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The Paranoid Style in Adam Curtis

Scott Gries/Getty Images

Adam Curtis, New York City, April 2005

Scott Gries/Getty Images

Adam Curtis, New York City, April 2005

Filmmaker and journalist Adam Curtis has been working at the BBC since 1980, institutionally blessed for over forty years. He’s made more than twenty films and television series that exploit his unfettered access to the BBC archives. In them, he stitches together previously shot footage to explore, in an open-ended and seductive style, historical figures and ideas: terrorism, various demented elites, Putin.

His first major series, Pandora’s Box, won him the BAFTA for Best Factual Series in 1993. This program was about the ways in which science is misused in the name of social progress, beginning with a review of industrial production in the Bolshevik era. His 2002 series, The Century of the Self, examined the connections between Freud, public relations, and political polling. His most recent film, the six-part, eight-hour Can’t Get You Out of My Head, subtitled An Emotional History of the Modern World, was released on the BBC iPlayer in February (viewers outside the UK can currently find it on the site thoughtmaybe.com, which describes itself as an online not-for-profit library).


Official trailer on the BBC YouTube channel


To give a flavor of what to expect, episode one, “Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain,” begins with a world-encompassing bill of goods:

We are living through strange days. These films are a history of how we got to this place and why both those in power and we find it so difficult to move on. They will trace different forces across the world that have led to now, not just in the West, but in China and Russia as well, and they are told in a different way. They are an emotional history of what went on inside the heads of all kinds of people, because in the age of the individual, what you felt and what you wanted and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world, and to understand the present, you have to go back and see what happened when those hopes and dreams and uncertainties inside people’s minds met the much older forces of power, often power that was decaying and desperate to keep its ascendancy. These strange days did not just happen, we and those in power created them together.

This latest series, like most of the others before it, examines the failure of states and big tent philosophies, and the sad state of the unattached individual who, with nothing but the roomy shawl of individualism as cover, must also fail.

In January, Sam Knight of The New Yorker hailed Curtis’s work as “hallucinatory, daring attempts to explain modern mass predicaments.” Danny Leigh wrote in the Financial Times that his films are “about all of it, all the time; history told not through textbook landmarks but odd, novelistic lives and moments until bang: the lightning flash.” More recently, Miles Ellingham told Jacobin readers that the new Curtis series was “a genuine epic,” and credited its auteur with “revolutionary Marxist critiques of capitalist instability.” Aside from a small stream of skeptical reactions, the mainstream press treats Curtis as a cutting-edge filmmaker and public intellectual. He has a following that accepts him as such; there is a steady stream of commenters on Reddit and YouTube attesting to how Curtis is blowing their minds.

If you are satisfied by having a bunch of historical nuggets loaded into a cage and shaken about to no particular end, you might agree. I, sadly, have less than no idea how Curtis meant to connect Jiang Qing, Tupac Shakur, Michael de Freitas, Joan Baez, Arthur Sackler, Sandra Paul, Bernard Kouchner, Julia Grant, the Baader-Meinhof group, and a dozen others, at a narrative or conceptual level. Yet here they all are.

Although Curtis and I both like popular music and empty hallways, my relationship to his work can fairly be described as an aversion. (I had a brief e-mail exchange with him in 2013, and he was both professional and polite. I have no aversion to Curtis the person.) Other nonbelievers have described his work as “incoherent” and “neoconservative,” which are words I would not use. The politics of Curtis’s films do not bother me because his work does not display the consistent, perceptible act of choice that constitutes political engagement. If his movies were presented as some kind of fever dream collage, I might like them. Curtis vexes me because of his paranoid writing, a method that introduces a soft and acidic coagulant into any discussion. His commentaries destroy the cellular structure of ideas with a terminal vagueness that lulls me into a fitful sleep.

One wonders how Curtis imagines he can deliver an “emotional history of what went on inside the heads of all kinds of people” when the people in question are all dead. Mind-reading, or the assigning of intentionality, is a cardinal sin in journalism—and Curtis has always told anybody who asks him that he is a journalist. This is not a minor assertion, as it seems that his movies are taken seriously for this reason precisely, because they assert the facticity of journalism.

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Curtis lays his archival bits end-to-end: concatenation. But placing things in a row produces a montage, something that is neither an “essay,” a thing he has claimed to be presenting, nor an analysis. For example, one prominent member of his cast this time is Michael de Freitas. When we meet him, De Freitas is a low-level enforcer for a London slumlord named Peter Rachman, a figure who became “hated with an overwhelming disgust as the face of evil.” De Freitas goes on to be a figure in the British Black Power movement—calling himself Michael X—before fleeing England and arranging to have someone stabbed to death. What De Freitas represents is never clear, but it hardly matters. The sordid trumps the logical here.

How sordid? Curtis mentions two suicides during the course of Can’t Get You Out of My Head: Edgar Mittelholzer and Robin Douglas-Home. Mittelholzer, a disaffected anticolonial novelist, covered himself in paraffin and set it alight. Douglas-Home, an aristocrat who dabbled in jazz and suffered from depression, committed suicide a few years after a highly publicized divorce from his wife, Sandra Paul. How does Curtis describe this?

For men like Robin Douglas-Home, the expectation of power had been deeply embedded inside their minds, but as the world had changed around them and real power ebbed away, they were left with a terrible melancholy, that in some would turn to despair.

How does Curtis know what was embedded in Douglas-Home’s mind? And unless Douglas-Home left a very specific note, how would Curtis know whether or not his feelings about power affected the decision to take his own life?

Curtis reduces the viewer to a kind of flustered traffic cop, constantly yelling, “Wait!” His narration constantly leaps from a minor detail to a wide claim that sweeps everything off the table. The effect is a bit like being buttonholed by a child who begs to skip homework by presenting an impromptu lecture.

During a segment in episode four about Deng Xiaoping and the trial of the Gang of Four, Curtis quotes Jiang Qing as yelling, “I am without heaven and a law unto myself! It is right to rebel!” as she is being removed from a courtroom. This checks out, and it’s been reported elsewhere. But then, Curtis pole vaults into his own realm, where he sees a big picture all his own: “And then, that force that Jiang Qing had prophesied—individualism—reemerged.” She does not, in this series, prophesy any such thing.

Maybe this is a reference to the Democracy Wall, which had then just been introduced, though individualism seems an odd way to characterize collective resistance to Deng Xiaoping’s repression. Or maybe Curtis is tying individualism to another quote, when Jiang Qing called herself a “unit of one.” But this is a strange brief for Jiang Qing as the avatar of individualism, as she spent much of her life as a member of the Chinese state, a figure of institutional power. Her struggles read most easily as a traditional jockeying between political factions, with perhaps more power than usual involved.

I asked Tiffany Sia for her take on this part of the narrative. Sia is an artist and the author of Too Salty Too Wet, her 2021 book about unrest, migration, and Hong Kong. She pointed out to me: “The Curtis take on Jiang Qing is especially odd, considering that, after Mao died, she famously said, ‘I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.’ What does that say about individualism? Nothing.”

In episode three, “Money Changes Everything,” Curtis narrates the introduction of Valium and how Arthur Sackler helped market it. “Valium had touched on something inside human beings, but nobody knew what it was.”

Valium does indeed go inside the human being. But as Andrea Tone’s history of benzodiazepines, The Age of Anxiety (2008), tells us, the people who made the drug were very much aware of what Valium touched, how it did that, and why. Valium wasn’t even the first commercially marketed tranquilizer—that was Miltown, introduced in the 1950s with some fairly hilarious magazine ads. It plays pretty well, visually, if someone wants to make a film about benzodiazepines.

In episode four, Curtis moves from Valium to Oxycontin, with one of those spoonfuls of plummy speaking that makes nonsense sound like news:

It was a synthetic form of opium and it was sold as a painkiller. But then, workers who were being laid off as the factories closed found that they got more benefits if they were disabled, so they went to their doctors and said they were injured, and the doctors gave them Oxycontin. They got their benefit, but they also discovered that Oxycontin made them feel safe, in a bubble, protected from the anxieties and fears of the new postindustrial world.

This is a cinnamon roll of awfulness, spirals of doughy suggestion interleaved with spicy mendacity. Imagine being injured in an accident and getting hooked on Oxycontin, which is one of the most common ways people get addicted to this form of opioid. There you are, fighting through recovery, listening to this stranger tell you that you are taking Oxy to protect yourself from fears of “the new postindustrial world”—oh, and also, you’re a scammer.

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That this series was being edited well into 2021 should be taken into account when reviewing the fact that what Curtis chooses to drive home in his Oxycontin segment is the unsupported assertion that opioids became a crisis because workers started lying about their injuries.

In episode six, Curtis says that “millions had become addicted to opioids and yet no one in power had come to rescue them.” I’m not in the habit of praising state and federal prosecutors, but they did something this time. Purdue Pharma, the company owned by the Sacklers, has been fined billions of dollars for illegal and aggressive marketing tactics that helped create the opioid crisis. The behavior of the Sacklers was brought into the light by journalists like Patrick Radden Keefe and Christopher Glazek, and by the direct action of people like Nan Goldin and everyone who protested at museums supported by the Sacklers. Curtis introduces the Sacklers but does not mention either their criminal actions or their company’s publicly admitted guilt.

Occasionally, other people’s efforts appear inside his own, uncredited. In the second episode, “Shooting and Fucking Are the Same Thing,” Curtis faithfully recreates a sequence from Uli Edel’s Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, a 2008 feature film about a West German radical leftist group known as the Red Army Faction. Curtis borrows Edel’s staging of the RAF’s time in Jordan, where its members learned how to fight with automatic weapons and disagreed with their Jordanian instructors about public nudity. Curtis cuts his version with archival footage instead of actors, but still borrows a key phrase from Edel’s scene to title the episode.

There’s a good sequence on the Ku Klux Klan in episode five, an accurate and swift summation of how the racist murder club invented a history and borrowed its symbols. Hardly new stuff, but well-executed. But why is it here? How does it relate to the other eight hours of this series? Curtis drags even solid research into a paranoid generalism that obviates the patience and focus necessary for a critical sequence of connected thoughts. Curtis is constantly opening his bag so wide that everything just falls out. Théorie Communiste’s recent essay on conspiracism help us frame what Curtis is doing. “Just as anti-Semitism was the socialism of fools,” the collective’s authors write, “conspiracism is the class struggle of experts who are not situated anywhere in particular, not in society, nor along a politico-ideological spectrum.”

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If we turn to how Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the scholar of queer theory, described paranoid reading in 2002, we can better understand what Curtis is doing. Sedgwick spoke about the advantages of the paranoid position, which she also called a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” “Paranoia knows some things well and others poorly,” she wrote. In that spirit, I would say that Curtis asks us to consider worthy topics. As a business-class concierge for history’s biggest bummers, he does the work. It is when Curtis starts writing the commentary for his montages that my fur goes up. Any hopes that the paranoid position might be taking us to a productive place dissolve, as assertions (never arguments) stack up alongside his boy’s salad of titillation.

For example, in episode three, Curtis plays the audio of astronaut Vladimir Komarov’s last words as he died in a malfunctioning space capsule, or as Curtis so soberly presents it, “Komarov’s final cries of rage, as he plunged to his death on the plains of Kazakhstan.” We also get to see his charred remains, of course, because they show us all how “the Communist dream had become corrupt.” At times, it seems that Curtis’s biggest coup has been selling red-meat tabloid prurience as highbrow political thinky think.

Flat-fee conspiracists like Curtis are obsessed with elites and politicians and “the system,” like kids under the covers overhearing grown folks talking, reducing complex relations to Star Wars set pieces. Obediently, in a Curtis film, every group and individual that might seem to offer agency or resistance fails, yielding the true goal of the paranoid: always already defeated. Because Curtis is unable to reconcile his positions and move toward a more coherent reading of history, we are forever stuck in the early developmental stage of the paranoid, sensing menacing and incomplete parts, terrified of change.

“Because there must be no bad surprises,” Sedgwick writes, “and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known.” In Curtis films, the bad news seems to be the only real news and it is always uncovered in roughly the same way. The banks take over, a high-minded experiment fails, the sexy Soviets come marching in, and an unidentified Black American nods off, too high to act.

“There’s this kind of left figure, but sometimes not really on the left, who tends to think of power entirely in terms of organizations and figures at the top and elites,” UC Berkeley lecturer Jasper Bernes wrote to me. “I think of Julian Assange as a kind of figure like that, or maybe Glenn Greenwald. There’s a left media sphere which really doesn’t see anything happening except these powerful people making decisions and producing discourse, which is really not the way societies and economies work.”

Curtis films purport to be about us. But the paranoid writing dominates, and the viewer is left with unknown anxieties projected onto known images, a sort of emotional break-in. Curtis can’t seem to get Curtis out of his head, and I am not sure that his films tell us about anything else. In his 2010 film, Richard Nixon—Paranoia and Moral Panics, Curtis declared his emotional history a universal one:

This is a film about how all of us have become Richard Nixon. Just like him, we have all become paranoid weirdos. It’s the story of how television and newspapers did this and how it has paralyzed the ability of politics to transform the world for the better.… But then, in the 1990s, the journalists became even more like Richard Nixon. Like him, they started to see hidden enemies everywhere.

We know that Curtis always asserts he is a journalist. But as the narrator of his own films, he feels compelled to dismiss journalists. This is pure paranoid fragmentation: a paranoid individual like all other paranoid individuals but insisting on being unlike all others. He is everywhere and nowhere.

For Curtis, all human behavior becomes a monochromatic cloud of intention that can be tracked like a flight. Distinct forces play against distinct forces without the complications of chance or the constraint of specific details. One scientific blunder becomes the failure of science itself. One overeager journalist becomes the field itself. Eras and cohorts and ideas are smooth circles, rounded off by the totalizing buff of power’s sneaky omnipotence.

Notice, in fact, how many times Curtis uses the words “nothing” and “everything” in all of his work. Very little reporting can stand up to those kindergarten words, and by choosing a category that essentially doesn’t exist—can you name an actual everything, an event that does not admit to exception?—Curtis is making clear that reporting means little to him.

The appeal of conspiracizing for Curtis and his followers is exactly this unverifiable fog, this woolen hug of futility. If nothing can be done, inactivity looks normative. Conspiracism is the enemy of collective action. The group takes action and counts its wins and losses after the day. The conspiracist, answers scrawled on his hand, hangs back and cynically tells a story about why it never would have worked anyway. Curtis and his cohort love the idea of a grand story that never needs to be revised or reported out.

The darkest and largest force always wins, has always already won. Curtis simply confirms the bad news.


An earlier version of this article misidentified the tranquilizer type known as Miltown; chemically, it is meprobramate, not in the benzodiazepine class of drugs. The article has been updated.

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