Chris Dillow 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".
In an excellent piece in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (subscription only, unfortunately), Paul Myerscough 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. As Richard Hofstadter put it in his classic examination of the "paranoid style in American politics", the political paranoiac strives heroically for "evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can
be believed... The difference between this 'evidence' and that commonly employed by others
is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than
a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world". This is exactly how Curtis works, accumulating and juxtaposing images in such a way as to confer upon them the "deceptive self-evidence of the archive". Curtis's films seek not to persuade through the arguments they construct but to astonish by the connections they make.
I think Myerscough is too easy on Curtis's previous series The Power of Nightmares (which applied this style of argument-by-analogy to the work of Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb), but he's justifiably impatient with the documentarist's procedures in the new films:
The game-theoretical assumptions of mathematicians at the RAND corporation are shown – Curtis likes to say that he’s ‘shown’ something to be the case, when often he’s just told us it is – to join up with the models of economists, the experiments of psychiatrists and anthropologists, the selfish-gene theories of biologists and the free-market ideologies of neoliberal politicians. His thesis that the second half of the 20th century saw a realignment of our notion of freedom along the axis of self-interest is plausible, but it can’t be demonstrated by hopping between the sciences as if they’d spontaneously converged. Had Curtis focused on any one of the ideas he has in play – a series on the selfish gene, perhaps, exploring its broader cultural manifestations in evolutionary psychology and biological determinism – he might have made something coherent and genuinely illuminating. As it is, he stretches his canvas too widely, exposing his argument as little more than a confection of heightened rhetoric and archive pleasures.