Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World
by Adam Curtis
Here is how journalist and documentary-maker Adam Curtis works:
News footage unspools of a present-day TV news crew scuttling down a hallway, chasing a politician.
From the archive, a girl and a man waltz in London in front of a row of onlookers in the 1950s.
A deserted intersection in London, with a fountain at the centre, seems to yearn for cars and people.
We slide into a bank vault, many decades ago.
A group of old, pasty male bankers meet at an absurdly large boardroom table.
A grandfather clock idles.
More greyscale images of bank interiors.
In Kenya, a white woman with a scarf around her head and a girl point out the window at the bright landscape.
A man in a safari suit drives by and smiles.
An alien building housing the British multinational Olympia dominates the Nairobi skyline.
In black-and-white, colonial officials loom over a tiny brown-skinned child who is either dead or dying.
Two and a half minutes have passed in a nonlinear counter-history. Curtis has taken us from the present to a moment in 1958 when British merchant bankers got away with insider trading and then to the last of the British colonies asserting self-determination. The empire has lost control.
In 2005, English theorist Paul Gilroy made a sharp-eyed diagnosis of Britain’s pathological inability to “live with alterity without [becoming] anxious, fearful or violent”. Multiculturalism was being eroded by institutional indifference; xenophobia and nationalism were thriving. In failing to reckon with the loss of its preeminent global standing, Britain was pulsing with nostalgia for its colonial past. Gilroy advanced these ideas in a book called Postcolonial Melancholia. During the same period, Adam Curtis is one of the few artists who was energised by the wars that followed 9/11. His body of work has tracked, in real time, the decline of a major hegemony. Empires wane. As anthropologist Wade Davis wrote last year, ‘the 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th.’ People thought differently, felt differently, in each of those centuries; empire-wide psychodramas played out in every heart and mind; the discourse that justified the oppression of each era shifted from biological superiority, to paternalism, to development. As the United States bled itself dry in the Cold War and post 9/11 period with costly wars and disinvestment in public and manufacturing infrastructure, Curtis became an increasingly exciting and relevant public intellectual, left-wing, but also scathing of the left and its loss of the battle over post-war economics in works like The Mayfair Set (1999) and The Power of Nightmares (2004), ironically producing a dreamlike effect from a panoply of banal news footage.
Doesn’t it feel as though we are living through the end of an empire? The supremacy of the United States of America – and even perhaps its national project – is jeopardised by forces stronger than Trumpism, Joe Biden’s election or Covid-19. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is in its own post-imperial flame-out. Brexit and Trumpism provide the sparks for Curtis’ new work, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, a destabilising, hypnotic six-part series released earlier this year. Where Freud formed a core part of the thinking in Curtis’ documentary on public relations, The Century of the Self (2002), the new work is a study of unconsciously internalised belief systems and unquestioned political agendas, a selective portrait of the communal mind as it imbibes ready-made social narratives.
Curtis has been doing this kind of work – on power, the hypocrisy of the West, how politics invades our collective psychology, on the emptiness of national myths and the terrors of imperialism – since the early 1990s. Can’t Get You Out of My Head has polemical ambitions and is harder to place in the realms of documentary, film, journalism, or digital culture; it forces us to ask where the meaningful lines can be drawn between these disciplines. It uses news footage – from the second half of last century onwards, largely from the BBC’s vault – rhythmically, cinematically, richly scored, and in a manner distinct from news packages. Montage, after all, is the basic tool of cinema. Curtis uses split screens to splice together moments of history that seem otherwise unrelated. Sputtering empires smash into the present. Nationalism rises. Colonial violence comes home. Aphex Twin whirs. The structure allows Curtis to merge his long-standing concerns with systemic factors – corruption, fossil fuels, the collapse of the USSR, the near-collapse of liberal journalism, opium and opioids – with the idiosyncrasies of small, questing humans. Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a systems art-documentary that could play comfortably in a gallery, a film festival or a laptop from YouTube. Only a disaffected journalist with uncensored access to the news archives could craft such a thing.
In the swirling collection of subplots, the work characterises Brexit and Trumpism as expressions of unconscious melancholy over the loss of empire. The global power of the United Kingdom and the United States may have declined, but their citizens haven’t caught up, preferring to cling to a dark anachronism – in Curtis’ parlance, ‘a strange dream’ – in which their rulers remain on top. Amidst these ideological ruins, outsiders, immigrants, people of colour, other trading partners and new empires are blamed for social decay. Throughout Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a recurring image symbolises this emotional-political mirage: in a desert, a grey cloud floats dubiously above a quivering ground of hot sand. Then the cloud vanishes, leaving only a wasteland of heat. Was it ever there? There is no narration to chaperone us in these scenes. Such is Curtis’ spooky way with associative images and mantras, his talent for recontextualising banal news footage and scenes of everyday life as moments of late-capitalist horror.
In this way, the series renders the inchoate feeling of the present. Writing in sound and images, Curtis summons the impression of an anxious and uncertain society rife with paranoid and conspiratorial ideation, a haunted culture absent confidence and imagination and governed by nostalgia. His aim is to show the origins of popular distrust in media and politics. Can’t Get You Out of My Head argues that contemporary culture and liberal democracy, based on individualism and divorced from collectivity, spring from old systems of power and cannot productively transform society. Leaning on Irish political scientist Peter Mair, who assessed the hollowing out of electoral politics in Western Europe, Curtis identifies the 1990s as a turning point for today’s hysterical inertia. After the Cold War, much Western intellectual thought converged into osmotically-absorbed liberalism. Historical imagination narrowed.
Writers like Pankaj Mishra have made the same points in a more conventionally linear way. ‘For nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War,’ wrote Mishra in the New York Review of Books, ‘mainstream politicians, journalists, and businesspeople in Britain and the US repeatedly broadcast their conviction that the world was being knit together peaceably by their guidelines for capitalism, democracy, and technology.’ Meanwhile, membership of political parties, protest movements and unions waned (indeed, in Australia since 1992, the percentage of employees in unions has crashed from 40% to 14%). Workers became miniature corporate entities: self-exploiting entrepreneurs, consumers and careerists, sole traders and contractors without workplaces or employers.
Marx and Engels anticipated Curtis’ ideas as early as 1845. In The German Ideology, they wrote that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas’. They later used the term ‘false consciousness’ to describe a subordinated group’s identification with the ideology of their oppressors. Curtis reshapes these maxims, intoning, ‘it is the power of a ruling class that shapes the very nature of reality itself’. Marx and Engels’ qualification – that in times of social revolution, citizens break away from the ideas of the dominant order – is never spoken. Curtis’ strategy is to avoid ubiquitous terms like ‘neoliberalism’. It is never clear if capitalism is at the centre of Curtis’ crosshairs. If it is, it goes unnamed, but for its governing myth that life is a story of improvement and enrichment. Curtis’ lack of specificity works against him – he withholds from naming, for example, the state, national education, and the nuclear family as forces that produces pernicious ideologies. He pinpoints ‘the ruling class’, but in broadly framing ‘elites’, he is unable to fully identify the institutional interests at stake. Rather than platitudinous phrases, he constructs montages of the good life promised since the second world war: a housewife in the paranoid American suburbs; a dad playing shoot-em-out with his children, who pretend to fall to their deaths on mown lawn; a bleak row of grey terraces in post-war England; Margaret Thatcher cheerily explaining the utility of shoulder pads.
As with his works Bitter Lake (2015), a war-on-terror epic, and HyperNormalisation (2016), a counternarrative of Western post-war political history, Curtis asserts that the grand illusions of liberalism constitute a ‘fantasy world’. Depending on your worldview, this idea could feel like a balm or a wide-eyed conspiracy. Curtis seems to preempt the latter interpretation, including an analysis of the rise of QAnon-style paranoia in his new work.
It’s as if Curtis’ journey from conventional TV producer to the purveyor of his own, easily parodied, genre of communication has now reached its zenith. Can’t Get You Out of My Head combines a novelistic structure with an essayistic style to create an oblique mode of visual storytelling, uniquely suited to the pause-and-repeat mode of web viewing. Most historians and journalists focus on familiar dot points on an accepted timeline: Allies fighting Nazis, the US retreating from the Bay of Pigs, the assassinations of MLK and JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the kleptocracy of newly capitalist Russia, and so on. In taking a revisionist approach, Curtis shows that history is constructed in retrospect. This is why his work is bracketed in BBC’s ‘factual: history’ category. He is not fictionalising history, but revising it. The facts are not what is in contention, but their interpretation, and what the West remembers is.
Citing Dostoevsky’s novels as an influence, Curtis tracks disparate figures within a populous, sprawling story – a cast of historical characters in China, Russia, Britain and the United States, whose non-conformity leads them into conflict with dominant power structures. Michael X, a corrupt radical, moves from Trinidad to the centre of the British empire to found a Black Power movement with catastrophic results. Julia Grant embarks on a gender transition in the 1970s in a normative medical system. Russian dissident Eduard Limonov takes fleeting refuge in the chaotic notion that, rather than trying to change the world, ‘the safest thing to do in the future was to believe in nothing’. Tupac Shakur – raised by his Black Panther mother to be, in his own words, a ‘prince of the Black revolution’ – tries to bring radical politics into the realm of popular culture. He burns with intelligence and charisma, but finds himself thrown into Bill Clinton’s nightmare of racialised mass-incarceration. In Curtis’ interpretation of the story, Shakur’s descent is not brought about by gang warfare or personal criminality, but by indulging the folly of mistaking his own success as a victory for a collective Black power movement.
Actress Jiang Qing marries Mao Zedong, only to find herself accused of ‘ultra-corruption’ following her husband’s death, her journey from doyenne to scapegoat told through clips from Chinese propaganda films. Qing, an early and ambitious individualist in modern Chinese history and a star in early Chinese cinema, famously declares, ‘I am a unit of one.’ She is the least persuasive of Curtis’ studies of autonomy clashing with authority – she comes across rather as someone whose own grab at power failed terribly – but her presence allows him to argue that China, with its combination of authoritarianism and capitalist mass production, is now living the American dream. From its export-oriented factories, China now sells the world inexpensively made consumer items that the West can no longer produce. A deeper hypocrisy is withheld but latent: in trading with China, the West has funded and supported that nation’s authoritarianism.
Jiang Qing’s shoehorning into the downfall thesis is exemplary of the weak links in Curtis’ fable-like style, which has no space for the types of documentary substantiation that generate a sense of authenticity, trust and historical authority. There are no captions outlining the provenance of clips, no talking heads mouthing glib sound bites, no highlighted quotes from historical documents, but his broad arguments hold water. Biden’s election may have marked a turn in US domestic and foreign politics, but with the tectonic shifts marked by the decline of manufacturing and the ascent of services in the US, China’s ascent is ongoing and inexorable. And yet North American commentators still pose the US’s unravelling as potential, earnestly asking: ‘Can America remain preeminent?’
Though his sensibility is artistic, and his register magisterial rather than reporterly, Curtis recoils from describing himself as an artist, instead coining the term ‘emotional journalist’. The phrase is evocative, and an interesting frame through which to consider contemporary journalism’s limitations. But the framing may be his undoing. Curtis is not doing journalism now, not really. Newspapers ‘don’t have any stories to tell,’ Curtis told New Statesman earlier this year while promoting Can’t Get You Out of My Head. ‘Journalism is so boring.’ His montage approach allows him to play fast and loose with rhetoric, sometimes to his disadvantage, as when he vaguely argues in the sixth episode that computers and the internet are a new system of power.
Curtis’ earlier works, such as the TV series Pandora’s Box (1992), were more straightforward in their lines of inquiry, and less complex in their juxtaposition of varied images and storylines. Since then, the internet has caught up to the idea of remixing the past, throwing together new genres: video essays, desktop documentaries, vlogs, lip syncing TikToks. Curtis is a journalist by training and job title (he is an executive producer at BBC Three), but he no longer engages in reportage. Journalists don’t operate this way: experimentally, symbolically, with fragments, sampling anti-colonial war films like The Battle of Algiers (1966). Few journalists exhibit their work at film festivals; few speak stirringly of a cultish dreamworld of late capitalism, or the links between politics and mass psychology; most claim some form of balance and neutrality. In its blend of news sources with filmic forms, Curtis’ work also differs from online journalism’s tech-boosted, interactive projects like those on the New York Times’ Op-Docs platform. In other ways, Curtis may be just a few degrees ahead of the current move in journalism towards truth-telling rather than falsely non-partisan notions of balance.
As a creative work, and in its associative approach to historiography, Can’t Get You Out of My Head has more in common with revisionist nonfiction cinema than any existing journalistic genre. In simple language, the script tells of a drifting, ‘unbalanced’ and ‘unhappy’ populace. Using the language of a break-up, he speaks of having to ‘move on’ from our identification with nation states, as if they are a bad girlfriend or boss. However his work is categorised, the authority of Curtis’ style, his expressive polemics, therapeutic language and artful forms, could not be derived from any other form of journalism, research or scholarship. In any case, who would expect Curtis to deliver a conventionally structured intervention to the discourse? He has now spent four decades making ambitious claims overlooked by mainstream journalists, shown through sound and image, on a timescale that unfolds backward and forward. His non-chronological wayfinding is not operating in a traditional expository mode, nor is it a peer-reviewed work, or a great-man account of history. It is a hybridised form: an essay film, which lifts a literary form into cinema. With careful repurposing of news sources, he finds connections between seemingly disparate geographic regions and centres an anti-imperialist perspective.
Though most of the series was made before the pandemic and Democrat victory of 2020, Curtis is careful to position his work in the new historical moment punctured by rebellion – the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-movements of increasingly flagrant white supremacy. Mainstream journalism, on the other hand, has historically treated protest movements as pathological, criminal and incoherent. Journalism’s forms and language are linear and faux-objective, unlike the temporal rummage of Curtis’ hyphenate creations. In moving to montage, Curtis rejects the pat formulas of headlines, opinion pieces, features, profiles, interviews and reviews – which undoubtedly narrativise the world rather than offering bare, neutral facts. He suggests a subtext: What is the point of journalism? To reflect the citizens’ confusion back to them? Or contextualise, historicise, fill in oversights, and lay out counterfactuals? Curtis’ critique, ultimately, is that liberal journalism has no cogent narrative, and certainly no good story to tell of the future. Nationalism and neo-fascism, in his analysis, are the sinister and attractive forces to which the swindled white working class – those who you might call the losers of globalisation – have turned.
Having spent so much time with Curtis’ work, I’m not convinced that moving image can be a workable vessel to contain journalism. What I see in his work is not so much an expansion or even an outgrowth of journalism’s possibilities as a rejection of journalism’s norms of argumentation, with a strong corrective impulse to the wrongs of journalism past. Curtis’ now-defunct blog also marks his estrangement from journalism’s outcomes. It obliquely situates the US as an empire, breaking from liberal journalism’s postures of impartiality, and explains cleanly the way in which extremist terrorist outfits in the Middle East were reactionary anti-colonial projects that ‘rose up in the 1970s precisely as a reaction to those corrupt regimes and their western backers.’ It remains notable how few media figures name Western imperialism or the US as an empire (say it, whisper it).
Despite critics’ complaints that Curtis’ work lacks cohesion (certainly, not all of it can be empirically validated), it often historicises contemporary politics more clearly than most political commentators. Take, for instance, his insight into Western meddling in the Middle East in part five of Can’t Get You Out of My Head: Iraq’s former status as a British protectorate; the Anglo-Persian Agreement that sought to make Iran a British client state. These posts don’t only expose the hypocrisy of liberalism (beneath its facades of democracy and progress lurk the same old exclusions and imperatives) and the futility and madness of empires imposing miniature versions of themselves in other lands. They also skewer the way in which the war on terror ignored ‘history – as if it is a conflict happening outside time,’ and show the clarity and consistency of Curtis’ anti-imperialist, anti-nationalist analysis over the decades.
As Fredric Jameson once put it, ‘we have, in postmodernity, given up on the attempt to “estrange” our daily life and see it in new, poetic or nightmarish, ways.’ Though Curtis complains that journalism has lost its explanatory power, I suspect he actually wants it to do what art does: defamiliarise the world. In embracing the fragmented, bandaged nature of moving image, and delivering long polemics alongside it, Curtis’ work has consciously abandoned granular linearity for an almost God-like energy and tone. Rather than always appealing to intellect, his arguments, told anecdotally and impressionistically, overwhelm the senses and can be hard to recall lucidly. It is these qualities that frustrate his critics. For both Curtis and the late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, the affective regime of capitalism is one of denial, suppressed rage and complicity. It’s not easy for a creative work to pinpoint the zeitgeist – the unhealthy attachments among those in in the electorate, formed through media, with political leaders like Boris Johnson who claim to be outsiders; the wild overflowing of outrage on social media; the unfulfilled promises of the good life.
Avant-garde filmmaker Lewis Klahr maps similar ambient anxieties in his near-wordless, spectral films, also cut from the debris of other media, but his work avoids scrutiny, as it operates cleanly within the confines of art cinema rather than emerging from the office of a major news organisation. A work’s mode of distribution informs expectations and criticism: if Curtis’ work were exhibited in a gallery rather than on the BBC, would critics like Sasha Frere Jones (who analyses Curtis’s work as a perversion of journalism) tear it apart for its disinterest in fine-grained coherence? Such a critique ignores that Curtis is not reporting or breaking news, but tapping the emotional climate, much like Berlant, whose work tracked the sentimental urges of contemporary politics. Wiser to situate Curtis’s work in the BBC’s history of exhibiting experimental material on its main channels, for instance, the animated film The Fall (2019) by Jonathan Glazer, which also relates to Curtis’s concerns of a nightmarish collective unconscious; and the many academics who map a vast terrain of thought about emotions as a field of historical enquiry. In history, scholarly approaches to the past, or maybe our goals in studying the past, are shifting. Some contemporary historians are trying not only to reconstruct history – always moving, always dynamic – but to remake what the discipline does. Such is the work of those in the discipline of historical feeling, who are developing their own methodologies to map the unspoken gestural, affective and experiential dimensions of entire eras.
The malaise of the West is a perennial topic, but in the last decade it has become ubiquitous. In her PhD from Columbia University, US critic and author Christine Smallwood has theorised an entire literary genre themed around depressive realism. Curtis’ contribution is to relate this to the decline of empires. He speaks of ‘them and us’. ‘We’, he says, engage in parasocial relationships with public figures and leaders. When these structures and figureheads begin to lose their power, the populace reacts with misguided entitlement and trauma. And yet the kind of change Curtis is arguing for – other than some kind of break with the entrenched power structures, political parties, electoral systems and media organisations – remains vague. He is as anti-ideological and oppositional as many in the present moment, having variously described himself as libertarian, radical, and sharing certain traits with neo-conservatives. Other black holes emerge in the work’s dizzying argument: did the people of the French and Portuguese empires feel the same political depressions as their figureheads grew enfeebled? Or is this melancholia distinct to the twentieth century and beyond? Is the USA now similar to the USSR in 1987 before its downfall?
The link between the political and the psychological is deeply contested. For some theorists, the key is the hardwiring of individual personalities; for others, the answer is in the social processes that ground us. It seems obvious that marrying private feelings to state or corporate interests – more work, better productivity, discipline and control, naturalised national identity – results in everything from anxiety to warped identity, entitlement, narcissism and low self-esteem. But what Curtis is doing is anathema to the prevailing mantras of self-actualisation and self-care. Absent are the mantras of self-improvement, positive thinking, ethical consumption and informed voting. Instead, Curtis spirals around the question: how will power be challenged? How will the course of bordered nation-states, governments and power systems be changed? But what can I do right now? is evidently a question of no interest, let alone how can I make a tax -deductible donation?
The work’s rhythmic, allusive, repetitive form follows this brutal approach: paths fork, digressions proliferate, images freely associate, harsh light refracts. The film has a torrential quality; it is a trance. Trademark Curtis motifs recur. People dance and smile glibly, presumably with an air of obliviousness to their entrapment in false consciousness. (Curtis adopts an ironic tone more often than he’s credited for, floating John Carpenter’s soundtrack to The Fog over key moments.) Cameras are pointed out the windows of cars – the ultimate vehicle of atomised, personal freedom – as uncaring urban landscapes slide away. Empty corridors are haunted by the absence of humans (David Lynch used the same technique in Twin Peaks as the announcement of Laura Palmer’s death rang out through her eerie high school hallway, evoking the dread of the The Shining a decade before). These images – their vacancy, their temporariness – move us between an interior psychological space and the structures of media, governance and markets.
We live in a culture that trains us to see ourselves as enterprising actors in meaningful stories. That Curtis’ message goes beyond changing your life and consumption patterns, to non-specific suggestions of challenging power, has flummoxed critics, who frankly, should know better. Frieze magazine accused him of cancelling the future. ‘This is heavy, doc’, lamented one crestfallen YouTube commenter. Another interpreted Curtis’ abandonment of present models of mass democracy as a form of fatalistic entropy:
just seems like a very deterministic and nihilistic conclusion. What’s the point then? If every attempt to change the world is doomed to fail, then why bother? I just don’t agree with that conclusion.
Nevermind that the film opens with a frame inviting viewers to imagine other types of societies – some radiant, unnamed futures – that have never existed before, and ends with the idea of a social structure in which people can preserve their individualism while working towards shared principles. It seems Curtis suffers the same wrath felt by readers alienated by the savage scrutiny of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Perhaps viewers’ interpretations are marred by their immersion in the very epoch of individualism that Curtis identifies, in which a person’s positive feelings, spending capacity and agency are what matter most. We crave a simple solution, preferably one that we can find in a supermarket aisle. The idea of the individuated self is a modern construction nourished by capitalism’s ideology of entrepreneurialism. Personal identity can be empowering, but if it cuts us off from a shared history and future it mutates into something monstrous.
And what of the impartial biases of Curtis’ audiences? What do we bring to his self-made genre of amalgamated communication? My sense is that if you’re a visual thinker, you may find Curtis’ work more convincing. Since I am strongly inclined to believe that classes of people can unwittingly absorb, naturalise and fail to recognise hostile ideologies, I must be careful to avoid being pulled in. I may be sinking into wishful thinking, talismanic politics. In today’s globalised streaming landscape, it is easy to forget that when Curtis began making his documentaries in the 1990s, his work aired on one of the five free-to-air channels on British television. Not long after, the West commenced its occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Watching Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I often thought of how it would feel to encounter such a radical reexamination of history, on repeat late at night, as a teenager. This was an era of brazen journalistic malpractice, in which many major mastheads promoted war on Iraq and misreported on Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal weapons of mass destruction. Curtis has made a career out of weaponising the media – owned monopolistically, but accessible to almost everyone – to reach atomised mass audiences, with the idea that society can be remade, if only they can imagine how. His new film has gone off like a bomb inside me.