The bomb in our brains

On Adam Curtis's Can't Get You Out of My Head

Bad Taste has skipped a week because Bad Taste has moved house – a formidable task when you’re a hoarder of not only of books, but paintings, vintage cowboy boots, LP records, chrome drinks trolleys and old newspaper clippings. Each time I move it’s like a mini (or not-so-mini) travelling circus, so please forgive the tardiness. 

Despite the anguish of moving, though, there can be moments of respite in going through old notebooks and personal archives. I enjoy finding saved and forgotten clippings; old ideas written down then abandoned, producing a direct line of communication with a former self. In one notebook from 2016, I found a quote I’d scrawled from an article by Zak Smith in Artillery Magazine. It reads: “The dominant culture is all too aware that if there were some bomb hidden under the table in art’s ‘counternarratives,’ it would’ve gone off years ago.” This polemic on art’s political power (or lack of power) struck a chord once again as, between moving sessions – between stuffing everything I own into unwieldy cardboard boxes, heaving them down badly-lit staircases and loading them into rental vans – I’ve been watching Adam Curtis’s epic new six-part BBC documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, billed as “an emotional history of the modern world”.

Fusing narrative techniques from Russian literature (i.e. lots and lots of characters) with the visual language of YouTube conspiracy theorists, Curtis’s films are a straight-to-the-vein hit of information. They can feel jumbled and chaotic, bouncing between decades and continents, piecing together a narrative through unseen BBC Archive footage and narrated by Curtis’s omniscient voiceover. This series covers a broad array of topics too dense to fully unpack here – Black Power, China’s Cultural Revolution, the opioid epidemic, conspiracy theories, the rise of hyperindividualism, chaos and complexity theories, algorithms, the fall of the Soviet Union (to merely skim the surface). One theme that resurfaces throughout, and that I’d like to explore further, is the role of art and popular culture in all this social and political turmoil. That bomb under the table of art’s counternarratives described by Zak Smith – can it really be true it doesn’t exist? Or are we just looking for it in the wrong places, under the wrong tables?

Can’t Get You Out of My Head demonstrates the powerful role that culture – particularly literature, film and music – can play in shaping political consciousness, though not always for the better. Ethel Voynich’s 1897 novel The Gadfly, about a Romantic revolutionary hero in Risorgimento-era Italy, inspired thousands of young Russians to join the Bolshevik revolution. A 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, inspired the terrifying visual iconography (white hoods, burning crosses) of the Ku Klux Klan. In China’s Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing (failed actress and estranged wife of Mao) used the power of cinema to reinforce the mythologies of the Chinese communist movement and shape public consciousness. (Qing also used the movement to avenge a co-star who had stolen the limelight from her decades before – hell hath no fury like an actress upstaged.)

All this is a testament to the power of imagery and ideas disseminated by literature and visual culture. Such stories prove that culture can, in fact, have a radicalising effect, stoking action in young Bolshevik revolutionaries and white racists alike. Perhaps our mistake as well-meaning liberal/leftist artists, writers and cultural producers is not in overestimating the radical power of culture but, rather, in assuming it will be utilised for causes we agree with. Culture is not inherently progressive. As as well as socialist revolution, it can also be a powerful bastion of conservativism and reactionary thought, even of racial hatred and totalitarian crackdowns. Sometimes we forget this. 

In all of these cases, though, culture alone did not create the conditions for action. In Marxist thought, it’s material conditions that are the fundamental driver of how society develops. Curtis, a libertarian, instead highlights the importance of emotion – hence this series’ subtitle, An Emotional History of the Modern World. Fear, anger, suspicion, pride – these are the real driving forces of social change, Curtis argues. Culture’s revolutionary power, therefore, is in its ability to tap into these strong emotions and weaponise them. If that raw emotion is muted, sedated, or misdirected elsewhere (whether by Valium, opioids or consumerism) it’s rendered ineffective.

In episode 2, we are told the story of Afeni Shakur, a member of the Black Panthers who, in 1970, successfully stood up to the system and defended herself in the “Panther 21” trial. Shakur was pregnant at the time, with a baby that would one day grow up to be Tupac (how’s that for an auspicious start in the world?). Tupac was influenced by his mother’s liberatory politics and hoped to continue its Black Power message through his music. As the series demonstrates, though, despite Tupac’s immense talent and success as a rapper, he was ultimately frustrated and disappointed by his attempts to awaken a cultural consciousness in his listeners. 

Curtis argues that the Black urban youth Tupac hoped to galvanise had been disempowered by a number of factors, including the influx of crack cocaine into their neighbourhoods (an intentional plan by the CIA?) and a policy of mass incarceration swept in by the Clinton administration. We learn that even Tupac’s revolutionary mother succumbed to addiction. All of this numbed the emotional response Tupac’s music hoped to incite. Meanwhile, the white liberals who also bought his records paid lip service to “solidarity” but had little intention of getting involved in anti-racist politics on any meaningful level (by opposing aforementioned mass incarceration, for example). Much like the white liberals of the 1960s before them, they were more invested in individualism than collectivism, keen to adopt the radical posturing of the counterculture, while continuing to enjoy all the privileges afforded by their race and class.

When I read that quote in 2016, about art not having a bomb under its table, I was inclined to agree with it. Reconsidering in the context of all this, though, it seems shortsighted to assume there’s no potential for one. Cultural bombs have gone off throughout the 20th Century, some with catastrophic effects. All a cultural bomb needs to detonate, Curtis argues, is enough collective emotion – but this is a slippery natural resource, now under threat from the intoxicating effects of drugs, mass media, individualism and consumerism. It was almost impossible to find by the time of Tupac in the 1990s, never mind the social media-addled 2020s.

At the end of the documentary series, after eight hours of dense political theorising, Curtis presents us with three possible futures. The most hopeful is that we imagine an alternative to our current system (capitalist realism, neoliberalism, surveillance capitalism – call it what you will), a possibility that’s made to feel tantalisingly possible with a compelling quote from David Graeber: The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently. Throughout the series, Curtis demonstrates the importance of vision, big ideas and myth-making to political narratives, which culture has consistently helped create. If we are to design and implement an alternate system, then we need the power of imagination (and yes, art!) to do so. Art as protest may have limited effectiveness in the face of real power, but art as an imaginative tool has endless untapped potential. And I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s a f*cking big bomb. 

- Rosa xo


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