Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Adam Curtis’s documentary epic Can’t Get You Out of My Head

What do you believe in? Do you have a religious faith? Do you believe in the creative arts, justice and equality, in community or a better world, the unity of humanity and the natural world? Do you believe in the value of human uniqueness and diversity? Do you believe in anything?

I had not seen an Adam Curtis documentary until my son introduced me to Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a six part series streamed on BBC iPlayer. It’s a reason to be hopeful that the BBC pays Curtis to produce such thoughtful and potentially subversive material. Although, by his own account, it doesn’t cost them very much to do it.

Curtis’s methodology is unique, although he himself credits the influence of Dos Passos’ novel USA, published in the Twenties. (For further insights into Curtis’s concerns and process, check into his Blindboy’s podcast interview.) Curtis describes the series as an “emotional history”; his desire is for his work to resonate with viewers at a feeling level. I see the programmes as a theory of everything, an epic, idiosyncratic romp through the under-explored undergrowth of social, cultural and political trends in England, China, Russia and the United States. Summarising the series is impossible, as is separating its content and approach of the programmes from my own reflections about them. It’s exhausting because, although we have no choice but to surrender to the process of watching, we are sent down rabbit holes of memory and association to follow the breadcrumb trails of cryptic references left by the programmes.

Curtis is a master at discovering stories of people, perhaps famous in their time, that we may remember, if at all, only vaguely and who to younger generations might be completely new. Each cleverly encapsulate a zeitgeist and the stories intertwine in sometimes delightful and intriguing ways. Who remembers that US President Richard Nixon, during his 1972 visit to China, accompanied Mao’s megalomaniac wife, Jiang Qing, to the opera – as both of them, Curtis says, were feeling power slipping from their grasp? There are the fascinating sagas of revolutionaries Michael de Freitas in 60s London and Tupac Shakur, a famous rapper I’d never heard of, who was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996 at the age of 25. They were both black power activists who ended up accused of just wanting money and personal power.

The grand themes of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head traverse decades and continents. Stories of white male power and privilege challenged by ultimately futile attempts to subvert that power – including from women, over gender and from black power. Existential themes of paranoia, anxiety, emptiness and revenge. In my own head I am drawn back to my sociology studies in the early sixties, to Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1962) to Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety (1950/1977), to Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie.

I’m as interested in Curtis’s process as his content (I am always interested in questions of process over content): fragments of old films and videos interspersed with narratives that in some cases – the themes of conspiracy and conspiracy theories, suspicion and paranoia, the history of China, power, the use of psychology and computers to understand and control human behaviours, the relationship of the individual to the collective – run through all six episodes. He examines attempts by psychologists, money men and political extremists to manipulate others for reasons of science, profit or power. For the scope and ambition of the series I assume we can thank the pandemic lockdowns, and the opportunity afforded Curtis for introspection, lengthy research and to spend hour upon hour trawling through of archive film footage.

Curtis tells how one branch of complexity science has led to the use of computers to manage vast amounts of data to predict the unpredictable and control the uncontrollable. He doesn’t mention a second branch of complexity thinking, to which I have been committed for over two decades in my own practice, which accepts that life is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and looks at its implications for change at institutional and social levels. Curiously, whether deliberately or unconsciously, Curtis’s own creative process aligns much more closely to this latter approach. His process is emergent – he has starting points and a methodology but no fixed destination. Very complexity. He begins with stories that have intrigued him and layers them up into meta-narratives woven with mesmerising and unexplained archive film clips – he is fond of empty streets and people dancing – and an atmospheric background sound odyssey which will mean more to music fans than it does to me. His approach aims, he says, to respect the viewer – it also disquiets and engages us, stimulates perplexity and curiosity -- necessary catalysts of learning and change.

My title references a long-standing joke: even paranoids have enemies. Curtis explores the ironic interplay of conspiracy theories and genuine conspiracies. He goes back to a fantastical belief in the early 19th century in the “Illuminati”, a belief which gathered fresh momentum in the 1950s with the exploitation by the John Birch Society of the growing melancholy and despair in the burgeoning post-war US suburbs. Curtis traces the roots of extreme Trumpist paranoia about the left wing way back to Hofstadter’s 1964 analysis of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, which in turn traces it back to the fears of persecution which drove Puritan settlers to North America in the 1600s. Meanwhile, suggests Curtis, liberals became “lost” in conspiracy theories about the interference by Russia and Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US election, playing straight into the pockets of Facebook and Twitter, who made vast profits out of the waves of emotion, primarily anger and outrage, generated. Nota bene: Clicks = currency.

Curtis brings his theme right up to date with China’s current, real experiments in “algorithmic governance” – the monitoring of vast numbers of its citizens by CCTV for purposes of social control. This type of conspiracy we should fear. According to Matt Burgess, writing in Wired in early March 2021, the UK Home Office and National Crime Agency are using the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act to test surveillance technology that could log and store the web browsing behaviour of UK citizens. It is not clear quite how worried we should be, but it is certain that during the last year Covid has offered a convenient opportunity to the government, with which the media happily colludes, to distract public attention from the real threats posed by Brexit and other government policies (reductions in the aid budget, increases in nuclear arsenal, increased police powers etc.).

A further narrative thread in Can’t Get You Out of My Head links the Chinese Opium wars to paranoid fears in the early 20th century of the “Yellow Peril”, to the Sackler brothers’ and Purdue’s invention and marketing of Valium in the 1960s – remember Valley of the Dolls? -- and the Oxycontin opioid crisis of the present century. The programmes recall that it was in 1978, the year my mother died, that former First Lady Betty Ford admitted publicly to her addiction to alcohol, painkillers and Valium. My mother had, I only relatively recently acknowledged myself, also been dependent on tranquilisers and anti-depressants, too often prescribed by male doctors to distressed women patients for relatively mild conditions of depression and anxiety.

All around the world, Curtis suggests, beliefs in the ideologies of communism and even democracy have been replaced by a belief in nothing other than the individual self (or, one could argue, nothing greater than the self), consumerism and money. He is coy about religion, which barely gets a mention – but this, as Blindboy points out, is clearly also key. Covid, concludes Curtis, has come into a world made fragile by the cracking of traditional systems and has shown just how deep the inequalities in society have become. Over the decades covered by Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, the poor have become ever more vulnerable, and the rich go on getting richer. In the future, suggests Curtis, there could be a further vanishing of individual freedoms or people might begin to imagine a new vision of the future. In the face of “anxiety and suspicion … the raw material for technology companies” we need a non-cynical belief in something better – a belief we note is expressed in the person, policies and tactics of US president Joe Biden. And he ends the programmes with the social constructivist quote from the activist, anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber, who died in 2019, with which he introduced the first programme: “THE ULTIMATE TRUTH OF THE WORLD IS THAT IT IS SOMETHING WE MAKE AND COULD JUST AS EASILY MAKE DIFFERENTLY”.

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