Thoughts on Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Just some quick notes and initial thoughts having watched Adam Curtis’ latest documentary series for the BBC, Can’t Get You Out of My Head:

  1. The interplay between mainstream culture and counterculture

What Curtis does well in this series is that he shows how easy it is for the counterculture to feed back into the mainstream; opposition to the norms of one’s society is often later incorporated into those norms. To take a couple of examples from the series, Bobby Seale goes from co-founding the Black Panthers to hosting his own cooking show on TV while Eldridge Cleaver winds up designing and selling trousers with something like a sock stuck on the front to ‘liberate’ the male member. Another example Curtis gives is that of the hippies, whose efforts at living outside mainstream society ended up being commercialised as yet another fashion trend one could buy into. To quote that line from end of Withnail And I, “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man.”

2. The crisis of individualism

I’m not sure if it’s still there now, but there used to be a hair salon on Brick Lane in London, whose slogan was ‘We sell liberation’. I think this ties in with the previous point, but it also highlights one of the main points Curtis is trying to make: that individualism has indeed meant a liberation of sorts (from older paternalistic forms of rule), but that it also leads to a narrow, apolitical version of freedom. ‘Liberation’ is now used to sell commodities and services to consumers, who enjoy their liberation in their own private ways.

When things go wrong at a societal level, as Curtis thinks they have, individualism runs up against its limit. When we are all atomised, and each of us is separated from everyone else, then collective action – and solutions to our shared problems – becomes very difficult indeed. Having a new haircut may be satisfying and fulfilling to a certain extent, but it hardly equates to people’s liberation from discrimination, technocratic misrule, or economic pressures. These things, Curtis suggests, can only be achieved if we find a new story to bind us all together.

3. Capitalist Realism

It turns out that Adam Curtis knew Mark Fisher, which doesn’t surprise me as there is a lot of overlap in the arguments each of them makes (plus they share a love of the dubstep musician Burial, whose music appears frequently in Curtis’ films). On the one hand, Curtis talks about there being no apparent alternative to individualism, while on the other hand Fisher wrote about how there are no competing visions of society to challenge capitalism. Fisher tapped into the dearth of anything new in contemporary pop culture, where movie re-boots and sequels are aplenty and so much of new music seems to be aping some earlier genres or trends. Whether this argument holds up today, I don’t know, but nevertheless both of them are focused on the sense of pessimistic inevitability that afflicts contemporary society.

What’s also interesting is the choice of terminology: for Fisher, the problem was capitalist society; instead, Curtis talks about the age of the individual and rise of bureaucracies and corporations. Perhaps Curtis holds back from blaming capitalism so as not to put off the BBC and its viewers? It just seems to me that while the crisis Curtis has identified is specific to our time, individualism is baked-in to capitalism to an extent, and any attempt at forging a new collective story will need to deal with that underlying problem.

4. Conspiracy theories

I am planning on writing a more detailed analysis of Curtis’ understanding of conspiracy theories in future, so I will try to keep things brief on this point. I think that Curtis’ argument that the isolation of the age of individualism can lead to suspicion and conspiracy theorising is nearly right but needs some tweaking. Individualism, which I should stress cannot be grasped separately from capitalism, facilitates conspiracy theories because the individual is seen as master of their own fate. When that fails to play out in reality, the response is to assume that some other powerful individual was in fact exerting their control over one’s life. So, rather than ditching individualism, the sense of powerlessness is explained with a narrative that still complies with individualism. Conspiracy theories often play this role, providing an explanation for one’s own powerlessness over their life and circumstance. I follow Tim Melley on this point, but while he attributes this sense of powerlessness (which he calls ‘agency panic’) to the rise of complex bureaucracies in the post-war years, I think the cause runs much deeper – after all, Melley’s theory still leaves us unable to explain why conspiracy theorising was going on decades prior to that period.

I also think there’s something interesting about how he describes the JFK conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison’s view of society. From Curtis’ description, Garrison believed that seemingly coincidental or unrelated events could be explained by ‘connecting the dots’, and that there was a hidden level of society where secret actors exercised the real power. It reminds me of two of my favourite Adorno quotes, the first of which comes from his Theses Against Occultism:

“The asocial twilight phenomena in the margins of the system, the pathetic attempts to squint through the chinks in the walls, while revealing nothing of what is outside, illuminate all the more clearly the forces of decay within.”

The second comes from lecture 8 of his Lectures on Negative Dialectics:

“It is as if philosophers wished to stuff an infinite cosmos into a tiny, cottage in which they could oversee every detail.”

By the sounds of it, Garrison is guilty of both of these (I haven’t read anything of his yet, but am planning on doing so for my PhD). Firstly, there’s the attempt to critique society while holding on to its ideology; secondly there’s the assumption that reality can be grasped and known as one coherent system.

5. The feeling of now

I listened to an interview Curtis did with Blindboy, in which he said his aim with this series was to capture the way things feel now, at this historical moment. He certainly succeeds in this regard. Not only is he telling the story of individualism’s crisis, but he is also doing it in a very individualist way – the story is told by focusing on a handful of individuals (such as Jiang Qing, Michael X, Afeni Shakur, Eduard Limonov) and how they themselves made use of individualism in different ways. There is little room for the impersonal in Curtis’ tale – everything happens as a result of somebody’s actions, even if the outcome was not what they had in mind (the classic ‘But this was a fantasy’ and ‘What the scientists/politicians didn’t realise, was that…’). Everyone has a clear motivation and acts on whatever information they possess to achieve their desired goals. For instance, Jiang Qing wants to do away with the old persisting forms of power in China, as well as have her revenge on all the people who held her back, and so instigates the Cultural Revolution. However, in the end she finds that Mao was using her all along, and that the whole thing had been part of his effort to root out his political rivals.

But this sort of narrative will be unable to fulfil Curtis’ call for a new collective story. It depicts historical events as being orchestrated by individuals, and the result is a story that comes close to conspiracy theory itself – and only avoids crossing into conspiracist territory by showing that people don’t always get their way. Curtis’ critique of individualism is still stuck with an individualist perspective. This then raises the question of how stories can be told that don’t succumb to the pitfalls of individualism.

As I said above, I’m thinking of writing something more in-depth on Curtis’ treatment of conspiracy theories. I would highly recommend watching Can’t Get You Out of My Head, not because of Curtis’ central argument but because it’s so refreshing to hear a serious, detailed analysis of our society on the BBC.