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Can't Get You Out of My Head (wikipedia.org)
127 points by tosh on Nov 4, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

A caution with Curtis - he presents big, challenging, and sometimes useful ideas in a compelling way.

However, he never lets truth and facts get in the way of a good story. He knows what he wants to say and presents evidence to fit his thesis regardless of the quality of the evidence.

A silly but easily provable example - in "All watched over by machines of loving grace" he claims Silicon Valley was founded by Ayen Rand fans, and points to and shows photos of companies with Rand related names such as the RAND corperation and Fountainhead corperation. The RAND corperation was named named in the 1940s, and the Fountainhead corperation is not a silicon valley tech firm - it's a constrution company that doesn't even have a HQ in the area. One isn't related to AR and the other one isn't a SV firm, so his assertion is actually not supported by the evidence, but we wave it through because a million new assertions hit us first, like a trump speech.

In his recent work on China, people pointed out more serious problems where he appeared to combine different historical figures - mixing their histories together to form fictional actors with real names that played out the story he wanted to tell. Presenting these as actual history was misleading.

If you see the whole thing as post modernism, where everything is to be interpreted and nothing is neccesarily real but there is maybe a real truth in the underlying arument, then that's fine. But that isn't how it's presented.

> fit his thesis

It often feels like there is no explicit thesis put forth. Although there always seems to be some idea suggested to you, but it's still up to you to think it through and then connect his or your own dots.

For instance in "Can't get you out of my head", he brings up the town where prozac was invented, and then mentions that it's also the home of BlackRock... I'm not always exactly sure what to do with information like that, but it certainly gets my mind wandering in directions I wouldn't have expected.

I would argue that there is a thesis—one that is fairly explicit, shared among various Curtis works, and not even particularly controversial, although it can sometimes feel slippery when presented via Curtis' cinematic techniques.

He suggests that the 20th century was a period of intensely competing utopian ideologies, all of which ended in chaos, disaster, and disillusion as they intersected with problems of individual freedom and weakness. What proved most "stable" for Western societies were cynical policies in which the health of financial markets, and the suppression of contra-modern movements through overwhelming military force, were prioritized over sweeping social reforms that reeked of the old failed ideologies. This led to a period of brief peace and prosperity in the West during the 1990s which is sometimes called "The End of History," and which led some people to believe that financialization was not merely a cynical tool, but in fact the best means to also ensure individual happiness and prosperity.

However, he argues that Western political leaders have proven unable or unwilling to change these policies in the face of the increasingly serious crises of the 21st Century, as they believe their personal fortunes and the stability of the societies they manage are tethered to the goodwill of markets. In the face of this stasis, various elements of Western societies most affected by repressed upheaval have turned to nostalgic or otherwise magical thinking, recalling the old failed ideologies of the previous century. Both those who govern and the governed seem trapped, unable to conceive of anything genuinely new.

Curtis' documentaries, in particular "Can't Get You Out of My Head," attempt a kind of psycho-history of 20th Century ideologies, their ultimate failure, and the consolidation of forces that led to the End of History. They further attempt to restore a sense of absurdity to present-day political and social thrashing-about, and ultimately suggest that none of our present conditions are inevitable, and can be changed through will, imagination, and consciousness of our past.

(Happy to be corrected by any Curtis obsessives if I've missed anything.)

As a very long time Curtis obsessive I think this a pretty decent and non-controversial take on his work.

> If you see the whole thing as post modernism, where everything is to be interpreted and nothing is neccesarily real but there is maybe a real truth in the underlying arument, then that's fine.

No, it wouldn't be.

If someone found that Baudrillard flat out mis-attributed a theory to Lévi-Strauss or something, that would be a real criticism of his writing. Baudrillard fans would really be forced to admit it. Even back in the day Baudrillard was alive he would probably have been forced to revise it.

There are so many problems with post modernism, many of which Alan Sokal wrote about in his book "Fashionable Nonsense." But there is a good reason he didn't title it "Fashionable Falsehoods."

I'm honestly curious now-- why did you decide to add that last paragraph? You gave a nice critique of the author which I'll definitely use to be skeptical of his output in the future. But now all I can think about is how you managed to casually write one of the few critiques of post modernism which is rarely true.

I may know less about the specifics of these things than you.

The reason I added this was to resolve in my head the inconsistency between my belief that what Curtis has to say is Useful, and my belief that Curtis is untrustworthy. I guess my compromise was "maybe he's not a scumbag, maybe it's just the style". The reason I mentioned postmodernism is, unreliable narrator is a postmodern thing right? I've seen it used in essays that I'd considered postmodern as a rhetorical technique (write half your essay from the POV you want to argue against, then half way through abandon it and attack the arguments you just made, sort of thing). So a video essay could be non-literal like that too...

It's an excellent documentary on how the modern western culture based on individualism was born, and I plan to re-watch it soon, because it was a really interesting perspective, and and incredibly interesting narrative style. I haven't seen any of the other documentaries by Curtis but I will.

He has a unique style for sure that quite mesmerizing.

He does, however, cram a lot of information and thoughts into his work, and it takes quite a bit of time and effort to unravel and make sense of it. (Which isn't a bad thing at all.)

Century of the Self is a great one, it talks about public relations and propaganda and how they can be used to control.

I really liked The Century of the Self and Bitter Lake, but I've enjoyed all of his work.

You should always acompany this documentary with a watch of this short little video. The Loving Trap (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1bX3F7uTrg).

It mocks adam curtis style while making some very good points.

Adam Curtis responded to this parody in an interview with The Quietus at the beginning of this year.

Q: Some critics of your work – for example, The Loving Trap parody – argue that what you do is very skilfully create elaborate narratives which make connections and draw parallels that are then presented as objective truth. Do you sometimes worry about being dismissed as part of the ‘conspiracy’ problem?

A: "That parody is very funny and clever, and it made me reflect on myself, which is good. But let’s be clear, I’ve never in any of my films put forward a conspiracy theory. 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. My job, which the BBC has tasked me to do, is to provoke people and ask them, “Have you thought about looking at the world this way?” To pull back a bit and look at what is happening in a different way. But that is not a conspiracy theory.

In the New Yorker he also touched upon it:

Boone directed readers instead to a short online spoof of Curtis’s films by Ben Woodhams called “The Loving Trap,” which describes his work as the “televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge.” Curtis is conscious of what even his admirers call his “wild leaps.” “As a critique, I’m aware of that, but I’m also aware that that’s what all journalists do,” he said. “But since they’re actually just saying the same old thing, people don’t notice the leaps. . . . I’m making no more bigger leaps than most of my colleagues do, when they tell me that Al Qaeda is about to sail a boat down the Thames with an atomic bomb on it—and that would be accepted in 2005, or whenever it was.”



I find the parody of his delivery and style amusing in the video, but don’t find the actual content/accusations of The Loving Trap convincing or fair at all.

I watch this whenever someone posts it, which is every time someone posts anything about Adam Curtis.

OT: I sang to the title :).

I just posted that song to my daughter's playlist yesterday or the day before, after not thinking about it for maybe a decade or longer. I really thought that HN was suddenly collaborating with Google to present "relevant" items.

dito, and now I can't get it out of my head, literally

I have a completely different song with the same title stuck in my head.


I've only heard the Kylie Minogue song once; I looked it up when it was referenced in a webcomic I was reading.

I was hoping this would be a show somehow based on the song, but this also looks pretty cool.

Fantastic soundtrack, as usual for Mr. Curtis


>Curtis wanted to investigate why the critics of Donald Trump and Brexit were unable to offer an alternative vision for the future We did, but no one wants to listen to us "commies," "tree-huggers," and "minorities."

>a decline of mass democracy in the West leading to politicians favoring big business.

Startling parallels to the decline of much of the World Wide Web (and Google's utility in searching it - ironically, I can't find the blog post describing the pivot to "brands" in the wake of a deluge of SEO trash, and its negative effects on search efficacy).

I'm cautiously interested in watching it. It seems like it will have both interesting insights and interesting blindspots.

> the pivot to "brands"

At some point when I was kid - before the internet - some cool adult described to me a course on marketing they took where Coca-Cola was a case study. The sheer impact of brand recognition, and the lengths they would go to for its perpetuation (because it paid off), were lessons that have stuck with me ever since.

Of course companies and other organizations want you to get comfy with their logo/animation. Be wary of the power of this, it's a double edged sword-- it can help you immensely when you're a small player starting out, but in the long run it tends to accrue more power to those who already have plenty.

In this case, "brands" meant platforms. So instead of getting results full of small websites that talked directly about your query, you got Pinterest spam. Because Pinteret is "trustworthy."

I watched it after seeing an episode posted to HN and I quite enjoyed it.

I remember a lot of it discussing reactions and changes to the culture of post-war world, in the UK, US, Soviet Union (and subsequent Russian Federation), China, and later on touches on places like the Middle East.

There were common themes that were continued through, and it left me with things to think about, but I don’t treat it as some definitive guide to where we are now.

Not even parallel, but directly implicated! One of the things he gets to in this, and other places, is the central role technology and logistics have both directly and indirectly to usher in new forms of social control.

I don't know why I have Curtis connected with Arundhati Roy and her Come September speech, and this little documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70L_3RrP6-8&list=PLdwCuEoZ_6...

wonder if they got permission yon use ryuks likeness in the poster

I noticed that as soon as I saw the poster and immediately checked the comments to see if anyone else had noticed!

Yeah same, I was confused wondering what this had to do with Death Note.

Is that a reference? (I know who Ryuk is)

It's a reference to a manga series with an anime and a Netflix adaptation called Death note[0].

One of the characters is Ryuk[1] who has a likeness on the image on Wikipedia for this article.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Note

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryuk_(Death_Note)

sorry i dont follow

Hadn't heard of it and am very interested. For people who have seen it and like it, is it representative or summarizing of current thinking and modern progressive worldviews?

Yes except modern progressives are divided into pro-capital liberals and anti-capitalist leftists. Curtis attacks modern American liberal ideology.

whose current thinking do you expect it to represent?

curtis is meant to be provacative. personally i just enjoy following along on wikipedia, it’s really scratching that “everything is connected” itch, which of course you have to be careful with.

As someone pointed already in the comments the description "drunken late-night Wikipedia binge" is very accurate.

I really enjoy his work, but tbf, I also really like late-night Wikipedia surfing.

Also, I always watch them pretending I'm watching an amateur/hobbyist historian/archaeologist from the XXXth century trying to explain our time. He might have _most_ of facts correct, still he's making flawed connections and conclusions.

I really enjoyed this one. I've swung back and forth on Curtis. I went from loving Curtis docs, to seeing them as light on facts, back to loving them.

Pandora's Box by Adam Curtis has some interesting parallels with today's American politics, technology, and the Silicon Valley rationalist movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora%27s_Box_(British_TV_se...

More descriptive title would be helpful - Adam Curtis tv documentary or something

Some previous discussion about it 9 months ago when it was fresher:


Interesting. But how do you watch it from outside the UK ?

It's available on most torrent web sites.

It's up on youtube.

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