Adam Curtis’s Theory of Everything

Adam Curtis’s Theory of Everything

Adam Curtis’s latest film paints a picture of the world that is so complex, so dense, and so theoretical that the prospect of real change appears nearly impossible.

Civil rights activist and Black Power leader Michael X in 1970 (P. Shirley/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1957, Michael de Freitas arrived in Notting Hill. He was one of thousands of British West Indian citizens who resettled in London as part of the Windrush generation. As a child in Trinidad, he’d been taught that his country was an “extension” of Great Britain—but when he emigrated to England, he came face-to-face with a dismal racism rooted in nostalgia for the global empire. After meeting Malcolm X in the 1960s, de Freitas assumed his own revolutionary name, Michael X, and instigated a struggle for Black Power in the United Kingdom. For a brief period, self-rule seemed possible, until he forged an imprudent alliance with the white hippies then moving into Notting Hill. As the neighborhood gentrified and liberals were elected to local office, Black residents abandoned the movement, believing that it had been co-opted by a white managerial class. Once known for its 1958 race riots, Notting Hill now projects a posh and cosmopolitan vision of London.

As Adam Curtis tells it in his vertiginous BBC documentary series, revolutionaries like Michael X don’t stand a chance. Over six episodes, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World presents a dazzling mosaic of individuals thwarted by systems they thought they could change: After abandoning his fight against the English, Michael X returns to Trinidad and Tobago, where he remains an influential civil rights figure until his controversial execution in 1975. In interwoven plot lines, Jiang Qing, the fourth wife of Mao Zedong and a member of the “Gang of Four,” hangs herself after being ousted by reformer Deng Xiaoping. Kerry Wendell Thornley, who in the 1960s cofounded Discordianism, a pseudo-religious practice that teaches order is a manifestation of the human mind, unwittingly unleashes a vast conspiracy theory about the Illuminati into a paranoid American culture. And Julia Grant, whose struggles to obtain National Health Service (NHS) approval for gender-reassignment surgery were documented by the BBC starting in 1978, finds a willing surgeon, only for a public hospital to later inexplicably diagnose her with a miscarriage, causing irreparable damage to her vagina.

In all of these stories, individual emotions are the most powerful guiding force. Curtis argues that systems of power and influence—from colonialism to conspiracy theories—have splintered collective identities and given rise to an age of individualism that overwhelms any sense of communal and social good. Curtis’s subjects insist on their individuality, which leads them to demand the world conform to their image, but they are unable to form collective aspirations that could actually change things. Individualism is both a natural result of mass democracy and a blight on it; politicians have become uninspiring, limited to managing details at the fringes. Curtis laments the absence of collective meaning.

This vision of a powerless populace isn’t a new one for the filmmaker. Can’t Get You Out of My Head, spanning eight hours, plays like an album of Curtis’s greatest hits, stretching all the way back to his first major series, Pandora’s Box (1992). From that BBC program, we can trace his obsession with economists who craft behavioral models to encourage consumerism. He also refashions his argument from The Century of the Self (2002) that elites believe functional democracy is only possible when unconscious desires are properly managed and sated. And from his last film, HyperNormalisation (2016), he extends his belief that the upper echelons of society have retreated from the “real world” to dabble in simplistic narratives that belie the complexity of actual circumstances. Can’t Get You Out of My Head weaves these arguments and more into a comprehensive theory of everything.

While similar themes have run through Curtis’s work for decades, his films have become increasingly wild and discursive, less concerned with historical events and political circumstances than with fractured identities, diabolical yarns, social media charlatanism, and dislocated belief. Can’t Get You Out of My Head is not an airtight journalistic case; the sprawling social novels of the nineteenth century are a primary influence. Curtis cuts decades of archival BBC footage into suggestive montages, toggling between high-level historical survey and specific individuals whose lives express the zeitgeist. Menace always lurks in the mundane, as when a Notting Hill gymnasium packed with white teenagers bopping awkwardly to early rock is overlaid with Curtis’s signature droll commentary: “The new groups might look like radicals and dance to Black music, but really they were the children of the colonialists who had run the Empire. And they had no intention of giving up their power.” It’s a typical gag for the filmmaker, who revels in the ominous humor and sinister undertones found in even the most frivolous activity. Musicians like Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, and Massive Attack—in online parlance, “Adam Curtis Music”—lend the series a whirring, dreamlike brilliance.

But this familiar vibe also throws into relief the filmmaker’s biases, tics, and unchecked impulses. Curtis’s earlier films—which focus on little-known figures like Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud who used his uncle’s theories to sow subliminal advertising in the United States—constitute a secret history of nefarious influence. In this latest series, revolutionaries falter when faced with the complexity of the systems of power these masterminds have created, illustrating a penchant for fatalism that pervades the filmmaker’s worldview. Curtis accepts truisms—the NHS is bureaucratic and inhumane; myths of American exceptionalism birth more insidious beliefs—as both praxis and theory. He traces, for example, Tupac Shakur’s career arc, from rapping about Black Power to his posthumous appearance as a hologram at Coachella fifteen years after his death. It’s an acute parable of capitalism’s ability to profiteer from Black death and subsume radical protest. But it’s not entirely clear how, in 2021, Curtis wants us to feel about the sense of inevitability that he grants this trajectory, apart from hopeless and disaffected.

Curtis’s surging popularity among leftists online suggests a desire for a cover story to explain away political ineffectualism. The picture of the world he paints is so complex, so dense, and so theoretical that the prospect of real change appears nearly impossible. How can anyone feel anything but paralysis in the face of this vision? Curtis’s secret history demands a noble, heroic figure of action, and the internet, with its science-fiction plot lines and red-pilled commentariat, holds him up as an oracle of a great, all-encompassing conspiracy. Belief in Curtis’s world offers the titillating frisson of conspiratorial thinking without QAnon trappings like pedophilic cabals and lizard people. The captivating story he tells about the futility of Michael X’s revolution, for example, is not only biased; it invalidates any analysis of individual failings. V.S. Naipaul wrote that Michael X was more infatuated with his status as a revolutionary than with his results—a keener analysis of the leader’s failings than Curtis’s, which frames the figure of one racketeer as a metonym for Black Power as a whole. The effect of Curtis’s filmmaking is to present a history at once dizzying in its mechanics and cursory in detail.

Academics and journalists have broken down where Curtis plays fast and loose with facts. His critics have argued that the shapes he conjures from the chaos are as much the product of coincidences, his own preconceived ideas, and wishful thinking as they are a matter of logic and historical forces. In Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis embraces this critique, describing his own associative style of editing as a form of “time and propinquity,” or looking for patterns within the mess of history. Jim Garrison, who coined the phrase, was the district attorney of New Orleans during the Kennedy assassination, and he used this approach—the search for coincidences in timing and proximity—to connect Lee Harvey Oswald to the CIA. Like Garrison, Curtis searches for patterns and natural rhythms, connecting dots you may have long suspected had some association.

By this point in his career, Curtis is practiced at deflecting the charge of conspiracy. “I’ve never in any of my films put forward a conspiracy theory,” he told the British music magazine the Quietus in February. “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.” It’s not entirely surprising, then, that Curtis spends so much time in Can’t Get You Out of My Head mapping the psychology of fringe theories that have emerged within a divisive political environment. Over several episodes, Curtis connects the origin of Thornley’s Illuminati conspiracy to birtherism, the alt-right, and QAnon. He gives the same treatment to liberals who responded to Donald Trump’s victory by retreating into conspiracy theories about Russian collusion.

One side of Curtis’s fandom says his dramatic plot lines are a way to bring complexity down to scale—to give viewers a sense of agency within the immensity of the system. Curtis’s story of a struggle between the architects of a well-managed society and citizens who insist on their individuality, then, is a rousing fable. This defense doesn’t hold up against Curtis’s own arguments. Can’t Get You Out of My Head is overtly critical of individual optimism without a collective vision, especially when manufactured by those who—like Curtis, toiling his days in the BBC archives—understand the world mostly through simulation.

Another segment of his followers shrugs off the work’s most egregious digressions and threadbare thematics as a reflection of the complexity of our systems—the inhuman scale of capital or the comprehensiveness of Big Data. To edit the series down to a more manageable length, or to expect it to rely less on the back catalog of the filmmaker’s body of work, would ask it to betray its central conceit: that the world is much too complicated to comprehend through models.

Artistic license might be a more reasonable defense for a man inspired to chronicle the postwar era in the style of a nineteenth-century novel. The real power of Curtis’s work becomes apparent at a slight distance, where it encourages a dreamy interval and lightness in regard to particulars. Its juxtapositions are better understood as windows onto life than a coherent social theory. This doesn’t make Curtis’s central insight—that the machine for making meaning is sputtering—any less stunning, but it does mean we should take notice of its blind spots and idiosyncrasies. Curtis knows, like novelists do, that there are greater truths to be found in fiction.

Yet Curtis hems and haws when he’s called an artist, insisting he’s a journalist who discovered early in his career that he could reflect the mood of a story through montage and music. He describes his work in romantic terms, and his preoccupation with conveying an age’s primary emotion is reflected in this series’ title. His hallmark, his insight, and his relevance hinge on his ability to reveal the forgotten ideas that shape social and political activity. He often criticizes modernism for its naive belief that it can truly break with history; worse, in his view, is the empty self-referentialism that came in the second half of the twentieth century, when artists and writers referred knowingly back to major works, sampling and quoting in ways that amplified the sounds of political retreat. It’s hard not to see Curtis’s own montages as a version of this, however. In interviews, he has wondered aloud whether his obsession with archives leaves him unable to envision the future.

Ultimately, though, he doesn’t see this as art’s duty. “I believe the role of art is to express its time beautifully,” Curtis told Jacobin in March. “And in a funny way, how it’s doing that now is by beautifully expressing the paralysis of our age.” He continues: “Culture is a comfort blanket that radicals cling to so they can hide from the terrible fact that they don’t have any answers.” Curtis would have it both ways: his films should be allowed some artistic license to express the “emotion” and “paralysis” of our time, but they are not art, which has no value beyond solace. The potential for art to help us think through our political prospects is lost on the filmmaker.

Curtis ends Can’t Get You Out of My Head with three scenarios of where our impasse could leave us. The first model has been established by China with its social credit system: curb individualism by closely monitoring private activity and rewarding approved behavior. The second model is American, molded by technology and media: encourage emotional outbursts and cultivate individual expression over collective organization. This conflict is twenty-first-century Yellow Peril pitched in existential terms, even if Curtis assures viewers that the American model of manufactured hysteria is no better than the Chinese model of manufactured compliance.

The last episode of Can’t Get You Out of My Head vacillates between these extremes until the final twenty minutes, when Curtis floats an emergent, ill-defined “third possibility”—one that embraces individual expression and directs it toward a collective vision. “But to do that, we as individuals will have to regain the confidence that we have lost in this frightened and uncertain time,” he narrates. “It may be that we are really far stronger than we think.” This note of optimism falls a little flat. Curtis declines to suggest what this middle way looks like, except that it can’t be boring. Like sensational conspiracy theories, it has to command the attention of “millions of individuals, millions of little squealing piglets,” as he told Jacobin. One possibility he gestures toward is nationalism, which the left is hesitant to touch because of its destructive tendency. Unless it does, he warns over footage of Trump and Xi Jinping, something nastier will prevail.

Curtis is famously noncommittal with his politics, insisting on his own kind of civic autonomy, but you don’t have to squint to confuse this “third possibility” of energetic economic nationalism with the brand of populism that was piloted in 2016. At various points, he’s seemed aligned with neoconservatives, liberals, and labor-centric British leftism. Recently on the Red Scare podcast, Curtis eloquently defended Black Lives Matter against the critique that it prioritizes identity over economics, arguing that police violence stems from the structural legacy of slavery—America’s “internal empire.”

On the podcast he described himself as “progressive,” but there’s a certain conservatism at the heart of his vision—an acute suspicion of idealism. Curtis begins and ends his series by quoting the late anthropologist and activist David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” In meticulous detail, Curtis divulges the staggering scale and fungibility of white male power and paranoia, as well as the grim world it has crafted over centuries. But the multifaceted stories he weaves of Black Power, of Asian power, of women’s power—whose tragic fates he asks us to accept at face value—actually reinforce the logic of white supremacy. After devaluing all of our tools of imagination, we are left with a dead-end history of curtailed rebellion. Some may consider Curtis a lucid seer, but absent a compelling vision of his own, he looks more like a functionary of his own bleak prophecy.

Will Fenstermaker is a writer and art critic based in New York. He works as an editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.