Quick Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The six part documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World captures well the foreboding and confusion of our current moment at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Here are a few thoughts on what I found to be a thought-provoking and interesting watch:

  1. The general premise is that the freedom, prosperity, and joy that was supposed to come with the ascension of liberal democracy and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not come. Indeed, it may have led to new and more troubling questions. The sweep of history is limited to roughly the last 100 years but there is a lot to consider over the six episodes. Even if you do not agree with the argument, there are a number of threads and points of information that may be new and/or have not always been put together in such ways.
  2. The construction of the documentary adds to the foreboding as its intersperses multiple threads across different countries, montages of images set to generally upbeat pop music, and a dark instrumental soundtrack.
  3. That this work is not from an American point of view and includes important actors from around the globe is very important. There were things I had not known before. I know the American perspective on the world is very biased and yet my daily reading is almost exclusively in this realm. At the same time, the documentary is still from an Anglo perspective and it would be worthwhile to hear form voices elsewhere on what is chooses to say and show and what it does not address.
  4. Just as an example of one of the important questions raised: what happens if a democratic people elect or support an undemocratic leader? More specifically, what do the cultural and political elites do in such a moment? In the current populist period, this is a real conundrum.
  5. One thing I appreciate is the interest in thinking across contexts and time. I would argue we need more work that tries to pull together multiple strands from around the globe across big chunks of time. Put this documentary series next to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and there may be some patterns worth considering.

While I finished watching this several months ago, the title is correct: I cannot get some of the ideas and images out of my head.

“A giant boxy McMansion is something you know when you see it”

A Los Angeles councilman who has taken the lead on regulating teardown McMansions describes such homes:

Los Angeles does not do what other cities like West Hollywood do, which is an extensive design review by any means, but a giant boxy McMansion is something you know when you see it, and when they are next to smaller, historic homes they have a negative impact.

I’m sure there is more to his opinion as to how McMansions should be defined. Indeed, earlier he says to those who want to sell their property and make money or who do want bigger homes that “I think [new regulations] will be a reasonable compromise.” Yet, this is an oddly flippant or shorthand way to describe a class of homes that can often look quite different. Part of the reason such regulations take time to work out is that there are a multitude of ways of restrict large houses including working with the home’s footprint on the property, setbacks from the street and property lines, height restrictions, and/or particular architectural features.

An interesting side note: this councilman gained some popular support a few years ago for banning puppy mills. His take on it:

It’s one of those issues that seem to be very positive. It’s very cool. The last time that happened to me was when I [created] regulations that said you couldn’t operate a puppy mill or purchase a puppy mill animal in the city of Los Angeles. Wherever I was in the city, people said good things about it, and this ordinance seems to be getting that same kind of response.

So—traditional housing and puppies are your things.
It’s an interesting agenda. Cats and dogs and home seem to go together.

A populist man of the people.

Americans, upward mobility, elitism

Anne Applebaum at Slate thinks about a common tactic in this election season: decrying “elites” or “elitism.” Why exactly are some political figures derided for taking advantage of America’s meritocracy?

Despite pushing aside the old WASP establishment—not a single WASP remains on the Supreme Court—these modern meritocrats are clearly not admired, or at least not for their upward mobility, by many Americans. On the contrary—and as Bell might have predicted—they are resented as “elitist.” Which is at some level strange. To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself—isn’t that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of “elite” universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies.

These ideas about elites and elitism do seem tied to particular colleges and settings, like Ivy League schools. Could a political candidate attack make an effective charge of elitism versus someone who had done really well with an advanced degree from a state school?

Another problem could be anti-intellectualism. Leaders who were able to work their way through top schools may be regarded differently than leaders who worked their way up through the business or political ladder. The intellectual is not as prized in America (think of the attention “public intellectuals” receive in American life compared to other groups of people) and may not be seen as the same kind of “self-made person.” Perhaps this could be tied into Bourdieu’s ideas about the differences among those with lots of capital: there is a split between those with educational capital and those with economic capital.