Adam Curtis: The Art of Communicating Ideas Through Documentaries

No other public intellectual has deployed sound, vision and narration to create documentary essays with the same significance as Adam Curtis. Through documentaries like the Century of the Self, Hypernormalization and Bitter Lake, Curtis has pioneered the form of communicating ideas and argument through documentary film. Through watching these documentaries, you are for an hour taken from your echo chamber to an infosphere of violence, upheaval and mass confusion. Curtis raises intellectual awareness on colonialism, class, race and knowledge at an intensity that can leave one feeling nervous to live in harmony with a planet which harnesses such violent capacity for suffering, injustice and ignorance. The latest series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, watched over three days is the kaleidoscopic synthesis of ideas that I’ve spent many years studying, resulting in a level of immersion similar to a 72 hour rave, where, every cigarette, food and toilet break is a moment of reflection on the rave, before eventually going and continuing the rave.

Curtis’ documentaries contain influences from modern histories great thinkers. Curtis’ reminds me of George Orwell for the simplicity and clarity of which the subject of power is translated. Curtis introduces Foucaldian theories of taxonomy and control, Said’s ideas of Orientalism and the other, Harari’s writings on the importance of narrative in collective mobilizations and ideologies, Zuboff’s ideas on the Surveillance Capitalism and B.F Skinner’s book Walden Two and the application of Deluzian revisions of Foucauldian ideas of control suggesting that technology allows the masses to be coerced through the process of constantly adapting to data collection.

The 6 episodes, most around 70 minutes – the final over 2 hours, provide novel and interesting historical examples to illustrate the above theories. The common theme throughout is how individuals become defeated and corrupted by the ideas they seek to represent, exposing the emptiness of the original impulse. Michael De Fratis, later Michael X, goes from Black Panther to petty murderer, Jian Qing goes from socialist revolutionary to a power hungry tyrant motivated by revenge, in America there are cultural satirists that start believing in their own fictions and conspiracy theories, in Tupac Shakur there is an attempt to use the Black Panther movement to allow blacks to collectivise and escape cycles of addiction and violence ultimately leading towards Tupac’s performance and glorification of black gangster culture, in the CIA there is the support of Sadam Hussein to defeat the Soviets, in Tony Blair there is an ideological belief in foreign intervention to implement effective democracies that lead towards the destruction of Iraq and the foundation of the Islamic State.

Curtis provides insights to why we repeatedly find historical individuals driven toward the same fate. One is the supreme belief in the self, an entity which science has started to argue is fictional and thus leads individuals to profound levels of delusion and confusion over the individual’s motives. Curtis for instance emphasises how split-brain theory explains how we constantly create unrepresentative narratives about our experience through the left half of our brains. In the Century of the Self, Curtis emphasises how the self was promoted through the 1960’s counterculture and thus became hegemonic in society through the politicians and the ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Beyond the 20th century’s obsession with the self, there are foundational myths that led towards the formation of western nations. These are probably best described as Othering and Democratic idealism. The West are depicted as deluding themselves with the faith of Western Liberal Democracies that have been built upon brutal regimes, subjugation and violence. This is demonstrated by the failure of post-colonial integration into western society, the opium wars in China, the establishment of states after decolonisation and the hypocrisy with which oil rich Arab nations are supported. The suppression of post war colonial identity demonstrates itself through anachronistic figures like Robin Douglas-Home, son of Labour cabinet member Alec Douglas-Home, who committed suicide in part because of the media revelation of the archaic way in which he mistreated his wife. The stories of Michael X and the Guyanese writer Edgar Mittlehotzer are used to emphasise the way, colonial migrants despite serious efforts of creativity found themselves outcast by a United Kingdom that remained strongly aligned with the deep-rooted ideas of colonialism. Similarly attitudes towards western imperialism are evidenced through former colonies like China, where the historical memory of colonialism remains significant through society, with a popular film and video game made about the Opium Wars. More malevolently Deng Xiaoping is argued to have used mass consumption to addict western consumers in retaliation for how the British addicted the Chinese with opium.

There are clear tricks and limitations within the documentary. Often one feels as if they are subject towards the psychological mechanisms they are learning about. Curtis is particularly keen on the two buzz words conspiracy and revolution. Conspiracy is continually deployed as a term of negativity and delusion so obvious that the individual, like the crazed fans of Alex Jones, willingly believed in something they knew to be fake. Inversely, the term revolution is applied consistently as a positive alternative or wasted opportunity despite their being no exploration in the form of revolution – the Bolshevik, American and Internet Revolution all contained vastly different outcomes. The use of sound and vision, although masterly and of great entertainment, certainly seems to create an overwhelming eerie and ambient sense that sometimes provide Curtis’ words with degrees of emotion that do not correlate with the narration’s significance.

The film concludes with a sense of disillusionment over the ideas that govern 20th century society, the over obsession with the narrative self is shown to be consistently fake and, in many ways, corrupting. The work of mindfulness thinkers like Sam Harris and Yuval Harari have introduced ideas in the public domain to go beyond the association with self through the contemplation and meditation of consciousness. These practices are primarily concerned with evaluating the transience of thought and the manifestations of mind and consciousness through sight, sound, smell, taste and sensation when navigating our existence. If much of the 20th centuries problems stem from a delusional sense of ‘self’ then the philosophy of meditation and mindfulness offer the most effective 21st century philosophy to navigate the suffering and delusion caused by the never ending search for the individual self with no understanding or appreciation for the mechanisms of consciousness.