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Hypernormal Films for Postnormal Times: The Documentary Dance of Adam Curtis

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS. 2-4, 243-255

Boyd Tonkin


Since the early 1990s, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has created landmark, multi-episode series for the BBC that explore the emotional and social impact of change in dominant forms of power, communication and control. Together, his ambitious visual essays compose a secret history of technology-driven modernity, as a managerial model of radical individualism governed by data-gathering and surveillance replaces traditional mass politics. This process, which Curtis calls “hypernormalisation,” has affinities with the conception of “postnormal times” developed by Ziauddin Sardar. However, the two visions differ in significant ways, while Curtis’s analysis shows signs of evolving as flaws emerge in the stable systems his work foregrounds.


Adam Curtis loves dancers. Gauche or svelte, ragged or drilled, dressed in tutus, tuxes, Spandex or Mao-era uniforms, they sway, twist and leap through every film made by the British nonfiction director who has worked for, and within, the BBC for four decades (1). The viewer never has to wait for more than few shots before, in Curtis’s evocative and enigmatic montages of archive footage, a dance of some description comes along—frenzied disco, sedate ballroom, a dragooned mass formation from revolutionary China, or a punk provocation staged by Pussy Riot before the altar of a Moscow church. In his epic BBC series, Can’t Get You out of My Head, the first episode of this circuitous six-part, eight-hour visual and historical journey begins with an aerial shot that sweeps moodily over Canary Wharf, London’s 1980s-built financial district. Curtis’s own voiceover commentary announces that “We are living through strange days,” a period when “societies have become split and polarised,” and signals his films’ intention to recount “a history of how we got to this place.”

Soon, though, we are watching jerky video scenes from the repression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—itself a kind of impromptu, agonistic dance—and shots of a stiffly formal ballroom class in late-1950s England. Then, in a trademark Curtis cut, his gaze swerves to Kenya at the same time, where British colonial troops mistreat prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising, forcing the numbered and bullied detainees into coerced, dance-like movements of their own. Curtis even gave the final segment of Can’t Get You out of My Head, released in its entirety on the BBC iPlayer platform in February 2021, the title of “Are We Pigeon? Or Are We Dancer?” In spite of their potential for authoritarian abuse by those in power, the sociable, co-operative forms of the dance regularly figure in Curtis’s films as images of collective action rooted in personal choice—rituals of free will that build into something greater than itself as it gathers power to change the world. The final film of the series ends with a bunch of skinheads, witnessed earlier launching into an ugly, pointless bar fight. Now they sway drunkenly together in a clumsy sort of dance.

That “pigeon,” on the other hand, refers specifically to the behaviorist experiments of the psychologist BF Skinner. More generally, it represents the view of human beings as easily programmable bundles of desire and aversion. That reductive dogma, so Curtis repeatedly argues, has driven much of recent politics, science and business. According to his formulation of the technocratic shift in the dynamics of control that arrived in the late 20th century, “In an age when people are obsessed by their feelings, what is inside their own heads... then power comes from finding what is inside people’s heads, not from encouraging them to look outside” (Obrist, 2012). In other words, the new organs of power sought to re-program the dancers as pigeons.

To some degree, Curtis’s pigeon-dancer binary recalls Karl Marx’s (1990) famous distinction between the well-organized but unconscious bee, and the human architect who must draw on mind and will to make even the simplest edifice. Radicals and reformers in Marx’s era, however, might look forward to a coming age when human society swapped subjugated bees for self-activating architects. Curtis’s films, in contrast, often locate the era of collective change and social agency in a recent, lamented past, now swept away by the digitally-managed passivity and alienated individualism of our “hypernormal” age. Sustained over 30 years and ten major documentary series, Curtis’s marathon film journey through a hypernormal epoch of anxious, homeless and emergency-racked modernity can feel like a close first cousin to Ziauddin Sardar’s conception of postnormal times—or like the figure in the mirror who mimics but reverses every gesture. In any case, Curtis stands almost alone as a career filmmaker who has had the opportunity to mount such a critique of his own era through long-form, authored visual essays funded by a public television network.

Since the 1980s, Curtis has built a unique niche inside the complex, contradictory—some would say chaotic—ecosystem of British public broadcasting. Born in 1955, he studied psychology at Oxford. After giving up academic research in political science, he joined the BBC and helped produce popular TV shows in chatty, bitty magazine formats. Critics sometimes place his layered, gnomic montage methods within an asynchronous, discontinuous and elliptical tradition in documentary film; a line that stretches from the Soviet pioneers of the 1920s to the French film essayist Chris Marker and beyond. To the documentary producer Nick Fraser, for example, the latter auteur shares with Curtis the pursuit of a big idea that slowly takes shape within the overlapping images assembled through a process of cryptic bricolage: “In much the same way that Chris Marker appeared to be making films from the wreckage of Marxism, Curtis believes that Western liberalism is played out” (Fraser, 2019, p. 314). Curtis, however, disavows any grandiose esthetic aims. He steers clear of theoretical, film-school exposition. And he glories in his roots amid the quick-and-dirty editing scrambles of “trash TV.” “I’m fun- damentally an emotional journalist,” he told Sam Knight (2021) of the New Yorker. He insists that what he does counts as journalism about power in the modern world, with a strong narrative pulse, rather than some poetic meditation on the nature of reality. “Journalism’s job should always be to explain things to you,” he affirmed to the writer and film- maker Jon Ronson, one of his many devotees. “But in our age it should do that with real emotional power” (Ronson, 2015, para. 26).

As artistic influences, Curtis cites not other documentarists but writers: above all, the American novelist John Dos Passos, whose USA trilogy (1930–1936) serves as a model for Curtis’s “interest in the relationship between the dreams of individuals and what the great currents of society and history do to those dreams” (Obrist, 2012).

Balzac’s incremental, accumulative, panoramic portrait of 19th-century French society in the novels of his Comedie Humaine cycle figures for Curtis as another guiding star. He told the art writer and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (2012) that “One of my great dreams is to be able to make, on television, some sort of factual equivalent of what Balzac does.” Among writers on society, Curtis most often salutes not Marx but Max Weber, whom he described in a conversation with his fellow-documentar- ian Errol Morris as “the person I love best in the whole world.” Weber’s accounts of bureaucratic reason offered him a prior model for his filmic maps of managed modernity. He also draws inspiration from the German sociologist’s belief in the material consequences of subjective experience: “People have experiences out of which they form ideas. And those ideas have an effect on the world (Morris, 2005, para. 42).

Curtis pursues the “emotional power” he seeks above all by telling big stories about modernity and its discontents. They harness a broad-brush narrative of global change, political, scientific, and intellectual, to character studies of key individuals—often mavericks or eccentrics—whose tra- jectories focus the themes of each film. Meanwhile, a dizzying array of archive material, often derived from raw news footage and out-takes, either supports the narrative or, more often, swirls around it in ambigu- ous and unsettling ways. His soundtracks feed eclectically on decades of global pop in every genre to add another layer to the mix. The results, to his admirers, compose probes that tap into, and then manifest, the collective unconscious of the times. You can usually summarize the gist of a Curtis documentary–or his whole oeuvre–in a few sentences. Indeed, he hands over adroit synopses of the tenor of the work himself. “The one thing I believe in is progress,” he told the New Yorker as Can’t Get You Out of My Head aired. “And, at the moment, we’ve somehow a world in which it’s as if it has come to a stop” (Knight, 2021, para. 9). To the tech writer and entrepreneur Jefferson Hack, he proclaimed that “We are living through the collapse of the liberal project to manage the world in a rational way” (Hack, 2019, para. 61).

The Curtis effect depends for its wide appeal not on such formal statements but on a bewitching, bewildering drift and lurch of images and sounds as they complicate his omniscient narration. Dream-like, “inappropriate” snatches of comedy, confusion, embarrassment or (often) bizarre beauty muddle or undercut the meanings asserted in his voice-over. Hence Curtis’s love for the out-take moments that precede or follow conventional news footage–say, the US soldiers seen petting goats or coaxing birds onto their weapons in occupied Afghanistan in Bitter Lake (2015). Moody, otherworldly soundtracks–often sampled from ambient and electronic tracks by artists such as Burial or Aphex Twin but, in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, also from the eerie orchestral interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes–serve to displace and soften the “hard” news coverage we watch. When his own theses threaten to over-simply a disorderly, chaotic world, Curtis’s oneiric art of film will step in to enrich and disturb matters. “His method is one of serenely bizarre juxtaposition,” wrote novelist Jonathan Lethem–another fan–in a New York Times profile. “He pursues the art of the wild leap” (Lethem, 2016, para. 4). Curtis’s glimpses of the underside of history also depend on oddball humor, ironic contrasts and a mischievous slippage between modes and registers. Bitter Lake, for instance, cuts from shots of scrappy, attritional fighting between British soldiers and Afghan insurgents in the 2000s to clips of the 1968 farcical parody of imperial adventure movies, Carry On Up The Khyber. With Curtis, seriousness never implies solemnity.

Curtis is a BBC lifer. He has moved between patrons and departments but never out of the corporation’s loose embrace. Since Bitter Lake, his work has gone directly online via iPlayer. There it stays available for months, or years, rather than compete for slots on terrestrial channels in the pre-digital way. His compilations call for a huge investment of research and editing time by Curtis and a few colleagues. One of them, Phil Goodwin, has scoured BBC offices around the world for the discarded rough-cut material he then digitizes for Curtis to use (Adams, 2016). But, for all their multi-episodic length and global span of sources, the films cost little because all the archive footage comes from the BBC’s own vast collection. “I sit on top of the biggest archive in the world, the BBC film library, and I just write with images from it,” he has explained (Budzinski, 2011, para. 9).

Curtis’s signature style emerged in 1992 with the series Pandora’s Box, devoted to one of his abiding themes: the claims of 20th-century science to shape society in rational and orderly ways, and the perverse outcome of those interventions. Three years later, the three films of The Living Dead showcased another perennial interest: the mythical stories we tell about their past, and how those fables shape their present. Curtis’s post- millennium works focus more consistently on the ever-closer integration of private feeling and public events in modern societies. The Century of the Self (2002) turned on the management of impulse and desire through public relations, politics, and mass consumption, with the career of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays–a pioneer of PR and propaganda methods–given a leading role.

Curtis loves to tease out genealogical bonds between the people whose story he tells in his films. Can’t Get You Out of My Head, for instance, traces the family links of AI and machine-learning innovator Geoffrey Hinton not only to the mathematician and pioneer of computational logic, George Boole (Hinton’s great-great grandfather), but to the Irish revolutionary Ethel Boole, George’s daughter. Her novel The Gadfly became a sensational bestseller in the Soviet Union. There’s an element of sheer, gratuitous fun in these sly nods to genetic determinism. The trick shows, too, that Curtis grasps the affinity between his own pattern-seeking craft of juxtaposition, and the paranoid conspiracism he detects at work in so much of modern culture.

Curiously, Curtis himself has the strongest of all hereditary ties to the “poetic” strand in British documentary film that he has often repudiated. He is the son of Martin Curtis, cinematographer for Humphrey Jennings: the great lyrical documentarian of the 1930s and 1940s, director of Listen to BritainFires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy (Budzinski, 2011). Critics have accused Curtis of replicating, via the fetish of coincidence or kinship, the same suspicious hunt for a mysterious master-key to the exercise of power that often consumes the subjects of his films. David Jenkins charged him with “getting high on his own supply. He uses smoke and mirrors to attack the smoke and mirrors” (Jenkins, 2016, para. 3). Yet his overt and impish use of droll correlations show how conscious he is of the danger. These comic flashes of manic pattern-making act of a kind of inoculation against the pervasive paranoia of the age.

The Power of Nightmares (2004), very much a post-9/11 undertaking, compared radical Islamism and neoconservatism as it dug into the roots of the politics of fear, and questioned the orchestrated deployment of dread and suspicion by governments around the world. The Trap (2007) evoked and dissected the “end-of-history” dream of hyper-capitalist peace and plenty just at the moment when the financial meltdown began to shatter it. In 2011, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace first brought to center-stage a favorite Curtis target: the sham corporate utopianism of cyberspace, where computer technology offers freedom and autonomy but locks users into algorithmic servitude. “We’re not actually that individualistic,” he has said, although much of his filmmaking plots the ascent of individualism amid the ruins of ideology. “We’re very similar to each other, and computers know that dirty secret” (The Economist, 2018 para. 16). Bitter Lake returned to the Middle East, and the sources and consequences–cultural, political and military–of repeated Western entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Widening its gaze across post- Communist Russia as well as the West, HyperNormalisation (2016) argued that, after the Soviet collapse and the rapid breakdown of the “end of history” consensus into crisis and disruption, banking and tech giants had taken over the direction of society from democratic politics. They recruited psychological research as well as advances in data gathering and mass surveillance to fabricate a new system that promised world stability.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head recaps and elaborates many of Curtis’s recurrent ideas and images: it’s a sort of gigantic “greatest hits” compilation. It also pushes his singular vision into Maoist and post-Mao China, and pays special attention to the role of conspiracy theories and mass suspicion in keeping the show on the road for the corporate and state elites that have lost their ideological legitimacy. As usual, Curtis anchors his fractal, recursive narrative in the biographies of rebels or outsiders who somehow both represent, and fight against, the Zeitgeist of their time.

Here, his chosen protagonists range from Jiang Qing, the Shanghai film star who became Mao Zedong’s fourth wife and the doomed spear- head of the Cultural Revolution, to the Trinidadian revolutionary and erstwhile gangster Michael de Freitas (aka Michael X); to Eduard Limonov, the Soviet dissident writer whose twisting path through pre-millennial crises eventually saw him found the part-Communist, part-Nazi “National Bolshevik” party in Russia; to Kerry Thornley, the counter-cultural prankster who wrote a novel about his New Orleans friend Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination of JFK, and to Tupac Shakur, the activist rapper whose own arc of revolt also curved toward self- destructive violence. Curtis frames them all (and others in his gallery of lost souls) as emblematic lives. Their wayward itineraries dramatize, in high relief, the warring forces of an epoch when radical individualism struggles with controlling elites that have squandered their capital of civic trust but seized on new ways—technology, propaganda, conditioning—to stay in power. The entire weird trip begins and ends with a quotation from the late anthropologist, and anarchist, David Graeber. This motto offers a homage to the kind of social activism which Curtis likes to endorse, but which the style of his films often occludes: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.” Evidently, Curtis still longs for the lonely, spellbound pigeons of hyper-normal–or postnormal–modernity to recover their destiny as free, but civic-minded, dancers.

Curtis took the term “hypernormalisation” from the Russian anthro- pologist Alexei Yurchak’s analysis of the demoralized fantasy domain of late Soviet society. In his hands, it stands in a complex, suggestive relationship to the account of “postnormal times” developed by Ziauddin Sardar. At first glance, the two perspectives can look strikingly congruent. As he regularly does, Curtis begins HyperNormalisation with a sort of explicit mission statement: “Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world,” we learn, while apparently “No one has any vision of a different or better kind of future.” Its predecessor, Bitter Lake, informs us at its outset that “Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense.” In many interviews, Curtis returns consistently to headline precis of his work that announce the crisis or decay of “grand narratives,” and of traditional sense-making projects in politics, science, and culture.

He told Hans Ulrich Obrist that “I came into writing and describing and filming the world at the very moment that those old left-wing certainties were beginning to collapse, certainties that said somehow progress and modernity were on a inevitable path toward a particular destination in history” (p. 8). In 2018, he offered The Economist a thumbnail sketch of the worldview that frames many of his major films:

Science has gone from being an optimistic source to a pessimistic source. Politics has gone from being dynamic to being static and managerial. And tech has brought in a system of feedback management that’s so seductive that we’re trapped. In the films I’m making at the moment, I’m going to try and explain why we live in this strange world where everything seems very unreal, but it’s all very static and whatever we do has no consequences. (p. 14)

As Can’t Get You Out of My Head first screened, he told the Financial Times that “Clearly, nothing is working. The systems are broken. Inequality is ruinous. A huge number of very angry people want genuine change. Yet no one can even imagine what change can be” (Leigh, 2021, para. 10).

Compare Sardar’s (2017b) exemplary expression of the “postnormal” condition:

The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense... Much of what we have taken as normal, conventional and orthodox just does not work anymore. Indeed, normality itself is revealed to be the root of all our ills. (p. 47)

Those words could almost serve as a summary of Curtis’s oeuvre. As might Sardar’s later proposition (2017c) that

All that we took for granted seems to evaporate and cannot be trusted to deliver what it supposed to deliver. The emperors in whom we placed confidence – scientists, economists, accountants, bankers, politicians, governments, markets, financial institutions, drug companies, technology giants – are seen to have no clothes. (p. 323)

Almost, but not quite ... The “postnormal” model accepts chaos, complexity and contradiction as restless drivers of instability, and therefore of possibility. Radical uncertainty rules out total closure. Curtis, however, has until recently given visual form to the idea that postwar elites, East and West, successfully tamed the unruly forces of disruption and individualism with big money, big science and big data. Sometimes he writes, and directs, as if the banks, the tech giants and their humble servants in the state apparatus really have frozen the whole world in a conformist trance. HyperNormalisation itself treats the corporate and governmental drive to manage a turbulent world through the mass manipulation of emotion as pretty much a done deal. “The stories politicians told their people about the world had stopped making sense,” the voiceover— delivered, as always, by Curtis himself with sardonic, deadpan authority— proclaims. “In the face of that, you could play with reality.” A few years earlier, he had sketched the keystone interpretation of the recent past that shapes most of his 21st-century work: “As politicians were faced with growing chaos and complexity from the 1980s onwards, they handed power to other institutions. Above all, to finance, but also to computer and managerial systems” (Ronson, 2015, para. 44).

When he traces the role of figures such as pharmaceutical magnate Arthur Sackler, or behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in changing the way that countless millions feel and think, Curtis tends to imply that the dream-spreading machines themselves worked like a dream. Since “You could never change people’s behavior by appealing to the rational,” as the voiceover on Can’t Get You Out of My Head asserts, drugs, data and propaganda would do the job instead. Total systems of behavior management would usher in a pacified era of “algorithmic governance”— with a little help from Sackler’s products and other mind-candy. Curtis routinely takes issue with the despair induced by dark, dystopian visions of the future. “The thing that really depresses me,” he once said, “is the failure of confidence among the liberal middle classes in the West to believe in the idea of progress (Darke, 2012, para. 47).” Sometimes, though, the hypnotic impact of his own films recall not only the Brave New World forebodings of the early 20th century, but the late-Marxist pessimism voiced in the 1950s and 1960s by the thinkers of the Frankfurt School during their uneasy exile in consumer-boom America—notably, by Herbert Marcuse (2002) in One-Dimensional Man.

For rhetorical, or cinematic, effect, Curtis’s films have tended to exaggerate the scope, strength and cohesiveness of his “engineering” model of social control, based on intensive data harvesting, automated oversight and feedback reinforcement. Yet the modern world may be even more chaotic than he thinks. Most obviously, Curtis’s core analysis applies above all to postwar Western consumer societies, although his recent films have embraced post-Soviet Russia, and now post-Mao China.

The very unevenness and inequality of “globalisation,” which he often invokes, means that his “hypernormalisation” has cracks, fissures and lacunae. In them, the old endures and, potentially, the new emerges. To make this point is not to reinstate the stale and sentimental “West versus Rest” trope that Sardar himself has dismantled: “There is as much East in the West as there is West in the East (Sardar, 2014, p. 1).” Rather, Curtis’s one-size-fits-all diagnosis misses sites of innovation and resist- ance, past and present. His presentation of both Jiang Qing and the Tiananmen Square student dissidents of 1989 as extreme individualists (in Can’t Get You Out of My Head) stretches plausibility. Likewise, his suggestion that the brutal and chaotic politics of modern Iraq stem chiefly from the neo-feudal fantasies imposed on the territory by British administrators in the 1920s almost descends into self-parody. Curtis comes close to proposing that the folk-dancing nostalgists of a century ago are ultimately responsible for Daesh. Like the data-crunching corporations, the Kissinger-style paladins of realpolitik, and the modern engineers of human souls in boardroom, war-room or computer lab, he hungers for a coherent historical narrative that flows in one direction toward a homeostatic resting-point.

However sinister Curtis may find it, the notion of “algorithmic governance” over a terrified, distracted or benumbed populace preserves a satisfying, unitary story about the contemporary world. Yet events have shown that even such pillars of managerial society as Sackler and Facebook may be subject in due course to challenge and to change: after more than 2600 lawsuits over its addictive synthetic opiate OxyContin, the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma had to file for bankruptcy protection (BBC News,2019). Postnormal flux would anticipate and factor in those upheavals; Curtis’s hypernormalisation, at least until the day before yesterday, did not. A less directive, more inclusively postnormal perspective on the same forces might admit even greater levels of disorder, randomness, and complexity—and with them, a higher probability of meaningful change.

As Sardar writes: “It should be obvious, given its complex, contradictory and chaotic characteristics, that postnormal times cannot be managed and controlled” (Sardar, 2017a, p. 14). Paradoxically, Curtis with his editor’s intelligence understands that quite well: his haunting collages track down destabilizing new insights at the margins of every main event. But his didactic, expository voice often does not. Do you really need to think like a control-freak in order to make captivating films about the world- devouring ambitions of control-freaks? If so, then some real complex- ities—and possibilities—may elude even the most brilliant editor’s eye. As the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice (who himself worked for many years as a BBC producer) wrote in his poem ‘Snow’: “World is suddener than we fancy it.// World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ Incorrigibly plural” (MacNeice, 2007).

There are signs that Curtis can now spot some chinks of light in the locked box of our managed and supervised societies. He finished editing HyperNormalisation in late 2016, between the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election. Those two jolts to the liberal order, although both rooted in that post-millennial mood-music of fear, nostalgia and resentment that he has long explored, seem to have pushed him to ask if the “iron cage” of technocracy might after all have an exit—however messy. About the British and US electorates’ rejection of elite recommen- dations in 2016, he said: “They’ve been given this enormous button that says, ‘Fuck Off’, and they’ve pressed it (Hodgkinson, 2021, para. 4).” Trump he treats not with any horror or revulsion but merely as a “pantomime villain” whose antics excite, and gratify, his enemies (The Economist, 2018).

Although much of Can’t Get You Out of My Head amounts to a mammoth remix of favorite Curtis themes, memes and motifs, its latter stages do entertain the idea of unexpected change. The final film of the series raises the possibility that the research that underpins today’s data-driven methods of surveillance may be flawed: “The psychological theories that tell us that we are weak and manipulable are cracking,” Curtis promises. The emperors of “perception management,” it appears, may have been naked all along, and the manipulation-and-pacification model of human behavior that they sold—to politicians as much as corporations—just a shiny fake. If so, then the endemic disorder of the present harbors the seeds of transformation rather than the endless “repetition” within a stable system that Curtis deplores. He always affirms that he desires some- thing beyond (in Sardar’s terms) the Extended Present and the Familiar Future. Yet, as with many diagnosticians of our present malaise, his own imagined future may mirror a lost past. “I’m quite conservative in that way,” he has acknowledged, “because I’m saying that the things politics aimed for have stopped. I want it back” (The Economist, 2018 p. 12). The truly postnormal—and potentially utopian—aspects of Curtis’s art emerge through the emotive hubbub of his imagery and soundtrack, not the sardonic sermons of his voiceovers.

Curtis likes to edit and reedit right down to the wire. Can’t Get You out of My Head slips in brief allusions to the coronavirus pandemic that began in early 2020. The “shock of catastrophes,” he reminds us, have historically revived the “impulse to imagine other kinds of future.” He has spoken of the pandemic as a revelation akin to “lightning on a dark night. Suddenly you see what has been there the whole time (Leigh, 2021, para. 4).” Will this latest collective calamity, almost the epitome of a post- normal global event in its combination of devastating randomness and utter predictability, usher in the new, and rekindle hopes of change? Or will the technocratic ruling class—cue Curtis’s shots of President Biden’s inauguration—seek to “return to an old stability”? At any rate, the world as seen through the Curtis lens feels less fixed and static than it formerly did, even in the mid-2010s. Under the pressure of extreme circumstances, the “dynamic” politics he advocates may once more start to rattle the rationalistic bars of Weber’s iron cage. Dancers may yet outmaneuver pigeons, and hypernormal immobility might—slowly, chaotically, unevenly—admit a glimmer of properly postnormal hope.


1. As of February 2021, the following Adam Curtis series referred to in the text were available to view on the BBC iPlayer platform: Pandora’s Box; The Century of the Self; The Power of Nightmares; All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace; Bitter Lake; HyperNormalisation; Can’t Get You Out of My Head. 

Amazon Prime at that time offered The Power of Nightmares; All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace; Bitter Lake; HyperNormalisation. A YouTube channel dedicated to Curtis’s films, channel/UCAWxZyfEPejhGJv8Z4wbKBwBook, gives access to most of his recent output for the BBC.


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Darke, C. (2012, July 17). Interview: Adam Curtis. Film Commenthttps://www.

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