Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation: Over-Hyped

If, like me, you just spent two hours and forty-six minutes watching HyperNormalisation, the new Adam Curtis film on BBC iPlayer, who might be despairing at the state of the world. Terrified that the world is run by either nefarious villains who arbitrarily play the system and court paradox with the aim of confusing and alienating the populous (e.g. Trump and Putin) or ardent capitalists who pretend to have values whilst selling out to the highest bidder (e.g. Reagan, Blair, Bush etc). Terrified also of the monsters that thrive in the wake of these superpowers such as terrorists unafraid of killing civilians in a bid to create chaos. Meanwhile, the rest of us, powerless and paranoid, decide to retreat into a world of cyberspace where nothing is real, no one is really listening but we are being watched by nasty megacorporations who just want to sell us more crap. Yup, it’s a horrible world according to HyperNormalisation and even those who attempt to fight it – Occupy, the Arab Spring – end up dead, defeated or defecting to the baddies. But I’m not one for relentless pessimism and I kind of felt much of this has been said before.

Take Guy Debord, one of many 20th century French philosophers with a difficult surname to pronounce. He wrote a book called The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and it focuses on how social life has become increasingly self-reflexive. He wrote that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” and what I understand him meaning by this is that we spend far more time looking at representations of the world rather than at the world itself. For example, rather than go for a walk outside we play a computer game about going for a walk outside. Life becomes increasingly virtual as we watch endless TV, surf the web and monitor our online profiles, all the while losing touch with what’s authentic. We get lost in a world of representations, spectacles and signs, and lose our ability to figure out what’s real (the hyperactivity of the world becomes normalised). In HyperNormalisation Curtis picks up on this theme and explores how increasingly surreal politics have become. For example, Western superpowers create convenient supervillian baddies (aka scapegoats) in the Middle East to justify their continued wars waged to maintain the capitalist military industrial complex rather than actually deal with the genuine complexities of a globalised world. I see this as forming part of the larger postmodern critique of modernism – i.e. that those grand narratives so beloved of the US and UK such as Progress, Civilisation, Enlightenment and Happy Endings are a bunch of bullshit facades used to sugarcoat vicious and corrupt political systems that make a bunch of people rich.

However, the problem, and this is one of the problems I think Curtis’ film suffers from, is that the postmodern critique can only go so far. It takes the premises of modernism (i.e. those big narratives), finds them very wanting and then flips them on their heads. But once you’ve flipped a shoddy grand narrative on its head there’s not a lot you can do with it other than get cut amongst the broken pieces. And that’s what HyperNormalisation is – a lot of broken pieces fused together to form their own grand narrative that itself is much too simplistic and keeps reiterating the point that we’re doomed and there’s no alternative. It does this by juxtaposing endless clips from pop culture with pictures of mass destruction and dead bodies. It’s shocking, desensitising and a product of the very HyperNormalised world it tries to critique. Like the conniving politicians who try to bamboozle us into submission with paradoxical messages the film leaves us confused, devastated and gasping for air without offering any hope.

But I call bullshit to a hopeless future. Whilst money and banks are referenced there’s scant economics in this film – namely the economics of consumer capitalism and how it fuels so much of the conflict charted in the film. There’s also little time spent on examining alternatives – steady-state economies, sustainability, gift economies and the like. And whilst Curtis looks at various forms of terrorism and the West’s grand narratives as important systems of belief he doesn’t look at other more peaceful ones, for instance, CND, Quakerism and environmentalism. In essence, Curtis just contributes to the agenda of doom, despair and nihilism that has ravaged so much of our culture and caused the death of so many. He’s a documentarian of apocalypse and whilst he’s certainly created a spectacle that is at times informative and entertatining it’s also incredibly overwhelming and anxiety inducing. It floods us with highly selective information without providing any tips on how to use this information. Now here’s a picture of a banana with a condom on it because, hey, everything’s postmodern these days and doesn’t need to make sense…

We’ll Need More Than A Few Good Men

“You want the truth?” asks Colonel Jessop, head of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and stupendously played by Jack Nicholson, at the iconic climax of the film A Few Good Men. “You can’t handle the truth” (big spoilers coming fyi). He then proceeds to tell the film’s hero Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) why – because America needs the Marines and America needs these Marines to be brutally trained to obey orders and if it just so happens that one of these marines turns out to be a pretty poor soldier and is accidentally killed when some of his fellow Marines try and teach him a non-leathal lesson (oops, spoilers), then that’s probably a good thing for national defence because that Marine was weak anyway. “We live in a world that has walls,” says Jessop,  “And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” Well perhaps this is the truth, at least for the likes of Colonel Jessop and those who like walls, but as Britain joins the bombing of Syria I don’t think this can be the only truth.

The truth is bigger than bombs and men with guns, as big as those things are, because the truth also concerns a globalised system of commerce, finance, fossil fuels, arms, the enforcement of debt, an addiction to consumerism and, amongst many other things, a totally unsustainable dependence on economic growth.  The truth, in other words, is bigger than the false choice of ‘to bomb or not to bomb’, that really isn’t the only question. Having said this I could now write another blog on why bombing Syria is a terrible idea – how innocent people will die in Syria due to British attacks just as innocent people have died in Sana’a, Khan Bani Saad and Paris, due to the attacks of ISIS. But in these brief paragraphs that’s not what I want to write about, what I want to write about is how, now more than ever, we’re going to need a lot of imagination.

That globalised system of commerce, finance, fossil fuels, arms, debt, consumerism and economic growth is going to need an exceptionally imaginative response because we’re tearing each other and the world apart trying to keep this system alive. For starters, this response will include the prevention of anti-democratic trade deals (Stop TTIP to begin with), ethical banking (Triodos perhaps), lots of renewable energy (ecotricity maybe), unlitaral demilitarisation (certainly CND, amongst others), something beyond debt based economics (David Graeber makes a good point or two), consuming less stuff (the Story of Stuff has some tips) but being happier for it (Action For Happiness is nice) and more than just absolute or relative decoupling between economic growth and resource usage but transcendence of the whole growth paradigm anyway (here’s Tim Jackson with plenty of great ideas about ensuring Prosperity Without Growth).

The point I’m trying to make is that so many of the answers we’re looking for, or at least the possibilities of answers, already exist and are already happening. The alternatives are many, diverse and dispersed, and I reckon every criticism we make against the system needs to be allied with a suggestion of how we can get closer to peace (just pick your favourite from the list above or go find a new one). So Colonel Jessop’s truth only applies if our priority is maintaining the supremacy and walls of the capitalist, military-industrial complex, whereas if we want something different then those walls will need to come tumbling down to let a much bigger truth in.