Adam Curtis’s Modern Discontents

Iron Cage

Adam Curtis’s modern discontents.


Like the slapstick routines of Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges, Adam Curtis’s films revolve around a shtick. His métier is one of uncanny juxtapositions in sight and sound, united by droll narration and associative leaps—from topics as disparate as prescription drug abuse by America’s suburban housewives to the machinations of Saudi oil barons—to illustrate how they are all part of a larger scheme in the way the world is run. Curtis has developed this style not only because of the way it casts a spell over the viewer (the sound of his posh English accent, punctuated by images of street protest and ambient music, is a strange pleasure all its own) but because it allows him to tackle an issue that might otherwise seem invisible: how power works in society. Each of Curtis’s inquiries into power—whether he’s exploring the connected histories of public relations and psychiatry, the shared influences of neoconservatism and radical Islam, or the neo-Darwinist and libertarian roots of Silicon Valley—is framed as a journalistic endeavor, but his films are also essays that go where conventional documentary journalism cannot. His approach is crafted to engage with an idea that journalistic exposés could only dimly illuminate: the ways that modernity has created a populace of “little monsters” living lives of false freedom.

Curtis, of course, includes himself and his viewers in this braying horde, and the question that haunts his work is whether, in our age of atomization and rampant individualism, we’ve entered “strange days” in which freedom is just a more invidious kind of bondage. The ordinary human subject in his work is instead guided by “managers of perception,” leaders in public and private perches who help shape, at an almost molecular level, the bureaucracy of daily life. The complexity of modern society, he argues, has led to an era of illusory individualism in which those in power have created bulwarks against revolutionary energies that might subvert the status quo.

Curtis’s latest, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, is perhaps his most ambitious, a six-part, eight-hour film that is vast and globe-trotting. Connecting stories as diverse as the travails of the Black Panther Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac), the imprisonment of alleged Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah at Guantánamo Bay, and the tragic and violent ambitions of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, the film also explores the origins of contemporary conspiracy theories; the intersecting histories of artificial intelligence, surveillance, and chaos theory; and the specters of empire that haunt British life.

Yet while Can’t Get You Out of My Head has all of the hallmarks of a Curtis film, there is something different about his latest BBC production. A maddening and definitive case study in what makes his work at once so moving and annoying, the film is also Curtis’s most hopeful. He has often said that the only thing he really believes in is progress, which can be hard to see amid the dread his work luxuriates in. But here Curtis amends his pessimism: While his latest film is littered with the detritus of modernity’s discontents—inequality, elitism, and the utter failure of revolutions, democratic or otherwise—it also attempts to find in the midst of this loathsome chronicle a new fount of optimism that we may have arrived at a stage of history (post-Trump, post-Covid, post-everything) in which transformation at last seems possible.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head begins and ends with a quote from the late anthropologist David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” The line is taken from Graeber’s 2015 book The Utopia of Rules, which itself argues that we live in a time “of total bureaucratization,” when the managerial functions of political and corporate systems have led to a society poisoned by a lack of imagination, unable to envision liberation. This argument is central to the story Curtis tells again and again in his work, and the borrowed aphorism signals what might be a different conclusion to a tale he has recounted ad nauseam. Yet where Graeber invested his energies in the prospects for collective action, Curtis understands the world through the shadows that world-historical individuals cast. Even in hope, Curtis still sees a world of little monsters waiting for what comes next.

Curtis’s interest in the governance and control of unchecked individualism in the modern age has abided throughout his oeuvre, but Can’t Get You Out of My Head approaches the subject with a new lens. In the first episode, he explains that he wants to provide “an emotional history of what happened in the heads of all kinds of people” in the 20th century, to understand how “what you felt” became the driving force of our age. “To understand the present…you have to go back and see [how] hopes, dreams, and uncertainties inside people’s minds met the much older forces of power…that was decaying and desperate to keep its ascendancy.” The primacy of the emotional might suggest that Curtis is borrowing from new schools of cultural criticism—affect theory, in particular—but it seems his interest is more psychoanalytic and sociological: The mental makeup and conflicting desires of those possessed by power give him a road map through the 20th century.

Two figures bookend Curtis’s film—Jiang Qing and Tupac Shakur—and in their own ways they each help him return to some of his favorite bogeymen: the poisonous legacy of “radical individualism,” the subordination of radical politics into cultural expression and spectacle, the failure of mass revolution, and the rise and brutal victory of the managerial and surveillance state. In between this unlikely pair, we also meet Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, whose story of momentary triumph against authority offers a glimmer of hope.

By choosing characters both well-known and marginal, Curtis offers us a history that is expansive but personal. His study of Jiang—the legacy of both her actions and her feelings—is a model for this approach. Born in 1914, Jiang was an actress and a revolutionary, and her ambition to succeed in both roles led her to believe, Curtis tells us, in “the power of her will to shape reality.” Through Jiang, Curtis turns to a set of historical avatars to chart the formation of what we now know as the status quo—which is to say, how the violence and failures of the 20th century led to a pacified and managed society. But he does so by looking past conventional Western examples to show us how the West’s experience of modernity was not all that different from China’s. The importance of a figure like Jiang in Curtis’s retelling of the 20th century is to highlight the interconnected nature of societal transformations, and to make clear that the burdens of stagnation and paralysis in the 21st century are shared globally.

Curtis charts Jiang’s rise from failed movie actress to engineer of the Cultural Revolution in the first three episodes. The ruthless ambition and bitter rivalries Jiang developed during her years in the Shanghai studio system defined her path in life, and she carried them to Yan’an when she joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a young revolutionary. These longstanding resentments had a tangible effect, Curtis argues, and it was her anger that helped ignite not just the violence of the Cultural Revolution but a shift in the country’s consciousness—one informed by a paranoia and repression that continues to this day. Curtis also fixates on the idea that Jiang was haunted, her mind clouded by a past rife with violence—one she was foreordained to reproduce because she could not imagine a world that did not center on the individual. We are introduced to her as she is released from a sanatorium in Moscow, where she’d been exiled for some time, and is called back to Beijing to support Mao in a moment of weakness. She aided her husband by reinventing the country’s film industry, turning old Chinese operas into propaganda. Curtis claims that her goal was to give the country a “giant melodrama” that would “work millions of people up into an intense frenzy” in order to smash the old “ideas that were still lodged in people’s heads and break through to a new kind of society.” Through these films, and with the help of the growing student movement in the Red Guard, Jiang agitated and mobilized an entire generation against her and Mao’s enemies, who were portrayed as the elites ruining the country. Yet she “had lost control” Curtis says, and the brutality of the ensuing Cultural Revolution traumatized the nation and informed the reactions of the Chinese government for nearly half a century.

After Mao’s death, Jiang failed to consolidate power and was deposed by Deng Xiaoping, who moved quickly to erase the past and chart a new path for the country, one in which “money would replace the old revolutionary dreams” and unleash “a kind of mass consumerism never seen before in the world.” Supported by Western banks that lent millions to both China and its rivals, Deng’s regime turned the country into a manufacturing hub for cheap consumer goods sold to Western nations. But despite his campaign to reorient the country toward capital, the specter of revolution lived on, and Chinese leaders continue to stabilize the system through repression, creating the most oppressive surveillance apparatus in the world, through which the behavior of the citizenry is tracked and corrected with precision.

While Curtis’s idea of China in the 20th century might map onto some commonly held beliefs, its overdetermined framing and reliance on the actions of a few obscures some of the more complicated questions about economy and ideology, instead conforming to a certain Western liberal consensus on the country. There is no discussion of the various political disputes in the CCP or the morphing policies and material conditions that animated the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. As is common in Curtis’s histories, revolutionaries are a formless mass, not beset by contradictions and countervailing desires.

By sacrificing some of the details, though, Curtis is able to show how people all over the world are connected in their alienation due to the gravitational energies of influential individuals. His arguments can be dizzying, like the one he unspools in the third part of the series, “Money Changes Everything,” which looks at how the rise of fossil fuels and the petro-kingdoms of the Middle East changed power relations around the world, leading not only to climate change but also to the weakening of organized labor in America’s coal country and the emergence of the opioid crisis. In turn, the manufacturing boom in post-Mao China produced cheap consumer goods at a scale never before seen in history, allowing the country to “take control” of the global economy and to facilitate another addiction in the West: to debt, which Western societies like the US have accrued at a ferocious rate in their engagement with Chinese manufacturing. Through these two indulgences—debt and pharmaceuticals—Curtis suggests the American masses have entered a dream world that insulates them from the anxieties of the present.

This impulse to sketch out the fantastical (but also often credible) interconnectedness of tragedies around the world is nothing new for Curtis, but with Jiang he applies a familiar narrative strategy on the largest possible scale. Yet its generalized application has the secondary effect of revealing how much his system, and the world as a whole, strains to remain coherent when we look at it from such a wide angle. Just as Jiang’s machinations influenced an entire country’s behavior, so too, in Curtis’s view, did the actions of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the subject of Curtis’s The Century of the Self, who used his uncle’s theories to invent the field of public relations in order to help rewire American public life toward rank consumerism. Likewise, in The Power of Nightmares, Curtis argues that neoconservatives in the US government—a group of elites inspired in part by the political philosopher Leo Strauss—helped unite the country against the supposed common enemy of radical Islam, supplying it with a bogeyman that would distract the people through fear, assuring that power would remain in the hands of these elites.

What Jiang, Bernays, and the neocons share, Curtis implies, is a noxious blend of ambition, disdain for the public, and an almost demonic possession by the lust for power, which allowed them to direct the currents of history and perhaps forestall radical change. Mapping this idea onto a planetary canvas with his new film, Curtis offers a chilling and sometimes convincing account of power’s ripples and afterlives, but like a computer image stretched to the point of pixelization, his larger portrait obscures more than it clarifies.

But something else gets lost in Curtis’s zealous focus on the callow elites who manipulate the masses. His sweeping claims about the “managers of perception” who run our world give off not only the stink of conspiracy but also that of condescension. The needs of ordinary citizens—whose deprivations, material and spiritual, form the basis of any political struggle—are absent. The problem with Curtis’s grand narratives is that we find so little resistance in them, so few moments when the masses feel like people. Every now and then, he does look at so-called regular people, but to be characters in his story, they must be extraordinary, even for a second, awakened from the false consciousness of our times—which is how he introduces us to the Shakur family.

Before we meet Tupac in the film, we meet his mother, Afeni Shakur. She was born in 1947 and grew up in North Carolina before moving to New York City as a teenager with her mother and sister to escape her abusive father. At a speech by Bobby Seale announcing the creation of a Black Panther chapter in New York, Afeni was inspired by his talk of “bringing change and order…to heal the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow.” Curtis begins her story after she has joined the Harlem chapter, changed her name, and become a committed Panther. He highlights her later explanation of what the Panthers meant: “There was now something I could do with all this aggression and all this fear…. The Panther Party, for me at that time, clarified my situation. They took my rage and channeled it against ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ They educated my mind and gave me direction.” Here again, feeling is the catalyst, and Curtis uses Afeni to demonstrate how the emotion of conviction can produce extraordinary moments. In Afeni’s case, it was her heroic battle against the police spies who attempted to destroy the Harlem chapter from within.

In April of 1969, Afeni and 20 other Panthers were arrested and charged with conspiracy to bomb police stations and other public places throughout the city. The charges could have resulted in a 300-year prison sentence, and Curtis presents the trial through archival clips and passages from Afeni’s memoir. Then pregnant with Tupac, she begins to take center stage in these episodes. During the trial, Afeni chose to represent herself, and it was her valiant self-defense that led not only to her acquittal but to that of the other Panthers as well.

The turning point came when Afeni cross-examined Ralph White, a police mole in the Panthers. In her questioning, Afeni got him to admit that he and two other undercover agents had been behind many of the violent and illegal provocations that the Panthers were accused of. More than that, she got him to admit that he found the work of the Panthers “powerful,” “inspiring,” and “beautiful” and that he felt he’d betrayed the community by his actions. This confession devastated the state’s case against Afeni and her peers, and the jury soon declared them not guilty.

Curtis presents the trial of the Panther 21 and Afeni’s role in it with sympathy. Ordinary people, it turns out, can resist and even fight back against the state. He also finally gives us a more textured account of how those who are the subjects of the state’s manipulation can end up seeing through it and breaking free. But when Afeni leaves the stage, so too does Curtis’s sympathy, and we are stuck instead with hours of his frustration with her son Tupac, whose story represents the bastardization of the same revolutionary energies that inspired his mother.

Tupac, in Curtis’s presentation, is not all that different from a figure like Jiang. While he was, “on the surface, part of the age of the individual…he was one of the few in the 1980s who still believed in the power of grand stories to move people and to inspire them to change the world.” Like his mother, Tupac Shakur was inspired by the Panthers, and he sought to revive the fervor they’d engendered through political music that cast him as a revolutionary figure. Yet in doing this, Tupac made a mistake that so many of the revolutionaries in Curtis’s films make: “By moving radical politics into the world of culture, Tupac had also become part of the fairy-tale world because he helped keep the anger and the dissent sealed off from the real world of politics and power.”

Tupac’s failures and celebrity narcissism led to something more cataclysmic. With his death, Curtis finds that something else also expired around the same period: In place of Afeni’s era of Black solidarity came a divided community with “gangs that then turned on each other.” Again, we see a story in which Curtis frames an incisive critique about the loss of Black radicalism’s spirit in Tupac’s music, but with a view of Black American life that is told primarily through the actions of one person (and that rehearses some pretty racist tropes along the way).

Characters like Tupac are emblematic of another of Curtis’s fixations: In his reading of modern history, radicals are almost always ineffectual. They occasionally succeed, as Afeni did, but more often they pour their energies into culture rather than effecting change in the realm of hard power. Curtis also made this argument in 2016’s HyperNormalisation, in which he asserts that Patti Smith was among the “left-wingers who…dreamt of changing America through revolution [but] did nothing” and so “retreated” into the “abandoned buildings of [1970s] Manhattan” to make art and channel their dissent into emotional experience rather than collective action. For Curtis, it is not just the elites who have stifled collective politics, but also those feckless members of the left who got lazy and opted to go the route of mass culture to package their messages of change.

One can point to some of the many lapses in Curtis’s version of the left (at least in America): how it ignores a century of agitation, be it from the multiracial coalitions of the Popular Front (which did use culture as way to popularize a larger vision of social democracy), to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, to the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter. In ignoring this history of ordinary people not only resisting but sometimes also changing their times, Curtis allows himself to boil down a more complex set of ideas and people into the simple theory that rules much of his work: The reason the world hasn’t changed in a century is that we have run out of good stories to tell.

Curtis has twice appeared on the podcast Chapo Trap House, and both times he circled around a question that he likes to pose to liberals and the left: Do you really want change, or “do you just want things to change a little bit? Do you just want the banks to be a little bit nicer, say, for people to be a little more respectful of each other’s identities?” He wonders if many well-intentioned people really just want to “carry on living in [their] nice world,” whose unjust conditions they will only “tinker with,” not change. He goes on to say:

There are millions of people out there who do want change. And the key thing is, they feel they’ve got nothing to lose. You might have lots to lose, but they feel they’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. But at the moment, they’re being led by the right. So things won’t remain the same, but society may go off in ways that you really don’t want.

Curtis delivered this monologue after the release of HyperNormalisation, and it certainly has some truth to it. There is a hunger for real, structural change around the Western world in the face of what mostly feels like minor polite reform. But it also captures precisely what is so frustrating about Curtis’s idea of change. It is unclear who he thinks the agents of a good kind of change are. The riddle of his politics looms over his work and his thesis that what changes the world is a good story. An interview he gave to Film Comment in 2012 is often used as a smoking gun, the evidence that all Curtis skeptics need to understand who he really is. In it, he rebuffs the notion that he is of the left and says that in The Century of the Self, he argues “something very close to a neo-conservative position,” because he thinks “with the rise of individualism, you tend to get the corrosion of the other idea of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own.”

To cast Curtis as a conservative might seem like a convenient skeleton key. It can be easy to see his railing against the rise of radical individualism as a desire to go back to the bonds of family, work, and community. But his politics have always had a contradictory and contrarian air. In the interviews he’s given for Can’t Get You Out of My Head, he’s praised Black Lives Matter and the presidential candidate Marianne Williamson for speaking in “big, historical dimensions” about the rotten structures that the United States is built on. He also makes clear that he is suspicious of tech overlords, capitalism, and rampant inequality.

Yet even if Curtis identifies the obvious enemies of progress, he never clarifies what would satisfy the needs of the working people he says he casts his lot with—health care, enfranchisement, and the other boring things he never examines. Instead, the mystifications of a big story are what ignites the march forward. Obviously, Curtis is not responsible for giving his audience a program for change, but there is a tension in his work that bedevils his insistence that he is merely a journalist interested in the phenomena of power. Time and time again, his telling of history, cloaked in his high-art style and seemingly studied narration, reaffirms and gives credence to some of the most caricatured renderings of China, of Black politics, of all manner of historical moments. Even if these events are juxtaposed in the most dazzling and creative ways, soundtracked with beautiful music and illustrated through arresting archival footage, his alternative histories are ultimately more wearying than conventional ones—they come to resemble propaganda themselves, an advertisement for the BBC’s documentation of a century. In this light we can best understand the pallid note of hope that Can’t Get You Out of My Head ends on.

Concluding with a potted soliloquy about the possible futures that could emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, Curtis proposes three scenarios. The first involves the disappearance of individualism and, with it, the idea of individual freedom, which will result from the leveraging of our personal data by corporations and governments to manage human behavior around the world. The second involves a future that will come to look like the past: a return to stability, wherein individualism is managed by a “benign elite”—a door opened with Joe Biden’s presidency. The third possibility, he says, involves picturing genuinely new kinds of futures, ones that Curtis does not bother imagining himself. For him, we simply can’t imagine them yet: “We as individuals have to regain the confidence we have lost in this frightened and uncertain time.” So the most hopeful vision on offer here is an appeal to abandon the ideas of the past, to imagine something we have yet to imagine.

For Curtis’s shtick to continue, the past must always feel like a punishment and the present a prison sentence that we suffer through till death comes for us. It’s an effective technique for rousing disgust and anger at certain targets, be it hippies or elites, but the song and dance starts to feel stale when the radical appeal, the new big idea, is as timid as imagining something different.

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