What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Tobi Haslett on Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016, video, color, sound, 166 minutes. Jane Fonda.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE acts upon politics the way gangrene shrivels a foot: It freezes while it poisons. Take “constructive ambiguity.” Behind the bland opacity of Kissinger’s phrase—with its haughty procession of Latinate syllables—is the childish wish to stop the world. It was in the name of “constructive ambiguity” that in 1975 Kissinger lied to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) about a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, shattering the alliances within the Arab world that threatened American power. A devious tactic, yes, but in the service of a facile belief: that it’s actually possible to dominate reality, if only you lock it in place, stuff it full of puppets, and rule it according to your own “immutable,” imaginary laws. Since the mid-1970s, it’s been the conceit of American and European elites that the planet is a fixed system that need only be tinkered with and stabilized, leaving the overall picture gleamingly intact. Marx said that the point wasn’t to interpret, but to change the world—so of course his political opposites in the capitalist West have spent the past forty years conscripting their security agencies, supercomputers, and mercenary contractors to the grand, ridiculous effort of simply pressing pause.

That, at least, is the argument of HyperNormalisation, the new film by Adam Curtis. It premiered October 16 on BBC iPlayer and bears his inimitable stamp: jarring digression, ambient music, and reams of archival footage. It’s a protracted lament for collective passion as it’s strangled by a glossy technocracy. And there is, as always, Curtis’s voice—in all its crisp, declarative Britishness. “We live in a strange time,” he begins, his posh accent ennobling the cliché. “Suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even Brexit.” These things are all, by a certain logic, inexplicable—baffling ruptures in the rhythm of everyday life and leering counterarguments to the truths our leaders peddle. It will be Curtis’s mission, over the course of this nearly three-hour essay, to prove that our current inclination to crisis began in 1975. That year, two patterns emerged that cast “politics”—that is, the fury and agency of vast groups of people—as beside the point. Instead, our politicians crafted a fake world, and decided to rule that instead. The ensuing condition is called HyperNormalisation, and that fake world is based on the impersonal buzzing of the market, a cling to the current military balance of power, and a dazzled faith in the capacity of computers to predict and inaugurate a shining, knowable future.

It starts with Kissinger. His “constructive ambiguity” in Damascus scrambles the diplomatic process and inspires the widespread deployment of suicide bombers (funded by Assad) who, since they can’t assuage their sense of political despair, resort to blowing it up. Meanwhile, in New York City, a penniless municipal government is held hostage by the banks. So we see the twin curses of our age: the cruelties of austerity and the reversion to a nonpolitical politics, in which diplomacy is discarded and the public dismissed. This is the fake world: one where the mass sentiments of the Middle East can be skirted by Kissinger’s tricky wording, a world where a fickle Invisible Hand is either patting you on the head or giving you the middle finger.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975.

Nobody opposed this. Where, Curtis wants to know, were the leftists? The artists? The radicals? Apparently wallowing in their glum, muddy psyches. It’s Curtis’s belief—and here his argument starts to teeter, though not quite collapse—that the failure of ’60s counterculture to change the world through revolution led to a retreat into the labyrinthine irrelevances of the “self.” (His Century of the Self [2002] elaborates further on what is here a rather pat point.) LSD provided a phenomenology of political surrender. But for all of the wild leaps of Curtis’s films, his weakness is his tidiness, his grinning satisfaction in his polished little theorems. His argument clicks along with maddening facility—while the real world roars outside. Yes, it’s apt to point out the hippie roots of cyber-utopianism and its eventual co-optation by repressive, reactionary forces. And he’s right to mourn the failure of the last truly global moment of anticapitalist sentiment—the mythic ’60s—as it melted into “lifestyle.” But sometimes he fingers the wrong suspects: Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen is excerpted twice. The first time, it’s meant to illustrate the “new individualism” of the ’70s—it had the rotten luck of being made in 1975—and the second time, Rosler’s final shrug, a slapstick gesture that bespeaks a state of suspended agency in the face of patriarchal might, is condemned. It’s a sign, you see, of our deflated political imagination. But I feel silly objecting to that—what do a few moments matter, in this monstrous, epic film?

The moments accumulate. Women spring up whenever Curtis mentions the slackening of collective will or the torpid complacency of the postindustrial world. Cyberspace simply flings your own image back to you, says Curtis—while he gives us shots of dazed, dancing girls. Jane Fonda, erstwhile radical, is held up as an example of the disastrous vanity of the culture, as her workout videos embody the contraction of political aspiration to the size of a single shrinking waistline. And artificial intelligence, whose beginnings, Curtis demonstrates, were a kind of pseudo-therapy, is shown to cater to these new, fetid interiorities—the interiorities, that is, of women. “Men are all the same,” a woman types into a computer. We’re supposed to be dismayed.

In his sprint through the movements and exigencies of the past half-century, Curtis refuses to register—indeed, obliquely snubs—feminism. That political action and collective consciousness might also work to enrich the individual spirit—once a rather uncontroversial claim on the Left—is to him an insidious contamination of political sensibilities by our narcissistic present. It’s treachery, seduction. There’s something limp, perhaps . . . effeminate about it. Halfway through HyperNormalisation, my mind flew to Letter to Jane (1972), in which Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin dash off their own criticism of Jane Fonda, in a picture of her leaning in to speak to a Vietnamese guerrilla. But at least they have the decency to make an acknowledgement that Curtis would do well to revisit. “We are both men,” Godard says over an image of Fonda’s frozen, pretty face. “And as a woman, you are undoubtedly going to be hurt a little—or a lot.”

Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation is available for streaming on BBC iPlayer and YouTube.