I Can’t Get Out of My Head

Cue Aphex Twin. Run VT of 50s Americans dancing. ‘This is a review of a BBC documentary by Adam Curtis. The documentary is about stories. It is told in short phrases. These phrases and stories appear to connect up. But that is an illusion. They don’t and they never could. The reason is that Adam Curtis is not telling a story about anything which exists. He is justifying his own mind, in which nothing really connects up. But he couldn’t see that.’

We live in an impossibly complex world, in which elites have no power; unless, according to Adam Curtis, they’re foreign elites, then they are in charge of ‘corrupt regimes’. Putin, for example, is in charge of a ‘corrupt regime’. In order to maintain power over it, Putin invents stories of Russia’s destiny and power. People who are afraid, lonely or ambitious are always inventing these kinds of stories about their nation’s destiny and power, says Curtis, unless they are ‘individuals’, then they can survive naked and free; albeit, alas, all too tragically vulnerable. Tony Blair, for example, was an individual. He was not in charge of ‘a corrupt regime’. He didn’t annihilate Iraq to provide Western corporations access to Iraq’s stupendous reserves of oil — a word which Curtis doesn’t use. He obliterated Iraq because he was lied to by ‘the technocrats’ and ‘the spies’.

‘The technocrats’ and ‘the spies’ are one of a few protagonists which never appear in Curtis’ documentary, along with ‘the politicians’, ‘the psychologists’ and ‘the scientists’. They don’t appear because they don’t exist — they’re abstractions, like ‘the people’. This isn’t to say that they’re not useful abstractions, which refer to forces which do actually exist — the collective massmind or institutional groupmind — but Curtis doesn’t use these terms to refer to what actually exists, rather he uses them to tell a story, or, as he puts it, an ‘emotional history.’ A myth.

Curtis’ myth goes something like this: in the past we told each other silly stories, or narratives, about our collective identity. These stories were superseded by individualism, in which people made their own stories. Now, individualism is under threat by new, even sillier stories. Something like that — it’s hard to tell what Curtis is saying, because he doesn’t really say anything. He prefers to play trendy music over the top of entertaining BBC archive footage, assuming, just as advertisers and other postmodernists do, that you’ll be tricked into confusing sensory stimulation, or trivial narrative highs, for meaning.

These ‘trivial narrative highs’ are delivered through obscure figures from the twentieth century. People that you have never heard of, because they said and did nothing of interest. In Curtis’ most recent work, ‘I Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ we are told, for example, the story of an unhappy British model, who was treated shoddily by a rich politician, we are told the story of an unhappy black woman in America who was in the Black Panthers, we are told the story of a Russian dissident who went to New York, then returned to Russia to form a nationalist anti-Putin party and we are told the story of a corrupt Chinese mayor. ‘Mmm’, the viewer thinks, ‘Interesting. I wonder where this is going…?’ It seems like a point is on its way. But it isn’t. The viewer was wrong. In each case the story goes nowhere. Its connection with Curtis’ myth is hinted at and, as with modern art, we are expected to either draw the connection ourselves (although only one is really possible; ‘the story they were telling themselves was silly!’), or, if there is no connection, to whistle in wonder at the enigmatic ‘emotional’ point of it all.

After eight hours of what amounts to pure spiritual nihilism, anyone with an interest in meaning is left with the feeling that someone with an interest in nutrition has after eating a tube of pringles. Curtis’ tube of intellectual pringles nourishes people who like to think of Joe Biden as some kind of ‘hope’, or of Tony Blair as someone who made a few bad choices, or of the scourging of Iraq as the result of a silly mistake, or of Putin, Trump, Farage and Xi Jinping as the bad guys, or of the coronavirus as a uniquely deadly pandemic which requires brutally totalitarian measures to manage. Such people are not interested in meaning, which is why a collage of pretty pictures, ladybird-book narration and a soundtrack by the Nine-Inch Nails — along with the vague idea that people who are capable to understanding and expressing meaning are idiots and fascists — suits them very well. The only meaning in their lives is power — their own — and this is the only thing they wish to see projected in front of their eyes.

Cue Brian Eno. Run VT of old British people playing bingo. ‘But the liberals didn’t realise they wanted power. It was unconscious. It was unconscious because it was shameful, and so it was pushed out of conscious awareness. To hide their shameful secret the liberals focused on eight hours of nice music and funny pictures, on a series of miserable loners and on the bad stories of bad people; the fascists. The liberals pretended that the bad stories of the fascists were destroying something they called ‘individualism’. But this individualism was a lie. It was a cover for the technocratic system that gave the liberals professional power; the system they professed to oppose, but which they were actually dependent on. The problem was, in being dependent on it, they were just like everyone else.

‘The liberals missed the irony of this, that the individualism they supported was actually making them all alike. They couldn’t see that the ‘individualist’ documentary maker looked and sounded like an ‘individualist’ management consultant. They couldn’t see that the BBC, a propaganda outlet for the technocratic system, was allowing Curtis to produce his stories in order to justify the very system he pretended to be opposing. They couldn’t see all these stories had nothing, whatsoever, to do with reality, a word they didn’t and could never understand, and so never used.’

Related: The Loving Trap (satirical parody of Curtis’ videos)

Related: Waiting for the Fall (John Michael Greer’s critique of Curtis’s most famous doc, The Century of the Self)

Related: The Unspoken Rule of Media Reporting (Media Lens’ critique of The Century of the Self)

Related: The Myth of Culture.