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Units of Distress: On Adam Curtis and Gilles Châtelet

by Bernhard Pirkl

Originally published on

Renowned documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has produced a new series by the name of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and some of the commentary betrayed a contemporary incapability of reading cultural products other than as propaganda in some form or another, in homology to Martin Scorsese’s recent complaints about content reductionism. There is apparently a lot of confusion about Curtis‘ political leanings, the narrative – or lack thereof -, the genre, in short: a sensible discontent with the use-value of an idiosyncratic cultural product of such a format.

If Curtis‘ latest work is, on the surface, incoherent, then it is, in the best tradition of postmodern literature, counterintuitively mimetic. After all, Curtis‘ Erkenntnis­interesse is how we ended up in „such a strange place“, a phrase which is a staple of his, and such a genealogical project is both necessarily and paradoxically bound to be strange in its presentation, if pursued with some intellectual and artistic rigor. If Adorno and Horkheimer write of the film producer of their time in the culture industry chapter of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, that “the more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen“, then Curtis‘ work arguably has the obverse effect: rather, one finds the lingering sense of paranoia and increasing fragmentation of the outside world continued on the screen.

Still, it is striking how one can miss, say, the framing provided by the epigraph by the late David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is just something we make, and could just as easily make something different.”

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is then, among other things, a story of the waning of a sense of changeability of the world by collective political action, rhizomatically connecting threads so diverse as the Cultural Revolution, the history of conspiracy theories, Tupac Shakur, Chaos Theory and the Soviet space program. Graebers‘ plea, as ventriloquized by Curtis, to avoid misunderstandings, is certainly not one for some New Agey “magical voluntarism“, to use the phrase Mark Fisher borrowed from David Smail; rather, unsurprising to anybody even remotely familiar with Curtis‘ work, his discontent is precisely with the generalized methodological individualism characteristic of the neoliberal epoch, that by now has become second nature to the extent that any deviation from it must necessarily appear as eccentric, an individualism that arguably is strictly opposed to a a notion of genuine individuation.

It is especially in the last episode that the attentive viewer will find some of these otherwise seemingly erratically juxtaposed threads arguably at least tentatively reconnected. Curtis‘ voiceover on the topic of the fashion of chaos theory, which in inverted fashion takes up the topic of the epigraph, reads as follows:

Chaos theory …rose up at the very moment the Soviet Union was collapsing


the world was just too complex to change for human beings in a predictable way

Curtis‘ intuition at this juncture is corroborated by the French philosopher Gilles Châtelet, whose 1998 tract To Live and Think like Pigs, a scathing indictment of the anthropomorphic husks that make up the „global middle class“ which populates our cities, covers surprisingly much of the same ground as Curtis‘ oeuvre. The critique of the all-too elegant ideology of chaos, auto-emergence and equilibrium takes up an entire chapter of Châtelet’s acerbic polemic.

For Châtelet, chaos theory appears as the perfect ideology of the realignment constitutive of “the new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski/Chiapello), in which “the rich and cultivated have come together again” in some sort of “festive neoconservativism”; according to Châtelet,

The sociopolitical mystification of Chaos combines two advantages: it is an affordable rather than a dangerous thought; and it legitimates a type of auto-domination swathed in all the ‚liberatory‘ and baroque glamour of scientific theories, some of which even claim to have vanquished ‚old-fashioned determinism‘

and later in the tract:

This fascination for fluidity and networks-verging…results from a confusion between horizontality and democracy. It persists in laying siege to abandoned fortresses without understanding that the true effectiveness of power is all the more savage for its invisibility, that the horizontal formations outlined by the future global City, far from ‚democratizing‘, accelerate the concentration of foci of decision making that can act discreetly everywhere and nowhere, without this confrontation being compromised by any of the pomp of overly visible verticalities.

To cut a long (and immensely rewarding to read story) brutally short, for Châtelet, the jargon of complexity, fluidity, nomadism etc. represents a recuperation of both mathematical theories (his field of expertise) and (post-)68 ideas, especially those of Gilles Deleuze, who he was friends with, in the service of a transformation of power into a “cybermercantile” order in which domination is effaced by way of depersonalization and naturalization, which gives rise to all sorts of social pathologies, including the haunting of the “spectre of fascism” (Samir Gandesha), sparklingly brilliantly chastised especially in the chapter “Robinsons on Wheels”. Pace Theweleit, Châtelet shows convincingly and with much less effort, that there also is a fluid fascism.

To return to our artist, what Adam Curtis has been laboring over and over again in his work are the vicissitudes of liberation without liberation, which in Châtelet’s concise words assume the form of “equality in distress of the atoms of supply and demand“. This is the thread that unites the “unit of one“ Jian Q ing with today’s aggressively competitive and “virtue hoarding” (Catherine Liu) urbanites. It would be grossly mistaken to hamfistedly shelve his outlook in the conservative register – a fate similar thinkers like Christopher Lasch have suffered. Rather, Curtis‘ indictment of what Châtelet – properly paradoxically – called “mass individualism” should rather serve as a vantage point for developing a new, genuinely emancipatory perspective which is alert of forms of domination in a liberatory guise, and which is able to reconcile individuality with collective political agency.

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