Monday, March 12, 2007

Adam Curtis

The first part of Adam Curtis's latest documentary, 'The Trap', was broadcast on BBC2 last night. Like Curtis's previous documentaries, the programme propagates a liberalistic conspiracy theory. This time, the emergence of 'personal choice' as a political credo is the phenomenon for which Curtis seeks to provide an explanation.

In a distant sense, Curtis reminds me, actually, of Jonathan Meades, who used to stomp about the town and countryside, making dogmatic and unjustified pronouncements, presumably in the hope that most viewers would care not to analyse the logic of his arguments too closely. Curtis doesn't do any stomping, but instead splices various archive clips and interviews into a film, and explains with hypnotherapic calm how modern social, political and economic trends are really the result of secret cadres of right-wing thinkers and capitalists, acting omnisciently and omnipotently behind the scenes, controlling, shaping and manipulating the course of events.

In Curtis's delusional world-view, none of the trends in society seem to be the collective, net result of millions of individuals expressing their wants and desires; there doesn't appear to be any room for random processes in society, or unpredictability in human affairs; there is no sense of politicians extemporising, or making opportunistic decisions which have unexpected consequences; there is no sense of uncontrollable complexity. In particular, the strongest Curtis delusion is his belief that societal trends can always be traced back to the ideas of intellectuals. Politicians are always 'turning to' the ideas of various devilish intellectuals in the Curtis world-view. The ideas of individual academics are injected into society like a poison or drug, tipped into the water-supply. In 'The Century of the Self', it seemed that Freud's ideas were behind the rise of consumerism. Now, it seems, game theory and systems analysis are to blame for the popularity of 'personal choice' politics.

In last night's documentary, Curtis seemed to attribute game theory to the mathematician John Nash. This surprised me, because I thought game theory was invented by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. But then I guess they haven't featured in a Hollywood film. Moreover, game-theoretic concepts have been expounded in a less rigorous manner for many centuries by various military, political and economic thinkers; Hobbes's Leviathan, for example, contains game-theoretic reasoning. It's therefore surprising that Curtis should trace the cultivation of self-interest in politics to the development of game theory by Nash and the Rand corporation during the Cold War. Complexity, however, has always been the enemy of any conspiracy theorist.


Anonymous said...

How can you argue with the use of theories like Freud's within advertising to feed consumerism? This is exactly what happened, and what happens. Just dip into a relevant textbook for advertising- they don't try to hide it. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud, was a key figure in all this, and wrote the following: "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it ... The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country ... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."
If you control the mass-media and have the will, this is all relatively straightforward, and exactly what the Nazis did using comparatively primitive methods. In the words of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister for Armaments: "Through technical devices like the radio and loud-speaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought.....subject to the will of one man."

As far as ideas fueling events, surely there's no mystery there. A few examples-
French Revolution directly a result of ideas fed by the likes of Adam Weishaupt.
Russian Revolution, Chinese, and many others fuelled by Marx and his ilk.
Nazis were of course an ideological movement.
The neo-cons and their military expansionism is an ideological movement fed by father figures like Leo Strauss.
As far as conspiracy theories taking the obvious 911 example, if you believe the official version you believe a conspiracy theory involving Islamic fanatics that managed to hijack planes and fly them unhindered into their targets in the country that spent countless billions developing Star Wars to destroy from outer space incoming nuclear warheads. Here's one 3 minute video of a Dutch demolition expert looking at some 911 footage that is worth looking at btw. What harm could 3 minutes do? Unless examining evidence is an enemy to the official conspiracy theory.

Anonymous said...

Also of interest is this 3 part BBC series from the early 1990s about and called Operation Gladio, is about a far-right secret army, operated by the CIA and MI6 through NATO, which killed hundreds of innocent Europeans and attempted to blame the deaths on Baader Meinhof, Red Brigades and other left wing groups. Known as 'stay-behinds' these armies were given access to military equipment which was supposed to be used for sabotage after a Soviet invasion. Instead it was used in massacres across mainland Europe as part of a CIA Strategy of Tension. Gladio killing sprees in Belgium and Italy were carried out for the purpose of frightening the national political classes into adopting U.S. policies.

As you can imagine for this to be aired on the state national broadcast channel, the evidence would have to be pretty airtight.

Patrick said...

[ insert disclaimer - Of course, I know nothing, I'm just a guy who writes about cars going round in circles but...]

I think you sell Curtis a little short here. I don't think he was suggesting in The Trap that the trends in society he is talking about are the result of some vast right wing conspiracy in which some powerful people got together in a room and decided how to run the world. In fact, I didn't think he was talking here of a conspiracy at all.

Rather he was talking about how an idea (a meme, I suppose) has influenced the way people in power think, and their thinking has gone on to influence others, and so on - and so the idea has had massive influence in how we see the world.

Of course, the extent to which the ideas of a few key intellectuals really influence the development of society over the short term is an area for legitimate debate. And whether the ideas of Von Neumann and Nash (and especially Laing) were really as influential as Curtis suggests is open to debate.

(On the other hand, in my book, he oversimplified game theory massively. Game theory has quite a lot to say about how altruistic and cooperative behaviour emerges. He didn't mention any of that. And anyone who earns the praise of Madeleine Bunting has got to be just a little bit suspect in my book)

Gordon McCabe said...

I think you're right, Patrick, that Curtis's theory in 'The Trap' is not so much of a conspiracy theory. However, in Curtis's previous documentary, 'The Power of Nightmares', he most definitely endorsed the conspiracy theory that the neo-conservatives in the US have created the illusion of a hidden and organised terrorist network, in order to further their anti-liberal agenda.

As you say, though, maybe I sell Curtis short; he's certainly never less than interesting.

Anonymous said...

As someone of scientific mind, I thought you might have hazarded an opinion as to whether the collapse of WTC7 appears to you as a controlled demiolition or as something which can be explained as resulting from fire, Gordon.

Anonymous said...

Just to add, Gordon, one thing that stuck in my mind from years back was the statement by Lord Denning when in 1980 he upheld an appeal by West Midlands police against a civil action by the Birmingham Six over injuries they received in police custody. To accept that the police were lying would open an "appalling vista," he said. And so the undesirablity of the conclusion prevented him from honestly analysing the evidence. Such thinking is of course not thinking at all.

Gordon McCabe said...

A controlled demolition, Andrew, would leave clear forensic evidence, and all the experts involved in the investigation claim that there is no such evidence.

According to the Wikipedia entry on 7WTC, the "National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) made a three-year, US$24-million investigation into the structural failure and progressive collapse of several WTC structures, including 7 World Trade Center. The study drew not only on in-house technical expertise but also the knowledge of several outside private institutions, including the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (SEI/ASCE), the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), and the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY).

"NIST has released video and still-photo analysis of Building 7 before its collapse that appears to indicate a greater degree of structural damage from falling debris than originally assumed by FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. Specifically, the NIST's interim report on 7 WTC displays photographs of the southwest façade of the building that show it to have significant damage. The NIST interim report on 7 WTC details a 10-story gash that existed on the south façade, extending a third of the way across the face of the building and approximately a quarter of the way into the interior, but does not provide any photographs of the damage to the south façade. A unique aspect of the design of 7 WTC was that each outer structural column was responsible for supporting 2,000 square feet (186 square meters) of floor space, suggesting that the simultaneous removal of a number of columns would severely compromise the structure's integrity. Consistent with this theory, news footage shows visible cracking and bowing of the building's east wall immediately before the collapse, which began at the penthouse floors."

Dr S. Shyam Sunder, NIST's lead WTC disaster investigator, said, "We consulted 80 public-sector experts and 125 private-sector experts. It is a Who’s Who of experts."

Anonymous said...

The 911 Commission Report completely failed to mention the collapse of WTC7, Gordon. This surely astonishing, and of course there would have been no shortage of expertise available for this report. Anyway, here Steve Jones, Department of Physics and Astronomy
Brigham Young University, analyses the scientific evidence in great depth regarding all 3 collapses. I'll just quote the following and include the link:
As you observed, WTC 7 collapsed rapidly and symmetrically — even though fires were randomly scattered in the building. WTC 7 fell about seven hours after the Towers collapsed, even though no major persistent fires were visible. There were twenty-four huge steel support columns inside WTC 7 as well as huge trusses, arranged asymmetrically, along with approximately 57 perimeter columns. (FEMA, 2002, chapter 5.) A symmetrical collapse, as observed, evidently requires the simultaneous “pulling” of most or all of the support columns. The Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that the likelihood of complete and symmetrical collapse due to random fires as in the “official” theory is small, since asymmetrical failure is so much more likely. On the other hand, a major goal of controlled demolition using explosives is the complete and symmetrical collapse of buildings.

Anonymous said...

It's a while since I looked at it so just to add this from the same site:
Engineers have been trying to figure out exactly what happened and whether they should be worried about other buildings like it around the country… Most of the other buildings in the [area] stood despite suffering damage of all kinds, including fire… ‘Fire and the structural damage …would not explain steel members in the debris pile that appear to have been partly evaporated’, Dr. [Jonathan] Barnett said. (Glanz, 2001; emphasis added.)

The observed “partly evaporated” steel members is particularly upsetting to the official theory, since fires involving paper, office materials, even diesel fuel, cannot generate temperatures anywhere near the 5,000+ oF needed to “evaporate” steel. However, thermite, RDX and other commonly-used explosives can readily slice through steel (thus cutting the support columns simultaneously in an explosive demolition) and reach the required temperatures. (It is possible that some other chemical reactions were involved which might proceed at lesser temperatures.) This mystery needs to be explored — but is not mentioned in the “official” 9-11 Commission or NIST reports.

Anonymous said...

What struck me in the first episode was the way the words "mathematical", "rational" and "numbers" were repeated over and over, in a tone usually reserved for "genocide' or "excrement", accompanied by some of the creepiest music you will ever hear in a programme basically about ideas. Clearly, the filmmaker was not so much interested in presenting these ideas as combatting them. That he terribly misrepresents Game Theory is therefore no surprise. It is, however, a shame. There have been many fascinating developments in that area, in particular in the application to philosophy and society. Oh, how I would love to see a 1 hour documentary on Binmore's Natural Justice and the discussions his work has started. Alas, this will probably remain an irrational hope of a mathematician (who still believes in the innocence of numbers).

Thijs (the Netherlands)

Gordon McCabe said...

Spot-on Thijs. The Sunday Times TV critic, AA Gill, gave this following review of 'The Trap':

"Your television is getting paranoid. It thinks you’re out to get it, that you’re going to turn its littlestandby light out. It’s full of conspiracy theories at the moment. Last week, it offered us Adam Curtis’s The Trap (Sunday, BBC2), the first of three fabulously nutty conspiracy films. Most conspiracies just stick to one event, but this one was a great big joined-up conspiracy: the John the Divine of conspiracies, the complete, unified alternative explanation for everything, a modern revelation that everyone is out to get everyone else. It was compulsively weird as a programme. We saw a montage of random, fuzzy images designed to induce feelings of unspecified unease or aimless anxiety — a bit like a Radiohead video — that had only passing relevance to the voice-over, which was a lapel-grabbing, locked-ward lecture of ever more convoluted theories about secret cabals of mathematicians and right-wing accountants’ think-tanks manipulating the globe. Altogether it had that moreish, slippery conviction and confetti of hyper-real detail that are the proofs of a really good conspiracy.

"It would have been completely compelling if it hadn’t been based on the thoughts of that mad bloke Russell Crowe played in A Beautiful Mind, and of RD Laing, the shagging psychiatrist. Laing was a fashionable Hampstead joke 20 years ago, an egomaniac with an enormous chip. The thought that his dinner-party chat-up lines and glib, glossy-mag hypotheses should come back to rule the world was more than I could swallow. Still, it was engrossing, in a bonkers sort of way, and I expect would have been popular in student-union bars with the urban anthropologists and media-studies bods."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that review. Pity, though, for the throwaway remark about John Nash, who has already been so mistreated in the programme itself.
If in Mathematics or Physics we dismiss the work of the 'mad', or widly eccentric or deeply troubled, we will have to do without the Theorems, Functions, Laws and what-have-you of Cantor, Boltzmann, Poisson, Goedel, Heaviside, Grothendieck and recently Perelman, to name but a few.
A quite serious looking book even argues that Newton himself was manic-depressive. And how sane could Archimedes have been, running around naked or talking to a hostile soldier like that!