Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision, by Tom Jennings.
Essay / film review of Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold and the surveillance society, published in Variant magazine, No. 29, June 2007.Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision by Tom Jennings
[essay / film review of Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold, and surveillance society, published in Variant, No. 29, June 2007]
Concern over the use and abuse of information about their citizens gathered by governments has a long history, and the increasing sophistication of twentieth-century paraphernalia of surveillance matching the complexity of state and private institutions has proved fertile ground for a variety of artistic, philosophical and political purposes. The most prominent theme is the state’s proclivity for interfering in everyday life, purportedly in the public interest of social cohesion and stability but in practice for the benefit of those with power or money seeking more of the same. A distinctive cinema of paranoia crudely personalises and grossly oversimplifies such scenarios, including Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse films from the 1920s, Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), 1984 (dir. Michael Anderson, 1956), Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979), a 1984 remake (Michael Radford, 1984), Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998), and now the tired bourgeois triumphalism of The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). Recent experimental films such as Unrequited Love (Chris Petit, 2005) and Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005) complicate the phenomenology of persecution to some extent, but naïve belief in the virtual omnipotence achieved by cumulative observation is still the rule – so that individual resistance to oppression can only seek out loopholes, weak points and blind spots in the blanket coverage of objective data.
Given that independent and art cinema practitioners claim to deconstruct the voyeuristic fantasies masquerading as reality in the mainstream, it may seem surprising that the effectiveness of surveillance technology itself in delivering truth is rarely interrogated. Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) notably achieved this, albeit restricted to the conspiratorial recording of voices and professional, expert and elite agendas. However, fictional treatments have signally failed to imagine the wider social and cultural significance of either past or present developments. For example, the current proliferation of high-resolution cameras looming over urban areas across the UK may become progressively integrated with ID card systems and comprehensive national databases (probably also hawked around for corporate scrutiny and input), with comparably baleful large-scale projects having been planned, instituted or shelved in many developed countries. Worse, despite the saturation coverage already offered by one-fifth of the world’s CCTV units trained on us in this country, some local councils already fit ex-military employees with headset versions to roam dodgy areas – yet the loyal opposition to this creeping modern authoritarianism goes little further than queasily rehearsing outdated Orwellian pieties or lofty liberal abstrations concerning privacy.1
In this context, perhaps Andrea Arnold’s Glasgow-set suspense thriller Red Road won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year partly out of recognition of its nerve in attempting to transcend such clichés. It can’t have hurt that it is also an immensely impressive, ambitious, intelligent and idiosyncratic film, with a complex structure, taut pace, powerful script, convincing characterisations, evocative design, vivid photography, astute direction, and compelling performances. Originating in Lars von Trier’s post-Dogme Advance Party project – where Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (undeterred by the failure of a similar concept in Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogy) minimally outlined a set of characters to be played by the same actors in three low-budget DV features in different genres by novice writer-directors – Red Road depicts Jackie (Kate Dickie), a widow in her thirties working as a low-paid CCTV operative alerting emergency services to events requiring their presence on the north side of the city. Shunning family and friends since her bereavement, her drab, hermit’s life seems to provide no pleasure beyond an occasional flickering smile when the quirks of ordinary folk on-screen interrupt scanning for stabbings and muggings.
The robotic routine is disrupted when she spots the man responsible for the deaths of her husband and young child. Clyde (Tony Curran) has been paroled early for good behaviour, and Jackie’s subsequent grim, single-minded, remote pursuit soon turns to physical stalking. He shares a high-rise flat in the run-down Red Road estate with disturbed youngsters Stevie (Martin Compston) and April (Natalie Press), with whom Jackie cultivates relationships after blagging her way into a party there. After several meetings she has intensely passionate sex with Clyde, whereupon her plan is revealed as she leaves, rips her face and clothes and accuses him of rape. However, Stevie tracks her home and confronts her (having earlier stolen her purse), but then accepts her explanation. Also now aware of Clyde’s efforts to connect with his own teenage daughter, Jackie’s demonising hatred dissolves along with her own character armour, and she drops the charges. Together they visit the accident site where his crack-fuelled driving had initially suspended her animation. His regret combined with determined positivity – despite in most respects considerably worse prospects than hers – leads her to reconcile with the in-laws, scatter the loved-ones’ ashes and contemplate a future.
In Full View
Arnold has consistently emphasised her intention to question the ramifications of surveillance in Britain (having wanted to make a documentary on the subject before being offered Red Road). She mischievously explains the apparently passive acceptance of state intrusiveness in terms of “our national psyche” – and it’s true that, beyond hysterical hyperbole, such debate has been all but absent in current affairs programming.2 Likewise, the critical reception of the film prioritises Jackie’s personal psychological and social trajectory and her individual pathology – with the cinematic provenance of paranoid snooping seen only as convenient metaphor and instrument for its acting-out. But tales of fruitcakes and nutcases armed with the power of a million eyes precisely miss the salience of this story’s stress on the unglamorous, supposedly relatively benign perspective of those trying to pre-empt street violence. Juggling conventions from several film genres, yet confounding all their logics as well as the expectations of both the main character and viewers, the overarching problematic here is the inherent unreliability of suspicious monitoring as a primary mode of determining understanding, action, and hence power.
The Advance Party character sketch limited itself to describing Jackie as “cool and aloof because of a terrible loss she has suffered … The world has been insanely unfair to her”. However, although the camera shadows her claustrophobically closely when not taking her point-of-view, information about her subjectivity, motives and backstory is scrupulously withheld (reminiscent of the contemporary cinematic naturalism, for example, of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). Forcing viewers to guess who she is and what she’s up to then mimics the process of interpreting the CCTV images themselves, using only sequences of trivial, isolated and/or arbitrary visual clues. Prior experience in similar contexts (exposure to and investment in media genres, for example, as well as on the job for CCTV operatives) naturally inflects and colours any conclusions drawn, and expectations and predictions will further depend on personal preconceptions, prejudices and predilections which are more likely to be activated when resonance occurs with longer-term emotional patterns. Deep-seated anxiety or biographical trauma predispose us to associate potential victims with our own pain and the usual suspects with fear or anger – but when mutual feedback from direct interaction is not available, reality cannot be tested against the attributes unconsciously projected onto others that in fact derive from one’s own preoccupations.
So, this damaged protagonist is far from proactively powerful at the hub of the panopticon. She is frigid on her own behalf and functionally all but impotent for others – consoled only by occasional remote compassion (for the bloke with a sick bulldog or a dancing office-cleaner), prompting isolated expressions of human warmth which establish our marginal empathy with her numbly repetitive existence. A similarly mundane event triggers the unfolding drama. Noticing the possibly sinister pursuit of a girl onto waste ground, Jackie’s pessimistic anticipation turns to incipient arousal once consensual sex ensues, quickly followed by shock at recognising Clyde. Then, galvanised by imagining that her privileged gaze promises mastery over him, exposing herself to danger in his real world eventually proves her victory hollow. Revenge is redundant once its quarry is humanised by the yearning for intimacy they share and now that her anguish need no longer be suppressed. By implication, the detached overview of the soap opera of everyday life has actually prevented change, protecting only by sustaining a safe, habitual alienation – but thereby perpetuating the Hobbesian petty vindictiveness of embattled, embittered, minimal selves adrift in a mediated jungle of commodified human relations.
However, while the surface content of the narrative surely echoes processes of working-through loss – from grief, fixation, anger, and melancholy to re-engagement with the world – there is no straightforward submission to simplistic counselling formulae, with effortlessly unthreatening emotional adaptation. This mourner is certainly not ‘managed’. Instead she compulsively dismantles her own depressive defenses, gambling vulnerability with overconfident recklessness in moving from self-hatred to the brink of self-destruction. In the process, hitherto dormant energies of aggression and libido are mobilised which, as is their wont, couple capriciously in propelling her towards a variety of climaxes. The denouement, nevertheless, may seem a little anti-climactic, and too comfortingly tidy (perhaps relating to the need to leave the characters intact for the two other Advance Party efforts). Even then, that Jackie’s manic brazen culminates in an uplifting, redemptive ending is as counterintuitive for her as it is for us. The narrative seams mined on the way, after all, seduce us into expecting the worst (as in the CCTV orientation), so that evidence of caring, empathy, or collective goodwill is easily discounted or uneasily misinterpreted in the inexorable gravity of violent or tragic destiny.
Precedence here is furnished by relatively marginal cinema subgenres, such as rape revenge thrillers and recent, more sophisticated explorations of women’s autonomy and sexual agency like Carinne Adler’s Under The Skin (1997), Jane Campion’s In The Cut (2003) and Catherine Breillat’s post-feminist brutalism from Romance (1999) to The Anatomy of Hell (2003). But while Red Road’s tantalising plot flirts with exploitation, and stylistic flourishes both encourage and thwart cod-psychoanalysis, a thoroughgoing ambiguity built into imagery and character undermines temptations towards universalising mythology in favour of social-realist specificity. So Jackie’s reluctant contacts with family establish her traditional working-class background – not slumming it, and neither excited, disgusted nor daunted by a bit of rough (linguistically or otherwise). The peremptory affair conducted fortnightly in his vehicle with a married van-driver reinforces the lack of prudery or prurience, and counterpoints her repulsion from and attraction to Clyde. His feral, expressive, uninhibited vulgarity embodies an honest, generous curiosity belying the disrepute of his situation, intimate engagement with which changes her orientation to her own misery as those in his milieu strive to kickstart stalled and spoiled lives in collaborative, open-hearted, raw sociability.
Behind the Scenes
Risking excessive extrapolation from Jackie’s journey moreover implicates far wider visual regimes of truth than local authority crime prevention charades, yielding a convenient scapegoat aligned with government policy and dominant popular media rhetorics vastly exaggerating lower-class dysfunction as cause rather than symptom of society’s ills. But in this case his name is Clyde, living at Red Road, Glasgow – the proud libertarian-socialist heritage of a militant Red Clydeside being stark shorthand for historic political and social divisions whose descendant faultlines CCTV systems help paper over and mystify. When the politics of narcissism, envy and resentment poison the traditions of mutual aid already starved by deindustrialisation, the human fallout sediments into discrete strata of hopelessness frozen in antagonism and disciplined in hierarchies of precariousness, abjection, and, most of all, aspiration. Then, refracted by the ruthless gaze of neoliberal information management into the classifiable visibility of lifestyle, those able to maintain a veneer of distasteful respectability institutionalise their marginal distinction in low-grade drudge, servicing and policing the rest.
But Jackie’s solitary emotional confinement leaves no space for affectation, and Clyde is going straight as a 24-hour locksmith – his wounded, caring, rogue spirit proving the key to her prisoner’s dilemma, softening a tough exterior of narrow goal-oriented irrationality. Their fluid negotiation of the normally gendered ascriptions of initiative, desire and sensibility then facilitates a reciprocal altruism which supersedes hypocritical truisms of moral dictate and conformity. The site of this revelation gains added poignancy from the fact that the eight actual Red Road tower-blocks now house asylum-seekers and refugees as well as ex-cons – Red Road accordingly hinting that the renewed cycles of solidarity required for struggle in the global carceral village can only take shape outside of official discourse. The latter’s closed circuits are in any case too busy dispassionately parading a matrix of superficial details across soulless screens. Their statistical correlations of trivial pursuits then afford an aura of authenticity to the tunnel vision of our rulers, whose self-aggrandising vanity is flattered by the pseudoscientific architecture of meaningless choice and the implacable economics of worthless value – a delusional hall of mirrors simulating the final taming and regimenting of human entropy … However, the map is still not the territory, and there are yet ghosts in the machine.
1. the shortcomings of which are spelled out in the excellent Defending Anonymity, published by the Anarchist Federation (available at www.afed.org.uk). Meanwhile two national groups are gearing up for a concerted campaign against ID cards: the ‘No 2 ID’ coalition focusses on the usual respectably pointless lobbying – but is gathering very useful information, including from countries where similar schemes have been roundly defeated (see www.no2id.net); whereas the more truculent and pragmatic ‘Defy ID’ network (www.defy-id.org.uk) anticipates the need for action on an anti-Poll Tax scale.
2. An exception being Observer columnist Henry Porter, whose Suspect Nation (Channel 4, November 2006) comprehensively rubbishes the supposed necessity, desirability, workability, trustability and affordability of the government’s present plans as regularly peddled in predictably transparent and fallacious spin. For valuable observations on the broader cultural context, see also James Horrox, ‘When the Clocks Strike 13′, and ‘Surveillance as a Way of Life’, in Freedom magazine, 16th December 2006 and 16th January 2007 respectively.
Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision, by Tom Jennings.
Rehabilitating Big Brother, by Tom Jennings.
Film review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 12, June 2007. (including reader’s comments and author’s reply}
Rehabilitating Big Brother by Tom Jennings
[film review of The Lives of Others, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 12, June 2007]
Bogus history, liberal wish-fulfilment, bourgeois triumphalism – no wonder ‘The Lives of Others’ won an Oscar, reckons Tom Jennings
The German film The Lives of Others has been touted as a corrective to a wave of fond media memories of the GDR communist dictatorship, which collapsed in 1989 along with the Berlin Wall. So, rather than this ‘Ostalgie’ (as in 2003’s internationally successful comedy Good Bye, Lenin) downplaying the ubiquitous, miserable repression prevalent in the East, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut goes to considerable lengths to realistically portray the paranoia, privation and social poison and petrification surrounding citizens thanks largely to the notoriously vicious and omnipotent secret police, the Stasi – who Simon Wiesenthal famously described as worse than the Nazis in their implacable domestic menace. Meticulous design, staging and scripting and static, desaturated cinematography scrupulously convey the drably cramped mid-1980s ambience within whose confines corrupt Party bosses and evangelistic apparatchiks spy on, mess with and casually wreck the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to attract their malevolent attention – with the excellent cast capped by a magnificent central performance from Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler.
A diligent, highly-efficient and treasured investigator, interrogator and enforcer, Wiesler’s archetypally arid authoritarian character (complete with empty personal life) gradually decomposes after being assigned to dig dirt on comfortably loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), whose actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck, as little more than a femme fatale plot device) is suborned into betraying him by Wiesler’s lascivious lizard of a boss – Dreyman himself only acting against the regime by whistle-blowing in a West Berlin newspaper when a friend commits suicide after years of harassment. Wiesler’s growing conscience, helped by close proximity hidden in the attic to Dreyman et al’s spontaneity, passion and freethinking (not to mention lust for Christa-Maria) leads him to conceal evidence, and when discovered he is stripped of his position and sent to steam open mail. In the epilogue after reunification, Dreyman discovers the extent of the surveillance he suffered and realises Wiesler’s sacrifice. The latter, now working as a postman, later stumbles across Dreyman’s new book which is dedicated to him.
This affecting and convincing tale of psychological transformation has attracted huge audiences and acclaim, being judged the best foreign language film at the 2006 Academy Awards. However, widespread unease about the film’s political and historical accuracy is pooh-poohed by von Donnersmarck as a few simpletons engaged in irrelevant and/or baseless nit-picking – citing the ‘authorities’ consulted in making it while conveniently ignoring all those who objected. Ironically, such peremptory dismissals bear an uncanny resemblance to the smear tactics usually accompanying intelligence agencies’ more sinister and unsavoury practices – but then there’s no rule against arrogant pricks making good art, and The Lives of Others is undoubtedly an impressive, powerful effort. But it is a bit rich coming from an aristocratic West German whose feelgood agenda coincidentally resonates with an increasingly assertive Stasi apologism. It also pre-empts meaningful comparisons with both the contemporaneous West German ‘Berufsverbot’ (covert government blacklisting where many thousands were deemed politically unfit for employment) and the abuse of today’s surveillance technology in the entrenchment of power which is already apparent even before the hard-, soft- and liveware is fully onstream.
The focus on lone heroic resistance by the servants of power once humanistic sympathy for creative expression is awakened implies that only individual integrity, overcoming all odds, can be the source of social salvation. Obviously, agents of evil seeing the light is to be welcomed, but here it specifically diverts emphasis from the inexorable oppression of a bureaucratic system of control which allows little, if any, space for autonomy among functionaries. The logic of the Stasi structure was to fragment operational tasks – much like any modern corporate fascism – so that internal monitoring prevented exactly the kind of rogue activity which enables our hero to find a moral centre. Thus there is no record of any Stasi man ever behaving like this (and those caught ‘betraying’ the organisation faced execution, not demotion). Many informers filed innocuously convincing fictions, but the circular criteria by which citizens were defined as ‘suspect’ – obsessively elaborated by administrators as the scale of intrusion accelerated along with the proportion of the population actively collaborating – tended to render each item of irrelevant data further evidence justifying ruthless persecution. This would be a central concern in any exploration of the close relevance of Stalinist repression to today’s more sophisticated surveillance societies – but here we merely have stereotypically bad apples up the hierarchy who cause the problems.
Meanwhile former Stasi employees now organise openly and aggressively to rescue personal and collective reputations, vilifying and intimidating as liars and ‘ordinary criminals’ those victims, dissidents and opponents who attempt genuine debate about the present ramifications of this period of recent history. This campaign has considerable political clout yet never acknowledges culpability among those ‘just following orders’ – let alone the appalling suffering caused over four decades and despite overwhelming proof from archives now in the public domain. The film surely offers a chilling indictment of East Germany’s real-life Orwell-meets-Kafka nightmare, but its final expression of gratitude to one sad nasty Stasi bastard for his decency following an unlikely redemption is as nauseating as it is disingenuous.* It trivialises von Donnersmarck’s pretensions towards universal human values almost as much as the narcissistic vanity of his pampered celebrities, whose sublime visions are supposed to inspire us poor grunts to aspire to transcend our pathetic stations in life. The Lives of Others thus learns nothing from a century of political history and makes no contribution to struggles against tyranny. On the contrary, such age-old high-handed cultural conservatism habitually and happily colludes with the marginalisation of those with the temerity to question the entire edifice of official claims to ‘civilisation’ – consequently leaving the mechanisms and conceptual frameworks of totalitarianism completely intact for future generations of control freaks to exploit.
* explained with great clarity by Anna Funder in ‘Eyes Without a Face’, Sight & Sound, May 2007. See also my essay review of a far more subtle and interesting surveillance thriller, the Glasgow-set Red Road, in ‘Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision’, Variant 29.
The Lives of Others
[commentary by Brian Bamford, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 14, July 2007]
Tom Jennings’ fascinating review of the Oscar winning film The Lives of Others (June 16th) is too systematic and consequently misses a vital point. The point is that the Stasi secret police agent Gerd Wiesler may be of an “arid authoritarian character” who is “one sad nasty bastard”, but the film shows him to be a sincere bastard. Though Mr Jennings may well be a postmodernist to whom sincerity and good faith are not relevant it seems to me in terms of this film and perhaps our understanding of totalitarian regimes it is very important.
It is clear from the beginning that Stasi Captain Wiesler believes in the virtue of what he is doing as a means of promoting ‘socialism’ and protecting it from what Jennings might call “arrogant pricks [like, perhaps in the film, Georg Dreyman] making good art”. This is contrasted with the attitude of Wiesler’s bosses (both in the Stasi and East German Party) who lack his sincerity. As Jennings suggests this film is a portrayal of corruption. By corruption here I mean betrayal of the ideals of state socialism, and the film shows how members of the apparatus betray the ideals of state socialism in the interests of career advancement and personal gratification.
Wiesler comes to be aware of the bad faith of his superiors and is transformed in the course of a just over two hour film in much the same way as the hero in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom on the Spanish Civil War had his mind changed by events and he ripped up his communist party card. This is difficult to portray because as Bertold Brecht pointed out people don’t change at that rate in real life.
Jennings says “there is no record of any Stasi men ever behaving like this [Gerd Wiesler]” and that his “unlikely redemption is as nauseating as it is disingenuous”. Interestingly those anarchist critics of last year’s Spanish film Salvador Puig Antich, the young anarchist executed by garrotte in the 1970s, also questioned the authenticity of his being befriended by a prison warder in one of Franco’s jails. Yet we know that George Orwell, when a member of the then illegalised POUM on the run from communist authorities in Barcelona in 1937, was met with praise and a handshake when he confessed his ‘illegal’ allegiance to a senior official (see Homage to Catalonia). Similarly recently a former senior manager, Alan Wainwright from Mold in Wales, has exposed the blacklist operating in the British building trade on a blog on the internet and the Department of Trade & Industry has just begun an inquiry into it. Moreover, Stuart Christie, in his latest autobiography Granny made me an Anarchist, writes of 1975 when he and his companera were still living in Wimbledon and a police inspector called and “advised me that ‘a number of people’ were extremely annoyed” and “he recommended that I would be well advised to get out of town …” Strange things do happen, and under any system of government it is reasonable to believe that deviance is possible within the hierarchy, even among the Prussians of East Germany.
The Afterlives of Others [commentary by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 16, August 2007]
Brian Bamford (14th July) is quite right – my review of The Lives of Others (16th June) glossed over the “sincerity and good faith” of its East German state intelligence goon betraying his masters. After all, the film’s mainstream hype gushed relentlessly along those lines – praising its ‘moral’ about the civilising redemptiveness of High Art soothing the savage beast, but hardly hinting at the questions I raised. And OK, “sad nasty Stasi bastard” was harsh – but, hey, Brian, can I get some poetic license, or is that too “postmodernist” for you? Besides, reaching Captain will have been no picnic – he was so good at torture, he taught courses for the lower orders. Sticks in the craw somewhat, applauding his decency, no? Specially as, if his superiors had been Stalinist zealots with integrity (rather than slime) he would probably have carried on wrecking lives regardless …
Even then, I described Wiesler’s transformation as “affecting and convincing” – not, as Brian claims, “nauseating [and] disingenuous”. That was my reaction to the film’s final expression of gratitude to him for letting Dreyman off the hook and leaving his privileges intact. As symbolic resolution to the whole state socialist episode, this reeks of fantasy and false closure rather than ‘truth and reconciliation’ – with psychological disavowal, philosophical sophistry and historical amnesia allowing the writer/director to pronounce from his own elevated social status while entirely overlooking the vast majority of ordinary folk who suffered most (and still do in the continuing debacle after the West’s ‘victory’). Perhaps, moreover, this reflects the ‘political unconscious’ of the comfortable classes in general.
Still, the argument that high-ranking whistleblowers and turncoats may develop benign motives is well taken – plus yer average footsoldiers doubtless have qualms too. Yet there is no record of Stasi officers actively sabotaging investigations (complaining more or less publicly years later is another matter; and anyway the records can’t necessarily be trusted!) – at least with Schindler’s List there was a documented historical Schindler. But the main point, surely, is that the film not only invites identification with the powerful, but further implies that change hinges entirely on their vicissitudes – a staple propaganda ploy of Hollywood and its pale imitations (whereas organised grass-roots collective dissidence or struggle scarcely registers – and when it does, individual heroes usually pull the strings there too). In general, my reviews seek neither to be authoritative nor objective (and could never be “systematic” in covering all the angles) – here merely exposing the avalanche of bourgeois mystification otherwise plaguing the media public sphere.
Paradise Mislaid, by Tom Jennings
Television review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 10, May 2007Paradise Mislaid by Tom Jennings
[television review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 10, May 2007]
BBC 2’s ‘The Trap’ documentaries can’t see beyond the false dreams of freedom they expose, argues Tom Jennings
Pitched to unsettle received wisdom about democracy and liberty, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom screened in March to complete Adam Curtis’ documentary trilogy exploring the modern history and contemporary significance of conceptions of the individual self. First The Century of the Self (2002) excavated the deployment of psychoanalytic theory in the development of seductive advertising and public relations techniques for manipulating unconscious desires, enticing citizens into governable thralldom to consumerism. The Power of Nightmares (reviewed in Freedom, 13th November 2004) then interpreted the subsequent moral and social bankruptcy of Westerm liberalism as facilitating the complementary political backlashes of neo-conservatism and Muslim fundamentalism. Both series charted specific professional elites persuading wider sectors of society of the ‘truth’ of their discourses by pandering to their sundry agendas – whereas, more ambitiously, The Trap purports to uncover the underlying philosophical paradoxes of the pursuit of individual freedom now apparently ending in utter subjugation.
‘Freedom of choice’ these days is, to Curtis, strangely vacuous compared to the claims of state and capitalist institutions. Voting for Tweedledum or Tweedledee or buying this or that brand scarcely justifies global poverty, environmental destruction and war, yet the scientific measurement of such superficial and ephemeral details of behaviour and attitudes supposedly reveals our essence – therefore being the best guide to what policy should tackle. Such truncated empirical visions of human nature, and the liberties appropriate to it, date from the 1950s when the mathematical predictability of poker players was generalised to the nuclear standoff. The robustness of US Cold War strategy then ensured the currency of assumptions that people are purely rationally self-seeking sociopaths. Congenial maverick theories in evolutionary genetics, anthropology, psychology and economics suddenly echoed the zeitgeist once attention turned to the costs of welfare, exploiting popular disillusionment with the unaccountability, corruption, malevolence, or plain wrong-headedness of bureaucracies and traditional organisations. The hugely profitable model of society as a collection of isolated paranoid narcissists has since become political common sense as the better managerialism of capitalism.
The Trap’s audacious thematic sweep is matched by its visual style – with a rhetorical collage mirroring the way ideology jumbles theoretical principles, via real-world practical techniques derived from them, into more or less rigid systems of belief and action. The dizzying montage of archive news footage, cult cinema and sixties TV, overlain with equally eclectic and dissonant soundtrack and voiceover, stitches together a progression of concepts and assertions with both emotional and (arguably) rational logic – entirely appropriate to contemporary society where so much information is taken on board with simultaneous multimediating glitter and subliminal gloss. Uniquely in mainstream media, Curtis explicitly demonstrates how politics disciplines us in the age of Spectacle. Instead of brute force (held discreetly in reserve), a far more subtle, multilayered cunning of reason persuades us that its complex, sophisticated – but extremely partial – sets of suggestions are coherent, established facts brooking no argument or alternative.
The predictably tiresome criticisms of the programme’s intellectual accuracy – that it misunderstands and misrepresents game theory, sociobiology, anti-psychiatry, liberal philosophy, neoliberal economics, etc – thus miss the point, as do charges of pessimism, paranoia or conspiracy-mongering. The influence of ideas in general practice may often be achieved deliberately and cynically, but by no means necessarily so – though certainly irrespective of their ‘purity’ or ‘correct’ usage. Then, when crystallising into powerful discourses of management and control, they acquire an implacable material force of their own – both from the effort that powerful groups exert in moulding them to maximally serve their interests, and in dealing with widespread and energetic resistance to resulting powerplays on the part of those made subject. So, in order for political opposition to exploit the inherent weaknesses of ruling ideas (rather than reacting blindly against them), it is sensible first to grasp their mechanisms of operation.
Curtis certainly captures the irony that, in ‘properly’ implementing Thatcher and John Major’s hamfisted market reforms, New Labour’s farcical systems of targets, incentives and sanctions are comprehensively wrecking public services and intensifying inequality, just as the crusades for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan conclusively pre-empt its possibility. What is missed, in neglecting the central organising role of economic power in the disposition of resources, is that appealing to the disinterested selfishness of individuals and then punishing them for their collective inability to comply is a tremendously productive (if schizophrenic) mode of social engineering. Apparently also justifying privatised intiatives to meet the shortfall, it legitimises the mobilisation of ever-more penetrating, microscopic, authoritarian methods of monitoring and regimentation – thereby more deeply entrenching newly-ascendant sectors of capital (e.g. information and media technology and management), and rendering genuine solutions around local autonomy and grass-roots control increasingly out of reach and out of sight. The question, then, is who will be capable of seeing through the fantasies of a better life as the regulated performances of programmable robots – their architects, planners, functionaries and shareholders; or us billions of postmodern rats eternally terrified, tempted and tortured round their mazes?
The Trap’s narrow focus further ignores earlier crossovers of science and statecraft, nourishing waves of colonialisms and technological revolutions with similarly ridiculous and limited notions of humanity and civilisation to validate the forms of suffering imperial domination favoured at the time. Retrospective appreciation of the appalling damage done by the transparently fallacious fits and starts of the history of ideas – long before being nailed and superseded by later generations of research – proves the continuing rational necessity to distrust scientific certainty just as much as the miracle cures spun in party politics. The conceptual frameworks within which truth claims are made, assumptions required for practical application, and likely ramifications of and potential recovery from these collapsing or failing (not to mention the types and distribution of possible benefits accruing or precluded), only receive adequate attention when powerful interests are threatened – otherwise being trampled over in the haste to cash in. Hence the lunacy of GM and nanotechnology, pathetic mass sedation of misery and frustration with Prozac and Viagra, manic production of novelty to pollute existential voids, and towering heights of belief in and commitment to human endeavour manifested in transient public opinion surveys and reality TV. This is no trap of misguided pragmatism versus exhausted idealism, as Curtis seems to conclude, but of the constitutional insanity of hierarchical order based on the superior knowledge wielded by leaders and experts. Acknowledging this, of course, would be a fundamental paradigm-shift too far – for him, the Beeb and for liberal democratic capitalism in general.
Blackboard Whitewash, by Tom Jennings
Film review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 10, May 2007.Blackboard Whitewash by Tom Jennings
[film review of Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 9, May 2007]
A snappy MTV spin on the long and dishonourable Hollywood tradition parachuting privileged super-pedagogues into inner-city educational warehouses, Freedom Writers’ ‘true story’ exemplifies the dishonesty both of the genre and the underlying philosophy. Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a young teacher who “really wanted a school that had diversity, that had been affected by the riots and could be this wonderful eclectic mix of races and economics and cultures”. Choosing Wilson High School, Long Beach (California, post-Rodney King) – which “included every ethnicity under the sun, with kids who could be headed off to Harvard or to jail” – her patronising cluelessness strikes lucky when The Diary of Anne Frank resonates at just the right stage of Gruwell’s intuitive group therapy. Classroom 203’s ‘unteachables’ realise the common suffering in their segregated communities and, via Shakespeare and Homer, become uplifted into diligent scholars believing they can be “anything they want to be”.
Breathtakingly ignorant or dismissive of abundant relevant material, like Black literature, hip-hop culture, or local history (Black Panther community self-defence in early gang development; the Crips/Bloods truce after the LA uprising and its joint working group producing a sophisticated, eminently practical regeneration plan, for example), Gruwell merely equates gangs with Nazis – exonerating the authorities for the warzone mentality despite colluding in the ghetto floods of guns and drugs, withdrawing welfare and ruining public education. Choosing literary expressions from the distant European persecutions of Jews or in Bosnia likewise prevents the US state’s domestic genocides and global adventures (so salient to Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans) – let alone the present daily grind of oppression and exploitation – being either sources of empathy or targets of critique.
Such conventional liberal agendas thus absolve prevailing power structures from blame while honouring their most ‘enlightened’ fractions as uniquely capable of dispensing top-down salvation. Comparably massive denials of historical, political and social reality then purge complexity from the youngsters’ lives, with dramatised diary snippets mapping their alienation as the price paid for individual aspiration. Nothing wrong with broader horizons, of course, and writer-director LaGravenese does implicitly posit their escape as exception rather than rule (marginally redeeming the clichés) – only Gruwell’s two extra part-time jobs pay for the teaching resources withheld by school managers; and (we learn), she promptly abandoned the front line for university educational evangelism. Yet in intimately detailing her trials and tribulations, but merely schematically sketching the desperate depths of her charges, Freedom Writers renders the latter essentially passive, malleable objects of its heroic missionary. Progressive humanistic transformative trappings notwithstanding, the mission is still unmistakably ‘business as usual’.