After Jiang Qing married Mao Zedong in 1938, Communist leadership informed her that to join the Communist movement, she would need to submit her will to a work unit. Qing, who before her marriage to Mao was an aspiring actress, refused. “I am a unit of one!” she replied.
Qing is a significant figure in Adam Curtis’ new documentary series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. For Curtis, who has produced dozens of films for the BBC over the past several decades, Qing is an archetype of the modern individual: we are all now “units of one. ”
Curtis calls his most recent 6-part series “an emotional history of what went on inside the heads of all kinds of people.” The films are a modern history of the United Kingdom, United States, China, and Russia told through the inner lives of important and sometimes overlooked figures who found themselves at the crux of modernity’s development.
The creative decision to utilize internal thoughts conveys the series’ central thesis: the dominant theme of modern history is the rise of the individual and a new focus on the feelings, dreams, hopes, and uncertainties inside people. Curtis tells stories about what happens when those internal forces meet old power structures struggling to maintain their authority.
The series triumphs in vividly and memorably portraying how the last several decades have led to the strange and weary moment we find ourselves in today. For fans of Charles Taylor, Phillip Rieff, Robert Bellah, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Can’t Get You Out of My Head will feel like a familiar, yet fresh compliment to canonical works on individualism and modernity.
A Massive and Ambitious Work
The cast of figures in Curtis’ contemporary history is dizzying and amusing to list off. Jiang Qing is joined by Richard Nixon, Tupac Shakur, and his mother, the Black Panther Afeni Shakur, psychologist B.F. Skinner, jihadist and Guantanamo Bay prisoner Abu Zubaydah, Caribbean-British activist Michael X, and about a dozen other figures, both famous and obscure.
Curtis is averse to simple portrayals of good and bad figures in history. He rather presents these characters in their complexity. Leveraging his access to the BBC’s archived footage, Curtis weaves their hopes, anxieties, and visions for the world together with the modern global developments to which they were responding.
Curtis covers remarkably vast ground, even for an eight-hour series. The series bounces back and forth from the emergence of Chinese state capitalism, to the impact of the receding British empire, to climate change, to Russian nationalist populism seamlessly and accessibly, connecting the significance of these phenomena. Given its breadth, some may find Curtis’ presentations reductionistic. Still, his thoughtful analysis makes important but intimidating global developments charmingly accessible. History fans will especially enjoy the series.
Exploring the Scope of the Modern Self
Individualism is a favorite theme of Christian intellectual dialogue and theory, and for good reason. Yet, the scope of interest in Christian commentary often pertains to missiological issues or cultural fault lines. Similar to social critics like Carl Trueman and Trevin Wax, Curtis touches on individualism through the lens of psychology, culture, and identity. He also explores how the modern self has intersected with economics, finance, tech, race, and governance. Here is where Curtis best compliments the chorus of commentators on individualism’s scope and impact.
It is true that psychological conceptions and cultural narratives have impacted how modern people view themselves. However, these trends in individualism were profoundly accelerated by, for instance, trends in the economy that globalized production and atomized workers. For example, Curtis explores the West Virginia coal miners’ ability to collectively implement a shared vision for their communities through their coal unions. When global energy developments reduced coal demand and dissipated their workplaces, the workers lost their community and their collective vision for a hopeful future. The emergence of prescription opiates led to widespread abuse as the workers sought to find inner stability amidst their depressed and bleak local circumstances.
The film presents many more examples of forces that have shaped modern individualism like tech companies’ algorithms, performative activism in culture, and the conception of the suburbs. These examples display that there is a multitude of forces beyond psychological self-conception and cultural influence that have accelerated modern individualism.
Curtis presents the modern self as a being that both acts and is acted on by forces outside of his or her agency. Our views of our individuality are both conscious and deeply shaped by circumstances like the governmental and economic conditions we live in and the technology that surrounds us. Curtis’ holistic analysis, if individualism is an insufficient view of the self, is an appropriate handling of the topic.
There’s No Meaning
Curtis is not openly religious and presents some conclusions that deeply differ from orthodox Christianity. Yet, he often echoes Charles Taylor’s analyses on the secular age. “Fragments. That’s how people think now. They make associations, and there’s no meaning. That’s the world we live in,” Curtis said in a January New Yorker interview about Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
There isn’t a big story. And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long. . . . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them — even though they’re frightening — to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.
Curtis observes a lack of compelling narratives in the public square. Can’t Get You Out of My Head was provoked by the populist insurgencies in 2016. As nationalism, xenophobia, and anger at elites emerged, “those who were against all that didn’t really seem to have an alternative.”
He believes the leaders of institutions lack any vision for a better world. Instead, in politics, technology, and finance, they choose simply to manage the atomized masses. The populations they manage likewise lack meaning, purpose, or a narrative about where the world is going. As a result, Curtis observes that there is a paralysis across the globe and across all sorts of ideological convictions, even in the face of observed injustice and inequality.
Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Church
“These strange days did not just happen,” Curtis says, “We — and those in power — created them together.” How do we move forward? “You’re going to have to start having an idea. Imagination has got to come back in. But that’s dangerous and frightening.”
Amidst stagnation and nihilism, faith can play an essential role in envisioning hope, justice, and a fresh way forward. The Gospel presents an invitation to find ourselves through a radical call to give ourselves up on behalf of God and others. These are precious and scarce resources in the world Curtis presents.
The Church is one of the last vestiges of consistent and committed community. In the face of loneliness, fear, and alienation, the community of faith offers solidarity, relationships, and hope for change.
For the Church to rise to the challenges posed in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, it will require reflection on where the body of Christ has co-opted individualist patterns to the detriment of faithfulness. This exercise will be tricky. The Church can evaluate and alter how it fosters unhealthy and corrosive individualistic postures. But it will continue to be comprised of people who are deeply formed to see themselves as “units of one.”
Curtis believes you “can’t put individualism back in the box.” There is no going back to a pre-individualist period. While he suggests we can move on from individualism to something new, we need to accept and deal with the terms the triumph of the modern self has left us.
Another powerful quote from Jiang Qing comes from her final words after her sentencing to imprisonment, “I am without heaven and am a law unto myself!” Qing’s sentiments are somewhat true for all people living in a secular, individualistic age, even followers of Jesus. This reality brings deep challenges to discipleship that Christians would often rather ignore, but must boldly face.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a captivating, fun journey through the past century, incredibly scored and uniquely produced in vintage Curtis fashion. The series was released in February on BBC iPlayer, which is only available in the United Kingdom. However, it is available outside the UK here.