Headspace, or, Adam Curtis redux

It’s always nice to see something new from Adam Curtis. He’s a genuine original, not just in terms of his vision but also in terms of his cultural position. There is literally no one else who holds his kind of position, salaried at the BBC to rummage in the entirety of their archives for his own purposes. Therefore, we have to value him, especially as he now is reaching pensionable age.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is a kind of capstone to the work Curtis has been doing for the past two decades or more. It has the thematic obsessions of Hypernormalisation or Bitter Lake, presented in the longer, episodic form he used for earlier work like Century of the Self.

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It’s subtitled as an ’emotional history’, which could mean that Curtis has eschewed his habitual monotone voiceover or attempts to emulate the communicative modes of reportage, but in fact means that he intends this to be understood as a history of human emotions, specifically how people have emotionally responded to key events and societal developments in recent times.

People familiar with his work, so iconic at this point that a number of biting satires exist, will know what to expect: grand macro-theories about global geopolitical developments undercut by psychological speculation deriving from key practitioners, and illustrated by the succinct telling of lifestories belonging to people from the slipstream. Not Malcolm X but Michael X, not Mao but his fourth wife Jiang Qing, not Lee Harvey Oswald but his buddy from the Marines Kerry Thornley, and so on.

This is, of course, all extremely interesting, and provocative, especially when little known or long forgotten facts, such as Michael X selling John Lennon’s hair to raise money, are illustrated with archival footage. And the sheer welter of information, and imagery, alongside Curtis’s calm and lugubrious voiceover script, and the soft lulling of an expertly curated soundtrack of ambient music, all adds to the effect of being almost hypnotised.

Curtis loves to tell us how we have collectively and individually succumbed to dreamscapes, be they the futility of revolution, the seduction of online existence, the pseudo-authority of the banks, the fabricated myths of lost nationhood. Ironically, the narratives which emerge from his own work, acute though they are at times in skewering key engagements of the West with the non-Western world, are no less delusional.

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It would be churlish and indeed ungrateful to pick holes in a work delivered to the world for free by a man who dedicated two years of his life to constructing it, a work of nearly 8 hours in length, that is carefully constructed, and perpetually intriguing and informative. So I’m not going to do that.

His theorising, in the academic sense of the word, which means argumentation that varies in quality from actual philosophising to bar room speculation to fervent ideological signalling, is exempted from the usual somewhat limited standards of academic review, largely because of the format in which he presents his arguments. The archival collage effect is so impressive, the editing so neat, the soundtrack so excellent, that one realises the inappropriateness of desiring an evidence base, or references, or footnotes.

And because he doesn’t have to provide footnotes and references, he can wildly connect this to that, across time and space, operating with the facade of reportage so it seems to be without the constrictions of ideological argument. But of course there is an ideology in there, albeit submerged and tentative, and there is a rashness to the wild connecting which suggests causality where in fact there is at best correlation, or at most ideological desire, or perhaps nothing except the sort of false pattern recognition he simultaneously propagates and excoriates.

If there’s a meta-theory beneath all of Adam Curtis’s endless, and often spurious big-picture postulating, it’s Dasein. Curtis’s sense of optimism is rooted in Heidegger’s understanding that we must really be in the world we occupy. Which is perhaps an understandable but ironic desire coming from someone who spends decades at a time in dark rooms watching ancient film footage.

The collage aspect, along with his culminating call for us all to wake up and be in the world, as well as his predeliction for slipstream figures and their tangential relationships to his grand narratives, may be why his huge lacunae often pass unnoticed. It seems perhaps that precisely because we have spoken so much about Trump and Brexit that Curtis need not refer to them except in brief passing.

Or we have worried ourselves so much about Putin’s Russia that the story of fringe element Limonov seems refreshing and interesting. Or we have agonised over both the causes of BLM and the civil unrest unleashed by it so much that it is preferable to look to previous eras and discussions of race relations, like Tupac or his mother. Or our lives have been so upended by Covid that we prefer to consider China’s business relationship with the west rather than the origins of the virus.

In the end, though, these are not slipstream events. They are the key elements of our age, and will define the chaos we have before us, indeed are already experiencing. Curtis’s slipstream narratives do not address these matters, because they don’t fit his narrative, his theorising. Curtis would have us to keep dreaming of new futures, which is desirable, but not at the expense of sleeping through the present.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is highly recommended, the keywork of a master at the top of his game. But it’s just another dream. One wonders if Curtis has it in him to document what happens if, how, when, we dead awaken. I hope so, because I doubt who else could.