[DEBATE] : 'Our anger is being ironed out of us'
grinker at mweb.co.za
Fri Mar 23 18:58:55 GMT 2007
Friday 23 March 2007
'Our anger is being ironed out of us'
Adam Curtis, director of BBC2's The Trap, on conspiracy theories, why Isaiah
Berlin was wrong, and his biggest influence: Starship Troopers.
If you saw the first two films of Adam Curtiss three-part BBC series The
Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?, and have felt intrigued,
thrilled, infuriated, challenged or simply engaged, then do make a point of
catching the third film showing on BBC2 this Sunday. Because you aint seen
In the meantime, along with the usual plaudits Curtis has been receiving a
bit of flak. I blame the conspiracy theorists. Their paranoid fantasies do
make it difficult for serious folk who want to point out that there is
indeed more to the world than surface appearances. Unfortunately, anyone who
makes the noble effort to do that or to pull together some clues and
connections from our history to explain our present sorry state runs the
risk of being called mad.
Sure enough, when confronted with The Trap several commentators for
example, in the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times, New Statesman, Guardian
and Sunday Times promptly fell right into it, and reached for the
conspiracy theorist label. My conspiracy theory is that they all dine in
the same restaurant.
The thesis of the series is quite straightforward. It is in fact stated
clearly and often, and it is patently not a conspiracy theory. It is that we
live today within a conception of freedom and of ourselves that is narrow
and limiting. It is an ideology that developed first in the Cold War and
went on to be embraced by sections of both the right and left, and is today
promoted by the likes of US President George W Bush and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair. It found expression in many quarters, in the economic
philosophy of FA Hayek, the anti-psychiatry of RD Laing, the negative
liberty of Isaiah Berlin, the public choice theory of James Buchanan and
that is just for starters.
It is an ideology which views human beings as selfish, mistrustful, isolated
individuals who are seen, and have come to see themselves, as simplistic
beings who can be understood and directed through the application of
scientific techniques, especially through the application of mathematics,
numbers and targets that can tell them what they are expected to achieve,
what is normal and how they should feel. This diminished view of the self
might have been of use in countering communist tyranny but it was a trap
and it has left us with no positive vision in the face of all the
reactionary forces that it has in fact helped to awaken around the world,
Some of the arguments are undercooked, and some of the connections glib.
Curtis has an uncanny feel for the problems and weaknesses of contemporary
culture, and a terrific nose for their antecedents and adumbrations. The
three films in The Trap, however, have a tendency to succumb to the
teleology temptation, and accord far too prominent a role to the early
expression of a current idée fixe in the matter of its actual development.
To take one example. We can agree that the Cold War world saw the promotion
of a suspicious, isolated individualism; that we are even more deeply in the
thrall of such an outlook today; and that there are connections between the
two. We should take care, however, not to read the later phenomenon as
either the same as the former or determined by it. Indeed we should take
care not to take the Cold War stand-off itself at face value.
It should be said at once that there is so much fascinating material in
these films, and indeed so much real sense too, and the whole is delivered
with such vigour and panache, as to more than compensate for the strains in
the thesis. The fact is that there are simply more ideas, more images, more
provocations, more jokes, more great music in one Curtis documentary than in
a month of your average current affairs programmes.
I went to see Curtis in his editing suite off Oxford Street in central
London, and asked him if he was indeed becoming paranoid. He laughed out
loud. Well, its just silly, isnt it? There is nothing in those films
about any sort of conspiracy. There isnt one allegation that some group of
people plotted or conspired to create something. Isnt that what a
conspiracy is? Lets not talk about that. My argument is simple: the way
that we think about ourselves today, and the way in which those who manage
us think about us, those things are not part of a natural order. I am
talking about the rise of an ideology that has encouraged us very strongly
to focus on people as individuals, on ourselves as individuals, on our
feelings about ourselves and on our private relations with other people. And
we are discouraged from thinking collectively.
Interestingly, Curtis blames the pundits less and the whole journalistic
culture much more. I am beginning to think that just about all of our
journalism is trapped within received wisdom. When did you last see a piece
of journalism that surprised you or challenged the way that you see yourself
or the way that you see those who rule you? Take investigative journalism.
That is supposed to be challenging journalism. Within microseconds you know
it is going to reveal a bad person lurking in a large corporation, and it is
going to turn up maybe one document that exposes something you really
already know, and is anyway not that important. Does it surprise you? No.
And Hollywood has been doing that since the 1920s. I am trying to surprise
people about the way that they are ruled, to shake them out of their
complicity with it.
What I am trying to show is how this ideology has permeated not just
politics. I am pulling together ideas from many different areas. They are
inter-related and they are all about politics in the wider sense. What I do
is modern political journalism. So much political journalism is moribund
because it simply tries to follow power down the traditional circuits. Power
today is travelling much less in the political sphere and much more in the
culture generally; in the management culture, in mathematics, in genetics,
in science, in psychology. Power deals with people much more directly now.
I am simply trying to show the common roots of the ideas that lie behind
developments in these areas. The developments are rooted in the period that
we have lived through the Cold War. I make linkages in order to try to
make people look again at themselves and at their own world. I want them to
pull back, and look down as from a helicopter.
He breaks off to play some of the sounds that he is tinkering with at his
controls. It is amazing how much mail I get about the music in my films. So
many people want to know where it comes from, whether it is high classical
Sibelius or low-trash electronic pop. I challenge viewers to identify the
source of the three-note riff over the opening titles in the second and
third films, and which is later repeated. Will you put that in? I will
praise them if they get it.
I ask Curtis how he would sum up his own filmmaking technique. Collage, he
says without hesitation. Let me tell you of my six influences, in ascending
order of importance, and collage is important to them all. And what I take
from all of them is their silliness and their seriousness. First, John Dos
Passos, especially his USA. Secondly the film Hellzapoppin from a Broadway
musical. Thirdly, the film Sullivans Travels by Preston Sturges. Fourthly,
Robert Rauschenberg. Fifthly, Shostakovich. Sixthly, and most importantly,
Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven. It is the most prescient, brilliant
work of the last 20 years. He was so far ahead with that.
Curtiss films do not in fact work just at the level of collage, elegant and
powerful though that is. That would underestimate the force of the earnest,
steady, authoritative, voiceover argument from Curtis himself. This is the
unnerving counterpoint to the dazzling sequence of images and sounds that
unfold from the screen. He does not mystify. Indeed he simplifies and
repeats. He drives remorselessly on, challenging us to keep up with the
ideas, the images, the sounds. It is total TV.
Where to next with his own work? Im not telling, but I will say that there
are big changes afoot. Ive come to the end of something. The Trap was
itself the third in a series. There was The Century of the Self, The Power
of Nightmares [his much discussed film on the myth of an all-powerful
al-Qaeda], and then The Trap. Actually, they could have been called The
Century of the Self, The Enemies of the Self, the Death of the Self
Im moving on now. We are, I think, about to enter a new Romantic age. Big
questions are being asked again. What is life for? What is beyond ourselves?
What is beyond the universe? Does God exist? The most important expression
of this new age so far is the American TV series, Battlestar Galactica.
How does he see things developing in the world at large? I am optimistic.
There are, of course, things that get me down. One thing that continually
depresses me is the way that we got to the moon and no further. We just
stopped trying. We are more interested today in our obsessive compulsive
disorders or whatever. Unhappiness, despair, anger these are being ironed
out of people. They are being turned into medicated zombies.
But not all people are like that. The ghost that haunts the system is that
of the secretaries at the Rand Corporation in 1956 who were given a game to
play and expected to act selfishly - they proceeded to ignore the script and
acted co-operatively instead.
And look what happened recently with the [British] National Health Service.
The government thought it was dealing with selfish, economically oriented,
competitive individuals. So it thought that it had to pay the doctors and
nurses more money in order to incentivise them to do more work. Then they
were shocked that productivity did not go up accordingly. No doubt the staff
did want more money and were glad to take it, but the really interesting
point that emerged is that nearly all of them were already doing as much
work as they possibly could and there was very little more that could be
squeezed out of them. So, yes, I am optimistic and that is why I wanted to
end the series on a positive note.
And indeed he does. The third film contains an exhilarating affirmation of
revolution. It dwells on the many horrors of many revolutions of the past.
It describes how dangerous and frightening they have always seemed to us.
But as he says in the film, the dream of changing the world and
transforming people and freeing them from themselves is one that refuses to
go away. The dream haunts us still because it inspires people, it offers
hope and meaning.
With a typically sly flourish, he gives it to Alexander Haig, the US
secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, to assert that: There are things that
we Americans must be willing to fight for. You know, this republic was
spawned by armed conflict. The freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today
were a consequence of armed conflict, insurrection if you will. Haig might
have added that similar developments occurred in England, and it didnt all
end in tears there either.
It is no doubt with such thoughts in mind that at the end of the film Curtis
boldly refutes the liberal sage: Isaiah Berlin was wrong. Not all attempts
to change the world for the better end in tyranny.
John Fitzpatrick is director of the Kent Law Clinic at the University of
Kent. The final part of Adam Curtiss The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream
of Freedom? will be shown on Sunday 25 March.
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