‘Destabilized perception’: narrative as network in the films of Adam Curtis

Coley, Rob (2017) ‘Destabilized perception’: narrative as network in the films of Adam Curtis. In: Essay Film and Narrative Techniques: Screenwriting Non-Fiction, Symposium of the BAFTSS ‘Essay Film’ Research Group, 18-19 November, 2017, University of York.

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Item Type:Conference or Workshop contribution (Paper)
Item Status:Live Archive


The work of Adam Curtis is notably absent from critical discussion of the contemporary essay film. Yet Curtis is far from an underground figure – he has been making essayistic films for the BBC for more than twenty years, and was the first to produce work directly for the iPlayer platform. His increasingly experimental style, which combines avant-garde technique with conventions of documentary, fiction and comedy, is characterized by his construction of narrative through archive: ‘I sit on top of the biggest archive in the world, the BBC film library, and I just write with images from it.’ Curtis uses archival ‘fragments from the past to examine the present’; he produces counterintuitive connections and abrupt collisions that supplant the authority of narrative causality for a precarious network of associations and linkages. His method therefore supports Hito Steyerl’s (2011) claim that, in the 21st century, the essayistic form exemplifies a neoliberal mode of creative production, its network aesthetics expressing the material circumstances that condition its possibility.

In this paper I will argue that Curtis’s narrative method aims to confront a state of ‘network pessimism’ (Galloway, 2014), a contemporary condition that limits our perception of the world to its organizational connections and relations. Curtis describes this as a process of rendering the world aesthetically intelligible, wherein narrative becomes a matter of pattern recognition, produced in exposure to hundreds of terrabytes of material watched on fast-forward. Instead of challenging habitual modes of perception by adopting a ‘heretical, contrarian stance’ (Rascaroli, 2017), he instead identifies the emergence of a new network orthodoxy and endeavours to accelerate it, to ‘exhaust its possibilities, and push its inherent tendencies to their utmost extremities’ (Shaviro, 2010). Adopting a term from Curtis’s most recent work, I will propose that his films employ narrative to induce ‘destabilized perception’, provoking audiences to explore the limit point of a powerful network imaginary that conditions everyday experience.

Keywords:essay film, narrative, aesthetics, BBC, archive
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P300 Media studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Media)
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ID Code:29676
Deposited On:20 Nov 2017 09:35

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