The first thing I want to say is, I love Adam Curtis, and I love his stuff, which is definitely Up My Street and My Kind of Thing. So it was a real pleasure to watch an episode of Can’t Get You Out of My Head (BBC iPlayer) every evening for the past week. And if in the end I’m not entirely convinced, if I might consider that the emperor has no clothes, or that there’s no there there, I still really enjoyed watching it, and found it thought provoking and stimulating.
(The second thing to say is, if you started following this blog in the past couple of weeks because you thought it was some kind of diet/health/keto blog: surprise!)
I want to begin, however, by blowing my own trumpet for perhaps longer than is quite decent. Here are the final two paragraphs of a post I wrote in November 2016:
There’s a narrative out there. It’s in the heart of Brexitland, it’s in Le Pen’s France, and it’s in those Red States, of which there are increasing numbers. The narrative takes the undeniable evidence of people’s blighted economic fortunes, ever-increasing burden of debt, lack of options, and it whispers (sometimes shouts) the blame. These people, with their alien religion, want to introduce their Sharia Law, here, in deepest Wisconsin. Or these other people, who want to stop the police from doing their job. Or these people who are stealing American jobs. Or these others, who want to take away your guns, or your freedom to say whatever the hell you want: all of them are collectively to blame for the shitty way you feel, for the way you feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, for holding your opinions.
We can’t help it: none of us are immune to the power of narrative. We’re all just helpless robots, programmed to respond. The neoliberal consensus has been programming us all since the 70s, but since 2008 they’ve gradually lost control of the narrative. The banks were blatantly, obviously to blame for the financial crash. But the working classes were blatantly, obviously made to pay the cost. This injustice created a whirling, white-hot vortex of resentment and anger which made people receptive to the quiet comfort of an alternative narrative in which blame was apportioned. So people have followed their programming to its logical conclusion: first Brexit; and now Trump, the rampaging monster from America’s id. Trump is the robot uprising, the one we’re waiting for in Westworld.
That out of the way, here are my thoughts on Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
If there’s a thesis, it’s pretty much standard Baudriallardan postmodernism: the Grand Narratives are dead, replaced with simulacra. Myth and illusion are the stock-in-trade of modern politicians; nobody believes in anything, and power and money are the only ends that people pursue. This is not to say that Curtis is simply rehashing mainstream thought, because these ideas about our world have always been too difficult and uncomfortable to become mainstream. But it is ironic, isn’t it, that instead of grasping what was going on, people turned to made up stories and myths instead. And this is Curtis’ subject.
He starts in lots of places and if he doesn’t quite get all the strands to mesh, that’s because taking different data points, seeing a pattern and putting them together and telling a story about them is the very problem he’s identifying.
One of the starting points is Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, which in itself would probably take a 6-part documentary to explain. In short, there’s a strand of American capitalism which is rooted in the idea that success and failure are Signs – of God’s favour or its opposite. So even though everybody knows the aphorism that it’s easier for a camel to to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, American capitalism never saw a problem with accumulating wealth. But it’s a short step from success and failure being Signs to everything being a sign, and pretty soon you’re on the Hidden World Inside the World train and you don’t believe anything you see. And so Americans in particular are susceptible to conspiracy theories (or “conspiracy reporting” as Merlin Mann joked in a recent Roderick on the Line episode).
So one of the threads that Curtis pulls at here is that conspiracy theories invented over 50 years ago in order to satirise the paranoid style in American politics (and life) are now straightforwardly believed by a lot of people — and not just Americans. In fact, conspiracy theories have become the dominant mode of public discourse, for left and right alike, to the point that the left lost its collective mind over Trump and Russia and Brexit and Cambridge Analytica and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
And the reason, according to Curtis, that people have turned to conspiracy theories is that people have stopped believing in collective action. This is a quite compelling idea, that people have forgotten the lesson of history (which is that social progress has only ever been made by collective action), and turned instead to an ideology of individualism and self-actualisation. So he brings in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and while he doesn’t quite blame the Boomers, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the end of collectivism coincided with the 1960s/1970s generation growing up to selfishly pursue their own ends and vote for Thatch/Reagan. The waters are muddy here, but at some point people turned away from Trade Unions and the idea of society.
And with individualism, argues Curtis, there can be no collectivism, and so it ultimately represents the death of a belief in democracy. Individualism seems seductive but leaves people feeling lonely and isolated, and in their isolation they turn to comforting narratives, which are not the grand narratives of collective action and social progress but nationalist myths and comforting conspiracies that lay the blame for their straightened economic circumstances at the door of Foreign Elements and Enemies Within.
Curtis jumps around in history a lot, it’s part of the vibe. So we’ll go from something fairly recent to FIFTY YEARS EARLIER, and he takes us back to the 1920s for the growth of nationalist myths about Folk traditions. And I think it’s really interesting to link all those morris dancing Folk Societies with the growth of fascism and ultimately the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Make America Great Again. And it’s always this vision of a mythical past that drives people like Trump and Radovan Karovic, Slobodan Milošević, Farage, Moseley, Hitler, and the rest. And the comforting pull of imperial measurements and the so-called Blitz Spirit has been blighting this country for years. Only this week, some twat writing for the Telegraph tappety-tapped some nonsense about Old Money being better for songs. Christ.
As well as jumping around in time, Curtis jumps around the world, from America to China, the Middle East, Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he looks at what certain corrupt politicians have in common, and questions the humanitarianism that drove interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam/Cambodia, and Iraq. He notes how, just as nationalist myths drive Brexit and Trump, the Maoist revolutionary narrative in China was co-opted by politicians seeking to hold onto power or to enrich themselves.
But the problem here, if we want to see it as a problem, is that Curtis’ thesis about the death of grand narrative and the rise of conspiracy theories and pattern recognition relies very much on the latter process to hold it together. He discusses chaos and complexity theories and the rise of Big Data and links it to politicians giving up on The Vision Thing, and ceding control to technocrats and bankers. And he talks about how people started to use data points to predict human behaviour and how we all started mining data and recognising patterns that we built up into conspiracy theories. But did we? Did we all? Are we all guilty of this? I’ve got no patience with conspiracy theories, but I do have my own ‘paranoid style’ of pattern recognition, so I don’t know.
In the end, this was a fascinating documentary series, full of Curtis’ cheeky signature style of finding deeply weird video and film clips and linking them together with a seductive commentary and musical interludes. What he’s best at perhaps, is mining cultural history for forgotten figures who are nevertheless deeply influential on the way we all think and believe today. The last episode even featured the pandemic and the power of memes to drive our emotions, which was a fascinating thread I’d like to see developed. And the series ended (as it perhaps had to?) with a message of hope, and a reminder that we once changed society using collective action and we might again, if we only started to believe. But narrative is a powerful thing, and I think that we’ve all got to work harder to resist the emotional manipulation to which we are all subject.