HyperNormalisation (2016): The Grand Narrative of History

NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on 25th November 2016, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. This version incorporates material excised from the final submitted version.

Abstract

In this essay, I examine how Adam Curtis’ film HyperNormalisation constructs itself to forge a new perspective on reality.

Firstly, I question whether the documentary form can establish a sense of ‘truth’ within its subjectivities and a “post-truth” world, and explore how Curtis remixes existing archival footage into a narrative form.

In the second section, I confront the film’s counter-narratives to established historical events, whilst recognising that other narratives are excluded in the process.

In the final section, I discuss the intertextuality of the film, relying on existing audience knowledge, and its presentation of pop culture as an integral part of its narrative and our reality.

The thesis of HyperNormalisation 

Over the past forty years, politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. They constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system – the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture – actually became part of the trickery […]

With the BBC launching an era of digital experimentation, Curtis remains perhaps the BBC’s most experimental filmmaker, directing, editing and narrating HyperNormalisation on a £30,000 budget, with little supervision and almost complete autonomy (Adams 2016). HyperNormalisation is Curtis’ second film produced for BBC iPlayer, following 2015’s Bitter Lake (Curtis 2015). Within two weeks of its digital release, it had received over 100,000 requests on online players (BARB 2016), and has since amassed over 200,000 views worldwide on illegal reproductions.

Curtis appropriates the term ‘hypernormalisation’ from Soviet historian Alexei Yurchak, recontextualising it to the present day. Yurchak’s theory posited that Soviet discourse became increasingly “disassociated from their original meanings”, instead relying upon performative aspects that repeated “past knowledge and authority” (Tsipursky 2005).

Charting the rise of neoliberalism, positioning its origin in the 1975 New York City banking crisis, Curtis sees a market logic applied to both political systems and models of human behaviour, pushing for a “powerful new individualism” of self-improvement and consumerism that detached people from collective political action. Through the collapse of the USSR, Curtis sees a final end to the dream of “build[ing] a new kind of world”, instead creating a conservative “post-political world” that avoids radical change and maintains the status quo, eroding democracy.

Between fact and fiction: establishing truth in a post-truth world

post-truth

ADJECTIVE

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

– Oxford English Dictionaries

In November 2016, Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year, shifting from a “peripheral term” from its inception in 1992 to becoming a “mainstay in political commentary.” (Oxford Dictionaries 2016) Leading its rise were two movements: the nomination of Donald Trump as Republican candidate (and president-elect), and the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Curtis positions the ‘post-truth world’ as beginning under Reagan,[1] propagating an official “blurring of fact and fiction” through “perception management”, where reality became merely something to manage. In this post-truth world, “gut-level or street knowledge” carries a new currency, supplanting expertise of any kind (Dean 2015). Curtis argues Trump is a performative “pantomime” and “a product of [a] retreat into a simplified world” of slippery and unfixed truths (McGurk 2016).

In this post-truth world, “gut-level or street knowledge” carries new currency, supplanting expertise (Dean 2015). Curtis argues social networks began making decisions for us, creating filter bubbles where users “only saw and heard what they liked”; angry Tweets only fed the corporations. Within this landscape, we have the power to “be our own spectacles” (Dean 2015) but this power carries no weight. As Dean argues, within online discourse “the ability to falsify is unlimited” (Debord 1998, cited in Dean 2015). For Curtis, our utopian dream of the internet has “confused an engineering system with a vision for the future.” (Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service 2016)

Assembling the archive

Perhaps the film’s clearest example of blurring fact and fiction is through how it constructs itself with archive footage as an “appropriation film” (Baron 2012)[2], recontextualised in a creative way, whilst also utilising elements of the essay film (Nichols 2010). Curtis’ has an anarchic sensibility: with the freedom of digital distribution, Curtis has free rein to assemble the film without the concerns of traditional broadcast slots, acting as an archivist, transferring news broadcasts from two-inch COMP tapes stored in the BBC film archive to digital form (Lethem 2016). The process of editing a film is a selective and subjective process, dependent both on available materials and Curtis’ own sensibilities.

However, he also draws upon digital sources outside the BBC archive, from Al-Qaeda/ISIS propaganda films, YouTube videos, cellphone footage and online and citizen journalism, suicide bombings and CCTV footage from the Paris attacks, while also relying upon analogue sources including corporate and promotional videos, Prozac testimonials, even workout videos. The “digital flows” of the internet have opened up “a multiplicity of archives” (Pybus 2013, cited in Pybus 2015), raising questions over whether, and how, amateur video should be preserved (Baron 2012).

Objectively, through its use of archive footage, the film carries an “ontological” and “evidentiary authority” (Spence and Navarro 2010; Baron 2012), carrying an “indexical capacity” to a real event (Nichols 2010:34). Where Curtis shows news broadcasts from the time, he presents information as it was relayed at the time.

However, the footage only conveys ‘truth’ as a result of multiple selective processes, with Curtis navigating hundreds of thousands of hours of un-broadcast rushes (Ronson 2015) and creating “art out of detritus”. (Harris 2016)

.Following on from the deconstructionist notion that “texts have no inherent meanings” (Kitzinger and Kitzinger 1993, cited in Devereux 2007), the footage is only granted meaning by what Curtis and the audience bring to it. Raw footage is merely ‘found footage’: it must be re-contextualised first, given voice through editing (Baron 2012). Yet even when originally shot, its ‘truth’ remained limited by camera position (Spence and Navarro 2010); before a news programme is even recorded, it undergoes selective processes by choice of topic and constitution, ascribed a particular context by its producers (Hartley 1982, cited in Barker 2012).

Rather than deny the constructed nature of the film, Curtis chooses to amplify it. Speaking to Dazed (Gorton 2016), Curtis said:

I get these criticisms like: ‘Is he manipulating us?’ Well, yes. The only thing I would say in my defence is that actually, I’m showing you that I’m doing it.

The film opens to TV static, encoded with a timecode, counting down to the film’s narrative beginning. Curtis lets the viewer relive his experience of searching through archive material, using what he refers to as “discordant edit[s]”, transitioning between scenes by “show[ing] the joins” (Lethem 2016). He reveals the fragile nature of the images pulled from the satellite feed, degrading over time. Through the essay form, it is “self-reflective and self-reflexive” over its own existence (Rascaroli 2008).

Subjective narratives

Utilising the essay form, Curtis amplifies the subjectivity of reconstructing history. Rather than a “definitive histor[y]”, the film instead “cast[s] doubt on the possibility of that idea.” (Adams 2016) David Jenkins criticises Curtis for manipulating the audience, depicting history as a “finite continuum” whilst positioning himself as a figure of authority (Jenkins 2016).

Unlike a monograph, built upon detailed references and a desire to present ‘objective reality’, Curtis is able to present a subjective reality in film form. Curtis is equally complicit within the system he describes, constructed by politicians, the media and academics. As Curtis argues, established narratives of the past alter not only how we perceive the future, but also how computer systems perceive it for us through datasets.

He argues his work carries a social dimension, “to make people aware of power” (Adams 2016), and thus also carries a responsibility,  “entail[ing] real consequences” in how we perceive socio-historical reality as “one voice among many” across different disciplines (Nichols 2010:68). Visual representations are implicated in “the provision and the selection construction of knowledge”, through which we perceive the “lived realities” of others (Hall 1977, cited in Barker 2012). Curtis argues his work carries a social dimension, “to make people aware of power” (Adams 2016).

Curtis perceives himself as a journalist rather than documentarian; documentary is merely the medium. He focuses on telling stories about people, introducing “new facts and data” to create a counter-narrative to established media narratives (MacInnes 2015), narrativising real world events in a structured form: Curtis’ representation of Gaddafi elicits audience sympathy, shifting him from a dictator to a human figure, manipulated by the West. Similarly, he represents Assad as a silent, contemplative figure, using rushes from news interviews to afford him no opportunity to speak.

As Corner argues, media narratives can be “totalising” and oversimplified, presenting one version of reality aligned to dominant viewpoints, (Corner 1999, cited in Thornham and Purvis 2008), often devoid of wider structural context (Barker 2012) and reduced to “aesthetic relations” with the viewer (Thornham and Purvis 2008).

Excluded narratives and representation

However, this also raises the question of what narratives Curtis excludes or emphasises. Haslett criticises Curtis for “refus[ing] to register” second-wave feminism, depicting a detached Left drifting away from collective action in favour of “self-expression” and a “narcissistic” individualism (Haslett 2016), excluding narratives of social change. As Foucault defines it, the archive is a “sociological reality” with Curtis as archivist afforded the power “privilege certain discourses over others”, unfolding one narrative over another (Foucault 2002, cited in Pybus 2015) Curtis is able to minimise the role of minorities, favouring instead broad, worldwide changes over specific identity subcultures within those systems.

Curtis saw the “collective action” of the Civil Rights Movement as having a vision of the future (Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service 2016). However, within the film, black America is seen only as militarised, radical followers of the Nation of Islam, treating Gaddafi as a fellow intellectual with promises of a “black army” of 400,000 men to fight against white America. Where Curtis directs attention to the power of the internet to bring people together in physical spaces, he focuses on the failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring to achieve lasting change, overlooking how Ferguson and systemic policy brutality against African Americans have been brought to light through online discourse, especially on social media, instead treating the modern internet as a commodity.

Curtis presents techno-utopianism dominating discourse through the 80s and 90s, escaping the real world into a “virtual reality”, exemplified by Curtis by John Perry Barlow’s Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace. Looking at early cyberspace, Curtis fails to present its “mystical sense of liberation” for women, black people and the queer community (Ferreday 2011:25), instead focusing on techo-utopianism as a retreat from the “harsh right-wing politics” of Reaganism and ignoring the internet’s power as a space of community and identity politics. Curtis depicts an early cyberculture theory dominated by an elitist, “largely male digerati” of geeks[3], ignoring its more critical and suspicious “feminist and postcolonial accounts” (Ferreday 2011:3). By only alluding to these issues in an implicit way, Curtis erases minority impacts, reinforcing an accepted white, male narrative and a sense of privilege, with no counter-narrative (Ferreday 2011:67) but a “frontier narrative”.

Affecting an active audience

Curtis’ films encourage an active audience. Charlie Lyne argues that the film’s “mammoth labyrinth of political storytelling” is better suited to the internet, allowing audiences the power to “pause and rewind at will”, supplemented with “research of their own” (Lyne 2016). Yet it also relies heavily on existing extratextual knowledge, depicting accepted elements of everyday “render[ed] strange” (Lethem 2016), tracing Donald Trump, Syria and Islamic terrorism back to the origin of their construction. Trump is presented as a counter-narrative to his contemporary media portrayal, influencing ideologies in the 1970s and 80s and exposing even his name as a “façade” plastered on buildings.

As an appropriation film, the film’s entire existence is built upon intertextuality; Baron determines that an audience only reads found footage as archival based on shifting “extratextual knowledge”, where “at least three temporalities” are always at work. (Baron 2012)

Representation as reality

Rather than a definitive binary between fact and fiction, Curtis weaves fictional representations into his narrative alongside factual events. As Curtis writes in The Guardian, “the best documentary reporting these days” are in films, praising The Big Short (McKay 2015) and American Honey (Arnold 2016) for representing wider concepts in visual and narrative form, doing more than just reinforcing an audience’s existing beliefs. (Curtis 2016b) For Curtis, films and novels are more than just reflections of the contexts they were made in, but hold the power to influence its direction.

Whereas some of the film extracts merely invites the viewer to draw parallels, acting as “parodies of fear to undercut the fear” (as is the case with Curtis’ depiction of Kissinger and Assad), creating a sense of audience familiarity, as if it were “a program made by someone you know” (Lethem 2016), Curtis addresses a deeper notion around intertextual representation.

revenge
Curtis presents an image of Assad as an Italian gangster, juxtaposing this shot against Ennio Morricone’s score to Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Bertolucci 1981)

In Curtis’ world, film and literature representations within science fiction hold an active power in redefining socio-historical reality. Where Curtis depicts the collapse of the USSR, he attributes Roadside Picnic (Strugatsky 1972) and its adaptation, Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979), with creating a dissident movement, revealing an unstable, unfixed world, where “reality changes minute by minute”. Curtis attributes new meaning, transforming Tarkovsky’s film into a visual metaphor, not only to the USSR but to our current state of reality.


However, some fictional realities cut deeper. Curtis repositions William Gibson’s ideas within Neuromancer (Gibson 1984) not as the birth of the cyberpunk movement within film and literature, but as an active influence in how we conceived of cyberspace, elevating its importance from fiction to reality. Curtis notes how Gibson extrapolated on 1980s computer networks, and parallels the current state of the internet and social media with Gibson’s vision, seeing a shift from a techno-utopian world to a world of “raw, brutal corporate power”, defined by “superficial freedoms” and opaque systems, analogous to social media filter bubbles. 

tron
Tron (Lisberger 1982) and Neuromancer (Gibson 1984) are presented as the foundations for establishing the future of cyberspace

In a supercut sequence, Curtis asks the viewer to re-examine late-90s disaster movies, afforded a new context through the passage of time. Through the concept of the ‘archive effect’, Baron acknowledges a “temporal disparity” between when a film is produced and received by an audience. We become aware of “images of time’s inscription on human bodies and places”, recognising its absence through landmarks such as the Twin Towers.(Baron 2012).

Curtis’ selection of images reinforce parallels: living bodies fall from buildings; everyday people running from smoke, projecting a different meaning on the images than the inscribed intention, transformed through our own exposure to news images from 9/11. Curtis’ looping of the cartoonish image of the falling man by looping it, calling attention to its shifted meaning.

As Ellis emphasises, our perceptions around 9/11 are continually shifting, moving from an emphasis on “patrotic affirmation” in the wake of the attacks, to a modern repurposing of 9/11 imagery in superhero films (Ellis 2016).

rock_1
The Rock (Bay 1996) – Curtis suggests the film’s depiction of terrorist nerve agents influenced a key MI6 document produced in 2002 into the existence of WMDs, using actual fiction to justify the invasion of Iraq

We’re Fucked

HyperNormalisation exemplifies the difficulty not only to represent the world, but also the difficulty to even understand the world, highlighting its constructed nature not only through its discourse, but in a conscious and calculated manipulation through a system of “perception management” by governments and PR system. Using an essayistic narrative structure created entirely out of archival footage, Curtis reveals this reality through his complicity within it, accepting that his film is also, similarly, constructed, and at the mercy of alternative readings. The film acts a primer to wider discourses around politics, the media and historiography.

Curtis captures a contemporary mood of disillusionment and pessimism and amplifies it, tracing its roots through decades of history back to an origin point.

Speaking of the possibility of the election of Trump, Curtis said (Adams 2016):

It means the pantomime has become reality and starts rampaging around. And then we are fucked.

The pantomime has become reality.

References

[1] Although the term “post-truth” is not used explicitly in the film itself, it was used in promotional materials.

[2] Nichols refers to this form as a “compilation film” (Nichols 2010); however, I will avoid Nichols’ term as I feel it downplays the creative process.

[3] Curtis’ dissenting voices are a pair of teenage hackers, Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak

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