The ultimate hidden truth?

Can’t Get You Out of My Head, directed by Adam Curtis.

From the 1990s onwards, Adam Curtis has become known as an English documentary filmmaker with a distinctive style. Dynamic collages of incongruent pieces of archival footage and music are presented, accompanied by his own brand of assertive, level-headed voiceover; narrating how psychology, sociology, philosophy and political theory feature in the history of ideas.

His latest documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World was released on BBC iPlayer in February 2021 as a six-part series, setting out to address political, cultural and technological links between the west and other parts of the world, such as Russia and China. The documentary series attracted mixed reviews from critics across the political spectrum – some bemused by its incoherence and taste for conspiracy, others gripped by its shocking and ambitious messages regarding political change (or lack of). In any case, there are several themes that arise in this far-reaching series that might be, or perhaps should be, of further interest to psychologists.

Something very relevant to psychology at the heart of the documentary concerns tensions in our cultures, politics and societies between individualism and collectivism. Curtis uses the stories of strikingly diverse individual figures such as Afeni Shakur and her son Tupac, Edward Limonov, Abu Zubaydah and Julia Grant to illustrate how individuals battle to express themselves and achieve social change in the face of uncaring societies and oppressive political systems. In some cases, individuals are both victims and proponents of new forms of psychological thinking, and both individual and collective forms of psychology can be shown as bound up with forms of scientific and technological power and control.

The documentary also shows how the psychological effects of forms of political and corporate organisation and leadership can give rise to a sense of absurdity, where a false sense of stability and control gives a temporary illusion of normality and reality that can be ruptured (a theme also touched upon in a previous Curtis documentary from 2016, HyperNormalisation). Figures like Dominic Cummings and BF Skinner believe they have new ways of running, controlling and predicting the world through altered systems of meaning and ideologies, often including and accompanied by psychological paradigms, experiments, worldviews and theories. The ongoing existential and absurdist struggle to make sense of a confusing and complex world where things seem like they could be handled differently and can be shockingly reversed and upended is a profoundly psychological one.

Besides the psychological content of the documentary, its form or medium is also of psychological interest in its own right. Curtis’ refined film-making and narrative methods involving pastiche, montage, collage, cut-up, and juxtaposition of diverse archival images and sounds can serve to create a psychological spectacle intended to engage and shock viewers. The transitions between footage of violence, political protest, people dancing and other scenes of everyday life and events around the world can be disorienting, but also prompt us to think about surprising connections and associations in our shared psychological worlds. These types of technique surely have implications for psychological research methods and public engagement.

Watching Curtis’ latest documentary is itself a psychological experience; sometimes erratic, incoherent, intellectually reductive and disorienting. Yet at the same time, the loose connections, associations and overarching ideas are provocative and imaginative food for thought for many viewers. The documentary points to shared forms of struggle across different countries, timeframes, stories and experiences. The series also starts and finishes with a captioned quote from the late anthropologist David Graeber - ‘The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently’. I suggest psychologists would do well to play their part in uncovering, and not further concealing, this hidden truth.

Reviewed by Thomas Calvard, University of Edinburgh

Watch now on BBC iPlayer

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