Review of Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021)

Moving picture, 8 hours

Adam Curtis (writer-director).

Seen in 2022.

A historical explanation for why “societies have become split and polarized” with “a sense that no-one knows how to escape from this”. The story is told mainly through the lives of some post-war individuals, fragments of Chinese cinema, and yesteryear’s news cycles occasionally dipping back into the 1920s and ’30s, all dug up over Curtis’s 40 years in the BBC’s archives. By my own analysis, the following people are mentioned at least 10 times in the series, roughly in decreasing order of frequency:

  • Jiang Qing, who nearly came to rule PRC despite her autocratic individualism.
  • Michael De Freitas, a.k.a Michael X, social critic and murderer.
  • Mao Zedong.
  • Eduard Limonov, an author, outsider and social critic of the USA and Russia, who eventually became a fascist politician.
  • Kerry Thornley, a Discordianist out to shock people into thinking for themselves.
  • Bo Xilai, a politician who rehabilitated Maoist propaganda. To a lesser extent, with 4 mentions, Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai.
  • Vladimir Putin, as the quintessential nihilist.
  • Abu Zubaydah, Guantanamo’d terrorist leader in poor mental health.
  • Ethel Boole, author. To a similar extent, her father George, logician.
  • Deng Xiaoping.
  • Tupac Shakur, musician, and his mother Afeni, saviour of the Panther 21.
  • Richard Nixon, mainly in connection to the gold standard.
  • Peter Rachman, De Freitas’s one-time boss in Notting Hill.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald, as the subject of a novel by Thornley.
  • Tony Blair.
  • Donald Trump.
  • Daniel Kahneman, psychologist.
  • Julia Grant, transsexual pioneer.
  • Jim Garrison, conspiracy theorist.
  • Greg Hill, starting a fake conspiracy theory about the Bavarian Illuminati with Thornley. This was the Birds Aren’t Real of its time, but misfired in the short term.
  • Bill Clinton.
  • Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The following are mentioned at least 5 times:

  • Dominic Cummings, politician, fan of complexity theory, and pioneer of politics by data science.
  • Vladimir Komarov, open-casket cosmonaut.
  • Boris Yeltsin.
  • Neil Heywood, an Englishman peripheral to the story of Bo and Gu.
  • Li Lili, as Jiang’s imagined rival.
  • Horst Mahler, who concluded that Nazism in Germany was not a problem of individual Nazis, but a social problem in need of a radical solution.
  • Horst Herold, a policeman who, like Cummings, helped introduce data science as a tool of central control in a society otherwise too complex to police. West Germany at the time prohibited a national police system, but overlooked the computer.
  • Chai Ling, a doubtful leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
  • Arthur Sackler, profiteer, pioneer of Valium and the opioid epidemic.
  • Tony Martin, murderer of burglars, symbol of popular displeasure with crime and immigration.
  • Robin Douglas-Home as the unfaithful, sexist husband of model Sandra Paul, and an example of power ebbing away from the British upper class.
  • Giandomenico Majone, as one of the architects of the EU’s “non-majoritarian institutions”, bureaucracies not answerable to the electorate.
  • Geoffrey Hinton, pioneer of neural-network/deep-learning AI.
  • Edgar Mittelholzer, post-colonial author raging against crime.
  • B. F. Skinner, hall-of-fame psychologist.
  • Michael Gazzaniga, psychologist. Mentioned with one of his patients, “Vicki”.
  • John F. Kennedy, mentioned rather obliquely.
  • Eckhard Hess, psychologist. His work on pupillometry is mentioned in relation to Skinner’s behaviourism.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
  • Osama Bin Laden.

The following are mentioned less often:

  • Four times: Yelena Shchapova (wife of Limonov), Wei Jingsheng (anti-authoritarian activist), Saddam Hussein, Percy Cradock (sinologist, latecomer to the understanding that the Soviet Union had collapsed), Maya Plisetskaya (ballerina, individualist in response to government surveillance, Soviet parallel to Jiang), Malcolm X, Joan Baez, Cecil Sharp (English nationalist) and Bob Geldof (for Live Aid).
  • Three times: Yuri Gagarin (with Komarov), Yedwa Sudan a.k.a. Ralph White (police informant, mentioned with Afeni Shakur), Woodrow Wilson, William Keswick (criminal mentioned with Lord Kindersley; “It is difficult to remember conversations one has whilst shooting on a grouse moor”), Steve Yeates (murderer), Peter Mair (political scientist who noticed a delegitimizaion of democracy in the West), Murray Gell-Mann (complexity theorist), Donald Ewen Cameron (mind-wiping psychologist), Mengistu Haile Mariam, Lin Biao (rival of Jiang), Harry Caudill (lawyer of Appalachian miners), Hans Morgenthau (academic who named and excused the use of the CIA to overthrow non-US governments), Hanns Martin Schleyer (ex-Nazi industrialist, whose 1977 funeral marked the defeat of German radicals like Mahler), Gertrude Bell (romantic nationbuilder), Edward Lorenz (discoverer of chaos), Bobby Seale (Black Panther, here also a TV chef), Anthony Blunt (spy, here a symbol of MI5/MI6 incompetence), Anna Politkovskaya (anti-corruption journalist) and Andreas Baader (terrorist falling into Nazi patterns with anti-Nazi intentions).
  • Two times: George Bush, Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao, Walter Scott, John von Neumann, Roxane Witke, Richard Hofstadter, Radovan Karadzic, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King (only as he was tricked by Stokely Carmichael), Liu Shaoqi, John L. Lewis, Herbert Bayer (for The Family of Man exhibition), Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Betty Ford (drug addict), Bertrand Russell, Ayn Rand, Alexei Navalny, Adolf Hitler and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha.

Many more are mentioned once. Smaller groups include the Potato Bag Gang, the Panther 21, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and Pussy Riot. I did not count nations, cities or corporations, but there are plenty of them. Prominent works of fiction are:

  • Dream of the Red Chamber (1798) as a metaphor for the ruling class determining ontology.
  • The Immortal Hour in various forms.
  • The Birth of a Nation (1915).
  • Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain (1936) (Lang shan die xue ji).
  • Walden Two (1948) by Skinner.
  • My Bones and My Flute (1955) by Mittelholzer.
  • The James Bond franchise.
  • The Battle of Algiers (1966).
  • Rambo III (1988).
  • Godzilla (1998) as part of Abu Zubaydah’s delusions under torture.

Entertaining and thought-provoking, but as the long list of repeated names indicates, it is somewhat shallow. At the length of Shoah (1985), it is full of delightful interconnections and leaps of thought, aided by skilled montages and contemplative, ambient temps mort, all of it classically Curtis, but his aesthetic takes up more room than usual. The most irrelevant detour is a brief mention of the fact that Ethel Boole, aside from writing an important novel, also married the antiquarian who gave his name to the Voynich Manuscript.

As a modern histoire des mentalités via concrete examples, it is very good, adding more diverse viewpoints to some of Curtis’s past topics. However, its foci seem a little misplaced. As two of many recurring threads, Curtis traces the contrasting theories of Skinner and Kahneman, while also following the development of mass-surveillance social networks. Connecting these two threads as well as the replication crisis in psychology, Curtis briefly considers the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concludes that high-tech manipulation “on an industrial scale” doesn’t work, because of complexity (Gell-Mann), chaos (Lorenz), and/or reactance against manipulation (e.g. Plisetskaya). The same limits apply to weakened nations, states and mass movements. This way, Curtis essentially rejects the idea that anyone could have created polarization or political apathy, but he still affirms the result and offers no coherent alternative explanation for it, which leaves Can’t Get You Out of My Head without a central thesis to illuminate its central subject.

Money, corruption, megalomania, exceptionalism (on a smaller scale: nationalism and identity politics) and conspiracy theory all get their due, but the great flow of fragmented media finds no direction. The general intellectual framework is that of social constructivism. A constructivist quote by David Graeber both opens and closes the series. However, constructivism is infamously slippery and does not itself provide any explanations. Curtis’s conclusion seems to be that even the epistemology of why everything is out of control is out of control.

Underemphasized or unmentioned in this documentary are the more prosaic reasons for polarization and apathy: The growth of the human population; the growing awareness—with improved education—of other cultures and global connections that leave every individual with less power over the totality of their own perceived context; Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis; Giddens’ Juggernaut; deliberate efforts to breed polarization (e.g. culture wars) and apathy (e.g. voter suppression, secrecy, violent suppression, misinformation); and the strong tendency of science to point toward dystelological conclusions that fail to flatter any ideology, in the same way that mere knowledge of multiple monotheist religions fails to flatter any one of them.

moving picture non-fiction series