The formerly dissident status of the essay film has, in recent years, been exchanged for a great deal of favorable attention both inside and outside academia. In the more overly moralistic commentary on the form, the contemporary essay film is submitted as a tactical response to a surfeit of audiovisual media, to an era in which most of us have become both consumers and producers of a digital deluge. The work of Adam Curtis is notably absent from these ongoing debates. 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. Using archival images to examine the present, his films produce counterintuitive connections and abrupt collisions that supplant the authority of narrative causality for a precarious network of associations and linkages. This article treats Curtis’s recent body of work diagnostically. It argues that, quite apart from any promise of escape or deliverance, the aesthetic form of his work actively inhabits the rhythms and vectors of contemporary media. For Curtis, the media-technological conditions of the twenty-first century provoke a crisis that is both political and epistemological, one in which sensemaking can no longer claim to take place at a distance from the infrastructure that mediates such processes but is instead thoroughly and inescapably immanent to it, a situation that prevents contact with the outside. His films are about what he calls “destabilized perception,” but importantly they are also a function of this condition, one that in turn demands a shift in how we conceive the essay film in the twenty-first century.
“Destabilized Perception”: Infrastructural Aesthetics in the Films of Adam Curtis
Rob Coley is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Lincoln. He is the author (with Dean Lockwood) of Photography in the Middle: Dispatches on Media Ecologies and Aesthetics (2016) and Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future (2012) and coeditor of a special “drone culture” issue of the journal Culture Machine (2015).