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the rise of the hug on tv

Adam Curtis is best known for his distinct brand of documentaries made for the BBC, which combine a sleuth's history of ideas and relentless deconstruction of political ideology with a great talent for unearthing forgotten gems from the BBC archives. 'The Century of the Self' (2002, 4 parts), 'The Power of Nightmares' (2004, 3 parts) and the recent 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace' (2011, 3 parts) are all highly recommended if you want to understand today's society and politics.

But Curtis also keeps a blog that's well worth checking out, where he regularly posts stories, part research and part mini-documentaries in text and illustrated with more material from the BBC archives.

In two of his recent posts, for example, he addresses an important and rather worrying idea, and presents some fascinating pieces of TV history along the way. Its premise is the observation that:

The guiding idea at the heart of today's political system is freedom of choice. The belief that if you apply the ideals of the free market to all sorts of areas in society, people will be liberated from the dead hand of government. The wants and desires of individuals then become the primary motor of society.

But this has led to a very peculiar paradox. In politics today we have no choice at all. Quite simply There Is No Alternative.

'The Curse of TINA' (i.e. There Is No Alternative) then recounts the rise of the modern think tank and "how in a very strange way they have made thinking impossible". 'The Curse of TINA Part Two' goes on to examine television history itself, and specifically the changing conventions around showing emotions on TV. Where once hugging and crying were considered private emotions, and rather embarrassing when caught on camera, from the 1970s onwards, they started to be considered 'authentic'.

As Curtis shows, this new model of authenticity - of expressing feelings and being 'in touch' with them - quickly became just as prescriptive as the former culture of not showing any emotions in public.

...not only has it become a rigid convention - as rigid as anything in Victorian times - but because it teaches that we should concentrate on our own inner feelings, it also stops us from looking outside ourselves and thinking imaginatively about the society and the world around us.

I want to suggest that the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. The Hug is no longer liberating, it is restraining.

Of course, in the 1990s with the advent of reality TV "the floodgates of hugs and tears" really opened and hysterical emotions became the main ingredient of virtually all television programming. Curtis' point, however, is not so much the decline of television (he works for the BBC after all), as to show the escapist tendencies of our affluent Western society with its religious belief in psychotherapy...

Maybe it was a lotus-eating moment, a dream allowed at a moment of incredible prosperity in the west. But as you watch everyone hug and cry on television you do get a sense of how much it was a society looking inward - and that was blind to the giant, dynamic forces of history outside. Or maybe they were hugging because they actively didn't want to see what was happening outside?
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the machine stops

E.M. Forster , not exactly known for science fiction, wrote an interesting short story called ' The Machine Stops ' (first published in 1909), depicting a future society eerily like our own Internet age. Humankind has moved undergroun… Read the full post »

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