Monday, January 31, 2011

Adam Curtis' The Trap

Adam Curtis is a producer, writer, and documentarian. He is British, and he works for the BBC.

In 2007, Curtis produced a series of programmes called The Trap — What Happened to our Dream of Freedom for the BBC Two Television Network.

The series includes contributing interviews with a number of economists, writers, psychiatrists, philosophers, and political scientists.

These include John Nash, Friedrich von Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Enthoven, Alexander Haig, and Madsen Pirie.

The videos incorporate newsreel footage from the Cold War decades, the Reagan-Thatcher Eras, and the 1990s and 2000s. It does so to dramatic effect, mixing soundtrack music from various movies particularly, movies by John Carpenter. It also makes use of dramatic typeface in the titles of segments. One critic has even suggested that Curtis' work is "propagandist", presumably because of his employment of the dramatic typefaces and music found in his films.

The series seeks to shed some light on the sense of entrapment, ensnarement, imprisonment that many people seem to have in this day and age. The modern dilemma -- all this freedom, and yet, millions of Americans are being treated for depression. Millions are obese. Millions of people report having feelings of purposelessness. And so on. Some people attribute these feelings to a number of causes, including technology, urban over-population, widening generation gaps, divisive politics, increasing economic class disparity, etc.

According to Curtis, all of these explanations can be seen as symptoms of a greater problem -- the notion that our freedom is defined by the pursuit of our desires.

Curtis explains how out of the nuclear strategies of the cold war, along with a fundamental shift of academic psychiatry into empiricism, the notion was formed that the individual -- as modeled by the economic theories of John Nash and adapted by military strategists -- is nothing more than a self-interested autonomous desire-fulfilling machine. This notion became the pivot for a new political revolution that supplants the old methods of societal control with a sort of irrevocable auto-pilot.

He goes on to demonstrate how this model became a self-fulfilling prophesy through the feedback reinforcement of modern marketing, media, and a corporatist-warped version of democratic politics -- ultimately trapping our society in ever more rigid and stratified constraints imposed presumably without explicit intention by not only our leaders, but by our own collective decisions and actions.

It's a remarkably in-depth attempt to analyze and explain the historical context of our modern dilemma. I like this series because it has multiple facets, and ties in many seemingly separate threads in our recent history to make a somewhat coherent whole.

It explains many things, including this paper on economic class disparity by Piketty and Saez.

Our national credit ponzi scheme since 2000? Just a symptom of this sort of thinking on Ayn Rand steroids (and by that I mean to say, the Randian market stimulant/intoxicant/performance enhancer known as Alan Greenspan).

I find it interesting that in Curtis' worldview, Reaganism and Thatcherism are just outgrowths of the deeper set of perverted ideas about what actually makes up a human being.