Cultural critique has much left to achieve

Finally I came across the blog of cultural critic and author Brian Holmes, which is nice in the way that he publishes here some of his recent texts for open access. Nevertheless I was used to find them in several magazines or other sites spread over the net, this is an interesting and growing collection for his more recent and to come writings. He introduces his project as follows …

In the past few years I’ve been working on geopolitics and geopoetics, for a seminar called “Continental Drift,” with the 16 Beaver Group. This is an open- ended research project with sketch maps and unknown destinations.
As I come up with texts, I’m going to post them here in unfinished form. When they’re done I’ll publish a book, and move on to some other project. In the meantime the whole thing will get more interesting if you ask some questions, propose some ideas, start a conversation. I’m also gonna put up some rants, insights, snapshots, news items, whatever….

ok .. and now to go on with the article which attracted my attention and brought me there: NEOLIB GOES NEOCON – Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century.
After giving a short introduction to A.Curtis and his method of working he specifically reviews the last three films – as there are “The Power of Nightmares.” a 3-part series on the genealogy of the War on Terror, “Century of the Self,” a 2002 series on psychiatry’s dubious contributions, and “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” displaying the complexity of cultural critique in the 21st century – and the specific impact these films had or as for the last .. hopefully will have.. . (links for all three films at the end of the post or watch them at

The story Curtis has to tell is always fundamentally the same, except for the fantastic attention to details. He obsessively retraces the intellectual history of the 20th century to find out how arcane ideas became widespread psychiatric and managerial techniques, which in turn produced what we call our private selves and what we feel as our shared predicament. He has clearly read a lot of Foucault; but not only. He is attached to social reality more than philosophical theory. What interests him are specific thinkers and inventors, but also commercial, political and military decisions that retrospectively place the breakthroughs of those forgotten thinkers and inventors at the origin of everything that currently functions and controls. He never hesitates to follow the paths of control into contemporary parties and governments. Political engagement, incisive theory, historical research and the use of the televisual medium have made Curtis into one of the most broadly influential cultural critics of this decade.

in his latest series, “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” Cultural critique, as you find out here, has become damnably complex in the 21st century. The Frankfurt School in the Thirties had to face the socialization of family authority, taken over by the Fascist state dressed up as your dad or your preacher. The kind of social power that we now have to face involves the mathematical reduction of all conceivable behavior into probability scenarios, which allow for the computer-assisted prediction of minority and majority trends by big businessmen and politicians (or whoever can draw effective conclusions from the vast, meticulous and expensive data-gathering processes – i.e. those same two groups). On the one hand, the scientific story of an extremely influential epistemology is begging to be told; but on the other, the political reasons for its massive deployment remain the key to its effective power. This is where thinking sociologically can bring you to the heart of the civilizational predicament that we share in the present. That is, if you’re willing to tease out a few more threads from the history of ideas…
The strong point of the film is to reveal in the final section how the pretense to democratic objectivity and axiomatic neutrality is gradually shattered from within. First Reagan, then Blair and Bush begin to seek a wider meaning for politics, attempting to export the Western system of self-regulating equilibrium by force of arms if necessary – attempting, in other words, to remake the world in the image of an idealized negative freedom. In so doing, Curtis claims, they unwittingly go down the same path that leads from the French revolutionary Terror to the more recent calls for violent liberation espoused by Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Pol Pot or the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati.

One of the things I find intriguing about this sweeping critical fresco is the total absence of all the filigree of second-order cybernetics, whereby Leftist theorists in the Eighties and Nineties tried to complexify the crude feedback systems and miserable ego psychology of the information engineers, suggesting that games were only interesting, in a human sense, when you could change the rules in the course of play. The absence of those theoretical embellishments has the advantage of revealing the banal persistence in society of highly alienating mechanisms, for which there has as yet been devised no practical alternative (one that would be able, for instance, to reconcile the demand of equal treatment for all with the need for personalized attention to singular situations). But by the same token, Curtis ignores the decidedly minority, but extremely important work on the ethics and technics of free cooperation, which grows from the second-order theories and is carried out in the new counter-cultural worlds of computer hacking and transnational solidarity movements. Therefore he has to resort to a moralizing language that recalls Etzioni and the communitarians at best, or at worst, the mumblings of Prince Charles about the failures of modern architecture.
What the new alternative movements seem to lack, in their turn, is the breadth of the political, economic and technical vocabulary developed here, which allows one to name every aspect of the real problems, and to analyze the solidified foundations of consensus that would have to be dissolved before any social change could ruffle the technocratic equilibrium of society. It is not enough to say that capitalism inevitably destroys the very social ties that gurantee its own reproduction; because the processes of self-destruction, installed at the very sources of the self, have to confronted and transformed. In particular, the more technologically enthusiastic adepts of the new movements would have to analyze their own ideas of spontaneous self-organization, in order to distinguish them from the extensive treatment that Hayek has given to the same theme.4 But what everyone seems to lack today are credible and effective responses to the fundamentalist ideologies and authoritarian figures that have arisen in the face of the economic, cultural and psychic decay brought on by predatory neoliberalism.

read on here

link to posts on Brian Holmes within this blog

.. and the mentioned films by Adam Curtis:
“The Power of Nightmares.” at information clearing the house / link on this blog
“Century of the Self” on google /
“The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” (3 parts) can best be found (amongst other good stuff) at

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