To attempt to unpack the evolution of virtue and sentiment leading up to present-day society is an extraordinary undertaking – one which invites disorientation, disorder and chaos.
The first instalment of Adam Curtis’ new documentary series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, pulls together diverse threads across case studies which illustrate the psychological warfare brought about through power relations between people on individual and collective levels.
The nations studied – China, Russia, the UK, the USA – consider themselves global superpowers, bastions of progress, and they frequently find themselves at odds with each other, their public governance in disarray.
One of the great pleasures of experiencing Curtis’ work is the privileged access to rare and striking archival films it provides.
At first these films appear juxtaposed because of their disparate themes and contexts, but they are carefully woven together in a winding narrative.
This narrative stops at a given time and place to pick up theory which then frames transcontinental case studies that feed on the connections between power and emotion.
The series’ first episode, Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain, opens with a quote from esteemed anthropologist David Graeber, who died in September last year, which reads: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
This statement parallels concerns voiced by Kerry Thornley regarding the effects of conspiracy theories half a century prior.
While Thornley and his movement – Discordianism – worked from a discursive tradition vastly different to Graeber’s, he believed that power was able to reify itself through eliciting suspicion in people, and that conspiracies about hidden powers made the public feel weakened in their ability to challenge authority.
Thornley’s disbelief in a natural order of things is set against the work of Jim Garrison (a contemporary of his) and George Boole (a nineteenth-century logician and mathematician) in Curtis’ piece.
Both Garrison and Boole encouraged the solving of problems through the examination of patterns, in the context of their respective fields.
But Garrison’s alternative modes of enquiry and new rules of thought began to aid the undermining of consistent logic; he credited “time and propinquity” with the authority to explain the why behind events occurring in a surrounding world the public would never be able to make sense of, as its core truths would always be deliberately obscured.
Fear and suspicion are spectres that appear in different forms throughout Curtis’ documentary in each constituent case presented.
The story he tells of “Englishism” holds manifold reminders of the depraved behaviour of the British empire, which continued long after its territorial administrations collapsed.
This applied on both an individual and mass scale.
Detention camps in Kenya where British colonial authorities committed war crimes. In the “homeland”, white nationalism was propelled by confusion and dejection felt by beneficiaries of British imperialism, whose power was changing.
Anger manifested in suspicion towards things that didn’t fit with habitual virtues – “evil” came from interpretations of deviance, rather than something which was experienced.
Individualism is revisited numerous times throughout Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain, appearing simultaneously to represent enfranchised thinking and personal vindication in the cases of Jiang Qing, Maya Plisetskaya and Ethel Voynich.
Where their stories fit into the larger frame of present-day chaotic emotional inertia remains to be seen.
Inside Can’t Get You Out of My Head are scenes of violence, scenes of love – things, oppositions, contradictions; a mass of seething, disorderly human encounters that become ordered into an expanding network of happenings that we use to draw conclusions – to find patterns.
This is the basis of Garrison’s model of conspiratorial thinking, and it fits perfectly around this first episode of the series, while the questions are open and yet to be wholly discussed.
An accomplished and profound opening feature from a documentary maker who continues to produce challenging material in his characteristic stylised format akin to the visual essay.
- All six parts of Can’t Get You Out of My Head are currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer.