CJW: We've gathered together here to discuss Kylie Minogue's iconic 2001 pop hit, Can't Get You Out of My Head:
The song was released on the 8th of September, 2001 - the very end of the End of History, before two planes crashing into the World Trade Center proved that history was far from done with us.
In the opening shot of the video clip we see Kylie driving a classic muscle car along a future-coded highway, expressly demonstrating that the tools of the past were sufficient for carrying us into the future. This was neoliberal capitalism distilled into pop perfection, but little did Kylie know, the highway she was driving us all down would lead to an entrenchment of what Mark Fisher termed Capitalist Reali--
Wait, my bad…
Looks like today we’re actually talking about the new Adam Curtis documentary series, which is also called Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Mr Curtis, Ms Minogue’s lawyers will be in touch...
If you’re outside the UK and have had trouble with BBC links, or if you’ve had trouble finding Youtube links that stay live for very long, Thought Maybe will have you covered (both for this series, and for older Curtis works).
CJW: It’s a perfect opening epigraph and a thesis statement for the rest of what’s to come...
Each time I see a new AC I think it might be his best work, and that still holds here. Intertwining revolutionary China with post-imperial England and Cold War America is bringing out some fascinating parallels. And it's a time period that I honestly don't know much about beyond the basics, so it feels like I'm filling in some missing knowledge here.
When I first saw Bitter Lake, I loved it so much that I kind of took it as an objective historical document, but it's obvious now that Adam Curtis is telling a story with his documentaries (indeed, I was sad to see he dropped the "This is a story about..." opening from CGYOOMH), and that's precisely why they work so well. He's not telling THE definitive story, but he's telling a story that we probably haven't heard before, or if we've heard it before he's connecting it to other currents and other events. It's the web of connection he builds in these films that make them so compelling (and possibly important).
I imagine that real history buffs might be annoyed by what Curtis leaves out, but I'm ignorant, so this is bliss!
I’m currently in a little Adam Curtis Viewing Club with Austin and friend of the newsletter Jevon. He mentioned that Curtis’ work is compelling because he’s one of the few journalists whose work focuses on issues of power. And I think he’s completely right. We don’t like to admit how powerless we are, and how much power is held by the elites over us because of the atomised individualism that Curtis details in this series. If we’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes, then no one can truly have power over us. If we’re poor it’s because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, if we’re mentally ill it’s a personal failing not a perfectly valid response to the way society has been structured.
DCH: What I find especially fascinating about this series is Curtis seems to be taking some oft-cited but fair criticisms of his work head on. One of those is how __hopeless__ his documentaries can make you feel about the world. By opening with Graeber he’s foreshadowing that won’t be the case this time out.
Another common, and again fair, critique is how much his work indirectly supports “Great Man Theories” of history. In the past his histories have been critical about the impact people like Kissinger, Reagan, Thatcher, Rand, etc have had on the world. This time out his lens rests on Michael X, Jiang Qing, Kerry Thornley, and Afeni Shakur.
That does a few interesting things: It further re-complicates the 60s/70s backstory that Curtis explores. It also forces him to spend more time with them, telling their individual stories in more context and detail than he affords his usual suspects.
And finally, it’s not unusual to hear people (unfairly imo) accuse Curtis of conspiratorial thinking himself. Exploring Discordianism and Operation: Mindfuck as a thread in this series is a way for him to plant breadcrumbs to the “fuck you” he gives those naysayers later on. He touches on this in this interview with Michael Brooks at The Quietus:
Some critics of your work – for example, The Loving Trap parody – argue that what you do is very skilfully create elaborate narratives which make connections and draw parallels that are then presented as objective truth. Do you sometimes worry about being dismissed as part of the ‘conspiracy’ problem?
That parody is very funny and clever, and it made me reflect on myself, which is good. But let’s be clear, I’ve never in any of my films put forward a conspiracy theory. Over the last 20 years, when the mainstream left and right in this country have essentially fused together, out of that has emerged a very strong consensus. In the face of that, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has transformed itself into a shorthand to describe anyone who challenges that mainstream narrative. My job, which the BBC has tasked me to do, is to provoke people and ask them, “Have you thought about looking at the world this way?” To pull back a bit and look at what is happening in a different way. But that is not a conspiracy theory.
MKY: And yet, he starts talking about Discordianism 23mins into that ep. LOL.
CJW: Hey, sometimes you just need to put something in a work to entertain yourself. Whatever it takes to stay engaged with it.
Also, Alice on the Trash Future podcast mentioned the Hofstadter Paranoid Style essay just recently, so it was definitely one of those Odd Coincidences(TM) to see it referenced here. Link if you want it. I skimmed over the essay - it seemed like it would have been interesting and provocative in the context of its time, but right now it's both out of date and pointing at something that seems obvious in the current climate. If nothing else it’s interesting as a historical document, to see that this paranoia has been prevalent in American society for so long.
CJW: In this episode when Curtis begins talking about Germans post-WW2 realising that high-ranking Nazis were still in the government and that perhaps the whole Nazi system had survived the war (by becoming capitalist), it put me instantly in mind of TrueAnon’s series on The Spider Network, which makes a compelling argument that the Nazis actually won the war because of the way Nazi officials, scientists, research, and ideology were enthusiastically adopted by the US.
To quote Curtis’ narration:
The radical student movement [in Germany] was astonished at the violent reaction of the German government. They began to think that the problem was far deeper than individual Nazis. That maybe the whole Nazi system had also survived and was hiding, behind the facade of modern capitalism.
They argued that the very system of industrial rationality and bureaucratic control that had made the Nazi state so efficient had simply mutated. It had been taken up by the victors, above all by America, and was now being used to run the new global capitalism and the multinational corporations that were ruthlessly exploiting what was called the Third World.
Anything that stood in the system’s way was bombed or burnt, by the systems created by the same rational industrial techniques that made their consumer goods.
(And, of course, the Nazis were themselves inspired by US racial politics, and people both in the US public and government argued in favour of joining WW2 on the side of the Nazis against the Russians, so the alt-history takes on a Nazi America a la Wolfenstein II or Man in the High Castle are closer to reality than people might think.)
MKY: yeah, as I’ve heard a thousand times on various conspiracy theory podcasts etc, “the German Army surrendered. The Nazis never did.” Alt-history content wise, The Plot Against America really drilled home just how sympathetic the US was/is to that ideology, and i loved it… right up the end, when they (the libs) tried to sell the idea that voting out the fash, and electing a good centrist liberal will, ahahaha, solve everything. ~looks around the global room~
CJW: Near the end of the episode, when Curtis describes Afeni Shakur cross-examining the undercover cop, that’s some powerful stuff. Considering this, the UK undercover operations aimed at environmentalists, and the FBI plotting terrorist threats to implicate impressionable young muslims, it’s amazing (read: completely unsurprising) that the authorities are still allowed to run these sorts of ops. Because of the nature of policing and the judicial system it is farcical on every level.
MKY: that scene was incredible, and i’m not ashamed to admit this was all completely revelatory to me. Like, I knew nothing of the Panther 21, or Tupac’s heritage - or his youth. Somehow only the ‘Thug Life’ Tupac has penetrated my awareness, and this is where suggestions on the best places dig into Tupac’s journey, and his attempt to resurrect the Black Panthers, would be appreciated plz n thankyou.
See also: Michael X. Holy shit, I have never nodded along so hard with a guy being interviewed by the British Establishment. I can’t believe they let him say all that, but i guess from their perspective they were giving him enough rope to hang himself in the public’s eye.
This was my favourite ep, and a great prompt to dig into these volumes from the library i’ve been building:
And they’ll def be additions made to this library from the works Curtis references throughout.
DCH: Speaking of how The Black Panthers were stitched up by the cops, Malcolm X’s (no relation to Michael X despite what hotel staff will say) family has demanded the investigation into his murder be re-opened given a bastard cop’s deathbed confession that the NYPD and FBI were responsible. #ACAB
CJW: Part 3 is where things really begin to accelerate. We get the first inklings of climate change, the paranoia of Nixon, the failing health of Mao Zedong, the rise of oil over coal, suburban alienation, the collision of real and fake conspiracies in the American zeitgeist, and so much more. I didn’t make any notes because I could barely keep up.
I daresay Nixon taking the US off the gold standard and the establishment of the petrodollar are probably the events that most influenced the economic path we've been on ever since. But it's impossible to really isolate those, which is why this episode is such a dense web of connections. To me it's highlighting some early dominoes in a series that is still falling - for instance, Curtis connects the early Valium crisis in America with the still ongoing opioid crisis. Everything is connected, everything is more complicated than you can really understand.
DCH: So weird to mention Nixon and his silent majority coalition and not talk about the Republican’s Southern Strategy. And yeah, you’re right the rise of the petrodollar is key. But as Curtis points out in Hypernormalisation, the banks takeover of NYC in 1975’s fiscal crisis is another critical tipping point.
MKY: the framing of oxy as putting people in a ‘safe bubble’ was def an interesting take i hadn’t considered before.
DCH: I loved that Curtis was finally able to take aim at the despicable Sackler family. And that he was able to thread the needle between their malice and the working poor in mining communities.
I grew up in Appalachia. My mother was a coal-miner’s daughter. I’ve lost family to black lung. So it was even more relevant and poignant to see Curtis celebrate Harry Caudill’s crusade to empower the coal miners in the region.
Curtis has written (there’s a great video of Caudill at that link) of his fondness for Caudill before:
Caudill cares deeply about the plight of hundreds of thousands of miners and their families who have been pushed aside by mechanisation in the mines. He takes the camera round the remote valleys and into the houses of the miners - driven by a moral certainty that he must help them confront the power of the mine-owners.
He is a figure from another age. I love the way he explains the inequalities of power to a woman whose house keeps being hit by chunks of rock. The rocks are blown out by the dynamiting going on all around her. She stands there patiently listening to his progressive vision.
Also, This episode has the most to say on the topic of climate change. Mainly through the science performed by Camp Century (which was elaborate cover for Project Iceworm) that helped us see the first signs of the climate catastrophe we’re living in today.
CJW: Interesting (or ironic?) that it was a US military project that first gave us data on climate change when they’re still one of the world’s worst polluters and will never be held accountable (as long as the US hegemony is maintained)...
CJW: I badly want to throttle the condescending prick state psychiatrist every time he talks to Julia Grant. I understand that at that point in time there was little knowledge or understanding about trans people and transitioning, but he doesn't for even half a second consider using empathy or trying to understand where she's coming from. He's dismissive and hostile right from the start.
Maybe I wouldn't be so angered by it if anything had changed, but trans healthcare is still so heavily politicised. Not only that, but medicine is still so fucking sexist that cis women can have to fight just to have their health concerns taken seriously.
CJW: The situation with foreign aid in Ethiopia outlined in this episode also tracks closely with many issues that arose around foreign aid in Rwanda in the 90s. Just in case you were tempted to think anyone working in foreign aid/diplomacy learned any lessons from their fuck-ups.
The book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch goes into the Rwandan genocide and aftermath in great detail.
CJW: One thing that TrueAnon (especially the Spider Network series), and this documentary series has shown me is precisely how complicated modern history is. It's not that I ever really thought that things were simple, but rather the more I learn the more I realise just how confusing a mesh of events unfolding history is, how little I knew before, and precisely how (deliberately) simplified general views of History are and how that is driven by *sniff* ideology.
MKY: gods yes, a thousand times this. I was mentally overlaying the prev Curtis docs as i watched this, like he’s showing us a facet at a time. The more ya know… the more we’re hopefully inoculated against simplistic framings of issues and history. Like, idk - nationalist mythologies…
CJW: And there’s still so much he has to leave out. The opioid crisis could be a whole episode, QAnon wasn’t even mentioned but that could be perfect fodder for Curtis, and you could definitely slot his other movies into the chronology presented here. One day we’ll get a 24-hour, chronological/thematic CURTIS MEGACUT and our brains will never be the same again, and our internal monologues will be replaced by Curtis’ voice.
DCH: ...and we’ll have independent soundtracks full of Burial and NIN. And everything in our field of vision will come with Helvetica labels. It’ll be great.
MKY: into it. I do feel like there was def a QAnon subtext throughout this, but yeah - might’ve helped to nail the point home.
CJW: I think Curtis does a great job in this episode (picking up from one of the Limonov threads from the previous episode) of showing how nationalism always relies on a fantasy view of the nation in question, and is always invoked by the elite for corrupt and/or violent ends. Anyone who invokes nationalism is either a thug, an authoritarian-in-waiting, or is far too ignorant and stupid to have any sort of platform.
Sadly there’s a good chance this thread will be the most important one for us to keep in mind in the coming years.
DCH: In All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Curtis showed us how Robert Rubin, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, weaponized IMF policy to run roughshod over Asian economies like Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and more. In this installment of CGYOOMH, we get the details on how China avoided a similar fate. In short, they were able to leverage America’s addiction for cheap manufactured consumer goods to scoop up US debt and kick start its Belt and Roads initiative and further cement its place of dominance in the globalised economy.
MKY: yeah, China’s like, let them get addicted to cheap consumer goods and debts - we shall have our vengeance for the Opium Wars… that’s a mood alright. (Wish they’d found another way tho…)
CJW: And is China now addicted to that US money/debt? What would happen both in China and the US if China suddenly started taking environmental costs into consideration with its pricing?
CJW: Near the start of the episode when Curtis is talking about British guilt over flooding China with opium turning into fear, that made me think of the current elite’s fears about mass uprisings as society collapses and uprisings among their own security staff after the collapse. And I would argue that in both cases, that fear is because they know exactly what they deserve.
And is that part of the impetus for racist policing in the West? Knowing that black communities have every reason to react to the presence of white police with violence because of the social, economic, and physical violence they’ve been subjected to for so long, so then the police are preemptively violent. I’m not saying it would be conscious, but that maybe somewhere nestled in the racist ideology of police and policing is this fear of a just revolt.
And while we’re on the topic of racist cops - obviously I knew Birth of a Nation was so much racist bullshit, but I’m not sure if I knew that it led to the KKK. Life imitates art, in the worst possible way.
MKY: this is why i have a set of readings on Authoritarian Neoliberalism patiently waiting to be folded into my world view.
CJW: There’s also a small thread in this episode that is perhaps the best summation of American democracy - Morgenthau and his creation of the dual state. The idea that there needs to be a CIA toppling democracies, but that the public can’t know about it because it will undermine their own belief in democracy… as well it should.
DCH: Can I just take a moment to say that high-school Tupac Shakur was wise as fuck? Also nice to see Curtis close the family thread on George Boole, Ethel Lilian Voynich, née Boole, and Geoffrey Hinton. and his ideas of “Vector-World.”
MKY: me finding out the literature of the Russian revolution and the Voynich Manuscript are inextricably linked = mind blown
DCH: ...all via a family enmeshed in the history of AI.
CJW: In this series, and in this episode in particular, I think Curtis is arguing that we can't expect change through politics or governance because the politicians handed all the power to the bankers. So I'm only further convinced that the guillotine is our best way to deal with these forces that wield all this power against us.
MKY: not sure if it is this ep or not, but the whole thing about Bill Clinton putting the fears of the (white) middle class over the lives of young black men just totally encapsulated how fucked things have been for my entire adulthood, not to mention ~seemingly forevers~. Which is the whole, the two party system are only interested in the needs of the bourgeoisie. And i think this Curtis pill has only made me more of some kinda non-wanky Marxist (they exist, right?). Or, as they say in Letterkenny, I CAN'T BELIEVE WE’RE NOT ALL IN THE MIDST OF A WORLD-WIDE GENERAL STRIKE RN. I just wish i knew where we’d go from there.
CJW: I did like how toward the end of this episode Curtis was talking about the way individualism might soon begin to fade, but I was also worried by that, seeing as the other thread he was following through a large section of this documentary was nationalism. I don't wish to trade one for the other, but even in Australia the government's (frankly clumsy and obvious) attempts at reinvigorating a sense of nationalism are a little frightening.
DCH: Curtis argues for a new kind of radical politics.
There’s real hunger for an alternative. People aren’t just sitting back and pretending they want to be radicals, they do want some radical new solutions, but there are none. I think the question of why there are none might almost be the key to how you invent a new future.
I think somewhere, built in to the system, there’s something that actively stops us from having visions of the future. It’s almost like there’s a blockage.
I notice the only person who’s doing this is Bernie Sanders. He’s going round America holding town meetings with the people who voted for Trump and I think that’s exactly right. That’s a sort of new, rational politics… he points to the future.
He believes we’ve been collectively and globally traumatized by big visions since WW2. He wants our elected leaders to realize they haven’t given away all their power to the think tanks and bankers. He also wants us, ourselves, to stand up collectively and claim our own power--like the unions have done in the past.
CJW: I feel like this quote from Curtis in the New Yorker could be seen as a thesis statement for the series, and resonates with the sliver of hope the final episode ends on.
I work on instinct as much as anyone else does, and my instinct tells me that people are fed up with that feeling of helplessness. They’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t just come from inside them—that maybe they are weak for a reason, and not because of themselves.
DCH: Very much so. Diane Morgan asked him what prompted the film. He said:
Why, post-Trump and Brexit, did none of the people who hated Trump and Brexit have any alternative to offer? Why did they spend all their time going into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about Vladimir Putin rather than actually thinking: “Well, actually, if all these people are really pissed off, can we offer something better than weirdos like Donald Trump and strange dreams like Brexit?” They didn’t. That was my theme and I had all these stories to fit together.
DCH: Obviously this episode is my sweet spot. Much of the series was about the role real and imagined conspiracies play in misdirecting people from the malicious actions of those in power. The thread here, and this is something not enough people properly understand, is that nutjobs like Qanon proponents aren’t lacking in media literacy, quite the opposite in fact. It’s that they’ve gamified it.
DCH: Curtis’s work has always been about exposing the secret history of power. Making visible the often all-too-invisible connections that keep the same systems and networks of power in place across generations. What’s unique about this series is how up-to-minute the framing is. He references Biden taking the White House, covid vaccine rollouts, and the like. That coupled with his closing shot of optimism and calling back to the opening quote by Graeber somehow makes this his most optimistic work.
This series builds on themes prevalent in a lot of Curtis’ work but most especially in The Century of The Self and Hypernormalisation. If you’re new to Curtis and enjoyed CGYOOMH then I’d highly recommend you try those next.
MKY: the whole, “oh yeah, people’s minds are way more resistant to hackery” point he ends on, which was a cause for optimism… I wish he’d gone harder on that. Coz the flipside is that all these QAnon/Capital Insurrectionists/Maga folx/whatever… they weren’t, like, reprogrammed to be “Evil”, it just gave them an excuse to drop their masks (something we keep seeing more and more and more of since).. And that. That. Is. Worse. Like, they can’t just delete their facebook accounts and stop getting, ugh, red-pilled by the Great Algorithms. The problems are clearly so much deeper. One might say endemic, even.
DCH: I think a similar vein bothered me. Curtis thinks social media is a scam. He and Doctorow both think big tech’s efficacy is over-stated and that plain old fashioned POWER is more to blame for all of this *waves hands around*.
And while there’s some truth to that I think there’s just too much well-done research by academics like William Brady and Molly Crockett. Besides, both things can be true. Claims of ad-tech reach and success are inflated BUT ads aren’t the vehicle for radicalization… content from your friends and family are.
And I think Curtis acknowledges that in his work generally. I think he just didn’t land that point as well in this series. Or maybe his stance has changed. Would be good to rewatch All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace and see if that’s the case. Might just do that.
Likewise, I think it’s fair to accuse MSNBC-liberals of over-exaggerating Russian Interference it still doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Lord knows Curtis himself is largely responsible for getting more people to understand the scope, scale, and tactics of Vladislov Surkov.
MKY: um yeah, def feeling ~seen~ there. The Surkov bits in Hypernormalisation (and that trailer/teaser whatever) are still looping in my brain meats [and spilling into my novel].
DCH: Earlier y’all mentioned the opioid crisis could have been a whole episode. I feel like climate change got even short shrift. I kept expecting him to come back to it given all the teases along the way but he never really closed the loop on that. And of course, given all the time spent on China, I was hoping for some mention of the current Chinese genocide of the Uighurs. All good topics for future films perhaps.
CJW: I wonder if he avoided going deep into Climate Change or the Opioid Crisis precisely because his speciality isn’t in deep dives, but rather in obscure connections. We all know the basic story of climate change, and we all have a pretty good idea of how far back we could go in holding the fossil fuel companies responsible (if we ever had the collective power to do such a thing), so I’m not sure what else Curtis could say about it. I still think he could do a really powerful hour on the opioid crisis, but maybe that’s too distinctly American to interest him.
Anyway, as much as Curtis' documentaries (and this one in particular) are interconnected webs of History and narrative, I also see CGYOOMH as itself sitting in an interconnected web of so much other stuff I've been consuming. Multiple threads have been explored in greater depth on the TrueAnon podcast, Chapo, etc, as well as the web of publications we're building here every issue. The thread about consciousness in the final episode or two connected with my recent reading of Peter Watts' Blindsight and Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel (the former being inspired by one of Metzinger’s earlier books), which made the discussion near the very end about training out the individualism in people ring kind of different for me… Could that be an evolution of the human animal away from this consciousness and the fictional sense of self that we've stumbled into?
It's all connected, but also, I feel like CGYOOMH is only a starting point for further learning, rather than a complete assemblage. Perhaps that's a reflection on me though more than this series - I have, after all, spent the years since Hypernormalisation reading an awful lot of articles, essays, and books, and listening to a lot of podcasts that delve deep into politics and history. When (and I do mean when) I rewatch this series, I'm sure it will be to pick up on threads for further study, rather than simply to take it in on its own.
He describes his films as a combination of two sometimes contradictory elements: a stream of unusual, evocative images from the past, richly scored with pop music, that are overlaid with his own, plainly delivered, often unverifiable analysis. He seeks to summon “the complexity of the world.”
Watching Curtis’s back catalogue put Moore into a state that he likened to a lucid dream. “We tend as individuals to acquire a massive image bank, a massive archive of experiences and things that we’ve seen, and so the archives that Adam has access to, that’s almost like our collective cultural memory,” he said. “And, by juxtaposing those images, one with another, he makes these startling convergences of meaning, exactly like a dream does—where you perhaps don’t understand it all on first experience but where it is haunting.” Moore told me that he felt “quite neurologically fizzy” after each film. At the end of the binge-watch, he sent Curtis a postcard, comparing his work to “the kind of dream where we become aware that we are dreaming and can thus attain agency over the torrent of nonsense.”
CJW: Interesting critique here too, which might point to some of the concerns I had above: Framing Adam Curtis – xenogothic
DCH: I’ve always loved this description of his process. It’s a small part of a much more wide-ranging interview of Curtis by Jonathan Letham. Well-worth your time. Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything By Jonathan Lethem at The New York Times Magazine
Curtis is justly proud of his adeptness in the archives: “It’s all stored in a giant warehouse on the outskirts of West London, deliberately kept anonymous. It’s the biggest film archive in the world. The cataloging is good, although it’s been done at different stages. But, because the BBC is an organization that has a vast global news output, I discovered that, throughout the 1980s, there were these giant two-inch videotapes, called COMP tapes, onto which satellites would just dump stuff overnight. And they’re not well cataloged. You can go to a news item and see; if there was a COMP tape for that day, you can order it up. Those two-inch tapes start to degrade, but they’ve been transferred, and they’re amazing.”
“Or no. Sometimes they’re very boring. Sometimes they’re like an hour of a chair waiting for someone to come to it. I don’t do that Andy Warhol stuff of a chair for an hour. But then, someone will come to the chair and prepare, and you’ve got that moment. When one of those COMP tapes turns up for me because of something I’ve ordered, I just press fast forward and go through it all. Until something catches my eye, and then I will then digitize it. And I’ve got a very good memory. I have a pattern memory, an associative way of thinking.”
“If you really want to know, it’s like a computer game, the archive. There are different levels. Most people can only get to Level 1. I can get to Level 6.”
MKY: I haven’t had a chance to listen to this in full, but The Antifada crossover ep discussing this is pretty damn meaty so far.
Far, far, far too much to list. Thankfully there’s a playlist.
Books Mentioned (via Reddit):
People Mentioned (also mostly via Reddit):