The wealth of information Adam Curtis has compiled in his new 6-part film is truly astounding. With Can’t Get You Outta My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, Curtis offers a fresh look into the recent history of our world, using amazing footage to give you glimpses into political, psychological, and societal changes that have influenced our lives over the last few decades.
The vast film touches on psychology, the CIA, the economic crash of 2008, drug use, discordianism, the Russian Revolution, Tupac, the rise of Mao in China, and a look into the influence Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, had on the Cultural Revolution.
Those are just a few of the topics covered in the immense documentary, which has filled me with a new eagerness fight for change in my own lifetime.
Curtis’ message is one of a need for movement. A reawakening of the confidence we need to create new ideas and act on them to move society forward. An end to the stalemate of capitalist realism.
It is an inspiring message that will make you desire immediate action — hence this article and my assertion that this film could be The Gadfly of our times.
“The longer a thing is to take doing, the more reason to begin at once”
―Ethel Lilian Voynich, The Gadfly
Art echoes through time. In Can’t Get You Outta My Head, Curtis explains how Ethel Voynich, the wife of Wilfred Voynich, owner of The Voynich Manuscripts, inspired countless people toward societal and political change with her novel, The Gadfly.
In 1897, The Gadfly was published in New York. The book is a dramatic love story set in Italy. The tale features a Romantic hero and deals with religion and family drama, among other topics.
“It’s message, though, is a revolutionary one. Arthur is sacrificed so that humankind can be redeemed and open the way to a realisation of the future possibilities for the world — once the old oppressive forces have been overthrown.”
- Adam Curtis, BBC Blogs, “Now Then”, published July 25, 2014
Ethel could not get her book published in Britain, but it was picked up in Russia. There, according to Curtis, it “became an astonishing success.”
“One writer describes how all the young Bolsheviks read it and ‘t virtually became the bible of the revolution’. By the 1960s it was estimated that 250 million Russian teenagers had read the Gadfly in translation. And polls showed that Arthur was consistently the favourite hero of Soviet youth.”
- Adam Curtis, BBC Blogs, “Now Then”, published July 25, 2014
The “Bible of the revolution” inspired many young people in the Soviet Union, China, and beyond, giving them the confidence to promote radical ideas and revolutionary activities, though the book never found much popularity in the West.
The book not only urged young people into action in their communities and countries, it urged people into action artistically and scientifically as well. The first man and woman in space, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, cited The Gadfly as an influence in their accomplishments, and Nikolai Ostrovsky’s 1934 novel, How the Steel Was Tempered, features a main character who “finds perpetual sustenance in the example of The Gadfly, which he reads to his fellow comrades.”
Ostrovosky’s novel sold 35 million copies just within the Soviet Union.
With her novel, Ethel goaded millions into action. And with Curtis’ new film, millions more could be inspired to make a change in society.
In Curtis’ film, he explores the makings of our modern societies, revealing the corruption within political parties, activist groups, and government organizations. This corruption, which seems to have infiltrated every area of society, has led us to feel as though the future has been canceled, blocking us from coming up with any new ideas to us move forward.
The slow cancellation of the future, a term coined by Mark Fisher, refers to our inability to move past capitalism despite its obvious flaws and corruptions. We are stuck, incapable of producing new, creative ideas. Not believing in change — and therefore canceling the future.
But are we really stuck?
The answer is very obviously no. We have not figured it all out. We have not reached the end of ideas. As Curtis shows, we have simply stagnated due to corruption and an unwieldy power structure.
The documentary features many emotional scenes. His footage will resonate with people all over the world. To show how we ended up at this point, Curtis delves into the company towns in Appalachia and how they operated. The housing, stores, and even the currency the miners used were created and managed by the mining company. Then the mining company up and left, leaving the miners with no income, and a new threat called OxyContin.
He also offers a history of Putin’s rise to power in Russia, illustrating how he was chosen by corrupt oligarchs to help them maintain their power and wealth. One of the reasons for Russia’s stagnation and decline, the documentary suggests, is the corruption promoted by Putin, and his inability, and lack of desire, to act as a leader.
Can’t Get You Outta My Head shows the lengths those in power will go in their quests for money, comfort, and security. It shows how corrupt our governments have become all over the world in the last 80 years. The images are of decay and ruin, thievery and poverty. Vast cities full of people who don’t believe they have agency, while handfuls of people hidden away in plush, elegant rooms make decisions that change the course of the future.
As citizens, we are paralyzed into believing we are inadequate, weak, or unable to fight back. But the world is changing around us all the time. Curtis begins his film with a quote by anthropologist David Graeber:
“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”
Curtis states that we need a new vision for the future. One that supersedes the current one. It’s up to us to create that new vision. We must regain confidence in a future for us all, and we must move toward it with everything we have. If we do not, the future will be created for us.
As Curtis says:
“It may be that we are really far stronger than we think. One thing that is certain is that the world of the future will be different, and that the people in that future will feel and think differently too. If we can regain our confidence, we will find that we have the power to influence how that future turns out.”
- Adam Curtis, Can’t Get You Outta My Head, 2021
Like The Gadfly, I hope Curtis’ film opens the eyes of many and urges them to take action. It’s time to move beyond capitalist realism and into new ideas. We have the power to change our reality.
If you haven’t watched Curtis’ film, now’s the time.
Let’s get the wheels back in motion.