since I would also be happy to watch a faked AI version of an Adam Curtis film.

Tom Scott's ahead of you.
posted by pw201 at 8:40 AM on February 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

For those who can't access iPlayer, somebody has kindly uploaded all six episodes onto youtube.
posted by Rudyard at 9:08 AM on February 12, 2021

Tom Scott's ahead of you.

thank you.
posted by philip-random at 10:05 AM on February 12, 2021

Hint: it works best as audio only, just left on in the background.

"Unfortunately during the space race, Winston Churchill, in parliament, bought photos of Jackson Pollock, a moment in history that would be forgotten by those who studied their careers. The world was saddened by this and comic books rose up in arms. "
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

More seriously, ropeladder's comment above really stuck with me. All the Curtis films I have seen boil down to "rich, powerful people often gather behind closed doors to hatch selfish, ruthless plans to keep what they have." When characterized in breathless, conspiratorial terms, I think that kind of thinking more easily can drift into unfactual, QAnon-style delusions.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:53 AM on February 12, 2021

Curtis always reminds me of the documentarist in William Gibson's Mona-Lisa Overdrive:
"Hans Becker," the house began, reciting the Net library's intro-critique, "is an Austrian video artist whose hallmark is an obsessive interrogation of rigidly delimited fields of visual information. His approaches range from classical montage to techniques borrowed from industrial espionage, deep-space imaging, and kino-archaeology. Antarctica Starts Here, his examination of images of the Tessier-Ashpool family, currently stands as the high point of his career. The pathologically media-shy industrial clan, operating from the total privacy of their orbital home, posed a remarkable challenge."
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:06 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

As much as Curtis offers a delightful visual spectacle, I find it more useful to just listen to his narrative without the video. That gives me the argument by itself.
posted by doctornemo at 11:30 AM on February 12, 2021

I’ve yet to read anyone articulate why the content of his pieces are any better than any other conspiracy-mongering. They are short on references, draw tangential links and conclusions, and are crammed full of emotive images.

I mean, I’ve enjoyed some of his work in the past (I haven’t seen this one) but it leaves me uneasy. It feels designed to give me a warm “On, now I see the world for what it really is!” feeling which, as I understand it, is exactly the kind of feeling that those falling down, say, the QAnon rabbit hole thrive on.

Is it simply because his ideas are from a liberal/left point of view that he gets a pass?
posted by fabius at 2:13 PM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Left seem to dislike him even more than the right.

I realise that Curtis' presentational technique is annoying - I love it, but I can also see that it would drive people up the wall. But the fundamental difference between his films and conspiracy theories is that he uses sourced material, often from news reports that everyone sees. The stories he tells aren't "untold", or mysterious, ascribing almost supernatural powers to shadowy figures, they are sourced and often well-known. What he's doing that is different - certainly here - is putting the stories next to each other in ways that people don't usually do to draw out the relationships between them (if anything, they're an argument for zeitgeist). I find that very valuable, in the same way that I find his telling stories that I thought I knew from first principles as if no one had ever heard them before very useful.

He's not the messiah, or even a very naughty boy, just a journalist with an idiosyncratic style, and his fame makes me uneasy, as people seem to have unrealistic expectations.

I've seen five of them now. I'm particularly appreciating his discussing British racism and imperialism and white supremacy in a matter-of-fact way - it's such a relief to hear someone talking about it not as polemic but as fact. In terms of British society, and despite the fact that it's pieced together out of archive material, it feels like the first dispatch from a new world.

I suppose I'm projecting - the country has been so mad for so long that it's a relief to hear someone whose measured tone sounds like sanity at least.
posted by Grangousier at 3:17 PM on February 12, 2021 [15 favorites]

OMG The Loving Trap just made me cry, laughing.

So.. I went on a big Adam Curtis binge a few years ago, and I very much like his work, but watching a bunch of them in a row I concluded they ultimately present an extremely regressive ideology. One that he himself critiques most specifically in Oh Dearism!

"media attempts to create a simple narrative from hugely complex events, much is obviously lost in the translation—most often purposefully....It is not that we can’t actually do anything about these events, it is only that mainstream media presents these events within a framework that makes it seem that way and that in itself is a very powerful way to control society."

He presents grand patterns that (falsely) demonstrate that we can have no impact on the world, so we may as well give up. How convenient for the puppet masters who conspire to control us.

Still, he is extremely skillful at what he does. And aesthetically, I enjoy his films very much. I'm sure I'll watch this - thanks for linking it!

LOL (in the modern, existential despair sense, obvs)
posted by latkes at 10:15 PM on February 12, 2021

Hi, as a " left wing" person who absolutely adores Adam Curtis, please let me explain why I like him. And also understand this has nothing to do with other left wing people.

He puts it together. We've been waiting for a narrative since the fall of the Soviet Union. And he's the only one who has put it together. This latest documentary, of which I am only two episodes into, describes that, but you can already see this in HyperNormalization.

Why did we fail? Where? At what point did we fuck this up? This docu already goes into it. The capitalist, neoliberal world order (and I aint saying that to be a conspiracy theorist!!!) has involved itself into our lives SO MUCH that we are CONSTANTLY HINDERED by it! Everywhere we turn we have algorithms, we have heteronormativity, we have hedge funds, we have other people breathing down our fucking necks trying to fuck this all up. There are women in it who are REVOLUTIONARIES who have MEN fucking them over, when they're the ones pushing an actual revolutionary vision! Isn't that typical?

We on the left, and I am saying this as somebody who is ostensibly (not by my own volition!) on the left, need to take a big, long, HISTORICAL look as to why NONE OF OUR REVOLUTIONS WORKED. Why?! He goes into FBI plants in the Black Panthers, he goes into the society of certain revolutionary groups, he explains how and why these certain places did not WORK OUT. AND THEY HAVEN'T!

And we on the left IDOLIZE them! AND THEY'RE ALL FAILURES.

We've done nothing but idolize a bunch of failures. We can't find a way outside of it. It's like what Mark Fisher said "It's easier to fantasize the end of the world than it is to fantasize the end of capitalism."

That's true! It is! We can't look forward and find a better world! We can't even begin to describe to people what a better world would look like outside of capitalism! And we were fed this concept of what it "should" look like since before we were born, through the media and the world that we were given! After the Soviet Union fell, after the "end of history", we were told that neoliberal democracy would flood across the world and it'd be a golden palace of living. And what has happened? It's been nothing but massive wealth disparity, riots, foreign wars with private militias. It's been a fucking mess! What the fuck did Fukuyama think was going to happen?! But I digress.

I like Curtis because he is artful. He puts together a compelling argument based upon publicly available information (as far as I can tell, most of the footage is from the BBC archives? Correct me if I am wrong). It's all there, it all happened. He may put it together to fit his narrative, but we NEED A NARRATIVE. We're in a post-modern world. There is no narrative! We haven't had a narrative in 30 years! Give us one! We need somebody or some concept to be up against! Our narrative is in disarray! And he gives us one. It's us against the powers that be.

Let me please give you an uhhhh idk what you call it but let me just say, I am biased. I used Curtis in 2004 for his documentary "The Power of Nightmares" in a sophomore high school book report (I am dating myself now, god...) about how the jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and the neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and the "Project for the New American Century" think tank were literally so close to each other that it bothers me TO THIS DAY!!!! He's not a bullshit artist. His style is montages, pop-culture music videos, he comes from a British style of documentarianism that I don't think Americans are use to? He's on the same level as the most famous music video artists with his montages, but he's Errol Morris when he gets into the facts.

Please give him a chance. As a leftist, I implore you. This documentary is so important. And if this doesn't jive with you, please try HyperNormalization before it. It's basically a prequel.
posted by gucci mane at 1:23 AM on February 13, 2021 [11 favorites]

Mentioned in the Open Democracy article linked to above, this is a lengthy critique of Curtis, and most interesting (for me) when it talks about his links with (and perhaps, political sympathy with) the whole Frank Furedi/Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism/Spiked Online edgelord crew.

Curtis' programmes are always interesting and very well made, but nowadays I can't help wondering whether what I'm watching is a clever and beautifully soundtracked version of a Seth Abramson thread.

(FACT!FACT!FACT!tenuousleapFACT!FACT! SEE??!!!)
posted by reynir at 1:25 AM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

He's not a Seth Abramson thread. What he's doing is spinning a narrative across multiple degrees. Not like he's doing n-th dimensional math, he's just finding a bunch of disparate paths that have been long forgotten and putting the pieces together from them. And the pieces aren't all there, that's the issue. He's only finding some of the pieces. If you watch interviews with Curtis, he's not a conspiracist at all. He's basically a European libertarian! He's not any different than most of us here (on the leftier side, that is) (and I don't mean that offensively). He's honestly a mostly normal guy! He's not an Alex Jones type! And now I sound like a zealot ugh!!!!
posted by gucci mane at 1:29 AM on February 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

I must admit I am not yet convinced. Every argument in his favour sounds to me exactly like the kind of argument someone would make to persuade you of the veracity of a crackpot right wing conspiracy theorist.

Finally someone is telling the truth! It’s all based on existing facts! You can follow up and look at the research yourself!

I’m not even saying I disagree with whatever he says. Actually, the fact that I probably would eagerly agree with his stories makes me even more wary.

I mean, he’s brilliant at presenting it all in a manner that carries you along, papering over the tenuous connections, making you feel like everything is an incontrovertible fact (it’s actual footage, it must have happened exactly how he says!). He’s very, very good,.

But I can imagine someone making videos in exactly the same style, with the same level of fact (as if we could measure such a thing), with the same tenuous connections, the same beguiling watchability, shown by a national TV channel... except espousing crackpot right wing theories and we would all, rightly, be going on about how dangerous it is.
posted by fabius at 1:53 AM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

There is no truth, that's the entire point. Nobody is trying to convince you of the truth. What he's trying to do is show you a narrative: these disparate threads that are woven throughout society, that come to a conclusion, and that conclusion is that the 1% has all the "power", and the rest of us have none of it. Literally, NONE OF IT. It's "post-modern" without actually being "post-modern" as we would think of it. He's threading multiple disparate moments into a coherent shell that all fits together into a narrative, and maybe even his old movies (esp HyperNormativity, which I personally feel like is a prequel to this), go into that narrative. At that point in time, it almost comes down as to what you want to believe. And I'm not saying that to be combative, I'm saying that because he brings that forward for you. You always have the option to opt out! I'd never fault somebody for that. I did it! I did it for a long time.
posted by gucci mane at 2:45 AM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Postmodernism is the concept that there is no grand narrative. Adam Curtis is almost post-postmodernist: he is trying to weave a narrative through all of these incredible historical threads, and trying to figure out "how the fuck did we get here?!"
posted by gucci mane at 2:46 AM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry that I am such a hard projector of him, I just honestly think he is really important to consider. I think his works are esteemed. I have been on the ground, I have done shit, I don't need to show my "leftist" credentials here, ppl can back me up lol but as far as real theoretical shit goes Adam Curtis is at the top, without being like some academic Deleuze shit. He can quote and use him, but he puts it into a slurry that ppl like me can just slurp up! Mark Fisher too. Honestly, most of this Mark Fisher had back in Capitalist Realism, so idk !
posted by gucci mane at 2:51 AM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

You seem to be trying to convince me/us that he’s right, when I’m not saying that, in general, he’s wrong. Honestly, I don’t need my eyes opened to power being held only by a handful of people!

I’m saying that his methods are manipulative, that the connections he makes between things are often tenuous, and that he’s great at beguiling broadly sympathetic viewers further into a web of conspiracy theories.

(I don’t use “conspiracy theories” to mean that they’re necessarily wrong (although I’m not going to go through and fact check every one of his proposals right here). I’m using it to mean theories that suggest there are conspiracies by powerful people to control others and gain greater power. These theories can be true or false, and we here tend to agree that his are true.)

So I’m not disagreeing with his point of view. I’m saying that were exactly the same methods used to promote the view that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Soros controls the world, or that 5G causes illness, I think we’d be critical - not just of the ideas, but of the methods that suck susceptible viewers further into a set of beliefs without their own critical thought.
posted by fabius at 4:27 AM on February 13, 2021

I’m saying that his methods are manipulative, that the connections he makes between things are often tenuous, and that he’s great at beguiling broadly sympathetic viewers further into a web of conspiracy theories... I’m saying that [these] were exactly the same methods used to promote the view that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Soros controls the world, or that 5G causes illness

I see what you are saying but disagree that what you describe are actually the core methods of conspiracy theorising; to a large extent, these are, rather, core functions of polemical argumentation in general. If Curtis is a conspiracy theorist, so is the author of every iconoclastic, contrarian polemic effort - and I strongly disagree that this is the case. Conspiracy theorising uses these methods of persuasion, sure, but it buttresses them with assertions for which there is no evidence at all and, indeed, which actually available evidence often contradicts.

Take the 'Soros controls the world' canard, for example. There's no doubt at all that Soros uses his wealth and power to pursue broad and specific political goals with which many people disagree. But the most common conspiracy theories around Soros simply assert without anything resembling evidence that beyond his publically visible work, he is 'secretly funding' this, that and the next thing. One can, to a large extent, actually see where Soros actually spends his money, time and effort - what his work supports and, thus, what he is trying to achieve. Criticising that is not at all conspiracy theorising. Rather, the conspiracy theorising is the assertion that beyond that he is secretly doing other stuff but that we can't see the evidence because he has expertly hidden it. That's not about 'tenuous connections' - that is bald assertion supported by a pernicious form of circular reasoning.

Personally, I think that Curtis has a technique analogous to what Nietzsche - and, more appositely, Foucault - called genealogy.* Conventional historical narratives to which we are all accustomed are built through accumulated habits of acceptance and rejection - this is important to understanding a topic, while this is extraneous. The genealogical method returns to the archive and pulls out previously rejected-as-extraneous sources and elevates and recombines them, asking whether we can construct a different narrative from available sources of evidence. From the interview with Brooker, linked above:

"I went and discovered another level of reality that’s hidden in the BBC. It is all the unedited tapes from which the news stories were cut. They are extraordinary. They’re like a strange, magical world that is halfway between real life and the snippets of doom that we transmit. There are terrible things on them – but the overwhelming amount is just the record of stuff happening. "

The conventional historical narrative is comprised of parts of this archive. But that selection process is surely itself 'manipulative' insofar as only parts of the archive are presented, towards a specific argument, while others are left on the cutting room floor. It 'beguiles broadly sympathetic viewers' (not as part of a conspiracy, of course; rather, because this news report comports with the one before and the one before that, they have a beguiling consistency over time. The editor is no more conscious that they are manipulating-by-selection than are the viewers who are manipulated. This is the very essence of conventional narratives.) Finally, those connections are, in a sense, themselves tenuous - it is simply a 'reality effect' comprised of repeated editing-by-selection that makes us think that this, rather than that, selection is tenuous or not.

If power structures, political forces and cultural movements have a reality or an essence, it is surely beyond the ken of humans, even in aggregate, to genuinely comprehend it; all we have are the stories we tell ourselves and each other. But this is as much a potential for liberation as it is a constraint: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently – David Graeber 1961-2020,” as the title card for episode one of this new series has it.

I'm not at all sure that we are meant to take Curtis as exposing The True and Secret History of any given topic. Rather, we are challenged by a reassembling of evidence, a recombination of sources. It's meant, I think, to make us think about truths we take for granted and why we take them for granted - what methods of manipulation and rhetoric make us believe that history is as we have been led to believe. In a sense, the sheer overtness of Curtis' manipulations should make us wonder about the more covert manipulations in and behind conventional narratives, the seeming tenuousness of his associations question the actually often tenuous associations of conventional narratives.

Foucault revised Kant's sapere aude in just this way and I think Curtis follows in those footsteps.

*I rather suspect Curtis would not like this comparison and this might well be a somewhat idiosyncratic take but, hey, with this I'm kinda doing the very thing I describe - and ascribe to Curtis - so at least I'm consistent...
posted by deeker at 6:46 AM on February 13, 2021 [14 favorites]

His works have tremendous explanatory power for me, as in, why are we the ways we are and what is our culture and how has it shaped us and what is it doing now? I'm surprised to read in this thread that knowing the broad forces shaping our culture and behavior makes some feel powerless, to me it is really empowering. I can only ever do what one individual can do, but better understanding the contexts in which I'm operating help me to make individual decisions that either further or diverge from the status quo--and I really appreciate understanding the what, who and why of our status quo so that I can make informed decisions about what I want to participate in (internally) and what I don't.

So this kind of documentarian work mostly liberates my mind, helps me to sort my own wants, needs, motivations from any other outside influence on my behavioral choices; part of what's unique about our historical moment--as Curtis has been highlighting throughout his work--is that power structures, modern communications media and techniques for using them really get inside of our heads and manipulate our thoughts and feelings in ways that are truly, historically unprecedented. I need to see and understand those methods and forces so that I can separate me from them, and better know how to be my own person. And being your own person, inside your head where it really matters, is actually a pretty big challenge in 2021, because so much other (transactional, commerce-based) bullshit is already in there, often unknown and invisible to me, influencing me to think and feel very specific ways about myself and others, and I really really resent that invasiveness and have been working for decades to get that shit out of my head. Curtis' work has been a big part of that.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:14 AM on February 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

His latest documentary literally goes into the concept of why conspiracy theories have enveloped our world. And not just the “western world”. This is almost literally the topic at hand with this latest release: why we have no coherent narrative threads and why conspiracy theories have run amok in our society as if they’re just mimetic shards cast away, but he explains where some of them come from. He’s not authoritative by any means, but he is weaving a narrative through a world that has none!
posted by gucci mane at 9:36 AM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Two more interviews with Curtis supporting the new series:

with AnOther magazine


with The Quietus

Also, gucci mane asked upthread about a list of the music used. Here is a Spotify playlist which provides that which you seek. (I don't use Spotify, so cannot speak to its completeness or otherwise - hell, the compiler could just have randomly chosen some Nine Inch Nails and Burial tracks and hoped nobody would call them out - and obviously, I also don't know if it's the same order as used in the programme or not but it should provide a start at the very least!)
posted by deeker at 10:59 AM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I kind of love your passionate defense of Adam Curtis here gucci mane!
posted by latkes at 12:12 PM on February 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yeah I’m embarrassed honestly but thank you for the sentiment, and I hope nobody feels that I am being aggressive toward them! It’s personal, but only to a certain degree, because I have grown up in this world and seen what has happened in my short life and have watched my generation be “lead astray” by these movements that have either been usurped by “the powers that be” or totally destroyed by internal forces. I don’t think Curtis is some sort of god, I think he’s a person (and honestly part of a group, shoutout to everyone else that works with him) who is ATTEMPTING to weave a narrative in our lives, when we don’t have one. Think about it: a lot of us in the west have grown up with a narrative. It was the Cold War/anti-communism for MOST of the 20th century. Then it was 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, which was obvious bullshit. Now? What do we have? Nothingness. It’s Nietzschean nihilism (better than Cioran nihilism imo). It’s Foucault. It’s Baudrillard. It’s Deleuze. Our world is limitless and filled with moments without narrative and we don’t have anyone around to paint us this picture. When there becomes some “thing” or “person” or “ideology” that brings us together, it’s going to be over for the ruling class. But then again, ain’t that what everyone else said too?
posted by gucci mane at 12:34 PM on February 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

And honestly go through my posts on this website, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I think I have a pretty solid head on my shoulders when it comes to this type of philosophizing. I’m not talking down on anybody, but Curtis is attempting to show something out of an almost metaphysical element. The world as we know it is influenced by these disparate threads, believe it or not! And I’m sorry, that’s a part of our postmodern condition as human beings experiencing the post-9/11 world as part of a shared hallucination. When he talks about somebody like Tupac’s mother, do you know how influenced some people are by her? And she’s a “nobody”! Think about all these other people that have somehow influenced the world we live in. It’s big! I mean, REALLY BIG! And it’s not just a coincidence. It’s metaphysical. It’s postmodern. Quantum even! Small pieces influencing and interacting with one another!
posted by gucci mane at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

A sincere thank you to all of you fervent Adam Curtis fans here. Your comments have helped me better understand what it is he is trying to do, while at the same time leaving me less of a fan of his than I was before.

My concerns with Adam Curtis, now that I more fully understand them, are twofold. First, that oh-so-human desire for a clear narrative is wonderful and risky at the same time. So many political movements have been built around a proposed narrative, but life doesn't often follow a neat arc. And the comments above "we need a new narrative" are exactly the same impulses that lead to QAnon and other conspiracy theories. We don't actually need a new narrative, we need a clear-eyed understanding of how the world works, how we would like it to change, and how we intend to make that happen.

Second, Curtis's style of melding moody, disparate images and making giant leaps of non-obvious connection just isn't necessary to understand the world. The rich and powerful have always worked with each other to maintain their status and wealth. If you want to understand the cabal that runs the world, just take a look at the publicly posted guest list for each year's Davos Conference. You don't need to mysteriously juxtapose video footage of Mao's wife with images of a bunch of old British bankers sitting around a table together. Or rather that adds no deeper understanding of how the elites have always worked, in Feudal, or Communist, or Capitalist societies.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is quite visibly trying to quash an attempt to unionize at Amazon, and the same is true of basically every major, publicly traded corporation that isn't already unionized. Facebook and the other social media giants are quite visibly doing whatever they can to increase engagement and their advertising revenue. All of this is quite in the open, and the only way to consider it a conspiracy is if your definition of that word means "wealthy, powerful people working to hold on to everything they've got."

Good, straightforward investigative journalism is a much more powerful tool to give us a clear-eyed view of the world, to motivate us, and to focus us effectively as we fight for a more just and egalitarian world.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:58 PM on February 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

I think part of the reason people get conspiracy theory vibes from Curtis is the way he speaks in terms of “those in power”. The idea that there is a ruling class that sometimes acts in its own collective interest is pretty much a conspiracy theory that, imho, happens to be a basic fact about the world.
posted by thedamnbees at 1:31 PM on February 13, 2021

We don't actually need a new narrative, we need a clear-eyed understanding of how the world works, how we would like it to change, and how we intend to make that happen.
But these two things are conflated the same and are also drastically different: a "clear-eyed understanding of how the world works" IS what Curtis is doing. He is trying to show us a piece of the veneer. On top of that, he's also exposing the concept of "a clear-eyed understanding of how the world works" because the entire idea of how the world works has been written by people who have a vested interest in making sure that we DON'T know how it works! And I am not saying that in some sort of "the illuminati runs the world" type of way. I am saying that in a hard, factual, "there are major corporations and government groups working hand-in-hand to spin facts a certain way". Which MAY sound like a conspiracy theory. But if you look at the solid details about this stuff, it actually isn't. It's not a conspiracy theory in the way that "The jewish cabal is running the world as an Illuminati cut-out and they control the financial industry and all world governments" or "there's a race of reptilian-humanoids who have taken over our governments and want to impose a New World Order", it's the fact that there are HUGE "interests" involved in our lives without most of us even knowing it.
Second, Curtis's style of melding moody, disparate images and making giant leaps of non-obvious connection just isn't necessary to understand the world.
I agree, but I also enjoy that because it's a meta-signifier on top of his subject in general. When he has a 2000's indie rock band playing over clips of people dancing ballet, he's trying to show you the inanity of the experience that the upper-classes were privileged to, when the rest of us (or rather, people in black London at the time) were fighting for their lives. It's meant as both an aesthetic choice and a comment on the absurdity of it all. And that's sort of what I meant about him: he comes from a group of directors that use music montage for effect. It's like how Scorsese has scenes in his films with great music in the background, and it almost feels like a music video. And it is, inside of the movie, it is a music video.
The rich and powerful have always worked with each other to maintain their status and wealth. If you want to understand the cabal that runs the world, just take a look at the publicly posted guest list for each year's Davos Conference. You don't need to mysteriously juxtapose video footage of Mao's wife with images of a bunch of old British bankers sitting around a table together. Or rather that adds no deeper understanding of how the elites have always worked, in Feudal, or Communist, or Capitalist societies.
But that's also what we're trying to dig into. Davos is done. We all know about Davos. It's over with. That's old news! But we want to get into the more nuanced, quantum concepts of where everything went wrong, so having a history of Jiang Qing and why she did the things she did and how she influenced a man who then influenced MILLIONS of people to rally, THAT'S IMPORTANT! People typically sat there and said "Mao is just a great leader" fuck no he actually just had a wife who was willing to go to bat for him. That's actual history. That's not revisionism. (Side note: talking about Mao and bringing up revisionism is funny as hell to me.)
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is quite visibly trying to quash an attempt to unionize at Amazon, and the same is true of basically every major, publicly traded corporation that isn't already unionized. Facebook and the other social media giants are quite visibly doing whatever they can to increase engagement and their advertising revenue. All of this is quite in the open, and the only way to consider it a conspiracy is if your definition of that word means "wealthy, powerful people working to hold on to everything they've got."
I agree with this 100%. I've been a union guy, I ain't about any of that type of shit. I hate Jeff Bezos. But the thing is, that just ain't Curtis' subject for this documentary. That's all. It just isn't. There are other documentaries detailing that stuff. I'm sure he could dive into the modern ramifications of our technocratic neoliberal democracy, but he isn't. He's interested in these disparate threads that link these things together in amorphous, quantum ways. But I am 100% with you, we are literally living in a cyberpunk world at this point with the way that these massive corporate megalopolies have so much access to our data and our psychologies and pathologies and our money and everything that we do. It's only a matter of time until we walk into a mall (if they still exist) and a kiosk goes "Hey gucci mane, I saw you were searching for an oil heater on google. May I suggest this one at this store on the second floor?" Like, fuck off.posted by gucci mane at 1:51 PM on February 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

A sincere thank you to all of you fervent Adam Curtis fans here. Your comments have helped me better understand what it is he is trying to do, while at the same time leaving me less of a fan of his than I was before.

Agreed. I was going into this with a fairly neutral-to-positive sense of his work, but the more fervent the defense the clearer it is that he's tapping into very conspiratorial threads of thought & narrative-shaping; and that's something I feel very strongly isn't a "we can use bad tools to good ends" sort of deal.

I get that you feel it's resonant stuff, but that's kinda exactly the problem from my perspective?
I appreciate the clarity though, sincerely. Sometimes knowing what you're not about is as important as knowing what you are about.
posted by CrystalDave at 2:14 PM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I really don’t know what you mean about us not having a narrative for how the world works. Honestly. I wasn’t aware of having a “narrative” before any more than we do now.

If there were/are narratives about how the world works (I’m almost rolling my eyes now) there has never been one. You can look at how it works in so many different ways. You could in the past and you can now.

The desire to have everything explained in a single narrative that makes you go “of course, this is how it all is! I knew it!” is exactly the same feeling that people get from conspiracy theories. Your feelings are confirmed, you can “make sense” of it all.

Again, I’m not even disagreeing with the general gist of what Curtis says. I’m so on board that it surprises me that anyone thinks it’s some kind of revelation that, I don’t know, people with more money than we can imagine have more power than we can imagine.

And, again, I’ve yet to hear why having one’s beliefs confirmed by Curtis’s seductive videos is any different, or more OK, than someone having their beliefs confirmed by falling down a QAnon YouTube rabbit hole.
posted by fabius at 2:20 PM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

You've heard, fabius, you just disagree with the arguments (I and others) put forward. Be good if you could accept as much. I gave PhinesGage a rec for actually engaging - at this point, you seem to be acting in bad faith.
posted by deeker at 2:29 PM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Look, I’m not against anyone being like, anti-Adam Curtis, lol. This is just a healthy debate. I am really happy we can all sit here and do this, honestly. I have no offense or aggression toward any y’all ❤️
posted by gucci mane at 2:42 PM on February 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Like literally, big love, you all are an internet family to me. I love this site I ain’t ever trying to be rude to somebody on here. I just have an outsized personality and Adam Curtis honestly changed my life back in 04 with that docu, when I was writing a fucking report about how Al-Qaeda and neocons were the same. I thought in sophomore year of HS I was being edgy but nooooo he had to steal my thunder!
posted by gucci mane at 2:44 PM on February 13, 2021

Yeah, it's all good for folks to passionately disagree here! All good! Thought provoking stuff.
posted by latkes at 2:51 PM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

You've heard, fabius, you just disagree with the arguments...

OK, I mean I haven’t heard anything that helps me understand the difference.

Every conspiracy theorist will tell you that their narrative is backed up by evidence and that yours isn’t true.

Only yesterday I removed a couple of copies of The Light, “The Truthpaper”, from our village notice board. It’s full of experts explaining why the conventional narrative we’re all fed is wrong, and how vaccines are killing us, how climate change is nonsense, etc etc.

I don’t understand why their cherry picking of facts (I’m assuming some of them are facts) to promote their dangerous narrative is significantly different to Curtis’s cherry picking of archive footage to put forward his narrative. Consumers of both have their beliefs confirmed, everyone goes home happy. Maybe the difference is something to do with Foucault or Deleuze or whoever but honestly you’re losing me at that point.

Yeah, we can just agree that what we believe, what Curtis is saying about the powers controlling our lives, is correct and leave it at that.
posted by fabius at 2:52 PM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also, without wishing to up the temperature any more, I'd say that if your takeaway from Curtis' films is "powerful people directly exercise power over less powerful people" (rather than, "its's fascinating how even the ideological moves of the powerful become confused and corrupted when they encounter already existing power structures") then we've been watching different documentaries!
posted by deeker at 2:53 PM on February 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

Adam Curtis Explains It All (New Yorker)
posted by One Thousand and One at 3:32 PM on February 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Especially with Curtis, who seems to have ripped off most of his style from the 1997 art film about skyjacking, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

You also have to give credit to Craig Baldwin, especially his 1991 film, Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, which uses the form of an alien UFO conspiracy movie to sneak in Chomskyesque social commentary about American military intervention in Latin America.
posted by jonp72 at 6:49 PM on February 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I feel compelled by the arguments of both the Cutrisians and the Anti-Curtisians here. After watching the series, and reading the other interviews and comments, I have to admit there is a fair amount of persuasion (manipulation? is that stretching too much?) occurring in this docu-series. However, it seems Curtis is trying to make a series of video essays using fairly familiar film tropes—mainly montage and juxtaposition. I wonder if many of the complaints here against Curtis's "manipulation," ought to extend to Eisenstein and many other film predecessors. How is a mediated piece of propaganda different from mediated conspiracy theory? I think Eisenstein's films are fairly effective propaganda, but it would take some convincing for me to believe they amount to the type of conspiracy-theory manipulation we see in Q-Anon. I feel like I'm still at odds with the idea that Curtis is creating a conspiracy rather than pushing certain political points with some (rather conventional) propagandist media strategies.
posted by triangle at 9:39 PM on February 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Adam Curtis Explains It All (New Yorker)
To his admirers, Curtis is a truth-teller, an early adopter of ideas, who has traced, over the years, how power has radiated from politicians to financial markets and the tech industry.[1] His busy collages and monotone exposition allow for a novel rendering of the world. Curtis is friends with Alan Moore, the former comic-book writer, who lives in Northampton, in the East Midlands. (Moore, who describes himself as an anarchist, wrote “V for Vendetta,” “From Hell,” and “Watchmen,” but he has since disassociated himself from the industry.) During Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown, Curtis sent Moore and his wife, Melinda Gebbie, a thumb drive loaded with all his films. Watching Curtis’s back catalogue put Moore into a state that he likened to a lucid dream. “We tend as individuals to acquire a massive image bank, a massive archive of experiences and things that we’ve seen, and so the archives that Adam has access to, that’s almost like our collective cultural memory,” he said. “And, by juxtaposing those images, one with another, he makes these startling convergences of meaning, exactly like a dream does—where you perhaps don’t understand it all on first experience but where it is haunting.” Moore told me that he felt “quite neurologically fizzy” after each film. At the end of the binge-watch, he sent Curtis a postcard, comparing his work to “the kind of dream where we become aware that we are dreaming and can thus attain agency over the torrent of nonsense.”


Curtis likes ambiguity. Things come to the surface. Change becomes possible. “Is this an opportunity, given what we have just been through, to break through the thing that I’ve been charting in those films?” he asked. He hoped that a Biden Presidency might now be forced to confront the problems of the world—from inequality to racism and climate change—more directly, rather than seek merely to contain them.[2,3] He wondered whether the coronavirus pandemic might also serve to free people’s thinking. Across Europe, at least, the political responses have suspended conventional rules about state spending and intervention in the economy. The rapid development and initial rollout of vaccines was giving him heart. “If science can bring out a vaccine within seven months, you can change the world—you really can,” Curtis told me. “I work on instinct as much as anyone else does, and my instinct tells me that people are fed up with that feeling of helplessness. They’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t just come from inside them—that maybe they are weak for a reason, and not because of themselves.”

The cumulative effect of watching any Adam Curtis film is somewhat shredding. In his new work, that effect is at least partly deliberate. He wants to show how most contemporary societies have given up on unifying narratives, with the result that we are all compulsively disoriented and anxious, managed and overseen by our latter-day imperial administrators in big tech and high finance. Toward the end of the series, Curtis indicates that he thinks that there are two ways we can go from here. One he associates with the work of B. F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, who asserted the principle of reinforcement—continual shocks and positive inducements; likes, shares, nudges, and surveillance—as a way of controlling twenty-first-century societies. “China’s already started, and we’ve sort of started,” Curtis said. “You manage people as a mass, by monitoring their behavior, anticipating their needs—because the data, the patterns, time and propinquity can predict what you want.”

The alternative is to present a version of the future that people are willing to believe in once again. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” opens and closes with a quote attributed to the anthropologist David Graeber, who died last year: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”[4] Curtis maintains that his films are optimistic because they insist that there is a path that is intelligible, through the odd soundscapes, the footage of Vladimir Putin stirring his tea, the endless burning descent of a failed U.S. military rocket launch. “These strange days did not just happen. We—and those in power—created them together,” he says. Explication is possible. There is a voice-over somewhere. And, even if the story is not entirely reliable, it at least presents the challenge of seeing things differently from now on. “You’re going to have to start having an idea,” Curtis said, in his Adam Curtis voice. “Imagination has got to come back in. But that’s dangerous and frightening.”
posted by kliuless at 9:41 PM on February 13, 2021 [12 favorites]

i finally checked back on this thread to see if there's a non-iPlayer link I can access to, so thanks for that! but of course now i'm caught up by the discussion, which is very, hmmm, interesting from my pov. is this ennui and lack of narrative direction an artifact of an empire in decline? because i sure as hell never thought any of that was particularly compelling nor true. but i'll share my further thoughts soon enough I expect.
posted by cendawanita at 9:03 AM on February 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

I really appreciate this thread - folks here have helped me clarify both my appreciation of and critique of Adam Curtis.

Watching Part I of this with this thread fresh in my mind, I have a few thoughts: Interesting that the assertion that he himself is a conspiracy monger came up since this new series, at least part I, is specifically about the rise of conspiracy theories and the way they entrench power.

I really enjoy the skillfulness with which he creates these. You can see the hours and thought that go into these and I've learned a lot from them. Aesthetically they are very appealing, hypnotizing, mesmerizing, and compelling.
At the same time, much of what I learn in these ultimately falls into the category of interesting trivia, or wacky coincidence. I like interesting historical trivia, and like learning these weird connections. But with deeper reflection not all his alleged connections feel as important as they are presented as being.

My real critique remains the message his films convey - one of hopelessness and powerlessnes - even good hearted people end up doing wrong, and most of us are just cogs, dancing along like idiots. He critiques Randian superman ideology, but is fascinated by morally empty master manipulators who he sees as changing the face of the world. At the same time, he says again and again in different ways that most of us can do nothing to change our world.

If anything, this series is so far a bit more optimistic than his usual. I'll definitely keep watching. But with a critical eye.
posted by latkes at 5:14 PM on February 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Fanfare post.
posted by latkes at 5:16 PM on February 14, 2021

a state that he likened to a lucid dream
It's like listening to a conspiracy-minded stoner read from Wikipedia as you're watching Koyaanisqatsi.

One thing I've been thinking about is how Adam Curtis draws from a sort of communally agreed-upon set of creepy, compelling factoids: the Voynitch Manuscript, B.F. Skinner, Discordianism, etc. It would be super interesting to see someone use the same narrative style but with a different set of cultural touchpoints.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:59 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed both Curtis' latest series as well as Century of the Self, but he really does come off as "Qanon for smart people"
posted by zaelic at 3:42 AM on February 16, 2021

I'm (genuinely) curious as to whether those directly comparing Curtis' work to QAnon know something about how QAnon works that I don't. I've read a fair bit about QAnon and my understanding - which is open to change if I'm mistaken - is that it's spun from whole cloth. Like, there are paeodophiles and child trafficking exists, sure, but literally every "fact" about the alleged conspiracy put forward (children are being trafficked in wardrobes from online retailers, there's a list of prominent Democrats who face imminent arrest, Trump is some avenging angel whose primary work as President has been to uncover a vast global conspiracy) are simply bald assertions with absolutely nothing to back them up.

It's not an argument one can legitimately criticise for making "tenuous connections" between reported, observable phenomena; it's literally people just saying crazy stuff without any observable real-world sources. It's not criticisable for "cherry picking" data; it lacks data, substituting for it pure imaginative figments.

Like I say, I might honestly not know enough about QAnon such that the comparison isn't borderline offensive. There's totally room for robust debate on Curtis' methods, arguments and practices - I just really, really don't get how comparing his documentaries to QAnon - other than as a cheap rhetorical strategy - makes any sense at all...

If you have actual sources about QAnon (its assertions, arguments, methods - primary or secondary) which show how the comparison is valid, I'm honestly here for them!
posted by deeker at 4:13 AM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Agreed; it's a cheap rhetorical comparative trick that has no basis in reality—much like Qanon.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 6:19 AM on February 16, 2021

Yep, it's a pretty tenuous comparison to equate the storytelling style of a documentarian with the confabulated substance of QAnon. The Century of the Self, for example, tells one of the most important--factual--stories of the 20th century, no matter how Curtis chose to tell that story. He's not drawing together random bits of stuff and weaving imagined social theory from them, as much as discerning what those with actual power are actually doing, and how it's affecting the rest of us. Any version of that story risks seeming hopeless or conspiratorial, but the fact is that extremely wealthy and powerful people do behave in concerted ways that affect the rest of us, and we are mostly powerless to do anything about--but does learning the details about, e.g., climate change, and all the corporate (actual) conspiracy to cover up and obfuscate its occurrence, only make you feel powerless? Or are you glad to be informed, so that you have some sense of what's really happening, and can at least make your own choices accordingly?

Most of what's fucked about the world right now is a) changeable and b) beyond most individuals' control to actually change, and the only thing that can balance that is collective action against wealth and power; and collective actions must begin with the knowledge and awareness of what's happening around us, so that we have cause for solidarity, and know what we need to do....I guess I'm just surprised to see defeatism as a reaction to a documentarian documenting some of our biggest contemporary problems and challenges. Sobering and disillusioning and disheartening to a fair degree, yes, but also empowering: this not the natural state of things and we do not live in an immutable social order; things can be made better, and that starts with knowing the problems and understanding their causes. But if Curtis' visual or storytelling style isn't for you, then sure, his work will not appeal to you no matter how interesting the issues he considers. That doesn't make it QAnon-level bullshit, though, and the criticisms in this thread have been about style not substance, about how his work seems instead of what it actually asserts.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:29 AM on February 16, 2021 [8 favorites]

Well said LooseFilter. I think my issue with my perception of his ideology is he seems highly suspicious of collective action as well, leaving no possibility for positive change. But I'm only going on about this so much because I really like his work too, so I feel a sort of roiling internal conflict about his whole project!
posted by latkes at 7:33 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I hear you on that, I do have to look past a very doomy tone to his work--but the information is good and the patterns he discerns have real value, so I take what's there and leave the pessimism. And I've also learned that Cassandras--like, actual folks who do see what's happening before most of the rest of us--really do suffer in various ways for that knowing, not least of which is a profound effect on one's emotional state. My sense is that working on subject matter like this would be an emotional challenge for anyone, long-term, and it has to be taking its toll on Curtis, and that seeps through in the sort of overall tone of his work, especially lately. But for me, the silver lining is always: this is changeable! It was made this way by people, therefore it can be unmade, too.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:40 AM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'll try to speak for some of us who are uncomfortable with Curtis' conspiratorial thinking. I don't think any of us are saying he is unfactual and, frankly, bonkers like QAnon. I was just saying that he needs a few days of morning shaving with Occam's Razor.

He overuses the notions of "hidden" and "secret" as well as that breathless tone. I think that's part of why so many of us see him as defeatist, or at least defeatest-adjacent.

Rich, powerful people make common cause with other rich, powerful people out of simple self-interest, and while their "meetings" may happen behind closed doors that's no different from, well, DSA meetings. Drawing random parallels between Mao's wife and a bunch of British bankers - other than the fact that they all have a will to power and wealth - IS a distraction and discouragement from the already-difficult efforts to bring about a more egalitarian society.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:10 AM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

He overuses the notions of "hidden" and "secret" as well as that breathless tone.

That's fair criticism. I suppose, for me, the information presented is valuable enough (and not really articulated well elsewhere, on some of his topics) that I filter some of that out. But it's definitely an aspect of his style.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:20 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thanks, PhineasGage - although I do think you're being somewhat charitable to those who say "he's just a Left QAnon!" (sometimes over multiple posts saying little more than that) with no attempt to say what they actually mean by that. I note you haven't once invoked QAnon.

I think, to extend my comparison above, that your objection is not entirely unlike "Old Left/Marxist" objections to the works of, say, Foucault: "Why so damned obtuse? Why introduce unnecessary complexity? We can see the real relations of power - the rich and powerful oppress the poor and powerless in such overt, economically-determined ways, all this gabbing on about superstructure stuff when real emancipatory politics should concern itself with objective base relations! Gah!"

That's fair enough - although I disagree, thinking, rather, that Curtis tries to explain how multiple, not always congruent, power structures, political forces and cultural movements have shaped the contemporary moment - but then, I would, previously believing what I believe about the complexity of multiple, not always congruent, power structures, political forces and cultural movements. Also believing that, broadly put, "the stories we tell ourselves" have emancipatory potential. (Also, I'm afraid, believing that the well-meaning "Old Left" critics are stuck in an explanatory mode that doesn't have adequate explanatory power for our shared reality!)

Does that predispose me to liking, admiring and seeing the (ahem) "truth" in Curtis' work? Yup. But elective affinity ain't a crime.

And Curtis ain't a Left QAnon.
posted by deeker at 9:07 AM on February 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

mind you, i've only managed to finish the 1st part so far (and even the yt playlist have some 'video blocked in country's ahead of me so RIP me unless i can figure out which geolock it's for), but i'm not sure why we have to argue in circles? i'm predisposed to PhineasGage's position than anyone contrary of them -- i'm not saying he's 'left qanon' but it's like the 'the discordians planted the illuminati idea' anecdote - the discordians didn't think something so ridiculous could be so believable, but it turned out to be rather persuasive after all. it's fine for those of us who have the wherewithal and even the knowledge to know what he's saying is based on easily validated facts, but those who are noting his style is akin to conspiracy theorists aren't just saying it because he's drawing such a neat bow over it all.

and on that note, i can see he'll be building a substantial part of his argument on algorithms, but for now, i can't help thinking, well, his argument has merit but i can't help thinking how modern programmes and codes are built on older codes that's barely understood except that it works well enough. and i think for me, that's going to be my sticking point - if anything the fine mess we're in seems to be an emergent quality than an internally directed one. and I'm an avid Terry Pratchett fan - mark me down as someone who very much believes in the power of stories, and us as the pans narrans ie the storytelling ape.

but hey, if it makes anyone feels better to have the idea that the elite are really so thoughtful and with intense foresight as the civilisation carries on with its inertia.... i guess? i can definitely see the connection between his style and James Burke - entertaining but i feel there's something more dangerous when it's applied on the more gooey and plastic side of human society than the story of human invention and politics (and even then Burke gets into some weedy parts especially in the political side of things!).
posted by cendawanita at 10:04 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

but he really does come off as "Qanon for smart people"

Qanon for smart people already exists. It's called Qanon. Like any vast and far reaching and complex bullshit conspiratorial worldview, it's got a room for everyone. Or as the original assassin himself (Hassan-i Sabbah) organized things. If you were easily dupe-able (ie: bought credulously into the magic shit), you quickly got prioritized as "useful idiot" and got played as a pawn. Whereas if you saw through that stuff (in part at least), well, you earned yourself a seat at the master's table, inner circle and all that. But you were still getting played.
posted by philip-random at 10:48 AM on February 16, 2021

I agree that Adam Curtis's work isn't the same thing as Qanon (especially in terms cutting things from whole cloth, or, uh, impact), but I do feel like they're compelling for similar reasons. I try to remind myself here and there that most of what I'm getting out of Curtis's films is entertainment. It's really easy to get swept up in his presentation, but it definitely involves suspending a bit of disbelief and I try to be conscious of the fact that I'm doing that.

As people have already mentioned, Curtis's films place a strong emphasis on secrecy and conspiracy even when it isn't necessarily warranted. The films use historical facts and take the format of a documentary, which can obscure the fact that Curtis is telling a story and that his conclusions are a matter of opinion.

Some of his arguments are pretty tenuous, too. Like: Science played a powerful role under colonialism, but that has been forgotten (has it?). It categorized things so they could be managed, and George Boole's work was the next step in that process (was it?), making a map of the human mind so it could be controlled (was that the goal? does it accomplish that?). Then Boole's work was forgotten, too (it was?).

And that's putting aside the parallel that he makes between the dark heart of Africa (ehh) and the dark heart of the brain. He's also a little sloppy here and there in a way that made me wonder what fact checking looks like for his films, but I can only catch that sloppiness when he's talking about something I'm really familiar with.

Then there's this epiphenomenal thing that happens when someone brings together a bunch of disparate and seemingly unrelated facts and histories. It's almost like a rhetorical sleight of hand. The depth and breadth of information presented, by its nature, elevates the speaker. After all, only some kind of daunting genius would have such a vast knowledge base, even of secret histories, and be able to draw such novel connections and conclusions. The more information people are bombarded with, the more impressive it is, and the less attention paid to the quality of the argument itself.

And yeah, I have no idea what the takeaway is. I think you could equally interpret his films as a call to arms or a comment on the futility of change.

Again, I really, really like the films! They're beautiful, fascinating puzzle boxes. I just try to take them with a grain of salt.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:40 PM on February 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

I really like Curtis and have since I saw a part of "Century of the Self" for a class in college. His films aren't exactly truth, but they have helped me to understand the power of narrative in forming what society believes is true. Seeing him take disparate story threads and reform historical narratives in new ways made me realize that anyone could do that, and probably they did when the events were happening. So if you feel like combining the random stories of the Black Panthers with the Chinese Cultural Revolution and computer science history are a bit much, just go open the New York Times tomorrow and see how they invent our daily narratives.
posted by Glibpaxman at 8:42 PM on February 17, 2021 [7 favorites]

Adam Curtis is definitely not Q Anon. Im glad other ppl jumped into this convo. Y’all are smarter than me lol
posted by gucci mane at 11:31 PM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

If the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 was a movie, it would be HyperNormalisation (Polygon)
This seems relevant & like a reasonable comparison. Adam Curtis as MGS-2 Kojima.
posted by CrystalDave at 7:01 PM on March 4, 2021

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