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The Century of the Self, a documentary

From:     blp
Category: TV
Date:     02 April 2008
Time:     06:28 PM


For anyone who missed Eva's post on this and wouldn't have wanted to, here's the link for the first
episode of Adam Curtis' interesting four-part documentary series founded on the idea the Freudian
theory has been used as a method of social manipulation throughout the twentieth century:

Still, a very slanted view of Freud. Although the whole thing builds to a critique of Blair and
Philip Gould's politics by focus group, Gould is allowed to appear and defend his ideas. No one
defends Freud, who is portrayed as the progenitor of a fundamentally pessimistic view of human
nature and a set of related theories that were used by PR people, starting with his nephew Eddie
Bernays, the inventor of PR, then big business and finally government to erode FDR style idealistic
social democracy throughout the twentieth century. 

It's a fascinating story, but its thesis seems confused or, at least, incomplete.  Freud and his
daughter Anna are portrayed as conformists who see no hope in dealing with the irrational forces in
human nature but to educate people to adhere to social norms. This is, understandably, portrayed as
sinister and some high profile suicides of Freudian analysands are presented as evidence for the
prosecution. Marilyn Monroe is one and also a woman who, from childhood, underwent analysis with
Anna Freud herself. We also learn of the way that Freudian ideas about unconscious desires were sold
to the ad industry as methods of hooking in consumers and Bernays is shown to have put Freudian
ideas to work at some very sinister business, including destroying democracy in Guatemala, getting
women to smoke and convincing the US public to love big business more than government. So far so bad.

Then, however, we learn about a swing away from Freud brought about by analysts like Wilhelm Reich
and Fritz Perls, towards a kind of therapy that was about expressing emotion, violently if
necessary, often in group situations, in order to better self-actualise (imagine hippies and
seventies groovy housewives hugging, hitting pillows, crying and screaming phrases like 'I am a
warm, valid, human person!' and you roughly have the idea). It's this avowedly anti-Freudian
practice, not Freudian theory, that is portrayed as providing the roots of lifestyle marketing and,
thence, Reagan and Thatcher's appeals to voter selfishness, yet Freud remains, insidiously, the
villain of the piece to the end, largely through a process of vague insinuation: hey, what do you
know, one of the big bad PR people at the end of the century is Matthew Freud, grandson of the man
himself. The idea that Freud grand fils is somehow influenced by his grandfather is not attempted,
probably because it's untenable, but he and his dastardly product placements are there nonetheless,
building the general sense of Freud as the father of some crypto-totalitarian nightmare. 

By the end, there are a lot of unresolved problems hanging in the air. Freudian ideas as used by
Eddie Bernays are bad because Bernays thought the public were stupid and irrational, so he didn't
believe in democracy and thought society should be controlled by an elite who are master of their
own psyches. Blair and Gould, although depicted as unwitting heirs of Bernays, are criticised by
Derek Draper at the end for *not* doing this: Draper points out, not unreasonably, that in governing
by focus group, you leave yourself at the mercy of public whims that are, hello, irrational. There's
probably a way out of this apparent contradiction, but Curtis eschews acknowledging or addressing it
in favour of a spooky end shot of Freud's grave and it's past my bedtime. 

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