HyperNormalisation: Is Adam Curtis, Like Trump, Just A Master Manipulator?

As the BBC prepares to release Adam Curtis' latest film, Phil Harrison asks if in a fractured society HyperNormalisation is an empty transmission into an echo chamber

One of the key scenes in Adam Curtis’s monumental new documentary HyperNormalisation shows a woman engaging with ELIZA. ELIZA was a psychotherapy computer programme developed in 1966 that comforted the troubled minds of its users by simply re-phrasing their questions as self-reinforcing answers. Did it work? That depended on what the user was expecting. ELIZA performed a clever confidence trick that, for a limited period of time at least, gave the impression of control being regained and solutions being delivered. "What Eliza showed", suggests Curtis, "was that what made people feel secure was having themselves reflected back to them." 

This piece of archive footage feels like a brilliant metaphor for where we are in 2016. In an atomised world, we all have our own truths and maybe, for now, many of us have become content with that. Is this a sustainable way forward? It’s hard to survey the wreckage of this bizarre year without feeling like that’s a pretty stupid question. Perhaps a more interesting point to ponder is whether Curtis is part of the problem or part of the solution? Is he, to throw his take on ELIZA back from whence it came, also making his viewers feel secure by reflecting themselves back to them? Is a film like HyperNormalisation merely another safe bunker in our ongoing culture wars? 

In 2016, the year of the EU Referendum, of Syria, of Putin and of Trump, HyperNormalisation feels almost jarringly perfect. In many ways, it’s the film that Curtis’ whole career has been building towards as many of the cultural, social and political undercurrents he’s explored (mass manipulation, the surprisingly compatible goals of Islamic and neoliberal fundamentalism, the unintended consequences of developed world interventionism) seemingly begin to form an unstoppable tsunami. Its timing is uncanny – the film will arrive on the BBC iPlayer on October 16, just 23 days before Americans go to the polls and decide whether or not to submit to the leering rictus of mass insanity represented by Donald J Trump. And it will do its level best to offer an explanation of how America – and the world – came to this pass.  

As Curtis aficionados have come to expect, the route it takes through the last half century is thrillingly tangential. It passes through Patti Smith and Hafez al-Assad. Andrei Tarkovsky and Henry Kissinger. William Gibson and Muammar Gaddafi. The narrative it weaves is at once, hellishly complex and deceptively simple. Authority figures, it posits, have run out of credible stories to tell their sceptical subjects. Fake folk devils and implausible solutions abound but have lost their potency. Every innovation – from pseudo-subversive pop culture to apparently emancipatory technological developments – feeds back to nothing. Worse still, the innovations are co-opted and become part of the problem. The suspicion of sinister hidden hands on the tiller has been replaced by an even more disconcerting sense that no one is steering anymore because no one can now imagine a worthwhile possible destination.      

Institutional failure is a defining trope of our age then. But here’s where we encounter one of this film’s many ironies. Still at the heart of the UK’s broadcasting culture but battered this way and that by mendacious media enemies and philistinic Culture Secretaries is that most stolidly centralising of institutions, the BBC. Adam Curtis could only work for the Beeb. Not just because only the BBC would have given him the time, space and indulgence to assemble his remarkable portfolio of argumentative, tendentious, visionary and defiantly sprawling films (this one weighs in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes). But in a more practical sense, because his documentaries are patchworks of the past. Broadcasting’s past. The world’s past. And most pertinently, the BBC’s past. It’s only the BBC’s willingness to step out of its comfort zone, wander into the world’s more contested corners, and keep the cameras rolling and the mics on in 80s Russia or 70s Syria that enables Curtis’s unmistakable visual grammar. All the familiar Curtis signifiers are here. His eye for non-sequential but telling juxtaposition remains remarkable in its impressionistic, intuitive impact. A fight breaks out in a queue in Russia as the Cold War reaches its bitter end. Casual brutality in the Middle East elides into codified, leisure-time banality in the US. Gaddafi fixes his hair before a press conference and somehow, the ten second clip says more about the bathetic vanity of a dictator than a thousand UN indictments ever could.

So, partly thanks to its continuing patronage of a maverick like Curtis, the BBC maintains its cultural centrality, right? Maybe. But it surely won’t be lost on Adam Curtis that a film at least partially about the danger of echo chambers will reside, snugly ghettoised on the BBC iPlayer, to be viewed only by those already familiar with his work. Unlike his earlier, conventionally-broadcast films, it’s unlikely to confront an unwitting or indeed hostile audience with its scope and strangeness. As the world become more inexplicable, could we be about to enter an age of algorithmic inbreeding, where the emergent Netflix model throws up more and more variations on familiar minor themes for a captive audience and less and less that might startle or discomfort? 

Still, in a sense, it’s no surprise that Adam Curtis is now an iPlayer-only concern. Because the BBC doesn’t really exist to challenge anymore. What centrality it retains seems to rely on a very conscious drive towards confirmation; reassurance; pacification. One of Auntie’s other big historical documentary gambits this year was Dominic Sandbrook’s authored history of the 80s. Sandbrook is a well-respected historian but the series felt like an affirmation of our recent past rather than an interrogation of it. Post facto, it rationalised the era – from the Falklands War to the widespread privatisations, it retrospectively valorised the solidification of capitalist realism. It felt as ill-timed as HyperNormalisation is timely – if this year has proved anything, it’s that culturally and politically, the long game set in motion by that decade has run out of steam.         

As we react to the increasingly perplexing present by scurrying off down our personalised reality tunnels, what else does the BBC’s factual department have to offer? Alongside the stifling, stultifying heritage fetish represented by the seemingly infinite possible adaptations offered by the prefixes ‘The Great British…’ or ‘A Very British…’, there are, overwhelmingly, shows about work. The jaw-dropping Britain’s Hardest Worker will surely be summoned up by some future Adam Curtis – indeed, it might even find its way onto the radar of some future Dominic Sandbrook – as a definitively shameful exhibit for the prosecutors of our era. It featured, minimum wage workers, doing minimum wage jobs, in an elimination reality show scenario and it felt more like an unimaginative episode of Black Mirror than an actual, real show. But less obviously aberrant programmes are equally telling; the likes of The Bank (three laboured hours spent exploring the workings of a High Street bank) and The Met (London’s coppers, placed under a not-particularly powerful microscope) represent one troubled institution reaching out to a couple of others; everyone telling everyone else that it’s business as usual. The common thread in recent BBC factual output is a form of paralysis. Whether it’s the insecure, low-paid economy or the financial system, viewers are essentially being reminded that there’s no alternative. Exploring big ideas or possibilities of change, is pointless. 

Not even Adam Curtis’s sternest critics could fairly accuse him of a reluctance to engage with the big ideas. Which is why he often feels like a throwback to a more adventurous TV age. And yet in a wider sense, is he really swimming against the tide? Maybe not. In our post-truth times, it could be argued that Curtis himself is just another master manipulator. His array of jump cuts and abrupt narrative jack-knifes arouse the suspicion that perhaps he’s simply the ultimate post-modernist; piecing together a diverting collage out of various picaresque shards of recent history and presenting it as the truth. 

Does Adam Curtis deal in the truth? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the whole point is that increasingly, there’s no such thing. Instead, he deals in a truth. It’s a more reliable but harder to swallow truth than The Bank or The Met or Britain’s Hardest Workers or anything else that the BBC is currently offering can bring itself to acknowledge. It’s that no one knows anything.  

There’s a fascinating segment in the middle of HyperNormalisation telling the story of one of Donald Trump’s bankruptcies. It’s fascinating because it doesn’t feel like it belongs. It’s a non-sequitur and doesn’t appear to connect to anything around it. But eventually, as Trump reappears, in all of his buffoonish, triumphalist glory, at the film’s conclusion, all becomes clear. His placement in the middle of the film was a device, pure and simple. Adam Curtis isn’t, strictly speaking, a reliable narrator because these days, no one is. And it’s hard to think of a more fitting way for a filmmaker to illustrate that point that to either deliberately or inadvertently build it into his own narrative. Trump was introduced at the beginning and reincorporated in the centre of the film because he served Curtis’s version of the truth. And now, more than ever before, the truth is subjective and is seen to be so.  

HyperNormalisation, surely the definitive TV documentary of the year, is simply living out the one hard truth that we all seem to agree on. ELIZA has won. We each ask our own questions and the answers we receive reinforce their assumptions. And, as Michael Gove so memorably proclaimed this summer, in a quote that will surely come to define 2016, people have had enough of experts.

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