The documentary maker Adam Curtis was at the Hebel Am Ufer theatre in Berlin this weekend. There were screening of his films Bitter Lake and the Century of the Self (and the selection prefigured the arguments that he was to make), but the main events were a lecture and two public dialogues, one of which with the leftwing critic Mark Fisher. Contrary to what one might expect there isn’t much online of Curtis speaking about his work, so I went to check it out.
From the outset he insisted on positioning himself as a journalist rather than filmmaker, and he consistently emphasized the value of narrative, the importance of stories, especially as regards political movements’ capacity to inspire and shape the materialization of new worlds in times of crisis (i.e. opportunity). Questions focused on more formal aspects of documentary production were pooh-poohed: filmmaking choices were tersely explained as being either a matter of personal preference, an intentionally self-evident result of the propaganda approach, or simply more economic to produce,
It turned out that what Curtis wanted to talk about was the failure of liberals and the liberal left (amongst whom he counts himself) to achieve ‘real change’, their inability to imagine another type of future as embodied in the defeat of the Tahir Square and Occupy rebellions. Instead he described the descent into ‘oh dearism’, or the posture of impotently observing one disaster after another with no idea about how to intervene, to end or ameliorate the situation. He links this to the end of the era of mass democracy, where organizations made alliances and formed blocks capable of confronting embedded power structures meaningfully, and the failure to find any analog in a time where the basic unit of politics is not the collective but the individual.
This segues nicely into the thesis of The Century of the Self, whose second half tells how the defeat of the new left/counterculture of 1968 led to retreat by that generation into technologies of the self and a turning away from society. Curtis curses the new left for painting all politicians as corrupt, and sees this as both a simplification and a precondition for the refusal of politics wholesale by what he calls ‘hippies’. Later he remarked how radical it would be to make a series about the ‘nobility of politicians’ as a necessary upending of this cynical attribution of corrupt motives to all politicians. This judgement is seen by him as both a simplification of the facts and an abiding impediment to the organization of meaningful political action.
Century of the Self chronicles the emergence of a new type of social actor/subject, whose sense of their own centrality represents a decisive break with the type of collective subject of the era of mass democracy. Now individuals are said to require that they be addressed in a more persona manner, they grant inflated importance to self-expression, and seek their own personal utopias – as one interviewee characterizes it, their aim is ’socialism in one person’.
Curtis sees this personality type as representing the vital battlefield for political struggle in this time. He condemns the ‘left’ for failing either to appreciate it or find ways to appeal to it. His prescription is always the same: the crucial failure is the inability to imagine a future and convey it in a form which this new type of individual can find compelling and persuasive. What the form of this storytelling might be was left almost entirely unspecified, but we were told that it was to exclude economics, because it was ‘boring’; the mere mention of collateralized debt obligations would make people’s eyes roll in a stupefied mixture of bafflement and tedium. Simultaneous with this rejection of ‘wonk-ery’ however, he repeatedly decried the tendency towards simplification and worried that were a major crisis to occur, not only would the political vision be found wanting but the individuals would find itself confronted with a level of complexity so unfamiliar as to be irresolvable.
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