Frustratingly, I missed Adam Curtis's documentary series The Trap which was recently aired on the BBC. In a recent blog, Jonathan Derbyshire points to a snipe at the programme -- he calls it a "dismantling" which substantially flatters both the power and the coherence of the paragraph he cites -- by Chris Dillow who "argued a few weeks ago that Adam Curtis's documentary series The Trap is intellectually vacuous and historically inaccurate. Not only did John Nash not intend game theory as a compehensive theory of human nature, Hobbes got there first, 300 years before the Cold War, with a vision of human beings as 'selfish and paranoid.'" (As I understood it, but I've not seen the programme so I may be way off here, Curtis's argument was that Game Theory was (mis-)used by many people to justify the notion of selfish individualism so propagandised from the Cold War onwards. In this regard, it matters very little what Nash or other mathematicians intended for their work; it's how it was taken up and used by others that should be our concern.)

Jonathan goes on to praise a further attack on the programme by Paul Myerscough writing in the LRB. Myerscough, we're told, "develops a formal critique of The Trap that's every bit as powerful as Dillow's dismantling of its substantive claims. Myerscough makes the point that Curtis has cultivated a documentary style and visual grammar perfectly suited to his essentially paranoid vision ('paranoid' is my word, not Myerscough's, by the way). To the paranoid mind, everything is connected."

I'll leave you to read and digest these attacks on Curtis and save any substantial arguments I have about his latest film until I've watched it (hopefully at the weekend, if Lola the Puppy lets me!) In the meantime, I just wanted to raise one point with regard to all this.

Couldn't it be argued that one version of the form of political thinking that we might call "liberal" could be characterised by precisely its inability to see such connections (connections that are here labelled "paranoid")? Indeed, that it is a mode of thinking that could be defined by its refusal to accept even the possibility of such connections? What liberalism labels paranoia might (sometimes) genuinely be connected. It is vital to a liberal's thinking that "reducing" history to e.g. class forces, or pinpointing what a ruling elite might have to gain from a particular course of action, is always ruled out of court. In that way, liberals are often blind to the forces that make history. For example, putting the War on Terror into its historic context, remembering that world history, including American history, didn't start with 9/11, seeing the links between policies that were created for particular reasons to achieve particular ends for particular groups is good history. The Iraq War, to give another example, is not simply an appalling humanitarian scandal, nor just a botched job, nor a "mistake", it is a policy and it was orchestrated and executed for a reason.

History is not accidental; human elements move it along; these elements are not always reducible to the individual.

Update: there is a useful, long debate about some of this over on Medialens. Thanks Steve!

Readers Comments

  1. The word paranoia would seem to be increasingly used in a dismissive sense. Like, indeed, the word liberal in the States. This at a time when it would seem to pay to be increasingly paranoiac.

    Hope you enjoy watching the series, I couldn't stand more than fifteen minutes a sitting - not becuase of content but style - every time he made a point he spent the next five minutes repeating himself in different ways, ending each segment with a resume of the repition. Proverbs for Paranoids anyone?

  2. Douglas Thompson Friday 29 January 2010

    It has been rather long time since these comments were written, so this may have faded from people's interests here. I have watched this documentary in the past and my interest has been revived while preparing a thesis of a critique of student centred learning. SCL has its roots in the psy sciences and is part of a larger picture of the construction of liberal democracies.

    Paranoia is regarded as an abnormality, something that needs to be corrected. I think, as a result, Curtis's documentary can easily be dismissed as paranoia and thereby casting into a category of needing correction. It's irrelevant in my view if some of his historical accounts are inaccurate. Foucault has been accused of the same error of inaccuracies. It is their analysis of practises that is of more significant and what comes into being thinkable.

    I agree with you that 'human elements... are not always reducible to the individual'. The 'picture' is always more complex and never the result of just one person, event or thing. Democracy and the psy sciences are regarded as means for addressing the issue of what is good in the modern de-mystified societies.

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