In Defence of Adam Curtis

The new series by Adam Curtis has elicited eye-rolling among many on the left – but despite its critics, 'Can’t Get You Out of My Head' is the BBC filmmaker's most radical work in years.

For anyone with more than a few socialists (or at least fellow travellers) on their social media feeds, it began as a trickle, and then a gush. The oven-ready critiques came thick and fast. It could only mean one thing: Adam Curtis has something new out.

Over the course of the 2010s, his films grew from minor BBC oddities to veritable collective viewing experiences. Not far behind came the backlash: first as parodies of varying quality, then concerns about what his hypnotic style might be doing to impressionable minds, followed by a chorus of ostentatious boredom. The subject of the 2021 edition of all this fuss merits some closer examination.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head is his longest work yet, with a cumulative running time of nearly eight hours. The length is partly explained by the subject matter: these films cover just about every theme in the Adam Curtis Cinematic Universe. His early concern with the use and abuse of history and memory for political ends, as examined in 1995’s The Living Dead, makes a welcome comeback here in the context of today’s assault on critical approaches to history under the guise of a war on ‘wokeness’.

Here, he attempts to synthesise this with his subsequent interest (as in The Century of the Self and The Trap) in the intersection of a loosely-defined individualism with processes of technocratic depoliticisation. It goes something like this: if you reduce politics to the science of managing atomised individuals, then the ghosts of your past will forever haunt you, because society no longer has any means of either correcting historic injustices nor creating an alternative history.

As such, Curtis strikes a resoundingly unpatriotic tone in these films. He takes any excuse to use footage of the British Empire at its most unpleasantly imperial: within the first ten minutes of the first episode we are in a post-war Kenyan concentration camp; later it is pith-helmeted officials getting out the calipers, or colonial police administering beatings.

For the more literal-minded viewer, though, his rooting of contemporary systems of control in colonialism becomes a point of frustration, as he appears to argue that colonial administrative techniques were the decisive origin of computational rationality, but this is to miss the point. The footage he uses functions as evidence of how these systems rhyme historically. Both cases involve the circumscription and prediction of behaviour, both involve the control of restive populations, frequently for the purposes of labour. His discussion of the British interest in understanding the ‘African mind’ ultimately derives from Aime Cesaire’s 1950 Discourse on Colonialism: techniques of oppression and exploitation deployed at the periphery will return to the metropole.

We also get for the first time a glimpse of what a Curtisean hero might look like, in the forms of the Black Panther Afeni Shakur and the British transgender activist Julia Grant. For someone taken so frequently as a strident critic of individualism, Curtis makes individuality a central part of how he tells their stories. Shakur defends herself against a terrorism charge, brought against her with the help of several informants, and wins. Julia Grant confronts a stomach-churningly paternalistic and patriarchal NHS, and manages to maintain her dignity. Her story elaborates Curtis’s idea of the individual a little more: it is not so much individuality as such that is the problem, but individualism in a society shorn of any bonds of care or solidarity.

When complications from her gender confirmation surgery mean Grant is unable to have sex, her partner breaks up with her, leaving her in a deeply lonely place – individual identity is fine, as long as it is one chosen off the shelf, with an identified place in the market. The sympathetic portrayal of these stories should both disappoint the (rather alarming) reactionary section of his fanbase: it is clear for Curtis that the individualist cat is out of the bag: we cannot go back, and neither should we want to.

These portrayals of heroism lead to Curtis’ first cautiously optimistic conclusion since Pandora’s Box in 1992. Both series cover similar ground: that all these foregone conclusions and inevitabilities in technology and society are just a cover for political and business decisions made as far away from the public eye as possible. There is no transcendent reason that we cannot do things differently. This is the purpose of the thread about conspiracy and conspiracy theories that meanders through the series: they are epiphenomenal to this ‘ultimate hidden truth of the world’.

So why all the sighing and eye-rolling? Why does work that ranges so widely and poses questions like this get dismissed as the work of a hack?

The longer and more wide-ranging they become, the more the films of Adam Curtis have turned into a ‘Rorschach test for people to project their own professional anxieties upon’, as one person put it. Professional historians pick him up for glaring errors in detail, or for presenting histories that do not even come close to the academic consensus. Philosophers dismiss his work as addressing philosophically uninteresting issues: the hammer’s view of a nail comes to mind with this one. Culture writers argue his treatment of culture as secondary to political power is reactionary. Not to mention the fact that Your Boyfriend enjoys his films.

These all rest on treating Curtis as something he isn’t – a cultural critic, a historian, a philosopher, and expecting his associative, archive-raiding form to simply expand to fit any of these disparate approaches, with nothing being lost in the process. The worst of all these critiques is the frequent assertion that his work has been ‘damaging’ or is even ‘dangerous’ to the public understanding of what he discusses: isn’t he the one who is supposedly treating people as mindless automata incapable of understanding ideas?

Curtis calls what he does ‘journalism’, but it owes most to a particular style of American novel. He has mentioned John Dos Passos as an influence, and there’s clearly an affinity with the collagic, cut-up style of his U.S.A trilogy. Combining straightforward narrative fiction, stream-of-consciousness autobiography, and snippets of news articles, popular songs, and biography of public figures, Dos Passos attempted to portray the USA’s social development in a total fashion, from what happened inside people’s heads to much wider changes in how people worked and lived.

His heirs are writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, or James Ellroy in his Underworld USA trilogy. All try, in quite different ways, to depict the way history of their times worked out in the emotional lives of their characters. Pynchon, for example, also treated as a po-mo parody conspiracy theorist was trained as an engineer, and worked for Boeing, and has concerns very close to Curtis’: the rapid inflation of the scientific secret state in the USA after World War II, and how this worked out into society at large, through great American institutions like the suburb, psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. Ellroy is more interested in the hard application of power, as befits his famously telegraphic style – in this respect not so close to Curtis’s often dreamy ambient archive-meanders, but with a similar breadth.

It is also interesting to wonder just how much Curtis is playing a character in interviews, á la Ellroy. He claims that he is merely doing journalism, that he is actually making neoconservative arguments, that he doesn’t really have any politics: but these could equally be taken as a deliberate overidentification with the persona suggested by his steady, grammar school-BBC accented narration.

There is also another explanation for the hostility to Curtis’ work – that what he does now hits too close to the bone. Post-Corbyn, describing political debate in Britain as amounting to who can best manage the decline would be more than charitable. This paralysis is almost majestic in its completeness. Mexico, where I live, is a very different place, but politicians that recently swept to power with promises to end decades of corrupt, brutal, and unjust government seem similarly powerless (or unwilling) to do much more than tinker around the edges. It is easy to see why it could be uncomfortable viewing someone lay out a narrative that describes how ‘power’—fill in with your entrenched interest of choice—has, often in absurd and embarrassing ways, brought us to this impasse.