Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

Reflections On The Work Of Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis considers his films to be strictly journalism. 

Having unlimited access to the vast archives of the BBC library, Curtis snips and cuts the myriad fragments of visual history to arrange them around themes guided by his own narrative and analysis. To relegate these works to the narrow field of conventional reporting would be to entirely miss their import and effect. The subjects of his films dive deeply into the wilderness of inherent contradictions between reality and the artificial reproductions of reality, between fact and imagination, between linear narrative and memory, and the many ways we rearrange our perceptions of reality to serve our own agendas. His most recent work, the six part series titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head focuses on the dialectic between historical and psychological forces that drive individuals into increased feelings of isolation and helplessness and the barriers to effective collective action.

The emotional power of well selected images poised in sharp juxtaposition has been  explored as long ago as in the montage techniques pioneered by early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein. The use of montage takes us out of the illusory realms of objectivity and well into the territory of ideological expression. Directors like Jean Luc Godard and the ‘underground’ filmmakers of the sixties made radical use of the technique to purposely challenge the conventions of narrative film. While their work was perceived at the time as radical, our immersion in the frenetic medium of television makes them appear prophetic. The rapid disorienting shift between scenarios, the intrusion of seemingly unrelated sequences in commercials and the use of sound as compliment and contrast has increased our ability to shift attention rapidly from one image to another without loosing the narrative thread. Adam Curtis takes advantage of the growing sophistication of our visual language while pushing the form further with each successive work, encouraging us to take larger leaps along with him.

(My favorite film makers of the sixties were the French New Wave’director Jean Luc Goddard and the English director, Nicholas Roeg. Being a contrarian by nature I was always thrilled at the premier of a Godard film on my college campus and particularly pleased when a third to half of the audience walked out in bewilderment or disgust. This I deemed an indication of the film’s success. Both Godard and Roeg used techniques of radical montage to pit direct and sometimes disjointed, emotionally charged images against the linear revelations of plot. Godard went the farthest, often rejecting the very structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’ in films like 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Sympathy For The Devil and See You At Mao. Nicholas Roeg managed to corral these techniques into challenging narratives interrupted by out of synch and out of time sequences taking the viewer out of the linear present into realms of memory, imagination and pure emotion. His use of popular musical icons as actors in films like Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth became immensely popular with the psychedelic generation. 

At least since 1992 with Pandora’s Box, followed by the more ambitious Century Of The Self and into the present Adam Curtis has employed montage with increasing ambition to deliver films that offer historical analysis along with imagery that comes across with devastating emotional impact. To Curtis the purpose of journalism is not merely to report, but to explain. His method is to distill and arrange out of the many sounds and images of a given historical period a presentation of coherent themes that persuade the viewer that his interpretation matches the reality. Journalism in this sense is the art of persuasion. 

Human beings are addicted to narrative. If presented with a random set of images our minds will eventually assemble them into stories. If we stare at a wall long enough our minds will weave narratives out of the imperfections in the paint. This is a key to the methods of psychological testing that is critiqued in much of Curtis’ work. Ironically perhaps, it’s the key to his own art and his approach to journalism. When the reporter in a war zone decides to point the lens of their camera they are continually selecting the elements of their own narrative. When Adam Curtis wades through the BBC archives the images he selects are made to fit the preconceived patterns of a story he wishes to tell. 

Episode four of his most recent work is titled ‘But what if the people are stupid.’ It’s primary theme is how our disillusionment with institutions born out of the emphasis on individualism in the sixties and seventies morphed into a retreat into nationalism in the eighties and nineties. Curtis pulls together accounts that range widely across the period, from the unsuccessful coup of the Gang Of Four in China to the somewhat tragic life of a transexual pioneer in England, the rise of Al Queda in Iraq, disappointment in the wake of the Live Aid effort and events that led to the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square. All of these events are bracketed by accounts of psychological experiments carried on by Daniel Kahneman in the seventies leading to the thesis that people’s choices aren’t made primarily on a rational basis but are determined by their previous experiences and how they effect the deeper, mostly subconscious structures in the brain. By focusing on the personal dilemmas and contradictions faced by particular individuals against a backdrop of massive social movements Curtis dramatizes a specific and worldwide shift in our collective experience serving to frustrate our ability to organize coherent resistance to the growing power of elites. This sets us up for the next episode, ‘The Lordly Ones’, which explores the comforting national myths we construct to justify the blunders and atrocities carried out to maintain the rule of dominant capitalist elites over the rest of the world.

On the surface Curtis’ approach resembles that of an historian or archaeologist as much as that of a journalist. All are storytellers and agents of artifice, weaving our perceptions into coherent streams of interpretation and all deal with data fragments from moments gone by. The stories Adam Curtis chooses to tell center on the influence that modern psychology has  had on the manipulative techniques of advertising, the growth and dominance of consumerism, and most importantly the isolation of the individual in the shadow of the capitalist state, rendering concepts such as personal freedom and choice almost entirely irrelevant.

We’ve become helpless as collective societies to effectively act to change our circumstances. Instead, our every activity is measured, tabulated and arranged in predictive models that serve to anticipate and then to manipulate our behaviors. Human behavior has been programmed into machinery that uses algorithms to further the power and wealth of economic elites. Only by breaking free of the conceptual prison of the techno-capitalist state can we even begin to imagine a future that meets actual human needs.

Perhaps we expect that journalism and documentary gives us a more accurate glimpse of the real and the true. What we should have learned in an age of propaganda, ‘fake news’ and the Internet is that in the selection and manipulation of images just about any version of ‘reality’ can be made to appear as truth. In the view of Adam Curtis the true value of journalism is to ‘make sense’ of the world in new and original ways that evolve continually with our continual appetite for the new. This is the only way that we can cast off the oppressive chains of the past. We might do well to make his revolution our own.


Thoughtmaybe.com for access to a full catalogue of Adam Curtis Documentaries and many other worthwhile films.


An outstanding interview with Adam Curtis at: Jacobin.com

AN INVITATION

My Publishing Career

When I was in elementary school I was given for Christmas a small printing press  that could make stuff the size of business cards or raffle tickets. I started a number of membership organizations among my classmates that could be activated simply by asking for a card: ‘The Hoppity Hooper” Fan Club,’ ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Fan Club,’ and our final, three color masterpiece, a membership in ‘Camp Palumbo’ along with a small certificate of the official currency, the ‘Pazzuza.’ 

Later on my neighborhood friends and I, all bing in the same Boy Scout Troop, would take each issue of the Official Boy Scout Magazine paste in alternative headlines and captions cut out of other publications and turn Boys Life into what we thought was a hysterically funny parody inspired by Mad Magazine, a publication we really took seriously.   

In high school, myself and my high-minded friends published and repeatedly got in trouble for a series of independent journals printed via mimeograph machine and silk screen press at our local Peace Movement Offices. I continued this though college and after, until moving to Santa Fe, when I got a bit more seriously embedded in the writer’s world. 

In 1984, after attempting to convert reams of handwritten notes, poetry, short stories and essays into a publishable form into typewritten documents (a frustrating process) I took a class in the new Word Processing technology at the local community college. About midway through the course the teach came into class entranced by the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. I don’t remember what he said but his trance was somehow infectious, and before the end of the year I’d acquired my own machine and the accompanying laser printer.

For a number of years I published articles and reviews in ‘The Journal for Humanistic Psychology,’ ‘Annals of The Earth’ and ‘Shaman’s Drum’ magazine. 911 happened. I was not particularly surprised that it happened but that didn’t make me less angry. So, I started a blog, called ‘The Arclist,’ which continued view email and website for the next 20 years. After the 2016 election the list pretty much was reduced with short headline introductions to various news and resistance links and very little else. Meanwhile the host site and software became contaminated and obsolete and harder to manage, until a couple of weeks ago I decided to abandon the list in email form and rethink the whole thing. 

I was diagnosed with cancer. This marked an opportunity to rethink everything. I went though my existing contact list and entered them into another email client service that I’d learned to navigate through as a business application. More up to date and flexible and easier to manage in creative ways, I’d like to take advantage of this by setting up a new version of the Arclist, more in the tradition of a Journal that accommodates creative ideas, creative projects and creative discussions between interested folks. I think we are all somewhat anxious to move beyond obsessive focus on the disasters of this past year and turn our attention to future possibilities. Perhaps this could provide an opportunity.

I have a list of names that I’ve gleaned from my contact list. Many of you were part of the previous mailing list or were listed as a ‘friend’ on my Facebook page. Some of you might have gone away for any number of reasons. Some of you may not wish to hear from me ever again. Before engaging the new list I want to send a formal invitation for you to respond, either positively of negatively, and I will then formally activate or delete your membership. If your answer is ‘YES,’ and I hope it is, I will begin sending out my creations, or forwarding others, on some semi-regular basis.

Meanwhile, I’ve attached to this invitation a sampling of the sort of stuff you might expect to receive on the New ARCLIST. Should you wish to subscribe and get the material on this site in our email just send a reply to remelcher@arclist.com, or leave a Reply at the bottom of this page.    


My Favorite Podcasts (Current) 12/13/20

Not included are podcasts I’ve favored In the past but I’m no longer following regularly (this American Life, Masters of Scale) or podcasts that were short form or serialized or no longer being produced (‘Studio 360,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy Balls’). By ‘current’ I only mean current, and this list will continue to shift from day to day as I get turned on to new podcasts.

History

Throughline

One of NPR’s Most Popular Daytime Shows, this hour long documentary style delves into all of the corners of history we are never/rarely taught in school. To fully understand the present events in the context of historical realities the show is unmatched. The two hosts are from first and second generation Iranian and Palestinian families, which may give a clue  to the unique depth of their approach to telling stories.

The United States of Anxiety

A little scary but enlightening as it focuses on the areas in American history that indicate the conflicts that have split the body politic from the beginnings of the USA.

This Day in Esoteric Political History

Somewhat oddly named, focusing each day on a single event (many of which I’d never heard of) at a particular moment in American History, a lively and educated discussion of the event’s historical environment and its influence and indications in the present.

Politics

Hacks On Tap

Political strategists from both sides of the ‘aisle’ toss around their critiques and projections about both parties. Anchored by David Axelrod (Democrat) and Mike Murphy (very ‘anti-Trump’ Republican), with a variety of chummy guests, the analysis is delivered with a good deal of humor and real ‘insider’ knowledge of how political campaigns actually work.

FiveThirtyEight

I’ve been listening to these guys since 2015. A relief from the general alarmist nature of political news and analysis. Sometimes a bit over-the-top ‘wonky,’ I favor 538 for a strictly data-based view of political realities balanced by a crew of mostly contrarians in one form or another. I simply like these guys. As I was about to write this review, unfortunately the departure of Clare Malone is a great loss. Relative newcomer Harry Bacon Junior has brought a similar contrarian sensibility and a much needed black perspective to the panel, Malone brought an equally important feminist and Midwestern (Ohio) perspective. 

The Ticket

One of the better interview shows from The Atlantic. Host Isaac Dovere chooses subjects that are generally slightly out of the mainstream news but closer to actual events. Always new information and insights.

The Axe Files

Long form, one hour interviews of a range of public figures, illuminating their biographies and focusing on their positions in regards to contemporary politics. David Axelrod, currently head of The U. Of Chicago School of Politics and once Obama’s chief campaign adviser, is relentless in his ability to get beyond easy rhetoric to the true nature and personality of his guests.

Amicus

A bit alarmist in the ‘Slate’ style this is the best way to keep up with the arguments, decisions and implications for the future of the Judicial branch of government.

Intelligence Squared

Both sides of every question, thoroughly and respectfully debated. Particularly helpful to those in the habit of considering the ‘other side’ to be totally without brains or merit. (Note: This applies only to arguments that actually apply when a et of common facts are agreed upon.) 

Reporting

The Daily

The New York Times, in its breadth and depth of coverage is still at the top of the media heap. This podcast offers a sampling every morning, with a single news story or interview and a short headline summary. On Sunday an archived ‘feature story’ is read in entirety. I highly recommend checking out the Dec. 6th edition: “The Social Life of Trees.” 

Global News Podcast – BBC

I start the day with this one, as the focus isn’t obsessively on America and it’s ridiculous politics, it’s coverage is delivered with an almost universally cheerful, or at least less apocalyptic stance. Given all of the ‘Brexit’ angst in Briton these days, I suppose several hundred years more of living history kind of levels out ones perspective on the present.

The New Yorker Radio Hour

I wasn’t sure just where to place this since the coverage is as much news as it is cultural commentary. I decided that since the coverage is essentially ‘journalistic’ in approach, this fits.

Business/Journalism

Pivot

Two of the most knowledgeable people on the fringes of Big Tech, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway make a ‘perfect couple’ with their insights into current and future trends in business, investing and the politics around technical innovation and culture. Punctuated by personal banter and good natured kidding these two have been going at it for a couple of years of successful and popular podcasting. Swisher, the journalist, keeps things on track while almost cagily draws out brilliant insights from Scott, the NYU business professor and investor. Guests are featured with back and forth interviews by both Kara and Scott.

The Professor G Show

Scott Galloway’s own podcast (see above), where he calms down while proving himself a capable interviewer, while giving himself some time to deliver, John Oliver style, some incredibly insightful, critical, and sometimes inspiring ranting about ethics in politics and business.

Sway

Kara Swisher’s new interview show from The New York Times where she is featured as a regular Opinion columnist. The NYT is managing a very successful and profitable switch into the digital medium. Swisher is a digital candidate for the Maureen Dowd chair of journalism. Her interviews so far have included a diversity of subjects (from Dowd herself to Hillary Clinton to Jane Goodall).

Science

New Scientist Weekly

Friendly, British, delivered with a touch of humor, the most up-to-date international coverage of the scientific progress on Covid-19, and the latest questions and discoveries in scientific research.

Philosophy

Hi-Phi Nation

Philosophy revealed through contemporary storytelling and interviews that reveal in our present dilemmas their deep roots in philosophical discourse. A uniquely illuminating approach and my ‘great discovery’ of the month.

Into the Zone

An original approach to ideas and storytelling from novelist Haru Kunzru, who focuses on how ‘opposites’ shape our world. While founded in stories from the ‘real’ world Kunzru’s approach is delightfully filled with literary twists and turns and metaphor. I was turned on to him in an interview with ‘The Book Review’ podcast (see below).

Storytelling/Literature

The New Yorker Fiction

I’ve been listening to this podcast for more than 10 years. It’s one of my main links to the world of short fiction. A writer each month gets to choose one of their favorite stories from another writer in the archive and to read it out loud. Afterwards the author/reader discusses the story with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, focusing on how the story inspired and influenced them.

Imaginary Worlds

Being a heavily invested fantasy, sci-fi and comic book geek, how could I miss this one. ‘How we create Imaginary World and why we suspend our disbelief.  ‘Nuff said!

The Book Review

From the New York Times Book Review, but less intimidating. It features author interviews plus short discussions and reviews of some of the latest books out on the shelf.

Poetry Off The Shelf

A refreshing break into the dimensions of pure sound and word. Poems are read, interviews and analysis are delivered. A little Poetry Magazine online.

Humor

Beef and Dairy Podcast Network

I cannot really desgribe this to you. It’s British and hllarious. Every episode begins nearthe absurd nand then carries one beyond…

Mission To Zyxx

By now an old stand-by for fans of imprvisational humor, sci-fi and those with a need to fill the void between space-based intergalactic blockbusters.

Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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“They won’t see this coming.” – Malcolm Reynolds

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Other sites of interest:

www.photoarc.us

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The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

To receive Arclist mailings reply to melcher@nets.com with the word SUBSCRIBE in the Subject.

Feel free to pass this on or post on Facebook (or wherever) by copying the following link.

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Other sites of interest:

www.photoarc.us

www.gabrielmelcher.com