HyperNormalisation (2016) by Adam Curtis

I’ve watched a few BBC documentaries by Adam Curtis now, and I have a lot of respect for his ability to articulate ideas, and delve into history. A friend sent HyperNomalisation my way a little while ago. I watched it last night, and this is my initial impression.

Curtis starts in the mid-70s and moves up to present day, bouncing back and forth between economic changes in New York, and political changes in the Middle East. The two seem completely unrelated, until he starts to develop his thesis: that those in power made a conscious decision to move away from the old political norms to a mode of “managed perception”, in which they represent reality as something other than it really is, to keep those under their power in a constant state of unease, and disorientation (which of course prevents them from actually questioning or challenging power). It’s a fascinating thesis, and he does a good job of presenting it.

I wrote my friend:

I watched HyperNormalisation last night. Jesus there’s a LOT to unpack. I’m going to have to watch it again and jot down some notes. It REALLY helped fill in my knowledge of Middle East politics and American involvement. I knew bits and pieces of some things, but not how it all fit together. Curtis does a great job connecting dots. While I’m not sure about his interpretation of all the details, the general premise of “managed perception” is something that’s been fomenting in the back of my mind for a while, I just didn’t have a term for it, much less a theory of how it came about or was being systematically leveraged, but it makes total sense. Especially in light of the 9/11 and Iraq War years. How many WTF moments I had during that period where things just did not line up, but everyone in power just pretended they did. Makes total sense now.
His interpretation of Trump’s campaign was interesting too (and the history of Trump’s dealings in NY real estate). I always just assumed Trump lied because, well that’s just what he did (and it was obvious that he did). Thinking of it as a genuine, concrete strategy though is very interesting. Another thing that occurred to me is that manipulating a certain group of people by giving them a specific impression of the world does not mean that the opposite impression of the world is correct. In fact, the opposite is probably just as bad as the intended. Curtis made a point to bring up the complexity of the real world, and how people just don’t know how (or want) to deal with it. So taking that as a given, we could say that if an idea or concept seems “too simple” or “too straightforward”, there’s a good reason to be suspicious of it – it is either an over-generalization, or calculated, managed perception. Very interesting. I’ll write you again after I watch it a second time. Thanks again for recommending!

One piece of advice: take the time to watch the whole thing (almost 3 hours) in one sitting. Trust me, it won’t seem like 3 hours. But you need to carry his continuity of thought without interruption or you’ll probably lose the plot and have to backtrack.

If you are interested in history (in this case, America’s history in the Middle East), politics, and culture, I highly recommend it.

As a follow-up, his documentary The Century of the Self is also excellent.