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Adam Curtis: “We don't read newspapers because the journalism is so boring”

An interview with Adam Curtis, producer of the BBC documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self.

Adam Curtis at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. Photo: Getty.

Adam Curtis remains at the forefront of documentary filmmaking. He began in the early 80s, but his first major breakthrough came in 1992 with Pandora’s Box, a film which warned of the dangers technocratic politics and saw him pick up his first of six career BAFTAs.

Holed up in a BBC basement, Curtis brings together disparate subjects and uses archival footage to chart political history. His love of music is playfully interwoven into the narrative, whilst his unique, deadpan voice discusses the failures of political systems and ideologies.

In his 2004 film, Power of Nightmares, his most remarkable piece of work to date, Curtis debunked the myth that al-Qaeda was an organised global network posing an apocalyptic threat to the West, which, In a post-911 context that saw governments and mass media exaggerating al-Qaeda’s size and influence, was a bold message. Time, of course, has been incredibly kind to his analysis.


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

After a six month chase attempting to secure an interview, I finally came into contact with him at the Latitude Festival where he was discussing static culture, his latest area of fascination. After forcing a written invitation into his hand, not long later I met him at the British Library in central London. He turned out to be engaging and personable, veering frantically one from one topic to another, remaining insightful and charming throughout.

What follows is an extract from a long conversation regarding his work, politics, journalism and our willing acceptance of the computer systems that guide our choices.

So, let's start with this idea of “static culture”. Just explain what you mean by that. If we use music as an example, are you saying that musicians today are just going back and recycling sounds and themes from the past?

All culture always goes back and feeds off the past, it can't help it, but there are two ways of doing it. Either you can go back and get inspiration from the past and create something genuinely new, which is the whole history of all sorts of things – not just art and music. What bothers me at the moment is that you get a very different sense out of pop culture, which is that it is literally like a form of archaeology. It's going back and rebuilding it almost as a sort of work of art in itself. I mean its weird, it’s not just in pop music, you get it in a lot of avant-garde art at the moment. There are people going back and making plays based on Fassbinder films of the 1970s, and they're just literally replicating it, and it's very odd. And that's why I was being a bit rude about Savages because, whilst Savages are technically extremely good, and live are extremely powerful, they are a bit like archaeologists from the 1920s, going back and digging up the tomb of Tutankhamen, and laying it all out for you to see, but they’re digging up The Slits, or New Order, or Siouxsie Sioux, and presenting it to us, and that's it. It's very odd. It's almost like a terminus railway station in a city where all the trains just keep on arriving and nothing ever leaves.

What I'm really complaining about is a lack of progressive ideas in music. Everything seems to be about just going back and reworking it and it becomes static – sort of like a zombie culture. As I listen to Savages, I have a terrible vision of Siouxsie Sioux coming towards me like a zombie. And nothing will kill that kind of music, because, and this is rude, but what is now called post-punk – that slightly angular stuff that borrowed off punk but took stuff from funk and all sorts of other devices – had its time and had its place. At the moment it’s just being reworked and it doesn't have any meaning to it. Like Mumford and Sons rework folk music and they don’t add any meaning to it either. It’s like they’ve stuck on beards.

So, just give me a concrete example of what Savages could do to their music to make it new and fresh?

Well, if they made a new kind of music out of it, really. The things that I really admire at the moment are people who fuse sort of industrial noise and real romance, real feeling. That’s why I like Nine Inch Nails so much, because I think he does have this ability to be incredibly romantic, yet almost like industrial noise.

What could Savages do? They could take that noise and make it romantic. Post-punk was specifically anti-romantic at its time because it was very much of the mood of the early 80's, of industrial collapse, a collapse on the left – it was sort of nihilistic music and it had an anti-romantic feel to it for that reason. So it had a purpose then. What people are yearning for now is some kind of romantic visions of something beyond our present condition, and that would be good music. So if I was Savages, I would take that music and I would try and fuse it with something achingly romantic, yet at the same time they can be radically revolutionary, and try and argue that feminism has gone the wrong way. I agree with all that, I have no problem with that, but I want it to take me somewhere emotionally. They are anti-emotional in an age that is aching for real, genuine emotion. It’s too bloody self-conscious for its own good, and you keep people in their place by making them self-conscious. All this music is so aware of its own roots.

I mean you must have met this yourself, when you come out of concerts, or cinemas, and you hear people saying, “It’s just like Tarantino with a bit of Clint Eastwood in it …” Everyone is so self-conscious. 

And when everyone is self-conscious you are stuck in your place, because you’re always aware of everything, and you will never make the big leap like falling in love or creating a revolution or doing anything really radical because you are so aware of yourself and all the pressures on you. 

I'm sorry to go on about Savages, I'm sure they are extremely nice people, but they sort of represent a self-conscious knowingness that makes everyone just freeze because they are so self-conscious. You know it yourself, if you suddenly trip over in the street you suddenly feel incredibly self-conscious because you feel that everyone is looking at you. I mean they are not, or if they are it doesn't matter, but you feel terribly self-conscious and for a moment you are frozen and you blush. Well that is what music is like at the moment; it’s like its tripped up in the street and it doesn't know how to get back on course.

After I had listened to you talking about this at Latitude, I was thinking about reunion tours, which I think feeds into this a little bit. If you look at The Stone Roses who are touring the world playing one album from 1989, is this a byproduct of what you’re talking about?

Yes, it’s an incredibly static time. Why do you think we’ve got so many zombie movies? It's quite obvious – it's so obvious when you know it – it's because the dead won't go away. We are surrounded by the dead. Okay, The Stone Roses are touring live, but it’s a dead album. There’s a lot of music – like Kurt Cobain and all these people – they’re dead. The Rolling Stones; the music is dead, but it won’t go away. It's constantly replayed to us, and it is like zombie culture. So many things just go back and dig up the bloody grave. I'm sorry, but that's what Savages do.

What about exceptions to the rules, then? You’ve mentioned Massive Attack, but who else do you think produces genuinely progressive music?

Well, this is where a lot of people think I'm stupid, but I think trash pop is inventive. Some of it is rubbish but, for example, I think Rihanna is great. As a piece of pop music, We Found Love (in a hopeless place) is a great pop song, and genuinely inventive and it uses noises in a very clever way. And also the character that she plays, Rihanna, is a fascinating, tragic and troubled one which also contributes to a great story, and that's what pop music is all about.


Massive Attack performing in 2010. Photo: Getty.

I think we're going through a very healthy phase of pop music, but in terms of progressive music I don't think we are. I mean they come and they go – the Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand – and they all try and be angular, and a bit Jerky and what they are missing out on is what Rihanna is doing; it’s sort of the high drama of our time that is what people are really interested in. Progressive music has completely failed to understand that, because it is so bloody self-conscious. It's partly the fact of the technology we have; it constantly plays back music to us from the past. We hear it back on the radio, iTunes plays it to us; also you get them reinforcing medium through things like Pandora and Amazon: "If you like this, you'll like that …" Spotify, which is always guiding you to new music and again it keeps you in your place. This is another aspect of static culture. It's not so much about dead music but you play on Spotify a track you like, it will tell you – and quite accurately – other tracks you might like that are like that. So, again you’re kept in a static place constantly bombarded by a bit more of what you liked yesterday. That's what I think.

So this idea that computer systems are dictating too much to us, which is reducing our imagination to see a future … how are we going to break that?

I have a theory that people might get fed up with computers, quite simply. I think the interesting thing about the Edward Snowden case is it makes you realise how much the cloud thing on the Internet is a surveillance system. I don't mean it is a conspiracy. It’s sort of like you are part of something you might not necessarily want to be part of. And I just wonder whether, in fact – the Internet won't go away – but its magic will disappear. Our delight in screens that we can go like that with [AC scrolls with fingers] will disappear. It will become a functional local library, coupled with sort of weird people chatting online, and the stuff that you don't know is true or not, and another culture will arise separately from it, which might go back a bit to books and newspapers. I still think newspapers might come back if they could do some good journalism. I mean the reason we don't read newspapers these days is because the journalism is so boring.

I've heard you lament the fact that the financial crash hasn’t presented to us in understandable terms by the media …

I think this is a really interesting thing. So much of the way the present world is managed is through – not even systems – its organizations, which are boring. They don't have any stories to tell. Economics, for example, which is central to our life at the moment … I just drift off when people talk about collateralised debt obligations, and I am not alone. It's impossible to illustrate on television, it's impossible to tell a story about it, because basically it's just someone doing keystrokes somewhere in Canary Wharf in relation to a server in … I dunno … Denver, and something happens, and that's it. I use the phrase, ‘They are unstoryfiable’. Journalism cannot really describe it any longer, so it falls back onto its old myths of dark enemies out there. Whether those dark enemies are Al-Qaeda, Soviets, or criminal masterminds who are grooming children for white slavery. All of which may or may not be true, but it's what they fall back on and don't report. I mean, the Guardian made a noble attempt to describe that company, Serco, which no-one has ever heard of, but which is an incredibly powerful outsourcer of government things, and it's been doing some not very good things recently, but it's incredibly boring and that's the problem. Journalism is a trick to find a way of making the boring interesting, and as yet it hasn't found a way of doing it.

Journalism isn't describing to us the world as it is, which we know is there, but we want someone to make sense of it for us. We want someone to explain to us about what's going on with the banks, but in ways we can get emotionally. We want someone to describe to us who these strange people are like G4S, who constantly turn up doing odd things like at the Olympics and then disappear again. We want people to notice that.  Just like we want music that will actually take us out of ourselves and make us feel not alone and emotionally part of something. Both music and journalism are totally failing to do that at the moment. And it's a moment in history when they haven't caught up, maybe something else will catch up and describe it to us.

Will journalism catch up?

Yeah, of course it will, what else is there? I mean I don't buy this internet … the internet is just a new system of delivery, it’s not a new content thing. Of course journalism will catch up, it's just no one has found it yet. It's a way of connecting with you and me emotionally.

So, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for a particular journalist with an idea?

Yeah. Or a group of journalists who will find a way of connecting with us. It happened back in the 60s with what was called “New Journalism” because they had the funny idea that you spend time with someone and you write about what was in that person's head, and then you described it like a novelist. And that connected with the new sensibility. 

Well, the new sensibility at the moment is a sense of isolation and a sense of, “What the hell is this all for?” and a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. That’s what is around at the moment. No one has captured that yet in a way that makes you feel connected to what they're saying. Instead what we have are these people who play on the anxiety which is not right, you know: “All the world's going to die … Al-Qaeda is going to kill you with an atomic weapon coming up the Thames on a boat.” They are taking serious issues but amplifying them to try and scare you to get your attention, but in fact, what they should be doing is trying to connect with you emotionally and actually describe the world and help you understand it more. Then it excites you and frightens you; I'm not pleading for a boring journalism, I’m pleading for a better journalism. And I think the same is true of music, which takes you out of yourself. 

What about The Power of Nightmares? The central theme of that is that Al-Qaeda and terrorism isn't as apocalyptic as some suggested. I think time has been kind to that message. At first people were probably thinking you were …

Exaggerating?

Yes, but I think that film stands up.

I would argue that what I said back then absolutely stands up, despite all the horrors that have happened. What I was saying has absolutely been proved by the facts. There is no organised network; there is a serious, dangerous and very nasty threat from small groups of disaffected Islamists who have no real form of connection with each other and are inspired by a corroded and corrupted idea, and they are actually on the decline. That doesn't mean it's not a serious threat.

Also, a lot of my colleagues – on the basis of absolutely no evidence – created a complete fiction of this apocalyptic, organized network and they should be ashamed of doing it.

What do you think about the rise of – it's not really a rise – the presence of the EDL and this anti-Muslim narrative that stemmed from a lot of what you were trying to push back against?

It’s not that strong. It’s stronger in France than it is here, and also again, so much of that is disaffection with unemployment and uncertainty. I mean the real problem of our time is the uncertainty that people feel, and no politicians are really dealing with it, so of course they take it out on easy targets like that. UKIP, I don't think is a significant force, I really don't. The really interesting thing of our time is not what we had back with Al-Qaeda, which is journalists trying to tell us all these fears. It’s just the general sort of emptiness and unknowingness, politicians not having the faintest clue what's going on. It’s a sense of drift that no one has really got hold of now.

Going back to music and journalism, we don't have the sense that anyone is reporting to us, or communicating to us, what is really going on in the world at the moment. We have got this idea that we have screens around us all the time and we see everything and we somehow know everything that is happening in the world because it is reported to us 24 hours a day but actually we also have a sense that we haven't got the faintest idea of what’s going on. Things just come and go like that, and no journalism is making sense of it. It reports it to us, but it doesn't make sense of it. Music and culture is absolutely failing to create a framework of sensibility for us to understand it. It’s just rehashing stuff from … I don’t know … Marcel Duchamp in 1919. 

Again it’s in a static way, because no one knows what's going on. The fears have diminished because that was a reaction. Now we're in this “I don't know what’s going on” so let’s just go listen to Coldplay… [laughs] Not that there is anything wrong with Coldplay.

So, when the financial crash happened, I expected more socialist ideas to start penetrating the narrative, and I don't really think that that has happened. Why do you think that is?

That’s one of the great shocking things of the last decade ... I mean, it’s astonishing. The failure of the left to engage with what happened after 2008 is just mind-boggling. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. It’s amazing, they just go around mouthing stuff with absolutely no way of explaining what's going on in a way that doesn't sound again a bit like Savages. They are mouthing the sort of stuff that was said in the 1980s about Margaret Thatcher. 

We are in a genuinely new world at the moment and no one knows its dimensions and they have to come up with something. The Occupy movement absolutely astonished me. They had a brilliant slogan the 99 and 1 per cent – that was the first time I thought someone’s got it, but then they completely blew it. I went to their meetings and they have been completely captivated by this pseudo-managerial theory of a new kind of democracy where there are no leaders and everyone sits around gesticulating if they disagree. It was one of the most absurd ideas in modern politics. 


An anti-capitalist protester from the Occupy movement outside St Paul's Cathedral. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

If you are dealing with questions of power you have to understand power, and you can't pretend it doesn’t exist, either on your side or their side. The point about managerialism is it pretends power doesn't exist; it’s a way of keeping you in your place. For them to buy into that was the most cosmically stupid ideas I have ever heard in my life. If you want to change the world you have to deal with questions of power: the power of the ones who don't want you to change it, and the power of those assembled on your side who do want to change it. Humans are humans, and power is a really complicated thing and you can't ignore it and by ignoring it they let everything go, so now there is a vacuum, an absolute vacuum. We have alternative comedians telling us everything is shit … well that’s nothing! I know that.

In The Century of Self you discuss this idea that politicians interview the public through focus groups and then use the results to dictate policy. That seems the wrong way round to me.

If you like this, then you’ll like that. It’s the same thing. It’s what’s called a market idea of democracy, and the Market Idea of democracy says that real democracy is not about taking people somewhere else: it’s about finding out what they want and giving it to them. But in market terms, that’s absolutely right. I don’t have any problems with the free market, its fine, that’s what it does. It’s extremely appropriate in finding out what goods you want and giving it to you and also knowing what you might like and giving it to you. When it is then transferred into politics, that’s when the problem happens. When it is then transferred into culture and journalism, everything just becomes reinforcing. It becomes like a feedback loop. So in the BBC we do this, we know what journalism works for people and we give more of that and it becomes … it creates that very static world but that’s not necessarily the fault of the system.

There are other ways of journalism, it’s just that journalists don’t know how to do it any longer because they haven’t really got the new apparatus to understand and describe the world to us. So they rely on just going to ask you. I know this myself; a lot of journalists I know in television and in print go on about, “Oh if only we didn’t have this terrible system where we are forced to do these focus groups and stuff we could do much better journalism” then you say to them, “Well, what sort of journalism would you do?” And they come out with the same old stuff: that bankers are bad, spies are terrible, and you think actually maybe this is all a bit of a smokescreen to disguise the fact that you sort of run out of puff yourself and everyone is waiting. I have this terrible feeling that we are all waiting for something new, some new view of the world to come along and that maybe we are sort of at the end of our own cold war at the moment.

All the institutions are declining. Universities are declining, spies are completely useless, and banks were our last shot at giving us cheap money and keep things going when industry collapsed. Its all a little bit like these giant institutions are all declining, a bit like the eighties and we are waiting for something new to come along and culture is letting us down. I mean everyone is obsessed by culture at the moment and it’s supposed to be radical. I moved into this world a bit with the Massive Attack thing and they all think they are so radical. They are not radical at all; they play back to us old ideas all the time. I mean all the so-called radical art that was around in the last two Manchester festivals I've been at could have been done in 1919 by Marcel Duchamp. That’s not to say it’s bad, but to pretend that it is somehow a new radical vision of the world is wrong and it's reinforcing what's been around since the early days of modernism. Some of it is very good – Savages are very good – but it’s been around. It's enjoyable and it's fun, but this idea that somehow art can point the way to the future is not what seems to be happening to me at the moment. Art is stuck in the past, just like music is stuck in the past, and journalism is stuck in the past. Something will happen; it’s quite an exciting idea, really.


BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House in November 2012. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty.

One doesn't know what it would be, and it may be right at the margins, it may have nothing to do with journalism. I'm making this up because my dates are so bad, but If you were around in the 1860’s and you have these people wandering around going, “We have this idea of history, that it is like a science, and that you can analyze it and logically that means that the class structure will happen like this and we will have Marxists ...” You'd think they were nutty, that they were geeks. They were probably the geeks of their time, they were right at the fringe. I think maybe we are far too much of the establishment. All these radicals – including myself – we think we are somewhere radical but actually we are deeply, deeply, deeply conservative at the moment. And what has a veneer of radicalism is actually possibly the most conservative force at the moment. By that I mean radical culture, art, music and a lot of radical journalism and radical politics – whilst none of it is bad – its mechanisms, and ways of seeing the world are borrowed from the past and its stuck in the past. It’s stuck with a nostalgia for a radicalism of the past and that’s not the radicalism that’s necessary.

Yes there is a lot of poverty around, yes there is a lot of people being thrown out of work – I know all that – but the really big thing that is in the back of most people’s minds at the moment is a sense of total uncertainty, loneliness, isolation and not knowing where they're going for what they're doing. A sense of unconnectedness. And if you really want to change the world and make it better for those who are out of work and who are poor you have got to get the bigger group on your side and the way you get that bigger group on your side is by connecting with those uncertainties in the back of their minds, the loneliness the uncertainty and sense of isolation that is really big at the moment. And no one is doing that, no one has got a music, no one has got a journalism, a politics, a culture that heartfully connects with it. People are yearning for it; I know it I feel it. I like the culture, I like reading some good journalism, I like going to see bands but none of it goes, “Yes, that’s it that gets me." That’s what I think, and we are just waiting for it. It’s quite exciting because you know it can't go on like this. Something is going to come along.

I found it really interesting in The Century of Self, this idea that New Labour were seen as visionary, but they were just charlatans in a way weren't they? They stole a lot of ideas from the Democrats in America. Peter Mandelson, for example …

I wouldn't say they were charlatans, I would say they were opportunists. They were technocrats. Basically they were technocrats who stole an ideological cloak of Labour, and draped over what was really ... They are managerial technocrats, because that's really all focus groups are. It's a managerial idea. It's going, well listen we'll just ask them what they want and give it to them and that will make them happy and the key thing is to go and identify the swing voter, that's the key technocrat thing. They went and identified who were the swing voters; they're the ones who never make up their minds. Ask them what they want, give it to them, and bingo – you'll get the swing voters on your side. Which means that a great deal of your future is decided by indecisive people in Uttoxeter.

Philip Gould: do you think he was the thinking behind the New Labour movement?

Yeah, he was clever; he was the technocrat. Because Gould spotted early on the whole idea of focus groups, and how you could extend them. What went wrong with New Labour, which I think is quite interesting, is that Blair got fed up with focus groups and started to do something off his own back, which was Iraq. It was almost like he got fed up and felt imprisoned by them. No one has ever explained to me why Blair went to war in Iraq. My own personal theory is that he got so fed up with having to focus group everything that he just thought, “Oh sod it, I'm going to do something off my own back” and then he discovered he could. Because the really interesting thing about that time – it's really odd – you have this obsession with focus group politics, which is that you have to ask people what they want otherwise they will turn against you and you will lose power. Yet at the same time, you can decide to invade Iraq, two million people can come out onto the streets of London, you go, “Fuck off!" and they go “Alright" and you go home. I mean where is the power in society?

It's the same with the economic thing, isn't it? We are told this is what's happened so we have to accept X, Y, Z cuts in this area.

But that’s because the left hasn't come up with an alternative theory. In a way you can't really blame people for going, “Ok” because the job of the so-called left is to come up with an explanation that makes me think “Oh yeah, I get it and that's wrong. I must do something about it. I get it, they have simplified it down to me, and I get it". But if you start talking to me about austerity versus collateralised debt obligations and was the austerity to do with the banks being bailed out or because Gordon Brown spent too much money on hospitals? I just drift away. I go and watch The Departed on Channel Four and think about zombies.

Why do you think people at ground level seem to have more anger and ire towards what they perceive as feckless welfare claimants at the bottom, than they do where the real problem exists, at the top? Why do you think there is such a disconnect?

Because it’s a very easy thing to do and it's a traditional thing on the right to do, to blame others for stealing from you. All the left has got to do is find an equally simple way of explaining what is going on at the top and re-divert your attention and anger to that, but they are not doing it. I have no idea why they're not doing it. I’m not a politician; I’m a journalist. It’s not my job to do it and especially with the BBC it's not my job to do it, but I am absolutely astonished that they’re not doing it. They really should hang their heads in shame, because it means they are not up to their jobs. If the right can do the divide and rule thing which you have just described of getting lower middle class people to get pissed off with the working class claimants, I'm afraid the left’s job is to take that anger and uncertainty which the right are accessing and redirect it to better and more purposeful -from their point of view – targets. And they are not doing it, they are just not.

The right seem to set the terms of the debate and the left operate within it, don't they?

Yes, you have to set your own terms and that’s all it is.

What’s next for you, then?

I think I'm going to do a history of entertainment, and the relationship between entertainment and power. I am subtitling the rise of the media industrial complex, from gangsters and Jimmy Savile in Leeds in the 1950s, to YouTube and Google in the present day, via Rupert Murdoch. Entertainment and Power: The Rise of the Media Industrial Complex.

There you go.