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.

Live Optionality, and The Wealth that Matters.

Previously, I’ve written about what happens when you don’t have anything to believe in, and how poverty can deteriorate into something much deeper and more torturous than just a a lack of money. But I think there’s also something to prompt the deterioration more than just not having enough money as such. I think purpose factors into it. I also think it’s difficult to sustain a purpose if you aren’t regularly making live choices.

I’ll talk about what I mean by live choices in a second. If you are in any way familliar with William James’ notion of live optionality, then suspend your previous understanding of the term because I mean it slightly different.

Did you know that in the UK, if you have saved up more than ten-thousand pounds, depending on a number of factors, your benefits will get cut off? That means your social care will be cut off, because nobody will be paying for it. It is also substantially more expensive than you will be able to afford. Your housing might be in jeopardy depending on how you came to occupy it. That means sometimes, people have to spend their money on things they don’t want or need so they can keep living. From my perspective, that’s somewhat surreal. If you’re on benefits for whatever reason, and your cost of living is such that you build up a surplus, you must always consume a little bit more so that you don’t run up too much of a surplus.

I’m not telling you this to highlight how bad some societal problems are. I’m telling you this so I can segue into a discussion on the relationship between meaning and wealth.

Continue reading Live Optionality, and The Wealth that Matters.

Beware the Optimization-Effiency Constraint! Also: A Hope for Freedom.

I.

Here are some ideas to play with: that culture affects thought through language; that culture can be impressed and enforced in relation to some incentives; that culture is incentivized to impress certain modes of thinking, speaking and being in order to reinforce its own position. These are all sort of standard moves if we’re talking about ideology.

An example of how culture might impress itself on your thought is as follows. You might work in an organizational environment in an entry-level role. In plain English, there are some consequences of that. You’re expected to shut up on things you aren’t qualified to discuss, and you’re expected to learn a sort of organizational argot. There are enough pieces on “Business English” to nauseate a world, so I won’t bother writing this piece to add to those.

I also don’t want to argue whether or not “Business English” as a plain example actually affects anyone body and soul. I think the claim that language affects how you behave and thing is actually uncontroversial. For those who doubt me, here is a way you can test this: learn another language, and then see how your personality changes in that language. I learned Spanish, and I found that I was arguably a distinct person when speaking in Spanish. The relationships I built in Spanish and what sort of nonsense I got up to ended up forming a distinct personhood.

So we’ve heard an example of a distinct culture, and we’ve heard about how a distinct language might affect a mode of being, but how might a distinct culture impress a mode of being by a language? That’s a somewhat slipperier contention.

Let’s see how a mode of being can be opened up by learning a new language, as impressed by a culture. When you learn about anatomy, you are shown a language for describing the parts of your body. As such, you get the opportunity to become more aware of your body. If you take advantage of this opportunity, then you end up with the desired outcome. I don’t see how this could be anything other than positive, other than that it might end up distracting you from other things.

One way a culture could alter your mode of being then, is by incentivising you to acquire a knowledge of anatomy, which would lead you to developing a familiarity with your own anatomy. I suspect medical students have this experience, but I can personally confirm that students of partner dance or athletic pursuits like martial arts or rock climbing are also incentivised to acquire this sort of knowledge. The way that the culture around these activities incentivises certain knowledge is simply that they incentivise excellence in the pursuit. If the pursuit is such that familiarity with your own knowledge makes you better at it, then you’ll acquire the knowledge. That will lead you to acceptance and a sense of accomplishment and so on.

A discrete example: all of the above pursuits require you to get acquainted with the fine muscles in your abdomen and legs that allow you to balance. They also require you to get acquainted with your startle response and your anxiety response, both of which will throw those fine muscles and the awareness you need of them to havoc.

Those are all very positive ways that a culture might affect your mode of being. You could say the reason we trust culture at all is that culture is actually a fantastic transmitter and motivator when it comes to acquiring useful modes of being– or skills, I guess you could say. If you’ve ever tried to teach yourself something and then realized how much easier it is to learn something when embedded in a community dedicated to learning that thing, then you might have an inkling of what I mean. It is simply much easier to muster the dedication required for skill acquisition if there is some external motivational support. I won’t say reward as such, because I don’t know if anyone pursues the activities we’ve been talking about so far for just social acceptance. If anything, social gains seem like supplemental gains.

But what about those skills you pursue solely for social gains? I’m somewhat reluctant to call them skills at all. But take the “Business English” example. If we model language acquisition as a skill, then learning how to speak “Business English” is a skill. It’s socially incentivised, that’s for sure. If you don’t have experience of this, just consider any organizational culture you’ve had to learn to fit into.

The question I want to ask is: is there any danger to acquiring these skills? Is it possible to reduce your mode of being by acquiring easy or comfortable ways of thinking implicit in these skills? As I write it, it sounds a bit alarmist. Instead, perhaps it’s more worthwhile to consider how to sidestep possible pitfalls, and what those pitfalls might be.

Let’s consider a general principle of economy: if you can do something more easily, then you will do. Is this true of your emotional or being oriented habits? Let’s consider emotional avoidance as an economic tactic. If you model yourself as having a finite amount of emotional resource, you might tend towards becoming emotionally avoidant as a way to protect yourself and maintain your integrity.

This is where the danger comes in my mind. Let’s think evolutionarily about the cultures and linguistic patterns that emerge in

A quick example of “Business English” in an odd context: I once heard a colleage talking about ‘actioning’ a problem in a procedure. This was noteworthy, because it seemed to abstract away what was actually happening. To be precise, we were talking about ways to make sure we were adequately safeguarding our clients, many of whom have mental health problems or learning disabilities. While I don’t think the effect I’m talking about was present here– namely that emotional reality of the situation seemed present to my colleague– it does make me wonder whether there are cases where we might tend towards thinking in abstract ways as a technique of unconscious avoidance.

II.

When I talk with my friends about eating the rich, I am always cautious. I don’t want to blame money-hoarding Capital holders. The reason for this is that I am certain I would feel an unbearable temptation to do exactly what they’re doing in those situations where they’re doing it.

Let’s always bear in mind a principle from Evolutionary Psychology: the human organism did not evolve in a socio-cultural context like the one we currently live in. If we look at the meaning of the term Anthropocene, the academic facon de parler that dubs our current geological era, we can start to understand just what an odd pickle we’ve got ourselves into, speaking in terms of resource.

For the longest time, mankind was made for the flow of resource. The flow of resource was not made for mankind. This is now, to an extent, no longer the case. The relevance here of these ideas is to illustrate that the people on the top of our social structure may have unconscious mental maps of resource in terms of uncertainty and uncontrollability. This means that they may be far more likely to hoard than is warranted by their wealth. This may go doubly if we considered which types of people are most likely to become Capital holders in the first place, who I would suggest have a tendency toward conservative behaviours.

It would be odd to have acquired and stockpiled a large amount of money if you didn’t want to do those things, and given that you exist in a world that has people who do want to do those things, it’s likely difficult to acquire a large amount of money unless you do things that specifically optimize for acquiring large sums of money at the expense of other things. Casualties of this process might be social or emotional well-being, or time to pursue creativity, or other human goods.

I think the central Marxist thesis, or at least the one which appeals to me the most, is that the problem with Capitalism is that it ends up producing a system in the end that actually does incentivise against human goods, and instead results in an all-or-nothing, where you have to either commit entirely to money or not at all.

Basically, I’m trying to say that I feel sorry for the people who compulsively hoard money. I’m also trying to say that they likely suffer from an extreme over-specialization into modes of thinking and being that optimize for money generation and not much else. In the past, when I’ve spoken to successful middle managers, I’ve often been shocked by how little they knew or did that wasn’t related to the promotion of their own image.

It didn’t seem to be something I could justifiably be sicked by, because it seemed like it was a survival-critical strategy for them that they couldn’t shut off. It also seemed like they didn’t have much of anything else to offer.

From a Cognitive-Behavioural standpoint, a personality disorder can be understood as a pattern of adaptation that was at one point useful– likely during the course of an incredibly traumatic early life. If we took the same sort of perspective towards people who happened to have a particularly acquisitive or conservative nature, who had then been railroaded by the way Capital abstracts possession-value from use-value and trapped in a particularly empty mode of being by the process, then it gets a lot easier to feel less scorn for those who have much.

We might want to say that people like these have been trapped in a cycle by the optimization-efficiency constraint. This constraint might turn up in any system where scarcity is a problem, or where it is a perceived problem.

I’m not saying all people who have large amounts of money are like this, only that some seem to be. I could see myself falling prey to this sort of cycle if I wasn’t careful.

III.


What if there were more conservative ways of thinking or being with our emotional resources, assuming that we view ourselves with the ego-depletion model? Well, one way I could think of would be to avoid developing modes of being that we were weak in, and where the expected rate of return was low. That would lead to the sort of overspecialization of self that I was talking about in the earlier part with middle-managers.

The problem with expected values in considering personal development is that what you value changes with the sort of personal experiences and transformations that you undergo. For instance, I value a stable relationship and community substantially more than I used to. You could account for that in terms of my ageing and becoming more mature, but I would be reluctant to accept that explanation– you can see plenty of exceptions to it. Plenty of people never end up with that sort of view, despite all the age and maturation they acquire.

Let’s round up again: so far we’ve spoken about how language and cultures can affect modes of being; we’ve spoken about how the impressions of culture on modes of being can be really beneficial; we’ve played with some examples of how modes of being might be bad adaptations; we’ve seen examples of how economically conservative behaviour might trap us in bad modes of being; and we’ve seen that transformation in modes of being across time might change what we value, and therefore what we aim at.

So here’s the kicker: if we’re incentivized to develop poor modes of being, for example in an organizational context; and if we lose the opportunity to develop compensatory modes of being as a consequence of economically conservative modes of behaviour such as emotional avoidance, then we may put ourselves in a hamstrung position, where all we can safely optimize for is more avoidance.

Which sounds hellish.

IV.

So what are our routes of escape? As far as I can see, there are at least two useful personal virtues that help us avoid these problems. The first is self-awareness, and the second is focus. The importance of self-awareness is that you can’t correct what you don’t know is a problem. Things that don’t hurt don’t get changed. The importance of focus is that it is often very painful to acknowledge personal failures. It is much easier to ignore problems than to acknowledge them. But remember that this means overcoming the detrimental effect of Capital and the optimization-efficiency constraint. That’s motivational enough for me.

As far as I can see, contemplative practice is the best option for developing both of these traits. However, there are many, many problems that I can see with contemplative practice as it’s currently presented via marketing and understood in the West– the culture which is patient zero of the optimization-efficiency constraint.

I don’t want to criticise traditional forms of meditation as practised in Eastern cultures, or the mythological-cultural structures that animate them. I don’t think that from my current historical state of consciousness I could ever understand what the texts mean. In fact, that’s related to the problem. Those ideas emerged in at a specific point in history, and are completely divorced from the history of thought that I was raised on, and that is implicit in both of our modes of being, given that you’re reading me in English.

Instead I want to offer a very simple set of instructions I’ve been playing with. They work a treat for me. The idea of these is to interrogate them and to experiment. But bear in mind that they will likely be uncomfortable at first. The main aim of the instructions is to practice resisting the optimization-efficiency constraint, and to get proficient at it in a habitual way. In doing so, you’ll have to develop both self-awareness and focus. You’ll develop self-awareness by being forced to examine yourself implicitly by the activity itself, and you’ll develop focus by doing something difficult that you’ll have to continuously recommit yourself to doing.

Maybe these ideas won’t make sense at first. If so, go try this and then come back and read them again. Remember, the ultimate goal of this practice is to weaken the need to serve the sense of scarcity within you. If you try this, you ought to do it in the spirit of freedom.

I do also want to note that I am suspicious of “Mindfulness” as a cultural movement. This isn’t because there’s anything wrong with Mindfulness as a personal quality. Saying that would be silly. I try and cultivate it myself, and I find it deeply rewarding to do so. My problem is just that “Mindfulness” has become an excellent buzzword. It has been appropriated by a profit machine disguising itself as good organizational practice in some cases, and by a profit machine disguising itself as a healthcare system in others. That’s all I want to say on the matter, as plenty of interest has been written on it lately.

V.

Back to the instructions. You might find these familliar.

1. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit. Grab some cushions if you want. I use a meditation cushion called a zafu. But make no mistake, I am not sitting Za-zen.

2. Assume a sustainable posture. That means a soft and ‘S’ shaped back. There are plenty of guides on good sitting posture in the world. If you don’t know what good posture is, go research it. The posture needs to be sustainable, because you are going to be sitting in it without movement.

3. Set a timer for twenty minutes, and put it nearby. Don’t look at it, no matter how much you want to. that would count as moving.

4. Set an intention with yourself. Say to yourself ‘no matter what happens, I will not move.’ Be ready to be gentle with yourself– you’re probably going to move.

5. Focus on your breath, and do not move. You’re going to really want to move, but don’t. Get used to choosing not to. Keep doing this until the timer goes off. If your attention goes somewhere else, bring it back to your breath. If you can’t bring it back, let it go where it goes.

6. Be grateful. I like to bow until my head touches the ground. I’ll explain why later.

You might have suffered the entire time, thinking about all the tasks you have to complete, or the fear you have about your career, or the lack of money in your bank account, or how little you’ve done in your life to meet your parent’s expectations. But for at least those twenty minutes, you resisted the urge to react.

You might be full of thoughts, or you might not be. Either is fine. Eventually, you’ll probably experience what it’s like to not have any thoughts. That isn’t the point. Don’t think that’s the point. That being said, it’s nice while it lasts– and you might say that it’s one the few ways you have to break from ideology.

These instructions might sound familiar, and that’s because they probably are. Don’t think about them too much. The main idea is to get used to feeling your own body, and all of its urges and fears. There is absolutely no substitute for doing this if you want to understand how to free yourself from the awful structures of optimization we live in.

Don’t think of this practice as meditation– it isn’t. And don’t think of it as ‘mindfulness’ either. Both of those conceptualizations trap you in an ideological structure. I have plenty to say about mindfulness and the way it’s been appropriated by Capital, but I’ll save that for another day. Whether it’s Buddhism, or Taoism, or Zen, or Capitalism, or whatever. I don’t want my body and soul to be a slave to a structure of ideas, nor their optimization constraints. So let’s not adopt too many ideas around this practice if we can help it.

I would suggest doing it every day. I do it twice a day. I really don’t like the feeling of being a slave to scarcity. But I do really like the feeling of freedom from slavery, even if it’s just internal. Additionally, remember the hellish picture we painted in section II, about the money-oriented slave to the optimization-efficiency constraint? Well, you can take my word for it that practising this will make you less likely to become that guy, at least so long as you do it right.

Bear in mind that I am not a meditation teacher, and would not be accepted as anyone of any value by any existing spritual tradition, probably.

If you do this for long enough you’ll probably have periods where it feels really good. If you do it long enough, you might also have lots of really weird emotional disturbances. Hopefully those lead to some productive self-inquiry. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also have humongous periods of ego-inflation that make you think all sorts of weird things– that’s why I bow every time I’m done, to counteract those tendnecies. But remember: I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.

The Castle Without The King: On Domicide and Homelessness.

Lino Cut by Shellie Lewis

I.

I’ve never rough slept, though I’ve had plenty of friends who were rough sleeping at one point or another. For the most part, they were the types you would least expect to need to. Two of them were one time students at Cambridge. Sometimes I laugh a little bit internally whenever I hear anyone describe Oxbridge students as ‘poshos.’ They are ultimately people, just like any other person. I’ve never gone to an Ivy League school, but I think that’s probably a generalizable sentiment.

In my past professional life, I’ve worked at a charity for what we term ‘the homeless.’ Even now, my day to day experience mostly amounts to holding people’s hands while they’re burning in hell. Let me assure you, this is an experience that makes you ask questions.

Continue reading The Castle Without The King: On Domicide and Homelessness.