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.

Thoughts on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

I recently watched this fantastic 1969 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by the exceptional Marguerite Duras. I’d also recommend the film to anyone who likes a classic, or who has an interest in things that are beautiful. I thought I might say a few things about it. Also, Hubert Dreyfus talks about it in his lecture series on Kierkegaard– which I think is just brilliant.

This film smoulders at the edges with incoherent light, like the edges of burnt newsprint. It is black and white, which means that the fire has gone out. It is covered in coal dust, and the coal might be from wood or metal. Or perhaps, the ashes might be flesh.

Flesh, human life, cities and memories all are subject to the law of impermanence. Even when they are shot through with violence and love, those tethers can’t hold them down– and they float away into the sky.

We could say that Nevers (Emanuelle Riva)– the female character as she is named at the end of the film– and Hiroshima (Eiji Okada)–the male character of whom can be said the same disgrace themselves together. But do so only to re-enact a trauma that is passed and which therefore can never be touched again. It’s an experiment in fossilizing pain. At least in the case of Nevers, her defining pain is something she clings to, and which she is compelled to relive again and again through her affair with Hiroshima and other men, as we come to learn..

Hiroshima was a city that disappeared in an instant. It was also a horrible scar, left by the most brutal and impactful conflict in human history. These assets fix it as a perfect scapegoat for a sacrifice.

In the first scene, Nevers and Hiroshima are entangled, as they question each other over documentary footage detailing the horrific aftermath of the atomic bomb. In this light, it is significant I think that the trauma of Nevers was individual, while the trauma of Hiroshima was collective.

There is something essentially audacious about comparing the loss of a single individual to the loss of an entire city. I suppose the way we can satisfy our concerns as viewers of this film would be to acknowledge that his own knowledge of Nevers’ secret love is what brings Hiroshima to accept her on his own grounds. Where previously– as in the beginning of the film– he did not believe that she had seen suffering that was comparable to his own.

But both know what it’s like to be mad with grief. The film-makers wisely unplumb the depth of world-death. They use the death of one’s lover to point at it indirectly. That’s probably because it’s impossible to fit something so large in something as small as a film. It would be easier to fit an elephant into a tea-cup.

The Mythology of Making Words.

I am deeply suspicious of any writer who thinks that writing about writing is the right way to go about it. This is a problem, because so many people think the right way to start writing is to feverishly scribble down the one lousy thing they were given to say in their lives, and then they just spend the rest of the time doing that (1).

While I sure hope I have things left to say, I do think I’ve spent enough time in front of a blank page making words appear to talk about what Hubert Dreyfus would call ‘the real phenomenon’ of writing. That is, the experience of doing it, of setting yourself to the physical process and not letting go until it’s done resolving itself. I don’t think this is anything special. It is perfectly accessible to anyone willing to do it.

There is some garbage that culture tells itself regarding what it’s like to write, and I’d like to get it all out of the way, just so I know where I stand on the matter. If you like it too, all the better! Don’t get sucked in by people who think in the following terms. They’re charlatans.

I. ‘Divine Madness.’

Hemingway never said ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ Having done it myself, it’s a terrible idea. I’ve only seen it work once in person, and while it did really work, I’m not convinced the guy who pulled it off wasn’t a genius anyway. In history, as well as in all things, Bukowski is the exception.

Don’t align things like creativity and things like self-destruction. It’s too easy, and too cheap. If I had a penny for every college colleague who lived the idea that Bacchus was optreme angle from which to approach the process of producing a thing– this could include academic work and essays– then I’d have maybe around ten bucks, which I could then spend on a book that was actually good.

The mistake is understandable. If it hurts like love, smells like love, and feels like love, it must be love, right? Wrong. Detecting the loss of your ego could be a sign you got your self out of the way long enough to produce something you couldn’t expect. That’s a sign of good writing. Or it might be a sign that you’ve blasted yourself out of your mind on something prescription or non-prescription.

I like Hunter S. Thompson as much as the next guy, but even he admitted that he could never keep up with his own press. Fitting way to go for a newspaper man.

II. That the Writing is Yours; That it Comes from You.

If it’s true that you have to get yourself out of the way for anything good to come, and it is, then you can’t be the place that it comes from. Because remember, you aren’t so much more than just a bundle of preconceptions about the thing trying to be born through your skull.

The myth of the birth of Athena is archetypal, and as anxious as Jungian analysis makes me these days, I’m tempted to point out the ways in which the myth needs to mirror the truth.

All the plans and structures in the world can only get you so far when you have to confront the page at the end of it. You don’t get anything good without risking carpal tunnel or RSI. That means scribbling out and replacing, frequently. I’m not saying this to sound cool, or exclusive, or elitist– I’m just saying it because it’s true.

The reason why it helps to put down the pages of pre-determination and make is because only when you really enjoy the process of making do you and your preconceptions fuck off for long enough for something good to happen. Just trust it, cause it will happen. And when it does, it can be glorious, and that’s the gamble.

Footnotes.

(1): I say this while apologizing to Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds is really little more than writing about writing inasmuch as it is a film about films. That said, it remains one of the single finest god damn films I’ve ever seen, not because it was art, but because it was good. I don’t think he was one of those people I demean.