Responding to Adam Curtis’ “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”

NOTE: I only finished watching this film series last night, and I intend to watch it again. As such, I reserve the right to come back and rethink this essay if I need to.


You’ll probably get the most out of this essay if you’ve already watched it, but it is intended to also be an argument for why you should seek out his work.

There’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to dig through the overwhelming mass of content Curtis swims through in these films. In any case, that’s not really how I tend to approach problems– I’m not a cultural theorist or a historian by training, after all. I just don’t have the memory for it.

So I won’t bother. Instead, I’ll talk about the unique formal qualities Curtis’ work has, and the ways they are unique among public thinkers today.

You’ll probably get the most out of this essay if you’ve already watched it, but it is intended to also be an argument for why you should seek out his work.

But first, some criticism.

I.

I’m not sure if these films formed a masterpiece or what. This uncertainty is my perennial problem with Curtis, and anything bad I have to say about his work I can justify on two counts.

The problem with these problems is that I’m not certain if they’re problems or virtues. That might be confusing. In fact, I wrote it to be confusing. I hope you don’t mind. Basically, any of my critcisms here might indicate a flaw in Curtis’ work, but either of them might also indicate a virtue. I’ll explain in a minute. First, the problems themselves:

My first problem with Curtis is that he constantly repeats himself. As in, he has a formal critique style that he pretty much applies to everything. If you look up parodies of his style, you’ll find that it’s a very easy target, which is only because it is so repetitive. He tends to accuse ever technological, psychological and political movement he sets his sights on of a form of willful blindness, or otherwise of attempting to draw people into a dream world so as to establish the power of the movement itself.

I’m not gonna say that’s a bad approach. Falsehoods are like dreams, so accusing oversimplified theories of inducing a dream-like state in adherents could be a good way to start pointing out its flaws. The problem is that Curtis doesn’t go into sufficient depth with the theories he discusses. This, as far as I can see, is another problem of form. He certainly needs his films to be entertaining in order to keep people watching. Presumably, this is an objective he needs to meet to stay funded. But also on the flip side because he is in essence a popularizer first and a theorist second.

So it’s a limited form. That’s fine. But my other problem is just that it’s quite easy to get lost sometimes with him. He tends to jump from theme to theme and subject to subject so fluently that the overall picture can be lost. What he’s trying to say to us can get lost. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it’s a briliant editing choice: it allows us as the viewers the experience of creating the meaning of the film by providing us a sequence of otherwise dislocated narrative slices. Or basically, it challenges us to find our own meanings in the text.

As we’ll find out in part two, this is also an excellent example of aligning form with content. The problem with it, though is that it makes it very difficult to grasp the content at all. If part of the virtue of an argument is how effectively it conveys its point, then I don’t know that Curtis can ever be said to argue anything.

This might not be a problem, given a few assumptions, and I hope I’m not being arrogant when I say that the best response to this is to analyse Curtis in his best possible light so we can try and figure out what he’s really up to. That is to say: let’s view the best possible intent in his work, and then attribute it to him. Maybe unorthodox, but hey, this is a niche internet blog written by an oddball like me, so I don’t think anyone is expecting orthodoxy from me.

II.

The best way we can understand Curtis is as a Socratic figure. This is because he aims to frustrate everything, and conclude nothing. The first time I saw Hypernormalization, I thought he was happy to leave us there, but now that I’ve seen Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I’m suddenly not so sure.

When I first saw Hypernormalization, the only thing I could conclude was that the world was truly impossible to understand. I don’t know if that was his intention. If it was, then Can’t Get You Out of My Head was the antithesis to this thesis. If it wasn’t, then perhaps Curtis realized he had unwittingly induced the very same Oh Dearism in the viewer of which he accused Putin and Trump.

If Curtis is a Socratic figure, then Can’t Get You Out of My Head is his Republic.

It’s generally understood that the Platonic dialogues through which we learn about Socrates can be divided into two categories. We usually understand those two categories in terms of how much of his own thought Plato actually put into the writings.

We can understand this first category, the category where it’s mostly Socrates coming through as aporetic texts. Aporia is the state of mind a little like being paralyzed. In Zen, I hear about the idea of having an iron ball in one’s mouth, that you can neither swallow nor spit out. The ancient Athenians sometimes described a long conversation with Socrates as like being stung by a stringray.

This is maybe where the formal approach Curtis takes can be understood as a virtue. When you read the earlier Socratic dialogues like Meno, you find yourself trapped in a maze of arugmentation that leaves you without any hope of answering the question the text ostensibly sets out to resolve. The nested objections, conversational dead ends and the non-stop whirling itinerary leaves one with the fatal sense that the key questions were always nonsense.

Does that feeling sound familliar to anyone? It sure sounds like how I felt after watching Hypernormalization.

But the saving grace of Can’t Get You Out of My Head maybe that it explicitly sets its sights on this sense of helplessness, and it tries in some sense to cure us of it. He references David Graeber, who tragically died last year, in affirming that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

This is, as far as I can tell, the first time that Curtis actually sets out a positive claim in one of his films. If so, we can understand this as him departing, for once, from the aporetic approach.

III.

At this point, we can come to grips with the virtue of Curtis’ formal approach, in that it does challenge us in some sense to create the world again. There is a constant tension between individualism and collectivism in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. It’s along those lines that the struggle to meet the challenge Graeber and Curtis set us will be met.

On the one hand, there is the individualist mode of creating the world. This is illustrated in the sixth episode by Curtis’ when he recounts the origin story of tech giant Google, and compares it to Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man.

The upshot of this comparison is that both creative efforts– on the one hand an effort to make information accessible to all, and on the other an effort to demonstrate experientially the ways in which the individual is forced to make meaning– are centred around the assumption that making the world must occur inside an individual.

In each case, the assumption is that the individual must, but also will inevitably form a dreamlike story under which to function given the paralyzing deluge of images and phenomena. For Google, Curtis presents, the idealistic aim was always to provide these means.

I think we can understand Curtis as offering us this option, simply through his formal approach. But I also think it would be a mistake for us to take it, and I think we can understand the central weakness of Hypernormalization to be that it did not adequately underscore this notion. Perhaps this was a consequence of the times. It was a very populist year in 2016. I can imagine Curtis might have wanted to veer away from collective sentiment against that backdrop, and if so then as a matter of survival.

But if we do reject the metaphorical Blue Pill, and opt to refuse individualism, powerlessness, and the internalist dream, what are we left with? This is something Curtis can’t help us with, and admittedly so, as he calls us to imagine new futures; ‘ones that have never existed before.’

On the one hand there is that uncertainty. But I suppose on the other hand, there is the danger of the collective dream, most fearfully illustrated in the gorgeous collective nightmares summoned up by Jiang Qing.

IV.

In some ways, I was very disappointed by this film. As far as I can tell, Curtis neglects some very important details in cognitive science and psychology he references. Sometimes he’s just flat wrong, and when he isn’t wrong he hollows out the spirit of the theories.

For one example, anyone who has any familiarity with Carl Rogers will understand that his therapeutic method amounted to a lot more than “simply repeat(ing) what the patient had just said.” Rogers thought that acceptance and unconditional positive regard for the client were crucial in developing a therapeutic relationship. He thought that active listening was one way to foster this relationship. To analyse him in terms of simply parroting people is cynical and myopic.

Likewise, in this series, he seems to oversimplify the discussion around the replication crisis and its consequences for the findings around priming effects. While it is true that priming studies around age priming and a few other areas have clearly failed to replicate, that doesn’t mean that priming effects themselves can be rejected wholesale. He fails to distinguish between social priming effects and cognitive-availability priming effects, throwing the second set out with the bathwater of the first.

Regardless of how the chips fall for priming effects in the end, the simple fact of the matter is that this is a complex issue with a lot of fine-grained detail. But we have to recognize that Curtis has no time for it. Based on that recognition, I have to wonder whether he does by any of the theories he critiques.

At the same time, I think we would be doing ourselves a real disservice if we ignored Curtis or wrote him off. Regardless of whether the world is impossible to understand, we must admit that doing so is difficult. If we’re happy to say that more comprehensive perspectives tend to be harder to comprehend all at once– and that seems fair enough to say– then we should also give Curtis some leeway, and that leeway should come in the form of not dismissing him out of hand.

What can Curtis offer us if he can’t make sense with the material he’s presenting? Well, I think the answer becomes clear if we stop treating him as a theorist and start treating him as an artist. That is to say, someone who works in tone and emotion, not fact. We shouldn’t read Curtis as giving us a factual story– we all know too much about how stories are really incompatible with fact. Instead, what Curtis offers us is an opportunity to meditate in an indepth way on that incompatibility, and in the end he somehow finds hope in it.

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