How Adam Curtis gets into your head

The filmmaker talks about tyranny, the limitations of progressive politics, and myth of England
February 26, 2021

Adam Curtis documentaries are as much about creating moods as telling stories. He has spent his career forging grand narratives about the way the world works by assembling rare film footage and setting it to pop and dance soundtracks—all with his own distinctive clipped, deadpan voiceover. It’s become something of a brand, and turned him from a cult documentary-maker into a cultural phenomenon. His films betray years of digging through the BBC archives. He has an eye for emotionally compelling footage: a wild bird befriending a soldier; a teenage black girl’s call for violence; crazed Afghan hounds juxtaposed with the state visit to London of the last Afghan king.

While his films have covered a wide territory—the British establishment, the war on terror, political propaganda—they are animated by a concern for human freedom, and what Curtis sees as the “pessimistic managerialism” curtailing it.

Curtis is unique among BBC documentary-makers in the freedom the corporation has given him. Working his way up from the inside since the mid-1980s, in 2015 he began to drop his work directly onto iPlayer, taking advantage of the longform opportunity digital streaming offers. “I wanted to use the form of a novel but for non-fiction,” Curtis explains to me the day after he sent the eight-and-a-half-hour final cut of his new six-part series Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World to the BBC. “It’s the first time I’ve focused primarily on characters. Normally, I tell a story of ideas, and although ideas are still there, I discuss them in this film through the characters themselves.”

His cast includes Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife and one of the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution; Sandra Paul, a model and the wife, first, of the nephew of Tory prime minister Alec Douglas-Home, and then later another Conservative leader, Michael Howard; Michael X (or de Freitas), a British-Trinidadian heavy who worked for notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, then became a fluent black revolutionary before ultimately being hanged for murder; and Afeni Shakur Davis, a Black Panther and mother of rapper Tupac Shakur.

What does such a seemingly disparate set of people have in common? For Curtis they shared an individualism that kicked back against power and so revealed how it works. “They come back at different points reacting to events in completely different ways because of the experiences they’ve been going through,” he explains. “One function of the novel is to capture complexity—and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.”

Can’t Get You Out of My Head argues that the coercive methods used by both the British Empire and the US during the Cold War have never gone away—they have simply been repurposed to regulate today’s society. The thesis owes a debt to heavyweight thinkers of the past: Max Weber’s idea of the “iron cage,” which predicted the rise of bureaucracies that pursue efficiency at the cost of democracy; Foucault’s “boomerang,” which held that repression in Europe was violence redirected from the subjugation of the colonies; and Peter Mair, who wrote about the hollowing out of mass democracy in the west.

Our post-Cold War age, Curtis says, is controlled through an all-pervasive system of data harvesting that underpins modern governance, the City and big tech. It’s managed outcomes. It’s the nudge unit. It’s cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s algorithms determining our behaviour. And it’s the rationalisation of social and cultural life by economic thinking. “It’s really an idea that posh liberals perpetuate that the little people aren’t really in control of what they do and therefore they need to be helped or managed. As a good libertarian, I just think, ‘fuck off,’” he says.

In his sights is predictive modelling—the collection and processing of data to try and assert control over future events. “People like Dominic Cummings have this view,” says Curtis. “The idea is you can get enough data and feed it into the machines so that the machines can see the underlying pattern. But the problem is that there is no place in these systems to say where we want to go. They just seek to maintain the stability of the system as it is. They stop us from changing the world.”

Curtis contends that, in the late 21st century, this utilitarian world is falling apart because—to borrow Weber’s metaphor—we can now see our cage. According to Curtis, this awakening is rooted in the 2008 financial crisis, which did not bring about systemic change because we “bailed out the corrupt financial sector.”

He connects modelling and monitoring practices to attempts by the British Empire to use mass data collection. According to Curtis, the notion of an all-powerful colonial administration in India was mythic. “We are told of a story of control and bringing technology, trains, bookkeeping et cetera, but really it was a few men and women in isolated outposts surrounded by a vast territory they were frightened of because they really did not understand,” he explains. The use of data collection to divide and rule half the world’s people was, says Curtis, “as much an attempt at control as it was to hide from their own fear.”

The filmmaker takes as his starting point the 19th century, the peak of the colonial era, but could just as well go back to the start of modernity. The seeds of rational control emerged in the 17th century when, fuelled by the Reformation and the European wars of religion, a medieval world rooted in symbolism and scripture was upended by literalism and empiricism. In the 19th century, science brought forward mathematical theories that claimed to codify human behaviour and thought. English mathematician George Boole—who is introduced through his daughter Ethel, author of the 1897 novel The Gadfly, which eventually became a bestseller in the Soviet Union—claimed to have collapsed mental processes into algebra through Boolean logic. “It languished for nearly a century but was picked up by the engineers of the first thinking machines,” says Curtis. “Everyone forgets it comes from an earlier time.” Today, Boolean on/off (or true/false) functions are a fundamental building block of computer programming—just one example, Curtis says, of the “strange ghosts from the past” that imbue modern life.

Curtis says that while modern data gatherers claim to be tracking the complexity of the world, they have in fact radically simplified it. People “get excited when they can see what hotels their friends are staying in anywhere in the world or what they are buying. They think it’s magical. It’s not. It’s a strange ghostly echo of what the people in the empire were trying to do,” with their use of imperial records to control imperial subjects. Curtis’s idea evokes the notion that “the map is not the territory,” derived from Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science” that has since become a philosophical shorthand for the way that, while we fumble for reality, we forever remain abstracted from it by our perceptions and rationalisations.

This managerial mode of thinking has also colonised the left. “The problem with progressive politics now,” says Curtis, “is that it assumes that the people they’re going to get to vote for their parties are a clean slate: that they don’t have all sorts of things from the past inside their head.” In England, the nationalistic myth of a genteel rural idyll animates political thinking today, despite being an invention. The fictions of folk-song revivalist Cecil Sharp—who appears in the film—haunt the minds of those who backed Brexit. “I don’t have much sympathy for their ideas,” Curtis explains. “But the opposition in this country—the liberals and the left—refuse to acknowledge these stories in people’s heads—and that they are powerful.”

Since the Brexit and Trump votes, he says, progressive political groups in the UK and the US have been practising “a rather effete radicalism”—bewitched by conspiracy theories about Cambridge Analytica and Russian hackers. “Progressive parties have got themselves in a bind,” he says. “On the one hand they’re terrified of dealing with racism, anger, violence and the things inside people’s heads, but they’re also terrified of powerful, alternative, emotional visions because they are living under the shadow of that argument from 60 years ago.” In the post-totalitarian era there was a wariness about “mass movements,” “big ideas” and “terrifying crowds” because, it was thought, “the last time we did that it led to horror.”

Following the USSR’s collapse, “we are at the end of a great age of attempts by politics to change the world and we have been foundering ever since,” Curtis says. “Politicians just react to events and the social media companies cash in on what they call high-arousal emotions... we are waiting for someone to pick up the fragments we are all swimming around in and make a new story out of it.”

In the sixth film, the west and China are set up as two versions of the “iron cage” in which the world is trapped. “China simply says that individual freedom was just a moment in history,” he says. It controls its people tightly, “collects data on them, watches them, gives them treats to get them to do what you want—a bit like pigeons.” The west, meanwhile, “amplifies people’s feelings” by recycling memes rooted in the 20th century—the myth of England, Captain Tom Moore, the Second World War—and the political class along with the tech giants feed off the hysteria. “It creates an equally strange stasis,” Curtis says. “Both of these systems offer no idea of the future and we are waiting for something—I have no idea where from, I don’t think from mainstream politics or from culture—to come along.”

The only way to escape from the “iron cage,” he insists, is to come up with a new story. “Weber predicted what has happened, but I don’t think that the iron cage should be inevitable. It’s not a world I want to live in,” he says.

Still, Curtis is grabbing the brass ring in making a documentary that claims to be an account of reality as we live it. But his sweeping ambition has invited parody too—“another A-level essay from Adam Curtis” is a familiar refrain. Curtis enjoys the parodies but hits back at glib attacks. “It’s generally the worst kind of snobbery from the decaying areas of academia. It relates to me not using clichéd phraseology and a self-consciously ‘clever’ way of speaking.” Curtis is referring to the “-isms” he avoids—capitalism, globalism, imperialism, neoliberalism. “When people hear those terms, they generally stop listening. It’s like the Mona Lisa. People don’t ever look at the Mona Lisa, they see it and just go, ‘Oh, there’s the Mona Lisa.’”

The films are compelling but Curtis opens space for doubt over his prediction of a new story round the corner. “I have this epic sort of science fiction theory,” he says, “that possibly I’m wrong in believing that stories are necessary in order to make sense of the world. Maybe with this giant onrush of just stuff—do you spend much time on TikTok? I do and it just means nothing—could we be entering a new sensibility where people will find they’re able to live their lives without any real meaning, and people like me—who still believe in stories—might be part of the past.”

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is on BBC iPlayer