Still from Adam curtis All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Adam Curtis: Dystopian Dialectics

‘Today we are people who know better,’ the American artist Sam Green tells us in a recent performance of his Utopia in Four Movements, ‘and that’s both a wonderful and terrible thing.’

What we know are the horrors of a hundred years of Utopia made manifest: Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and Stalin’s Soviet Union; the policies and politics of Neo-Conservatism and Neo-Liberalism; cybernetic hallucinations of machine messiahs and false fantasies of absolute individual freedom. In each case there was a radical break with the present and a bold leap toward an imagined future; in every case the result was disastrous. We now know better, and we won’t get fooled again by dreams of infinite possibility. This is a wonderful thing. And this is a terrible thing, for what are we without such dreams?

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Utopia begins with a dream but invariably ends with a plan; a plan most often imagined and executed by a small elite. The role of the populace is, at best, to conform to this plan of a world already delivered complete. In Utopia we, the people, are not wilful agents who do the shaping but merely organic material to be shaped. This is one reason why Utopias, once realised, are so horrific and short-lived: short-lived because people tend not to be so pliable, and therefore insist on upsetting the perfect plans for living; horrific because people are made pliable and forced to fit the plans made for them. In Utopia the demos is designed, not consulted.

Utopia is the terrain upon which the British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis operates. For over two decades, and through scores of films, he has exposed the lies and the hubris of Utopian dreams. He has helped us know better. Yet, like most of us obsessed by Utopia, he shares Green’s ambivalence. ‘All revolutions come to this’ he tells us in The Road to Terror, yet despite the terror at the end of the road he never suggests that revolutions should not be begun. The brilliance of his work lies in his ability to capture and convey this duality.

Curtis tells the stories of Utopias gone wrong. There is a word for these: dystopias, and at first viewing, the director’s vision is starkly dystopian. His films chronicle revolutions from political tyranny that turn to totalitarianism (The Road to Terror, 1989), the promise of science resulting in well-engineered prisons (Pandora’s Box, 1992; All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011), dreams of the past leaving us trapped within imaginary histories (The Living Dead, 1995), freedom from political power leading us into the prison of the free market (The Mayfair Set, 1999; The Trap, 2007), and personal liberation captured, controlled and channeled into consumer expression (The Century of the Self, 2002). One after another our dreams turn to nightmares (The Power of Nightmares, 2004). While the subject matters range and the characters change, one dystopian theme reappears throughout: a story of how our dreams of individual freedom—whether right-wing fantasies of rational, self-maximising actors in the market, or left-wing visions of people freed from authority to express their innermost libidinal desires—converge around a certain non-politics: the myth of the rational self-directing system. This system, which, pending on one’s ostensible politics, can be idealised as the “invisible hand” of the free market or the collective intelligence of individuals networked via computers, is supposed to free us once and for all from political authority. The actual result of such dreams, Curtis demonstrates, is a nightmarish, self-centered world where there is no community, no sense of public good, and, indeed, no politics through which people might act to change things. This is our world. As Curtis intones in Machines of Loving Grace: ‘We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.’

There is a political danger in dystopianism. We seem to derive great satisfaction from vicariously experiencing our world destroyed by totalitarian politics, rapacious capitalism, runaway technology, or ecological disaster; and dystopic books and movies—think of 1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, The Day After Tomorrow, The Matrix, and 2012—have proved far more popular in our day than any comparable Utopic text. Contemplating the haunting beauty of dystopic art, like Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones’s London Futures show at the Museum of London last year (in which the capital of England lies serenely under seven meters of water) brings to mind the famous phrase of Walter Benjamin, that our ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’ While many such dystopic visions are, no doubt, sincerely created to instigate collective action, I suspect what they really inspire is a sort of solitary satisfaction in hopelessness. In recent years a new word has entered our vocabulary to describe this effect: “disasterbation.”

Curtis is doing something else and, like any good art, you sense it sooner than you understand it. Like most documentarians, Curtis uses sounds and images illustratively: a talking head appears as it talks and a setting is shown as it is described, but his genius lies is his use of associations. In The Century of the Self, a white, male, middle-class suburbanite plays golf as the voice of an advisor to the former PM Tony Bair argues for the recognition and valorisation of the individuality of swing voters. The juxtaposition of images and words lets Curtis suggest that these voters, engaged in such stereotypical activities, are far from individuals, and that their “individualism” is sequestered to the realm of consumption and leisure (it also permits a low-key pun on “swing” voters). The director never tells us any of this, but through the power of associations he makes his point. This is well within the realm of standard documentary film-making. But then it gets weird: random signs and sounds appear, images are overexposed and shown in negative, sequences are looped or run backwards, talking heads are interviewed in stark rooms with extra chairs stacked up behind them or with unexplained boxes strewn across the floor. The “point” of such associations is not immediately—or ever—clear. What is the connection between a relatively obscure 1970s Sex Pistols cover of a 1950s Eddie Cochran song and early Soviet faith in science? I am still not sure (perhaps the revolutionary call: “C’mon Everybody”?), but the song pops up, twice, in the first reel of Pandora’s Box – and it somehow works. Curtis’s most (diss)associative film, It Felt Like a Kiss, strings together a “story” of Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA, and Enos, the first monkey sent into space. In the final scene, lifted from the famous 1959 Hollywood feature Pillow Talk, Day lies in her fluffy, virginal bed with a dreamy look upon her face as we hear the sound of hijacked jets roaring low across the city a half century later on their way to hit the World Trade Center. We are never told that this is what the sound is, indeed 9/11 is only mentioned in passing earlier in the film, but what else could it be?

From the outside, Curtis’s project seems to be one of rational, Enlightenment-era reveal. He is the young boy in the old tale The Emperor’s New Clothes who sees the king parade by in the buff and yells out to the crowd: “but he has no clothes,” thereby revealing the truth behind the lies and the mystifications. Yet his technique—juxtaposition, montage, dissonant sound, use of stock footage, trafficking in mediated memory and cultural kitsch—works on a different register. This is the language of dreams. Images are recycled throughout Curtis’s films: scenes of empty office buildings and crowded highways, encounter sessions and electroshock therapy, ecstatic individuals dancing the twist. The effect is that of memory, as familiar fragments appear and disappear only to appear again. And it is memory that Curtis is trying to evoke: our cultural memory of the stories that we tell ourselves that have been told to us.

One set of images to which Curtis repeatedly returns are from Design for Dreaming, an industrial short made in 1956 to publicise General Motors’ auto show exhibit Motorama. The original advertisement is, in a word, phantasmagoric. A woman dreams of a masked man entering her room bearing a valentine card that she follows Alice-like into a nether world of real and imaginary (GM) cars and (GM subsidiary) kitchen appliances. She prances among products and performs an interpretive “Dance of Tomorrow.” ‘I can hardly wait for the dream to come true,’ she sighs as she and her mystery man head off to the future in a flying car. Why use this footage in film after film? Because it exemplifies the director’s warning about what happens to our dreams. Design for Dreaming is a dream commodified and instrumentalised to the point that it becomes an instrumental dream about commodities. It is no longer our dream, but theirs. Still, it is a dream. Curtis’s predilection for footage from the 1950s reveals something important about the director: he is nostalgic for a time when we had dreams.

There is no shortage of villains in Adam Curtis’s films. They star public relations impresario Edward Bernays, theorists of selfishness Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss, and Friedrich von Hayek, political figures Davis Sterling, Sayyid Qutb, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, along with a motley cast of supporting players including CIA psychologists, RAND institute game theorists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and City of London traders – all of whom have manipulated people’s dreams and fears in the pursuit of wealth and power. But for Curtis, the biggest villain of all is the computer. In his films computers are not pictured as the modern laptops with which we are all familiar, instead they appear as hulking IBM mainframes from the past, with spinning magnetic tape and flashing buttons with incomprehensible warnings, attended by blank-faced individuals wearing white lab coats. The computer is not a means of individual expression and empowerment as we have come to believe, rather it is both a symbol of, and the means to actualise, society as algorithm; a world where everything runs according to a master plan. Yet, I believe there is deeper impulse behind this demonisation, one that Curtis himself may not be fully conscious of: an awareness of the profound limits of these machines that permeate our lives. Computers can calculate and plan, but they cannot dream.

The first episode of Pandora’s Box draws to a close with a choir composed of people old enough to have lived through the horrors of Stalin, singing heart-felt hymns in praise of Five Year Plans and the brave new world they were sure would be realised under the new gods of scientific planning. From the description I’ve given here it would it would be logical to assume that Curtis is ridiculing these old communists, and in different hands this is exactly what the scene would suggest: ‘Look at these fools! Don’t they understand that their dreams of “scientific socialism” were bankrupt?’ But this is not the feeling one gets when watching the scene; quite the opposite. Curtis captures the hope of these people and their longing for a different, better world. In doing so, he conveys their very humanity. The dream they had may have been horribly wrong, but their belief in dreams is nevertheless something to be admired.

In the mid-1960s the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggested that we might understand a great deal of criticism as an “exercise in suspicion” – seeing hidden agendas of power and control in society, its institutions, and even individual consciousness. Nearly forty years later the American queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, drawing upon Ricoeur, posited the idea of “paranoid reading” – critical readings of texts, be they literary or social, devoted to unearthing ‘evidence of systematic oppression.’ The goal of both sorts of criticism is revelation: a demystification of all illusions. The problem with this form of criticism is that it slides easily into cynicism. Curtis can plausibly be accused of this; by shattering our illusions, it can be argued, he leaves us with nothing. Both Ricoeur and Sedgwick believed, however, that criticism need not lead to hopelessness. Ricoeur held that the great practitioners of a hermeneutics of suspicion—Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—destroyed only in order to prepare a better foundation upon which to build. Sedgwick, in turn, tantalisingly hints at a ‘reparative reading’ that is ‘additive and accretive’ and seeks to create rather than merely destroy. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, and a bit too generous, but I think this is the sort of critical project that Curtis is actually engaged in, something we might call dystopian dialectics.

Utopia is commonly thought of as a simple dream of an ideal place, but its genesis reveals a more complicated story. In 1516 Thomas More published Utopia, a story about a newly discovered island society. Utopia was a place where the people are happy, healthy, and content – all according to plan. Property is distributed equitable, justice is meted out fairly, freedom of religion and speech are the law of the land, and each works for the benefit of all. Compared to the author’s sixteenth-century British home, such a society was, well, Utopian. But More’s book is a curious one, full of riddles and paradoxes. The most obvious curiosity, and the one best known, is the name More gives to the island: Utopia. Made up by More from the Greek words ou (not) and topos (place), it is a space which is, literally, no place. To complicate things further, the character who describes the features of this remarkable society is called Raphael Hythloday, and the Greek root of his surname—huthlos—means nonsense or idle talk. So here we are, being told the story of a place which is named out of existence, by a narrator who is named as unreliable. And these are just two of the hints throughout the text that suggest we are not to take Utopia seriously. Yet More is deadly serious about the ideals expressed in Utopia: it is hard to believe that he would spend page upon page describing in painstaking detail such a society if he was not. So how do we under this paradox? I believe that More was opening up a space for us to imagine an alternative society ourselves. He gives us his master plan so we have an ideal to think about, but then, lest the reader find themselves too comfortable in this other world he has created, he goes about unsettling his alternative, building with one hand while disassembling with the other. Inspired by a dream, yet not allowed to find fulfillment within More’s plan, we must do our own dreaming. In short: More has fashioned a Utopia that must be engaged dialectically; since Utopia is No-Place it is left up to all of us to find it.

Like More before him, Curtis is playing a double game. He sketches bleak dystopian portraits that lead us to dark places. But we aren’t left here. Like More, he gives us clues that there is something else at play: some force of humanity that, at one and the same time, leads to these nightmares but can also lead us out of them. Our dreams—mined, manipulated and misused—may have been what got us into the trap, yet some form of conscious dreaming, call it critical imagination, may offer a way out. Much like More, Curtis is not going to bestow upon us a new master plan for salvation. What we do now is left up to us. It is telling that that my first exposure to Curtis’s films was at a private viewing amongst political activists. (His films are difficult to show in the US because of copyright restrictions.) We were certainly interested in tearing down the old world, but we were also committed to building up a new one in its stead. We found inspiration for both in Curtis. Again and again, he tells us that all dreams end in nightmares. Yet, at the same time, he ennobles the human capacity to imagine something other, something better. Building a better society takes both, what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci once recommended as pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

In It Felt Like A Kiss, over scenes of a turbulent ocean and the bubbly Beach Boys song Wouldn’t it Be Nice, Curtis explains that the lead singer of the band, ‘Brian Wilson hated the ocean; its darkness and power terrified him. Everyday he heard loud terrifying screams inside his head. The only way to drown out the screams was to write happy songs’. Curtis is doing the inverse. His films reveal how Utopias become dystopias and dreams turn into nightmares. Yet the overall effect of his work, strangely, is not despair. The horror is not revealed so we can revel in it, but so we might learn from it, and move on. Adam Curtis writes unhappy songs full of terrifying screams so we might wake to dream more knowing dreams.
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Published in Photoworks issue 18, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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