Adam Curtis On The Self

Adam Curtis lectured at Whitechapel Art Gallery this weekend, and sadly I missed last night, but made it to the lecture tonight, and liveblogged the event. His documentaries are all over the web and thought-provoking and insightful. Thanks to Gareth for linking me up with this event :-)

(Note for You: There appears to be some public interest in my lecture notes, that I take at all the various kinds of lectures that I attend, for my own learning. If there is anything incorrect, please email me and I will update the text, or add your comments or trackbacks as you’d like. Be aware that the reason I type these notes is for my own personal use, pretty much stream-of-conscious style, so I can easily confuse comments from the speakers and myself, and my typing is not accurate so it is probably full of typos. I publish these notes since they might, possibly, be of use to others; no guarantees on that, though! :-) Probably a lot of things are misquoted and not even true at all. Please, apply common sense and don’t take this for anything other than rough-cuts from a notebook; nothing here is reliable or a real quote of anyone, any errors or confusions are almost certainly mine. Yet I hope you’ll find uses for it nonetheless… “A snowball rolls down the webhill!” as Fravia might say…)



Topic of talk: Rise of the self and how that ideology has eroded reality

Adam: The rise of the radical individual in society. Explaining this is an ideology; a way of looking at the word; other ideas of freedom and individualism.

This individualism has effect institutions, including those that report the world to us. That’s what I mean by reality. In the process, it has simplified the way reporters report - sometimes so much so, that what is reported is not real, its mythified, a pantomime reality.

The new realism emerging? Its not reality, its realism. How you report whats real to others is an agreed frame of reference between media people and audiences. All societies have them; medieval paintings had a sense of realism because it had a code and

Our realism that is dying is a political realism. Certainly from the late 80s is now dying. Politics could not only understand the world, descriptive the problems, and solve them. A progressive image that dominated the 20th century. I’m a documentary maker, I say I’m really a journalist, but I’m really really a documentary maker ;-)

You can become part of the progressive tradition when doing reporting, and I think we’re at the end of it.

Here are two short B&W clips, one from 1948, very dull but sums things up - about housing problems. The other is from Cathy Come Home; central to the myths of individualism.

First is a exhortation again power elites and the power of the British working classes. The other is a child being snatched by men in white coats from a homeless woman.

Ken Loatch would hate the voice in the first clip, but both clips are suffused with the idea you can change the world and you have the power to make things that make change happen.

It feels long ago; we don’t think films have that effect any more. That’s the image of political realism. In the 1980s that idea really begun to collapse, and it was crucial. But there were still people who thought you could still change the world.

Personal development is the idea that you could give up on mass change but change individuals, and by everyone doing it themselves, society would be transformed. personal transformation - this is the root of the idea that you get an identity through the objects that express you best.

The last episode in the Century of Self, in 1992/1993 with Clinton - interesting it was on the liberal left. Clinton came in to power, in the traditional left way. He was sandwiched by a crisis and the swing voter. In 1996 he was going to lose, and then Dick Morris, an amoral consultant, and he took Clinton to Mark Pen. One of the most powerful men in the world. Running Hillary campaign at the moment. used a neuropsychiatric poll to find out what people wanted, and gave it to them.

Here’s a clip from Century of the Self. “To get inside the swing voters…” end withs Robert Riech talking about how the idea was to get back in to power with ad style propaganda and no real mandate.

So the roots of political realism was falling apart, and I started looking at this with Power of Nightmares. Islamism starts in 1949 and leads up to 9/11. If you go through the story of the people and their ideas and what led to 9/11. What was reported as a terrorist threat was - dangerously! - distorted and overly simplified. There is a serious terrorist threat, there are people who want to kill us, but there is no organised network of sleeper cells with a man in an Afghan cave running it. There are fragmented terrorist groups with no connection, inspired by a movement that they feel is failing and they are lashing out. We were not reported reality, we were reported a strange apocalyptic pantomime.

Here is a clip from Power of Nightmares, about USA troops searching for Bin laden. “In December, the Americans were told…” - Osama hiding in a cave, and THIS IS IT, cut deep into the rock, ventilation, computer systems and telephones, and tunnels to drive trucks and even tanks. Rumsfeld: “You bet! there are many of these!” So they bombed the caves and went up there. All they found is a few natural caves. The fortress never existed. Northern Alliance were just kidnapping anyone who looked like an Arab, and SOLD them to the Americans. Al Queda appeared to have disappeared. Then the British arrived to find them, because of their special experience with Northern Ireland. There was nothing there because the 9/11 attacks were done by a small group formed in the late 90s. With the American invasion, the group was scattered, but the idea was left. The idea could inspire new groups and individuals. The UK-USA forces were chasing a phantom. A trooper says, “people are looking for something that isn’t there; just an idea of young angry Muslim males, and that idea is the threat.”

So, you were being misreported to, that is one thing I wanted to point out. Journalistic-ally, to report something that isn’t accurate. The other thing was, WHY? And that’s what I tried to explain.

I think its because politicians were losing touch with individuals, and they figured FEAR was an emotion they could create and connect with. Politicians feeling their power slipping away because of the rise of self interested individuals who could only be given small autonomous tasks, which doesn’t make them very important.

So when 9/11 happened, they saw fear in people, and seized on it as something that could reestablish their authority. Reality was being corroded so they could hold on to their power that they had grown up with.

Here’s a final clip: “That’s the way we live today, its a nightmare.” Both the neocons and the islamist extremists created a

All the grand ideas have lost credibility, and fear of a phantom menace is all politicians have left to maintain their authority. In a society that believes in nothing, politicians can stand for nothing. A society that believes in nothing is scared of people who believe in something, and they create fear out of proportion. They create a reaction that reflect how atomised we

Its not just politicians, its journalists too. TV journalists, also suffer form this too. They hate that no one respects them. They grew up thinking that they could tell us about the world, and it turns out we don’t care what they say. Planetary catastrophe, junk food being bad for you - real problems, but people turn it into more than that.

There’s a Metro: “Beams of Fright” - telling you that lights will be projected from battersea power station to tell you there is a flood in London at night. They turn serious issues like climate change or junk food into apocalyptic pantomimes. These journalists know nothing, they tell me this, off the record! - there are grains of truth, but they knew there was no Al Queda press relations officers who could come back on that.

The Ricin plot in London was going to be reported at one, single, horrible man, who wanted to smear Ricin on car doors.

And the audience sense our uncertainty, that we cant hide, and so journalists take the final step in the logic of the self, and

And here’s a Charlie Brooker film on the rise of the television journalist as a hero I did. Berlin wall was a total surprise; T journalists didn’t see it. They could tell their simple moral stories no more.

Done Lackater went to film what it was like to get mugged in Brixton. They cut out the middlemen and got us to send in our own news. In doing that, we are doing something different. Journalists don’t know what is happening in our world, and they are reverting to an audience to tell them - Us. But we don’t have a clue, because journalists have given up on their job to explain the world to us.

A mantra in reporters offices… Journalists becoming weeping individuals, no one knows if we are heading for a financial crisis or not, and all the previously great and grand institution seem foolish.

Inequalities are getting worse, social stratifications are solidifying. And we ignore reports, because WE know that They DO NOT know how to solve them. They forgot their ideas of political progression and changing the world. Cathy Come Home had a promise of changing the world.

I’m as complicit as the next journalist in doing this.

So what is real?

What does grab people these days?

Here are some more clips; these are, 20 million AOL searches were leaked, and they are FASCINATING. You have to download it through bittorrent. People endlessly searching for things. Its fascinating. Peoples sitting down and following their emotions in this weird way, that makes sense to them, and its gripping.

User 15830. Starts with calories. Calories in bananas. Aftermath of incest. Victim of incest. Pottery barn. Curtains. Surgical help for depression. ….. Anti psychotic drugs.

Its fascinating, its the reality of our time ,and its totally gripping. We are trapped in our subjective worlds, and many marketeers tell us that there is a hunger in this atomised world to find out what other people are like… people go into book shops and they look at what OTHER PEOPLE are holding in their hands to buy. This is going into others minds and seeing what is there. This is what people are like in private. They are frightening. This is User 59920. Privacy is not good o n the Internet. “Cat skinned in fort lupton co” etc - its very weird, threatening stuff… And it could be a writer, it could be some nutcase. Its a weird reality, you do not know what this is or how to interpret it.

All Internet computers are in big server farms. These computers reveal that we are not, in any way, individuals. We all feel we are self expressive individuals, everything is within us. Psychological marketing is now dying away; computers are revealing that we act in herd like ways. I met the man who invented how to sell credit cards to people who don’t really want them. He is a BF Skinner fan, and he did this in the early 80s. He invented subcrime, and is now on the run!

Computers reveal another truth, you feel you are an individual, but the machine tells you that in fact you are very predictable.

This raises 2 questions. What are we? Does this mean we are simply predictable. can you predict through computers that the self is not true, we are totally formed by people outside ourselves? Or, as I said in the trap, we have become simplified beings. That’s what I think. We are driven by the simplest selfish desires, and we become compliant with it.

The point about psychological categories, we can measure to what extent we deviate from the norm - again defined by computers - and it seems democratic. its a series of categories you can measure yourself against, and people WANT to do this. In a world in which you are alone, you seek definitions outside yourself.

So the search makes you feel as in individual, but act as the opposite. So either we ARE predictable, or we have BECOME predictable. I thin the latter. People are being real, but encased in a set of ideas - which they think are real - but different to the previous collective realities. But people are more complex than this and its starting to break out.

So hers something I slapped together on Friday night. A final thing about the 2 chief ideologists of this age of the self. Both mired in the language of the self. Perhaps, both, I think, are today sounding hollow and unsubstantial.

Russian marchers. Tracey Emin: “the sun does revolve around me” T shirt. Her tent. MS slogan, where do YOU want to go today? Another ad “you are the arbiter of your own style”. Blair: “I ask you to accept that, with my hand on my heart, I did what I thought was right.” The woman disco dancing on her own in the mall. Emin, talking about her sec themed work. Blair “I may have been wrong, that’s your call. But i did what I thought was right for our country”.

So, I put Blair in. All he is left with is the language of the self. That I believe it means its right. That’s what politics has become. Modern Art is the chief ideologists of our age, far form their media portrayal as rebellious.



Q: You work for BBC Current Affairs? A: Not there at the moment, I moved on. When I was there, I made power of nightmares there, and they were great. Peter Horrocks pushed it through, I was happy it did get through. Journalists really don’t know what is going on. BBC Current Affairs do “do my tits look too big” too - people who used to work on panorama now work on stuff like that as well.

Q: The way you construct histories and your storytelling; you nail individuals. Persons who represent ideas, the important movers in history. a bourgeois male history.

A: Ideas have power, people come into power and execute the

I get slagged off mainly by chomskyites, who think whatever we do is irrelevant, on the dark tides on history. I don’t believe that, powerful men and women have ideas and execute

i see

Q: bloggers? A: I argued that bloggers tend to be, they think they are wild and expressive individuals, but they are in the bubble of the self. they are as a collective movement, and they are becoming ht new censors. A herd acting as censors. News editors are terrified that left and right wing bloggers will attack you. New York public library tired to have an exhibition. They controversialise you, they make you part of the story, and the news editors have to take you out of the story because then you are party of the story. Its not working out how it was supposed to work out. Its like bullying, when you are on the end of a blog-wind(?)

Q: i went on a climate change march, 7,000 people across the country, a paltry showing. Will anti climate change fail because its a collective action. A: Last night I said climate change is a serious issue, but there are political issues about how you solve them. What I argued is, the apocalyptic pantomime is failing. As Blair did with terrorism; he took a serious threat and put it into a pantomime. It doesn’t do anyone any good to turn it into a pantomime. When you portray something as an Apocalypse, it becomes one thing. I think we’ll get more collective interest, when its not just one thing. I sense a change in the air though, its all too boring. Al music and art is reworking the past. The self traps innovation; politics cant move forward. So what I’m concerned with is climate change people get out of their bubble. Climate Change Modelling is interesting, I’d like to do a documentary on that. The movement should pick another front; the BBC pulled Jonathan Ross because he wasn’t going to give a chance to debate it coherently. The BBC would be more sympathetic to rational debate than just being scared.

Q: We follow the USA, what happens in the USA happens here. Our empire crumbled, their empire is at its peak. Is it fair to say whatever happens necessarily is reflected over here? A: The Californian ideology, in the latter parts of Century of the Self. So yes, i think its bigger than empire. IN Power of Nightmares, I dealt with how we shadowed something. We live in the shadow of “Internet ideology” - we all all interlinked in webs without hierarchies is a new form of democracy. The Whole Earth Catalog is the Californian ideology. Individuals are more important than any other form of authority. The idea that you can create a world without hierarchies of power. Rumsfeld, the whole war plan in Iraq, was based on nodal network; you could go in with nodal networks of troops and it would set up a nodal society. So, with American foreign policy, I think, yes.

Q: So will the Chinese be Californian hippies? A: Well, a friend is high up in the Chinese elite. Chon Ching is the largest city in the world, shes there.. There is a boom there in china, but the people there think it is failing. Can you have capitalism without democracy? The Chinese seem to think you can. But it may just be a bubble. No one knows. We report it, but it might not be real. That’s the nature of our time.

Q? A: I stand by what I said. There is no evidence of an organised network. Madrid bombings; now they admit its just a separate cell. July, a nasty little fragmented group. Yes, they had contacts all over the world - who doesn’t? But if someone bombs your city, you cant help but feel frightened and its not surprising people react like that. But remember what we were told in 2002; an organised network. But its gone. There are debates about the nature of the threat; should we let Iran collapse itself? Yes and no it the answer to that.

Q: Use or archives. A: i noticed that the more avante garde i was, the more accepted my work was by editors. they saw, ah yes, this is an essay, this is not reporting, its opinion. i invented it as a way of getting through the power structure. and i rather liked it.

Q: A: I am not a Marxist. My intellectual background is in the right, that’s not my politics, but i strongly believe tat ideas have consequences. yes there are other ideas at work. but the Iraq war was neo conservatives with revolution and batty ideas about how to reconstruct the middle east. not oil greed. their ideas didn’t turn out at all how they expected. often people write to me about Hegelian forces of history and oil, but i don’t think that’s it.

Q: how would you like to see change happen? A: if you are at the BBC, you are not allowed to tell people what to do, you are given a platform of one of the most powerful voices in the world, you must analyse the world, so others can decide how to make change happen.


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The Adam Curtis On The Self by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


One Response to “Adam Curtis On The Self”

  1. Adrian Dale on December 22nd, 2007 11:42

    Nice blog post, Dave - bet your wrist was aching after taking all that down!

    Sounds like a really interesting talk and I’m sorry I missed it now. Doh.

    I’ve pretty much given up on staying in touch with the news. My main source of info is now internet news pages and even that isn’t ideal.

    “Beams of Fright” was a perfect example of why I can’t be bothered to read newspapers any more. Go anywhere in London these days and you’ll see gangs of guys in purple shirts who can’t even get people to take their papers when they are giving them away for free!

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