Adam Curtis: One of the most prophetic artists of the decade is not an artist.

by | Apr 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Who or What is Adam Curtis?


Journalist or Artist?

Adam Curtis is a renowned British documentary filmmaker. His films, which often resemble thesis-less art films, delve deep into complex societal, political, and historical issues. Despite the artistic nature of his work, Curtis maintains that he is a journalist, not an artist. Adam Curtis’s documentaries are renowned for their distinct style, which creates a mesmerizing and thought-provoking experience for the viewer. His films are characterized by a collage-like approach, weaving together a vast array of archival footage, photographs, and music to create a tapestry of ideas and emotions.

One of the most striking aspects of Curtis’s style is his use of montage. He juxtaposes seemingly unrelated images and footage to create new meanings and connections, often revealing hidden patterns and relationships between disparate events and ideas. This technique can be both disorienting and illuminating, as it challenges the viewer to question their assumptions and see the world in a new light. He often employs haunting, atmospheric scores that add an emotional depth and resonance to the images on screen. The music serves to create a sense of unease or nostalgia, depending on the subject matter, and helps to draw the viewer into the world of the film.

Curtis’s distinctive voice, with its measured cadence and wry inflection, guides the viewer through the complex web of ideas and events that make up his films. He often speaks in a detached, ironic tone, as if he is observing the world from a distance, yet his words are carefully chosen to provoke and challenge the viewer’s assumptions. Watching a Curtis film is an immersive and intense experience.

The viewer is bombarded with a barrage of images and ideas, often without a clear narrative thread to follow. This can be disorienting at first, but as the film progresses, patterns and connections begin to emerge, and the viewer is drawn into a world of hidden forces and unexpected consequences. Curtis’s films are not always easy to watch. They deal with complex and often disturbing subject matter, and they challenge the viewer to confront uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. Yet they are also deeply rewarding, offering a unique and provocative perspective on the forces that shape our lives and the societies we inhabit.

In many ways, watching a Curtis film is like going on a journey into the unconscious of our culture. His films are not so much about presenting a clear argument or thesis, but rather about exploring the deeper currents and contradictions that underlie our beliefs and behaviors. They are an invitation to question our assumptions, to see the world in a new way, and to engage in a deeper and more critical understanding of ourselves and our society. Curtis himself has been vocal about his identity as a journalist, not an artist. He sees his role as one of investigating and presenting information to the public, rather than creating art for art’s sake. In his view, his films are a form of journalism that seeks to illuminate the complex forces shaping our world and to challenge dominant narratives.

The Themes and Lack of Thesis in Curtis’s Work

One of the central themes in Curtis’s work is the way in which power structures and ideologies shape our understanding of reality. He often explores how those in positions of authority use media, technology, and other tools to maintain control and influence public opinion. In films like “The Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares,” Curtis examines how ideas from psychology, politics, and economics have been used to manipulate and control populations. Another recurring theme in Curtis’s films is the unintended consequences of human actions and the ways in which our attempts to shape the world often lead to unexpected and sometimes disastrous outcomes.

In “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” for example, he argues that our faith in technology and the free market has led to a world in which humans are increasingly disconnected from one another and from the natural world. Despite the complexity of his themes and the artistry of his filmmaking, Curtis insists that his primary goal is to inform and engage the public. He sees his work as a form of public service, using the power of media to shed light on important issues and to encourage critical thinking.

Adam Curtis’s overarching theme throughout his filmography is the idea that the prevailing myth of the last few decades, under the dominance of neoliberal ideology, is that human cognition, behavior, and society can be reduced to quantifiable data points and mathematical models. This reductionist view, he argues, has had detrimental consequences for our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The title of his 2011 series, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” is taken from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan.

The poem envisions a future in which humans live in harmony with nature and technology, where “cybernetic meadows” and “machines of loving grace” provide for all our needs. However, Curtis uses this title ironically, suggesting that the utopian vision of a world perfectly controlled by benevolent machines has instead led to a dystopian reality. Curtis argues that this myth has its roots in the work of engineers and mathematicians who sought to apply the principles of cybernetics and systems theory to the social sciences. These thinkers, such as Jay Forrester and Stafford Beer, believed that human behavior and social systems could be modeled and optimized using the same techniques that had been successful in engineering and computer science.

This approach has had a profound impact on the fields of psychology and economics. In psychology, it has led to the rise of behaviorism and the idea that human behavior can be reduced to simple stimulus-response mechanisms. In economics, it has given rise to the concept of “rational choice theory,” which assumes that individuals always make decisions based on their own self-interest and that markets can be modeled as self-regulating systems.

Curtis argues that these assumptions have sent our understanding of human nature and society in dangerous directions. By reducing humans to simple, predictable units, we have lost sight of the complexity and unpredictability of human behavior. By assuming that markets are inherently stable and self-correcting, we have failed to recognize the inherent instability and inequality of the capitalist system. Moreover, Curtis suggests that this reductionist worldview has had political consequences. By emphasizing individual choice and market forces over collective action and social responsibility, neoliberal ideology has eroded the foundations of democracy and led to a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few.

Curtis Challenging the Assumptions of the Current Order

In “The Trap” (2007), Adam Curtis includes two notable interviews that challenge conventional interpretations and highlight the unintended consequences of influential ideas.

In one segment, Curtis interviews an anthropologist who had studied the Yanomami people of the Amazon rainforest. The anthropologist initially presents his findings as evidence of the inherent violence and competitiveness of human nature, suggesting that the Yanomami’s behavior was indicative of humanity’s innate aggression. However, Curtis then presents a contrasting perspective, arguing that the anthropologist’s presence and the tools he introduced to the Yanomami, such as machetes, had actually exacerbated and altered their behavior. This refutation of the anthropologist’s interpretation raises questions about the influence of external factors on human behavior and the potential biases in anthropological studies.

Another pivotal moment in the series occurs when Curtis interviews John Nash, the mathematician whose work on game theory had a profound impact on economics, politics, and social sciences. Nash, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, admits to Curtis that his influential ideas were a product of his mental illness, implying that his theories were a product of paranoid schizophrenia and that it was actually the culture that had awarded them the Pulitzer that was mentally ill. This revelation casts doubt on the foundations of game theory and its applications in various fields of psychology. Curtis uses this interview to illustrate how ideas born out of a distorted perception of reality can gain widespread acceptance and shape policies and social norms.

Both of these interviews serve as powerful examples of Curtis’s ability to challenge conventional narratives and expose the unintended consequences of ideas that have shaped our understanding of human behavior and society. By confronting the anthropologist’s interpretation and revealing the flawed origins of Nash’s game theory, Curtis encourages viewers to question the assumptions and biases that underlie influential theories and to consider the complex interplay between ideas, individuals, and society. These scenes underscore Curtis’s central theme of the dangers of reducing human behavior to simplistic models and the importance of critically examining the ideas that shape our world.

Examining Present Ideology Through the Lens of Failed Ideologies

In his latest series of films, “Trauma Zone,” Curtis delves into the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century. However, the parallels he draws between the crumbling of the Soviet empire and the current state of post-COVID Britain are striking. Curtis uses the failed ideologies of the past as a framework to examine the failing ideologies of the present. Curtis argues that the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened the door to the chaos we now experience globally. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the trauma that millions of Russians endured during this period, as their entire world collapsed around them in a matter of months. The promises of a new democratic capitalist system quickly devolved into corruption, leaving people in dire circumstances.

Drawing comparisons to contemporary Britain, Curtis suggests that we are currently facing a similar situation where the system is failing, yet no one—neither the opposition, the government, nor the journalists—has any idea of an alternative. He points out that this lack of vision creates a feedback loop of uncertainty and bewilderment. Curtis attributes this inability to imagine a better future to the rise of radical individualism. He argues that while individualism was initially empowering, it has since eaten away at the idea of collective power and mass democratic politics. When faced with adversity, this individualistic approach leaves people feeling disempowered and unable to envision a better world. Despite the bleak picture he paints, Curtis maintains a sense of optimism. He believes that the collapse of autocracy in Russia, radical Islamism in Iran, and the surveillance state in China presents an opportunity for change. With the old barriers crumbling, he sees the potential for new ideas and inspiration to emerge.

Critiquing Curtis’s Approach and Ideology

While Adam Curtis’s films are undeniably thought-provoking and engaging, his approach and ideology have drawn criticism from various quarters. Some argue that Curtis’s tendency to draw broad, sweeping connections between disparate events and ideas can lead to oversimplification and a lack of nuance. His films often present a grand narrative that, while compelling, may not always stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny. Moreover, Curtis’s central thesis—that ideas shape society—has been questioned by those who argue that material conditions and economic factors play a more significant role in shaping historical events. Critics suggest that Curtis’s focus on the power of ideas can lead him to downplay the importance of structural factors such as class, race, and gender.

Another criticism leveled at Curtis is that his films can be seen as promoting a sense of helplessness or resignation in the face of complex global problems. By emphasizing the failures of past ideologies and the seeming intractability of current challenges, Curtis risks leaving his audience feeling disempowered and unable to effect meaningful change. Finally, some critics have accused Curtis of indulging in a form of nostalgia for a lost era of grand political narratives and collective action. In an age of increasing individualism and fragmentation, Curtis’s longing for a time when society could be shaped by powerful ideas may be seen as a romantic, but ultimately unrealistic, notion. Despite these criticisms, Curtis’s work remains valuable for its ability to provoke debate and encourage viewers to question the dominant narratives of our time. While his approach may have its limitations, his films serve as a reminder of the importance of critically examining the ideas and ideologies that shape our world.

Curtis’s approach fails to account for the complex interplay of material forces and human agency in shaping historical events. By treating society as a monad—a single, indivisible unit—Curtis presents an interesting emotional history of a society’s unconscious but neglects the role of competing interests and duplicitous actors in driving social change. Furthermore, Curtis’s monadic view of society assumes that all actors in history are honest about their motivations and act at face value. This approach does not explain how multiple reciprocal forces could have worked towards the same outcome, especially when those forces acted in bad faith or with hidden agendas. As a result, while Curtis may capture the emotional zeitgeist of a given era, his analysis of the actual historical events and their causes can be flawed.

In response to these criticisms, Curtis has argued that his aim is not to provide a comprehensive historical, economic, or journalistic analysis but rather to create an “emotional history” of society. He contends that by exploring the dominant ideas and feelings that shape a given era, he can offer insights into the collective psyche and the ways in which people make sense of their world. From this perspective, Curtis’s work can be seen as a form of cultural critique, using the medium of film to explore the emotional and psychological dimensions of social change. While this approach may not satisfy those seeking a more rigorous, evidence-based analysis of historical events, it nonetheless provides a valuable lens through which to examine the zeitgeist of our times.

Adam Curtis’s Critique Applied to Mental Health and Psychology

Why talk about Curtis on a psychotherapy blog?

Adam Curtis’s critique of the reductionist view of human behavior and society can be extrapolated to explain many of the problems we see in contemporary psychotherapy and mental health treatment. The influence of behaviorism and the idea that human behavior can be reduced to simple stimulus-response mechanisms has led to a narrow focus on symptom reduction in psychotherapy. This approach often ignores the complex social, cultural, and historical factors that shape an individual’s mental health, and fails to address the underlying causes of psychological distress.The emphasis on quantifiable data and evidence-based practices in mental health treatment has led to a reliance on standardized interventions and a one-size-fits-all approach to therapy. While these interventions can be effective for some individuals, they may not address the unique needs and experiences of others, particularly those from marginalized or underrepresented communities.

The influence of neoliberal ideology on mental health discourse has led to an increasing emphasis on individual responsibility and self-improvement. This approach often ignores the structural and systemic factors that contribute to mental health problems, such as poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to resources. It also places the burden of recovery solely on the individual, rather than recognizing the importance of community support and collective action. Furthermore, the commodification of mental health treatment under neoliberal capitalism has led to a proliferation of self-help books, apps, and online courses that promise quick fixes and easy solutions to complex problems. This approach often lacks the depth and nuance of traditional psychotherapy, and may not provide the long-term support and guidance needed for genuine healing and growth.

Finally, the reductionist view of human behavior has led to a narrow focus on neurobiology and the role of brain chemistry in mental health. While this research has led to important advances in our understanding of mental illness, it has also led to an overemphasis on pharmacological interventions and a neglect of the social and environmental factors that shape mental health. Adam Curtis’s critique of the reductionist and mechanistic view of human behavior can be applied to the field of psychotherapy and mental health treatment. By recognizing the complexity and contextual nature of human experience, and by emphasizing the importance of social and structural factors in shaping mental health, we can develop more effective and equitable approaches to treatment that prioritize the needs and well-being of individuals and communities.

Adam Curtis’s Filmography

“Pandora’s Box” (1992)

The series explores how the Soviet Union and the West used science and technology as tools for control and power during the Cold War. Implications: The series suggests that the use of science and technology for political purposes can have unintended consequences and that the pursuit of power can lead to a distorted view of reality. Curtis delves into the Soviet Union’s attempts to harness the power of the natural world, such as trying to create a human-ape hybrid for manual labor. He also examines the West’s efforts to control human behavior through psychological manipulation. The series features interviews with key figures, including Soviet scientists and American psychologists, and utilizes striking archival footage to illustrate its points.

“The Living Dead” (1995)

The series examines how the traumatic events of the 20th century, such as World War I and the Holocaust, have shaped our understanding of death and memory. Implications: The series implies that the way we remember and commemorate the past has a profound impact on our present and future, and that the traumas of history continue to haunt us. Curtis explores how the horrors of the World Wars led to a fundamental shift in how we view death and remembrance. He argues that the sheer scale of death in these conflicts led to a breakdown in traditional mourning rituals and a sense of collective trauma that still resonates today. The series features poignant interviews with veterans and Holocaust survivors, as well as haunting footage from the wars and their aftermath.

“The Mayfair Set” (1999)

The series investigates the rise of a new class of wealthy and influential individuals in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and how their actions shaped the country’s economy and politics. Implications: The series suggests that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few can have far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. Curtis focuses on the lives and machinations of four key figures: James Goldsmith, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed Al-Fayed, and Robert Maxwell. He argues that their rise to power was facilitated by a shift towards deregulation and privatization, which allowed them to amass enormous wealth and influence. The series features revealing interviews with insiders and associates of the Mayfair Set, as well as footage of their lavish lifestyles and political maneuverings.

“The Century of the Self” (2002)

The series explores how the ideas of Sigmund Freud and his nephew, Edward Bernays, were used by corporations and governments to manipulate and control the masses throughout the 20th century. Implications: The series implies that our desires and behaviors are heavily influenced by psychological techniques used in advertising and propaganda, and that this has had a profound impact on our politics and culture. Curtis traces the development of public relations and advertising from the early 20th century onwards, arguing that these techniques were used to create a new kind of consumer culture based on individual desire and self-expression. He also examines how these techniques were adopted by politicians to sway public opinion and shape policy. The series features interviews with Freud’s descendants and leading figures in the advertising industry, as well as a wealth of archival footage and advertisements.

“The Power of Nightmares” (2004)

The series argues that the threat of terrorism has been exaggerated by politicians and the media, and that this has been used to justify increased surveillance and control over citizens. The series suggests that the “War on Terror” has been used as a pretext for eroding civil liberties and that the true nature of the threat has been misrepresented. Curtis examines the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and neo-conservatism in the United States, arguing that both ideologies are based on a exaggerated sense of threat and a desire for control. He suggests that the September 11th attacks were used by politicians on both sides to justify a sweeping expansion of state power and surveillance. The series features interviews with key figures in the “War on Terror,” including former CIA agents and neo-conservative thinkers, as well as chilling footage of terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

“The Trap” (2007)

The series examines how the concept of freedom has been redefined in the modern world, and how this has led to a society that is increasingly controlled and regulated. The series implies that our understanding of freedom has been distorted by economic and political forces, and that this has had negative consequences for our well-being and happiness. Curtis argues that the rise of game theory and rational choice theory in the social sciences has led to a view of humans as self-interested, rational actors, and that this has been used to justify a range of policies that prioritize individual choice over social welfare. He also examines how the concept of positive and negative liberty has been used to shape political discourse and policy. The series features interviews with leading thinkers in the social sciences, as well as archival footage of key events and experiments.

“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011)

The series explores how the utopian vision of a world controlled by computers and machines has failed to deliver on its promises, and how this has led to a sense of disillusionment and disconnection. The series suggests that our faith in technology and the free market has led to a world in which humans are increasingly disconnected from one another and from the natural world. Curtis examines how the counterculture of the 1960s and the rise of computer technology led to a belief that machines could create a new kind of society based on individual freedom and self-expression. He argues that this vision has failed to materialize, and that instead we have become increasingly reliant on machines and algorithms to make decisions for us. The series features interviews with leading figures in the tech industry and the counterculture movement, as well as striking archival footage of early computer experiments and the 1960s counterculture.

“Bitter Lake” (2015)

The film argues that the complex history of Afghanistan and its relationship with the West has been oversimplified and misrepresented in the media and political discourse.  The film implies that our understanding of global politics is often shaped by incomplete and distorted narratives, and that this can lead to disastrous consequences. Curtis uses the metaphor of a bitter lake in Afghanistan to explore the country’s complex history and its relationship with the West. He argues that the West’s involvement in Afghanistan has been shaped by a simplistic narrative of good versus evil, and that this has led to a series of disastrous interventions and unintended consequences. The film features stunning footage of Afghanistan’s natural beauty and its people, as well as interviews with key figures in the country’s history and politics.

“HyperNormalisation” (2016)

The film explores how the complex and chaotic reality of the modern world has been replaced by a simplified and distorted version of events, and how this has led to a sense of confusion and helplessness among citizens. The film suggests that the mainstream media and political establishment have created a fake sense of stability and order, and that this has prevented us from confronting the true nature of the challenges we face. Curtis argues that the world has become increasingly complex and chaotic in recent decades, but that those in power have responded by creating a simplified and distorted version of reality that makes people feel helpless and disconnected. He examines a range of events and phenomena, from the rise of Putin in Russia to the Arab Spring and the election of Donald Trump, to illustrate his point. The film features a dizzying array of archival footage and music, creating a sense of disorientation and unease that mirrors the confusion and helplessness Curtis describes.

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (2021)

The series explores how the individualist and consumer-driven culture of the past 50 years has led to a sense of alienation, anxiety, and political polarization.  The series implies that our obsession with personal freedom and self-expression has come at the cost of social cohesion and collective well-being, and that we need to rethink our values and priorities in order to address the challenges of the 21st century. Curtis examines a wide range of cultural and political phenomena, from the rise of conspiracy theories to the impact of social media on our mental health and relationships. He argues that the individualist culture of the past 50 years has led to a sense of isolation and disconnection, and that this has fueled the rise of populist movements and political extremism. The series features interviews with a diverse range of thinkers and activists, as well as a wealth of archival footage and music that creates a haunting and immersive viewing experience. Curtis ultimately suggests that we need to rethink our values and priorities in order to create a more compassionate and connected society.

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