TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 2021

TOP TEN

Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis is a British documentary filmmaker and a journalist at the BBC. His most recent film, the six-part Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, was released on the BBC iPlayer in February.

I AM PUZZLED that so much of our mainstream social and cultural imagination seems frozen. A considerable amount of the film and TV drama produced today is about re-creating a reality that has already existed—consider how The Crown is judged by how perfectly it manages to simulate the British royal family and its many palaces. Even superhero movies are facsimiles of fantasies from the past and, again, are evaluated by the effectiveness of their digital simulations. Below are a few things from the past and present that I find mind-expanding. They kick you into imagining other ways of looking at things, a skill that has been forgotten in the narrow consensus of the now.

  1. “IMAGINATIONLAND,” SOUTH PARK (1997–)

    This three-part episode is a wild and beautiful statement on the central reality of all human history: Our imaginations are the strongest engines of change. It’s the story of how a group of terrorists gets into Imaginationland, where everything that has ever been dreamed up now lives, and sets off a bomb that allows the evil part of the psyche to take over. The US military, backed by Al Gore, plans to nuke it all, but the South Park boys go in and save the imaginary world. Kyle’s speech to the Pentagon generals about how invented characters have affected the world far more than real people is very powerful. And correct.

    South Park, 1997–, still from a TV show on Comedy Central. Season 11, episode 10, “Imaginationland.” South Park, 1997–, still from a TV show on Comedy Central. Season 11, episode 10, “Imaginationland.”
  2. TWO FIGURES FROM THE PAST WHO BELIEVED THEY HAD CREATED A WAY TO SEE ANOTHER DIMENSION

    Charles Howard Hinton, a famous nineteenth-century mathematician, was convinced that human beings could find a way to see the fourth dimension. He began by considering how a being who could only see in two dimensions could understand there was something beyond their perception by studying the cross-section of a solid object. Hinton then built hundreds of colored cubes with detailed labels. He called them tesseracts, and after contemplating them for many years, Hinton claimed he had learned to visualize the fourth dimension. His sister-in-law Alicia Boole was fascinated by the cubes, and at the age of eighteen, she began to construct complex structures out of them, which she called polytopes. They showed you, she claimed, how the fourth dimension was structured. Neither of these people was a crank—they were influential mathematicians trying to convince us that we can glimpse things just beyond the edge of our perception.

    Tesseract illustrations from Charles Howard Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1904). Tesseract illustrations from Charles Howard Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1904).
  3. JOHN COWPER POWYS, A GLASTONBURY ROMANCE (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1932)

    This forgotten novel, which tells the story of a power struggle between a family and Glastonbury’s elite, is about our relationship to nature as well as radical left-wing politics, corruption, individualism versus collectivism, and the capacity of myths to both shape and destroy the future. What makes it so strange to today’s consciousness is the way Powys stages the novel’s elements against a vast backdrop that we can only sense now and then. There are extraordinary moments, such as when the narrative zooms out suddenly from a couple having sex on a boat to the sun, a character in its own right, to hear what it is thinking at that moment. The book’s sweeping romanticism may yet make a comeback.

    Cover of the 1966 Macdonald edition of John Cowper Powys’s 1932 A Glastonbury Romance. Cover of the 1966 Macdonald edition of John Cowper Powys’s 1932 A Glastonbury Romance.
  4. BURIAL, “COME DOWN TO US” (HYPERDUB, 2013)

    One of the most potent and beautiful pieces of music of the past decade, “Come Down to Us” captures the complex feelings that underlie our anxious time—feelings of which policy wonks and economists are completely unaware; even if they knew of them, they wouldn’t know how to respond. In thirteen minutes, Burial expresses the mix of fear and solitude in the age of individualism and combines it with a powerful yearning, driven by the certainty that there is something more than this and that together we will have the power to find it.

  5. ICO (JAPAN STUDIO/TEAM ICO, 2001)

    This Japanese video game from 2001 captures that same contemporary mood. You play a young boy who has been locked in an old, deserted castle, where he discovers a captive princess. You try to help her escape, but dark, shadowy shapes pull her away. Ico creates an extraordinary feeling of aloneness and shared togetherness and is genuinely frightening because it isn’t trapped in the uncanny valley that has taken over and limited so many games today.

  6. CHARLES FOURIER’S SOCIALISM BEFORE MARX

    One critique of Marx is that he inserted economics into the heart of radical politics and in so doing helped to bring on the limiting utilitarianism of the present day, when money has become the measure of everything. The early-nineteenth-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier tried to imagine a new kind of society, one in which economics would play a small part. Giant new communities that he called phalansteries would allow individuals to define themselves by their desires. There was even going to be a group, called the Fairies, whose job was to rescue people from lovelorn despair. It was a strange, mad vision, but that early socialism demonstrates the narrowness of today’s radicalism. Fourier’s anti-Semitism shows just how difficult it is for radicalism to free itself from the surrounding assumptions of power.

    Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère (Phalanstery) plan, 19th century. Photo: Fototeca Gilardi/akg-images. Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère (Phalanstery) plan, 19th century. Photo: Fototeca Gilardi/akg-images.
  7. CLIFFORD D. SIMAK, WAY STATION (DOUBLEDAY, 1963)

    Simak’s science-fiction novel is about an American Civil War soldier who is still alive in the 1960s because he was chosen by aliens to run a way station on Earth for those who travel through the universe. The soldier lives in a house out in the backwoods of Wisconsin, where, every now and then, beings from elsewhere pass through. Once, when I was filming in Wisconsin, I went to the road Way Station describes. It was a very odd feeling.

    Cover of the 1979 Eyre Methuen edition of Clifford D. Simak’s 1963 Way Station. Cover of the 1979 Eyre Methuen edition of Clifford D. Simak’s 1963 Way Station.
  8. THE UNITED STATES EMERGENCY OIL RESERVES AT BRYAN MOUND IN TEXAS

    To get here, you travel through a strange wildlife area on the coast of Texas, south of Houston—vast plains of grass with masses of insects, birds, and enormous snakes. Then you reach a promontory, and there is nothing to see but a level concrete mound stretching into the distance. In the 1970s, engineers hollowed out twenty enormous salt domes and filled them with millions of barrels of oil meant to keep America going for a few weeks if everything in the world fell apart. It is a massive construction on par with the great wonders of the past, but it is hidden under nondescript concrete. Born out of the paranoia and fears of the Cold War and the oil crisis of the ’70s, the reserves express both the strength and the fragility of the United States.

    Bryan Mound strategic petroleum reserve storage site, Texas, 2008. Photo: The Center for Land Use Interpretation. Bryan Mound strategic petroleum reserve storage site, Texas, 2008. Photo: The Center for Land Use Interpretation.
  9. MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI, HOUSE OF LEAVES (PANTHEON, 2000)

    I don’t normally like self-conscious “postmodern” novels full of fake footnotes. They seem like something at the end of its life. House of Leaves is different—it’s really frightening. In the tradition of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (2014), House of Leaves suggests that we don’t have the perceptual apparatus we need to see what is in front of our eyes. I have a mad hope that journalism is going to reinvent itself by achieving the same perceptual shift with economics and money, making us look again at the structures of power that have been created around us over the past twenty years and showing that these weird new systems really have nothing to do with what is still called “capitalism.” Once the new journalism gives us the tools to see this reality, the discipline will grab peoples’ imaginations, and politics and power will again become exciting and transformative.

  10. GÖBEKLI TEPE

    One of the primary forces that shape (and narrow) the way we think today is the idea that everything has to have a function. Göbekli Tepe, the site of the world’s first temple, in what is now the southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey, completely undermines that mode of thinking. At the site’s center is a group of wonderful stone pillars featuring carvings of animals. A functional explanation of history argues that religion always arises after groups settle in one place and become farmers and so have the time to develop culture. But nomads created Göbekli Tepe eight to ten thousand years ago, before the invention of agriculture. This suggests that it may be possible to change the world through things we dream up in our heads rather than through dull economic forces acting on us from outside—that you can make society the way you want it to be and deny the pessimistic inevitability that so many on the left seem to have now accepted. Which, of course, takes us back to Imaginationland . . .

    Pillar in section C of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, 2008. Photo: Berthold Steinhilber/laif/Redux. Pillar in section C of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, 2008. Photo: Berthold Steinhilber/laif/Redux.