A Strange Thing Happened

How to view Adam Curtis

I watched the first two episodes of Adam Curtis’s new documentary “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” There are six episodes and after two I didn’t want to continue. The man who drew me in with “Hypernormalization” lost me within two hours of his six-part, eight hour film—but why?

Thinking about it more, I think simply that I was bored—a trite, but real emotion one experiences with art. Curtis claims he isn’t an artist.

But, considering Curtis, I must to defer to this Tribune article seeking to defend him from people online. Perhaps I’ve been too holed away in a different part of the online world, but I haven’t really seen people going after Curtis or his doc.

The author points to “sighing and eye-rolling” and dismissal of his work as “hack.” They go on to name Curtis not as “[a] cultural critic, a historian, [or] a philosopher” but as something akin to a “journalist.” The writer suggests we think of Curtis’s work like that of a novelist such as Pynchon or De Lillo—someone concerned with blending the actual world of fiction and “The Real” using characters and emotions, thus not a journalist, who chronicles facts and figures, but an artist. Curtis’s work belongs to the land of art, not that of fact—at least, that’s the upshot of this argument. It is not explicitly made in the Tribune.

Placing him there, in fiction or art, allows Curtis to have his slippery ideology, which he never expresses in simple terms—I suspect he’s a right-winger of an old sort, a patrician kind that values things like noblesse oblige, order, and right. This type exists in the Old World in droves, but in the New World only as a specter. George Hoare has two articles about some of the electoral issues that come from this version of British right wing ideology, though for the US context, I think this article is far more correct. The point being, Adam Curtis, the person, possesses opinions and ideology not expressed within his work and his work likely contains some of these things, but not his ideology in whole. Thus, where does that leave us with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head?”

If we understand it as art, then the newest Curtis documentary is still making an argument—one from found footage described with Curtis’s perfect boarding school accent. However, what that argument means (a register distinct from what the argument “says”), falls to the subjectivity of the watcher. I can see his discussion of individualism and believe that outgrowth has been caused by the ways in which capital has gone from colonizing the geography of the world, to the geography of the mind. An alternative reading of the same cultural product from a right-wing perspective could argue that the rise of individualism comes from cultural decay related to the loss of spiritual or religious ties amongst a populous—in short, diversity or multiculturalism. Part of Curtis’s appeal is his slipperiness. Like any good artist, his work is not explicit, but something fungible and something that requires the viewer, the consumer to bring the weight of their subjectivity into contact with the product thus creating a dialectic that can only be resolved by the various inherent contradictions of said subjectivity and art. Art still possesses some agency of course, though I chuff at the idea that “art can change things”—change how? what things?

There are bad readings of any cultural product. I couldn’t argue Curtis’s documentary suggests we need a to bomb Syria, for example. A good reading, though, demands the art’s consumer and the art as itself synthesize their subjectivities and ideologies, and perhaps something will resolve, or perhaps more contradictions or questions will arise.

Good art requires us to think about these things—it doesn’t mean it’s fun, or will resolve in anything useful for our social situation, but good art will ask us these questions. I did finish the Adam Curtis doc, but I didn’t like doing it.


By way of personal privilege, I’d ask that you read my article in The Baffler, which is a review of the short story collection Kink edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon, not because I worked hard on it (which I did) or simply because I wrote it (which I did, with the help of the wonderful people at the Baffler), but also because it gets at some of what I want to argue in this newsletter, which I see as an enclosed project, with a beginning and end. If you’ve already read it, thank you for your service.

I also want to use the shorter pieces on here to also plug what I’ve been reading or listening to:

  • I’m some way through the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and it’s good. I have my own thoughts on Gay Fiction from the rest of the world versus American gay fiction that will likely populate some other newsletter (the short version of which is that I prefer non-American gay fiction)…stay tuned!

  • I enjoyed this article from Matt Karp in Jacobin about our current politics of the second Gilded Age and class dealignment—this doesn’t have to do with art explicitly but is something I think about and am interested in, especially as literature siphons itself it to more and more micro-genres

  • For whatever it means, David Bowie’s final album Blackstar and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds played while I thought about and wrote this piece. I guess I’m recommending David Bowie and the Beach Boys as certified good artists—sorry if this is news to you

I will have something like a 3-part series coming over the next few months about affect, neoliberalism, the Radiohead album Kid A and the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mosfegh. It may become five (or six or seven) parts, but at the moment I have it mapped as three. Time will tell what directions my brain will take me on that matter.