Do watch the brilliant BBC TV series
- Adam Curtis, Can’t get you out of my head: an emotional history of the modern world
(see also his YouTube channel).
Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You
The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…
While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.
Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.
I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.
As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:
It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.
Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):
In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.
In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.
In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.
Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.
Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.
Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.
With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were
invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.
Part 5 ends with a particularly disturbing montage, as How beautiful they are, the lordly ones accompanies images of Isis and Morris dancing.
What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.
This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.
Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.
In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.
And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.
Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.
Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:
In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.
Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.
Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account.
Anyway, it’s an immensely stimulating series, whether “dazzling”, “terrifying”, or “incoherent”; perhaps Hugo Rifkind’s comment is apposite:
I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was—
which indeed encapsulates the very confusion that Curtis evokes.