HyperNormalisation: critique of a critique


This week, VICE distributed promotional video by Adam Curtis his new film called HyperNormalisation. In this video, Curtis argues that it becomes increasingly clear that we are all living in a dream world, detached from reality. Social media, he argues, have developed algorithms that only present you with information that confirms the ideas you already had. This dystopic worldview does not appear so dissimilar from the vision in the 1999 movie The Matrix.

There is however a strong self-referentiality problem with his video. First, it makes use of similar persuasive techniques it uses to criticise. After all, Adam Curtis’ films are also a product, and VICE and the BBC are outlets to sell his product. Second, if the message of the video is correct, than only people who already agree we live in a dream world get to see this video. Therefore, the film might offer us a correct representation of the state of affairs in the world, but can not be able to really offer a solution.

The film also supposes an intentionality by the elites and representatives of global capital that might not be  correct. The assumption of the video states that there would be a possibility of liberation from this situation, as if we would be able to discard our chains and walk into the “real world”. As a metaphor, this duality between the “dream world” which is a bad state which only benefits some sort of semi-transcendent global elite and the “real world” which is liberated from slavery is tempting. After all it feeds our subconscious desire for freedom. But the value of freedom is precisely constitutive for the world order Adam Curtis attempts to criticise. After all, it is the promise for freedom that motivates us to act and to consume. The question is whether Adam Curtis succeeds in transcending the trap of the wheel of enslaved desire he criticises. What would his liberation look like?

Curtis describes politicians as “pantomime villains” whose job is to make us angry, so we engage more in social media. Social media is then seen as absorbing all opposition, to which Curtis adds the depressive conclusion that that is the reason why “nothing ever changes”. Two striking problems are noteworthy about this analysis. First, the idea that “nothing ever changes” is quoted here as a truism, although it seems highly questionable. Many advancements in terms of human rights, ecological protection and equality have been made. Maybe this progress has not been as much as we want, but if Curtis would discard those advancements as “fake” or “dreamlike” as well, the question is what would count as change anyway? Second, if social media would really be absorbing all opposition, this video could not be opposition to it, because it is being distributed by social media as well. If this would be the case, we wouldn’t be engaging in critical thinking by watching this video, because our engagement with this criticism would only be a productive resource for the social media as well.

Finally, Curtis compares our condition as “HyperNormal”, comparing our situation with people living in the totalitarian Soviet Union for rhetorical effect. Again, the question arises how a liberation from this should really look like? It could certainly not lie in a self-expressive “live life authentic” ethic – quit your job and travel the world – because this is precisely which is being sold to us by travel companies and thus part of the “consumption factory” he describes. What remains as a possible liberation would be the complete and full acknowledgement of the “real world”: life is miserable, violent and unequal and no solutions exist for this, except accepting this state (and of course deleting your Facebook account). Not only am I unsure whether this is really what Curtis would like us to communicate, also such a conclusion would be as ridiculous as assuming the opposite.

Adam Curtis’ film stands in a long tradition of leftist critique of the system, global capital and corporate power. What is valuable in his analysis is the recognition that our desire for freedom is working against ourselves. A solution for this problem does, however, not appear imaginable from this perspective. If we would discard the suspicion that there is some inherent intentional evil in the way global capital functions, his video might offer us a striking image of the human condition. The drama and sense that there is an injustice being deliberately inflicted upon us by social media is, however, misplaced. For now, I rest at questioning Curtis’ intention: does he want to show us a way of liberation from our shackles, or is he himself a “pantomime villain” in our clickbait imprisonment?