Friday, July 29, 2011

The Century of Self

Adam Curtis in his extraordinary documentary "The Century of Self," follows the Freud family and the rise of advanced capitalism. Divided into four parts the film series is a geneology of the Self in the western world.The Freudian view of human beings maintained that humans are irrational beings driven by unconscious libidinous desires. Edward Bernays, Freud's nephew and creator of public relations, believed that because humans had dangerous uncontrollable desires they must be controlled and managed from above.

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind." Bernays Propaganda 1928

During the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s this view of the person whose consumption habits were to be controlled came into question. The left did capitalism a favor by opening its doors to the importance of individual choice as a means of self expression. According to Wilhelm Reich, a liberatory Freudian pyschoanalyst, the self's desires should not be suppressed but rather should continually be let loose. The inner unconscious desires and motives should be expressed. Capitalism adapted to this new view and began to market products as expressions of individual taste and desires. No longer was a commodity just a fulfillment of a desire but it was also a way to express desire.

I feel like the strength of this documentary series is in two things. First in showing the adaptability of modern capitalism to incorporate changing views of the self. Ostensibly the documentary is a depiction of the rise of Spectacular capitalism. The second strength is in showing how the self has changed with time. This change implies that our senses of self are not static, essential things but rather adapt with changes in social structure and events in our own personal lives.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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