Academic journal article Borderlands

Adam Curtis's Compelling Logic: The Tortuous Corridor to the Hypernormal

Academic journal article Borderlands

Adam Curtis's Compelling Logic: The Tortuous Corridor to the Hypernormal

Article excerpt

It's like living in the mind of a depressed hippy (Curtis 2007b) 

Adam Curtis is a BAFTA award-winning documentary filmmaker who employs borrowed images from the past to construct complex accounts of the political present. Produced primarily for the medium of television (the BBC), though this has expanded in recent years to include digital platforms, his films consist of an idiosyncratic use of archived image and sound fragments: Hollywood and British films, news footage, expert vox pops, television shows, corporate training films, drone footage, film music, sound effects, and so on. These fragments are generally overlayed by a serious 'matter of fact', journalistic voice-over narration (Curtis himself), that tells the story of our times. Curtis is well-known as a polemicist. His films directly question and challenge the proficiency of political elites. For instance, a powerful sequence in Curtis's most debated and cited film, The power of nightmares (2004), consists of news footage of George W Bush on a podium looking direct to camera. Bush triumphantly announces, 'one by one terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice'. This image is inserted at the end of a longer sequence that provides an account of absurdist court cases against 'terror suspects' in the USA. After the attacks upon the WTC towers, law enforcement, in its various forms, is busy gathering evidence against 'terror suspects' inside America's borders. The film reveals that the gathered evidence is specious and thin. The Bush image is suitably supplemented by a comic, rhythmic musical composition by the well-known composer, Ennio Morricone, fittingly titled: 'Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto' [Investigation of a citizen above suspicion]. The bassoon, block, and 'boing' sounds that mark the composition lend a comic tone to Bush's emphatic statement. In the sequence, American justice emerges as far from just. Bush's statement is patently absurd (Curtis 2004).

'Bushspeak' has, of course, provided much material for comedians, pundits, documentary filmmakers, and social media users (the same can already be said for the president elect, Donald Trump). Curtis has not added anything new to this chorus. But what I want to suggest is that this articulation of political absurdity is emblematic of Curtis's films in general. This sequence consists of the fragments and strange combinations that mark his productions, and it reveals a characteristic suspicion of political elites and the ideas that underpin their plans for society. I take this suspicion as a central, if not the central, defining feature of Curtis's work. This paper will thus unpack what underpins this suspicion and explore its substance. In the case of Curtis, it has to be noted that it isn't clear if this is a suspicion of politics in general or of politics as it is today. Is his a neoliberal suspicion of ideology, or does it belong to the leftist hermeneutics of suspicion? As a perplexed Paul Arthur asks, we know Curtis despises 'modern forms of liberalism', however, his 'political fealties are murky and somewhat contradictory. Is he a Laborite social democrat, a pragmatic socialist, an anarchist (or Christian anarchist like Tolstoy)?' (2007, p. 17). At any rate, my aim in this paper is not to situate Curtis within a political framework. Rather, my aim is to explore the essential logic of this suspicion and unpack the substance of thinking with Curtis. This means I aim to consider Curtis's stories as a form of social theory. To get to this form, it is necessary to engage with three overlapping terrains: criticism of Curtis's films, Curtis as journalist, and the filmmaking techniques Curtis employs. This paper will consider each of these terrains, and then turn to the question of Curtis's logic as form of social theory.

To avoid equivocation, my use of the term 'logic' is drawn directly from discourse analysis. I am concerned with the substance of Curtis's journalistic stories about contemporary power and politics. …

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