Bitter Take: Critical Notes on Adam Curtis’ ‘Bitter Lake’

From out of the murk of the BBC Archive, Adam Curtis’ new film/project Bitter Lake (BL) shines forth. I won’t comment on too much of the general phenomenon of Curtis work and what he has done elsewhere (though I will say I like some, if not much of it). Nor can I attempt to beat this savage critique of Curtis’ later style. What I want to do here is take BL on its own, and try to show some of the flawed logic in its own thinking through some notes. Bitter Lake is a rhetorical Klein Bottle, always returning to its own surface analysis, a remarkable object, yes, but also useless.

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Curtis Lost:

We are told that politicians once believed in the divide between good and evil.

But now the simple narratives of good and evil have fallen apart.

Nothing Makes Sense any more.

Not even the archive footage.

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Curtis The Prophet: Society has become corrupted. Or rather, specific societies have been made corrupt. Corruption in BL is treated almost as if it were a quantum that can be indexed, catalogued, and introduced. It is a contagion that infests societies and humans and reduces them to the state of squabbling manipulative apes fighting over the oil and heroin trade. It is carried by ‘money’ and has no vaccine.  Afghanistan is the perfect example of “a completely corrupted society” that acts as a siphon for all of our failings. To think about a society in this way is troubling indeed, bearing with it the spectre of oriental despotism (more about that below), and the logic of ‘failed states’.

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Curtis the Tragedian: Those with noble intentions always must face up to the flawed nature of those noble intentions or become corrupted and exploited. One must not battle monsters lest one end up becoming one, my edition of Every Boy’s Nietzsche tells me. The white liberal democracies of the world entered Afghanistan with liberating and civilising intentions we are told. Yet they were doomed by fates they long ago invoked through previous transgressions. Who are we to doubt the sincerity of their motives?


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Curtis the Orientalist: His particular version of ‘the orient’ is the dwelling place of Wahhabism, corruption, political despotism and ‘tribal divisions’. Though these ideas may have been unwittingly spread by “The West” in it’s pact with the Saudis, or by the Communist bloc with botched military occupations, they did not know what we were unleashing. Like the planet in Lem and Tarkovsky’s Solaris ( or rather, a version of it that only exists in Bitter Lake), deceiving and warping the the minds of the astronauts, the battlefields of Afghanistan exert a strange energy upon our own society, corrupting it, in some colonial nightmare from which we can (almost) never awake.

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Adam Curtis Did Not Take Place: It is vitally important that to illustrate this point we are shown decontextualised, mostly unattributed, and largely untranslated, snippets of frontline war reportage from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by coalition forces. One sequence has an extended shot of a soldier stroking a bird, another shows British troops arranging some kind of photocopying contract; in the fog of war, who will do reprography? Excessively literal translation or mistranslation of speakers, and zero translation of others is rife. At least we are spared the Curtis narration for these segments. Watch Bitter Lake with subtitles on, and it’s apparent the most common subtitles used are those which indicate untranslated speech (usually the inelegant ‘MAN SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE’). The dominant voices still speak in English. I am no expert on Afghanistan, but it’s clear the vast mass of humanity that actually suffers as a result of wars, colonialism, religious persecution, and poverty, is poorly represented.

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A side effect of this means that humorous comparison and juxtaposition, between the racist caricatures found in bawdy 1970s comedy films, and Afghan political leaders (Karzai), is perfectly acceptable in Curtis’ eyes. This wretched comparison is offered without further comment by Curtis, not even a wry nod or wink.

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Equally The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS/IS) is a mystery of confusion and no one knows quite what it is, and the implication is we may as well not bother. We know it has a leader and a location but aside from that: It is shapeless, formless, and most definitely coming to GET you. What is ISIS? One might ask the same about birds; what are birds?


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Indeed, the easy thing about believing in the end of clear narratives is that you never actually have to present one yourself. This might not make for brilliant political analysis, but it does make for good pop art.

Curtis Condemns: Bitter Lake tells us ‘We’ only have ourselves to blame for the demons at our door. Through the failings of our political leaders, a concatenation of crises always apparently following sequentially from one another (Bitter Lake agreement causing the Arab Israeli Conflict causing OPEC causing Petrodollars causing Financialisation causing Reaganomics causing Al-Yamamah arms deal causing Al Qaeda causing 9/11 causing Afghanistan 2001 causing ISIS) not from some structural systemic failing, but from the collective personal failings of our political leaders, who, if you remember, believe in great things until it is too late.

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But these were all fantasies, repeatedly, over and over and over and over again. Curtis establishes a myth, then knocks it down, another, knocks it down. From a purely stylistic point, it’s tiresome. From an intellectual viewpoint, akin to a straw man critique performed through the arrogance of hindsight. Great ideas BUT political failure. But, but, but.

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Curtis Regained: Bitter Lake’s narrative, such as it is, flows thus;

The world has become corrupted and debased. Our greed for oil and money has betrayed our society, we have cast aside our social narratives in pursuit of power and wealth, and in doing so we have secretly nurtured the shadowy forces of an international extremist religious movement that spreads corruption and terror through foreign societies and ultimately our own. The ideas we once believed in no longer hold power over us or this new threat. We need to make a new political story, and thereby restore dignity, to our corrupt and debased society.

Such narratives have ominous historical resonances.

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Curtis is well aware that he is embracing the very rhetorical and intellectual manoeuvres he seems to be critiquing, perhaps because he is not critiquing them at all. Curtis’ greatest advantage is his radical ambiguity and his plausible deniability. It allows his analysis to move frictionless through the topography of politics. Bitter Lake intends to be a horoscope to intellectuals, a rorschach to film makers and TV historians, and a curate’s egg to activists. It’s wrong to read Bitter Lake as a simple documentary, it exists more at the seamless border between art and propaganda (doubtless in homage to Marshall Mcluhan’s recordings, which are great). Indeed, to read the comments on a recent article critical of Curtis’ work, is to remind oneself of the role propaganda plays in consolidating social groups against criticisms; this is the cause for worry in this kind of work.

You might well have some criticisms of what I have done here. You might argue I have taken a series of images out of context and spun a confident and authoritative-sounding critique around them; I couldn’t possibly comment on such an accusation. So, I do not aim to convince you that Curtis is wrong about his subject. I merely wish to encourage those reading this far to reflect on which traditions, both political and aesthetic, the face value narrative Curtis offers emerges from, and where such a particular mode of political nihilism might lead.

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Cities and Security Reading Group – Newcastle University

brodskyutkin008 Cities, Security, and Vulnerability Reading Group 08 October 2014, Upstairs Cafe Great North Museum (Hancock) 12:00pm Reading: Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on The Societies of Control What political, social, and environmental problems does urbanisation create, and how do they interact with security discourses and practices? Who and what is abandoned, made vulnerable, or left out by these practices and the debates around them? We are an interdisciplinary reading group that tries to answer these questions and others like them. We meet on a monthly basis for an informal discussion of a reading suggested by members of the group. Previous readings include topics as diverse as disease control, Actor Network Theory, telecommunications, blackouts, police practices, neoliberalism, US military strategy, cinematic representations of cities, and the war on drugs. Discussions generally last around an hour and all are welcome. In our first session we will discuss Gilles Deleuze’s Postscript on The Societies of Control (October, Vol. 59, Winter 1992) available at http://bit.ly/1kcpnW7 In this short essay Deleuze looks to move beyond Michel Foucault’s historical understanding of ‘disciplinary societies’, where power is exercised within discrete institutions, towards the concept of ‘societies of control’: “In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything–the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.” If you would like to be added to the mailing list for information on future meetings, reading suggestions, or other information, contact a.baker2@ncl.ac.uk

Fare-dodging in Paris: Luc Moullet- Barres

Funny little short film about fare dodging in Paris with a touch of magical realism, a testament to human ingenuity and imagination used to get out of paying those couple of Francs. They’ve introduced barriers on the Metro in Newcastle in the last year and its been interesting watching the different ways people dodge and avoid fares (including the infamous Checkywatch– some of whose suggestions are similar to those in Moullet’s film); there’s a been a lot of high-profile cases like that of a hedge-fund manager who dodged £42k in fares, and rightly so, but very little about everyday ways people get by paying their 2/3 pounds for the trip, and why they do so. Figures in the UK now suggest that some people end up spending the first hour of their day working to pay off the trip to work, so there’s a lot of motivation to jump the barrier, and in Sweden groups like planka.nu have been active in promoting fare dodging and supporting people who are taken to court. I don’t think anyone has written a history of transport fares and fare dodging globally and how they’ve reshaped cities, technology and laws, but I’d love to read it.

Nighttime in the ‘Days of Plague’- extract from ‘The Hounding of David Oluwale’

Leeds Promotional Campaign, 1969

“Strange sights in these ‘Long Hours’. Another Milgarth bobby told me he had this tea spot near the  Queen’s Hotel. It must have been about 2.00am, deserted, when out from the gloom came Jimmy Savile, orange-dyed hair, walking determinedly across City Square until he came up to the statue of the Black Prince, stopped, had a long look up at him, walked on; the very next night, same time and place, he appeared again, his hair green; night after that, tartan.

Another remembered a sight like a nightmare. He was patrolling Lower Briggate with his mate PC Kennedy when they heard this rising din of scrabbling and squeaking coming from the direction of Boar Lane. PC Kennedy recognised the sound and pulled him into the first raised doorway, and just as he did, this seething torrent of rats came round the corner. There were hundreds of thousands of them, moving fast; the whole road filled with a writhing dark mass, determined yellow eyes, scrambling over each other. They were fixed in that doorway like Lot’s wife; didn’t dare breathe. Could have been completely overrun by them. His mate put it down to the ancient sewers collapsing near Trinity Church. ‘It was like something from the days of Plague’ he told me. Seemed to take an age to pass as they made their demented rush down to the River Aire.”

 

From Kester Aspden’s The Hounding Of David Oluwale (Vintage, 2007), which I’m reading at the moment. I’m mulling over whether to write a longer piece about the book (specifically connecting it to a broader set of writing on police work in the North from the 60s through to the 80s), which for those who don’t know, examines the social, political, and cultural context of the 1969 killing of David Oluwale, a Nigerian-born immigrant living homeless in Leeds – an act in which two Police officers were heavily implicated. This short passage this is from popped out; in 2014 there’s something skincrawling in the juxtaposition between Savile (one must now dread to think where had he been, or where was he going, and what strange communion was he after with the statue) the rats, and the police officers on the late shift.