David Kordahl

Posts Tagged ‘Freud’

Required Viewing: The Century of the Self

In Politics, Pop Culture on 2013/05/29 at 12:57 am

To my knowledge, filmmakers like Adam Curtis simply don’t exist in America. He’s English, a documentarian for the BBC, which, in terms of American institutions, makes him something like their version of that PBS master, Ken Burns. Now, having never been patient enough (bored enough?) to sit all the way through one of Burns’s documentaries, the two may turn out to more similar than I suspect, but I don’t think so. The closest American equivalent I could come up with was Errol Morris, though Alex Gibney was a runner-up, and the Morris similarity is itself more the matter of a spot-it-from-a-mile distinctive style than one of any real artistic affinity. But while we Americans love Morris for his ability to let subjects spin their own verbal traps, Curtis is nowhere near so laconic. He’s more of an active case-builder, usually offering voice-over commentary that tells us what to make of his archival footage. This style of filmmaking—opinionated, but not activist; personal, but in no way autobiographical—is just one signal of his remove from American norms. This, despite a choice of Americana subjects consistent enough to make Burns himself seem like a foreigner.

The Adam Curtis film I’d like to suggest as required viewing is about four hours long (four one-hour episodes, made as a miniseries for BBC Two, the public channel for brainy niche pieces), so before that discussion I’m embedding a short he did in 2011 to give some idea of the Curtis Style—an appetizer, for once about issues pertaining more to the U.K. than the U.S.A. It’s a segment titled “Paranoia,” from a BBC Four meta-news commentary program, Newswipe:

Considered strictly in terms of style, this is easy enough to characterize, or to parody. There is a counterintuitive thesis (“This is a film about how ALL of us have become Richard Nixon”), far outsize what the film’s time constraints could reasonably support, followed by a re-framing of familiar issues in quintessentially Curtisian terms. The idea that the tyranny of “elitism” has been replaced by the more subtle tyranny of market forces has been well explored in Curtis’s longer works (it’s the main subject of The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom), as has the idea that the past thirty years have fundamentally shifted the relationship of the self to society (see below). The main thing to note here, before moving on, is the way that various disjunctions between sound and image, or between familiar found images and their unfamiliarly assigned meanings, are repurposed for the specific rhetorical purposes of the film. After a thumbnail sketch of Roy Jenkins, who in this short is used to represent Britain’s old political order—elitist but still with the country’s best interests at heart—the film goes from cheezy horror film music (listen behind the million-Nixon zoom out) to a party track (behind the images of investigative journalists, images that we’re used to having played straight) to conspiracy stingers (“there really were hidden conspiracies”), all in short order. This is the documentary at its most essayistic, where every sound and image is used to bolster a particular POV.

If I weren’t so sympathetic to the claims being presented, I would probably hate this. But I am sympathetic, and in the case of The Century of the Self, the movie is long enough to give its assertions the background and incident they deserve. It presents a vision of the remodeled modern self that stretches from Sigmund Freud to Bill Clinton—and, in doing so, manages to become the most incisive critique of consumer culture I’ve seen on film.

The_Century_of_Self_TitlesTitle card.

This is television, so it can’t afford to lose our attention. Each episode opens with its own elevator pitch: “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” It’s a good line, and it’s most true of the first episode, “Happiness Machines,” which follows the quest of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, in his transition from wartime propaganda specialist to peacetime PR-man. Which is itself an incredible understatement. Bernays invented public relations, insofar as it’s understood today—making him, at least for a while, not a PR-man, but the PR-man, an inventor of his own category of being. One film clip shows an ancient Bernays as a David Letterman guest, where Letterman asks Dr. Bernays what kind of doctor we’re dealing with here. “What we’re dealing with really,” Bernays replies, “is the concept that people will believe me more if you call me doctor.”

The Letterman audience applauds; they’re residents of the world Bernays created. But “Happiness Machines” reminds us that the world of the early 20th century was a very different place, a place where it wasn’t a natural assumption that people could be easily convinced to buy things they did not need. For that, the world needed Bernays. The world Bernays was born to was one where advertisements (the film showcases several) were more or less factual and focused on why a particular object would make your life a little easier if you purchased it. After WW1 experience building Woodrow Wilson into a hero and observing the adoring French crowds whose contact with Wilson was limited to the propaganda he had helped to create, though, Bernays came to realize that the techniques he had used to inflate Wilson’s image could just as easily be applied to inflate movie stars or cigarettes.

Perhaps the film’s most striking anecdote, in fact, describes how Bernays linked cigarettes to political motives so women might find them more attractive. After consulting a psychoanalyst and being told that the cigarette—longer than it is wide, after all—unconsciously evoked the penis, Bernays told his clients that women would be more likely to smoke if cigarettes could be linked to feminine power, as opposed to their “natural” linkage to male dominance. His solution: after alerting the media (free publicity!), he had a group of paid debutantes pose as suffragettes and light up “torches of freedom” during NYC’s Easter Sunday Parade. Within a year, the number of women smokers had increased by over 100%.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:24:57A brave suffragette sucks her torch of freedom.

“The Engineering of Consent,” the second film in the series, delves into the social and political implications of Bernays’s enormous discovery. The practical effects of possible manipulation might have seemed benign enough—in the wake of his early success, Bernays invented product placement and experimented with cross-platform pollination—but the philosophical implications, for some, were much darker. Sigmund Freud, for one, wasn’t out to sell cigarettes, but was disturbed by the primitive human urges that the world wars seemed to suggest. (Nephew Eddie, meanwhile, prepared America for his uncle’s coming with a publicity campaign that included excerpting Uncle Sigmund’s work in Cosmopolitan.) Freud’s daughter, Anna, would champion psychoanalysis as the solution for keeping these urges in check, effectively advocating societal conformity as the paradoxical necessity of a philosophy that had at its core the view that deviant, irrational urges were a ubiquitous feature of human nature.

Engineered social conformity had two forms, though—both of which would later be popularly viewed as insidious intrusions into the natural self. The first of these, Anna’s program, was repressive on the personal level. Having gone through analysis by her father once he found her masturbating, Anna Freud may not herself have had the best simulacrum of a normal family life, but that didn’t stop her from advocating the nuclear family as the epitome of the healthy individual’s relationship to society. One of Anna’s followers, the Los Angeles therapist Dr. Ralph Greenson, went so far as to use his own family as a model for his clientèle of disturbed movie stars, moving Marilyn Monroe into a house next to his so he might serve as her surrogate father figure.

This personal engineering, however, was very slight compared to the large-scale societal engineering being attempted. Ernest Dichter, by inventing the focus group, carried forward the original Bernays insight by using interviews and role-playing to determine what consumers really wanted. And though his conclusions, coldly described, might’ve sounded like bullshit (are you sure the reason women wouldn’t use instant cake-mix, upon its introduction to supermarkets, was that the saved labor evoked sense of guilt at their sloth? that the way to fix this was to have them add an egg, thus allowing the cake to double as an unconscious gift of femininity to their husbands?), it’s hard to argue with success (so…it turned out that women really did buy more cake mix if they had to add an egg [insert confused face here]). Bernays, too, was hard at work, except his work had branched out to include the government. In his most infamous coup—literally a coup, in this case—Bernays, under contract of the United Fruit Company, planned a propaganda campaign that spuriously linked the land reform efforts of Guatemala’s then-leaders to the Soviet Menace, a campaign that directly influenced the CIA to support a revolution. All for the commercial advantage of American bananas. In such campaigns, Bernays, believing that people could not be trusted to make good decisions without emotional guidance, worked deliberately to foster the confusion of capitalism with democracy that we still experience today.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 16:53:46The housewife contemplates her feminine gift.

Of course, cons of this magnitude couldn’t stay secret forever. The third film, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed,” tracks the general disillusionment these cover-ups engendered, complete with its pat symbols of personal and public malaise (respectively, Marilyn’s suicide—attempts at normalcy are no escape—and the Watergate/Vietnam complex—and social action won’t help, either). In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the rule of psychoanalysts who worked to align people’s desires more closely with the structure of society would be replaced by a new order, ready to advocate for a realignment of society to more closely match the structure of human desires. We see how Sigmund Freud, his Mosaic aspect telegraphing a stern disgust, was symbolically replaced by Wilhem Reich, prophet of the orgasm, whose sexy orgone guns (he claimed) could threaten the clouds into rain. Rather than working to repress the self, members of the Human Potential Movement joined at the Esalen Institute for encounter sessions, where participants were assured that many of the world’s problems could be solved if only they could just express themselves more fully.

Except the unintended consequences of this hard leftward swing were nearly as dramatic as the consequences of Psychoanalysis 1.0. We’re shown the interviews of a group of nuns who were encouraged, as an experiment, to express what their true feelings. The result: apart from the few who remained as a radical lesbian contingency, the rest simply quit being nuns. Such disorienting outcomes raised a serious question. Could society survive the elevation of desire as king? The short-term answer, at least in practice, was another question: Who cares? The quest for one’s true self wouldn’t be stopped by philosophical quibbles. In the guise of EST Seminars (famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his great essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening”), the quest itself become a commercial product. Curtis includes footage of these supine pilgrims in giant hotel conference rooms, kicking, squealing, flailing—struggling mightily to achieve a “mass-produced nonconformity.”

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:28:23Freedom fighters of the 1970s, encountering themselves.

This ostensible shattering of the old psychoanalytic ideal, however, brought with it an ironic return to the territory of Edward Bernays, the series’s Lucifer incarnate. For if desires could now be submitted to without shame, wasn’t this exactly the sort of thing a trained marketer might best exploit? Researchers from the Stanford University spinoff SRI International were some of the first to realize the business potential of this shift. Their “Values, Attitudes, and Lifestyles” survey was able, with a detailed series of personal questions, to pinpoint the desires of the various new types of consumers that the social shifts had birthed. One type, an ad hoc addition based on the collected data, was the “inner directeds,” those for whom the demands of society were less important than the requirements of their fundamental selves. But no matter—whatever manner of existence a person (or, in the language of the times, a consumer) might inhabit, there would henceforth be products designed specifically for their desires. In the words of Stew Albert, co-founder of the Yippies, “What capitalism managed to do that was brilliant was to actually create products that people like me would be interested in. […] Capitalism developed a whole industry at developing products that evoke a larger sense of self, that seemed to agree with us that the self was infinite, that you could be anything that you wanted to be.” With this cornucopia of choice, it was hard not to concede that when business won, we consumers won, too.

But did anything lose? “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” the fourth and final episode, provides a curt response: politics lost. Curtis argues that when people started to self-identify primarily as “consumers” (a term evocative of irrational preference), rather than “citizens” (a term that suggests rational participation), this fundamentally altered their expectations of government. The “inner directeds,” to the surprise of the SRI team, were supporters of Regan and Thatcher—those politicians who “[made] the denial of compassion respectable.” Just as these prototypical Last Men expected products whose primary purpose was to serve only them, so too did they view such civic transactions as tax in businesslike terms, as a payment for services rendered to them alone.

These shifting attitudes were teased out by political focus groups. This development, now familiar enough to surprise that it was unused until the early 1990s, is told primarily through the trials of Bill Clinton, the first politician to allow such information to shape his policy positions. The film displays Clinton as a flawed crusader, a man whose good intentions were stymied by political realities at every turn. (It bears reminder that this portrait, though less positive than the hagiography routinely presented by nostalgic Americans, seems gentle when compared to the vitriol of Curtis’s fellow Briton, the late Christopher Hitchens.) During Clinton’s first campaign, polls indicated that he would lose to George Bush, Sr., if, as originally planned, he were to raise taxes, so the ever-canny Clinton simply changed course and promised voters that he would cut taxes. Upon taking office, though, he learned that budget shortages were more serious than he’d anticipated, and he couldn’t deliver these tax breaks—a failure that conservatives like Newt Gingrich were able to leverage into huge gains during midterm elections two years later. The backlash led a panicked Clinton into the arms of the ruthless political strategist Dick Morris, whose Machiavellian—Bernaysian?—advice Clinton followed to a T.

Morris realized that Clinton’s main focus, if he wanted to be reelected, would have to be on swing voters, who Clinton pursued with a single-minded focus. When polls showed that the hunting and fishing crowd might have some voters who could be swayed, for instance, Morris arranged a photo-op for Clinton the Hunter—non-sporting past be damned. No potential advantage, from V-chips to school-bus cameras, could be left unexploited. The endgame of this pursuit, just a few months before his 1996 victory, was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which in one fell swoop dismantled the safeguards of the old welfare state—an exact reversal of his 1992 platforms, modified to sway the will of the nation’s few politically undecided.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 17:18:02The devil wears Gore-Tex.

The film ends with an appeal that’s surprising in its directness. Curtis claims that what Clinton began in politics has degenerated into a sort of international vicious circle, wherein politicians, refusing to take principled stands, have their positions dictated directly from voters, that lot of varied and conflicting voices, who in turn look to politicians for leadership, who turn to voters, who turn to politicians…and round the circle goes. We’re shown slo-mo shots of Tony Blair, the symbol of this vacuity, gleefully heading a volleyball. The final word goes to Robert Reich, Clinton’s disappointed Secretary of Labor, who doesn’t mince words: “Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to debate what is best. If it’s not that, if it is Freudian, if it is basically a matter of appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that business appeals to, then why not let business do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business, after all, is in the business of responding to those feelings.”

Adam Curtis, on the other hand, is a public filmmaker, and few have expressed the sweep of history better than he has. No film in the last year has influenced me more than The Century of the Self.

Note: The embedded video above has all four parts of The Century of the Self crammed together. Unless you’re blessed with a teflon butt, though, it’s probably best not to watch the whole thing at once. To ease the difficulty of finding where you left off for a stretch break, I’ve recorded here the times when each of subsequent chapter beings: Part 1, “Happiness Machines”—0:00; Part 2, “The Engineering of Consent”—58:33; Part 3, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed”—1:57:33; Part 4, “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering”—2:54:56. In other news, if you’re the sort who likes to Google along as you watch documentaries, I also found a full transcript that may be of use.


Curational Blogging

In Internet, Lit on 2011/11/15 at 11:34 am

In my constant perusal of the Internet, I’ve noticed a trend that the kids over at tumblr seem to have taken up in full force: Curational Blogging. By this, I mean something specific. For many of the active bloggers over at tumblr’s hip enclave, the role of blogger has to a very large degree become correlated with the role of the curator–one who finds an attractive object, cares for it, and adds a small commentary re why the object is of interest to the curator or to the world at large. Of course, the real upsides to this sort of blogging are that it a) allows one to be tremendously prolific, scaling linearly with input time of web-surf, b) encourages the sharing of pretty things, even if one might not have the proclivity/skills that allow for pretty-thing-production, and c) is super easy. Lazy, the sneerer might say–but I’m trying to avoid such generalisations. After all, a number of such blogs can be enjoyable to browse and in fact manage, despite their far-flung production mechanisms, to display a unified personal sensibility, which I suppose is a large part of what authorship is all about.

Anyway, it’s point c) (the “it’s easy” one) that’s important to me, now, since I usually get stopped up in writing blogs with such exigencies as research…which we all know is exactly the type of attitude that keeps a person from being a successful blogger. With that in mind, here’s my first Curational Blog–an extract from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. It is posted here only because I was thinking of it today, and (being unemployed) I had the time and interest to look it up. It’s probably demonstrably inaccurate, but that doesn’t matter: as a text that vibrates with my personal sensibility, it’s an addition to the modern oeuvre. Enjoy!

“This brings us very close to the more general problem of conservation in the mind, which has so far hardly been discussed, but is so interesting and important that we may take the opportunity to pay it some attention, even though its relevance is not immediate. Since the time when we recognized the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified destruction or annihilation of the memory-trace, we have been inclined to the opposite view that nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough. One might try to picture to oneself what this assumption signifies by a comparison taken from another field. Let us choose the history of the Eternal City as an example. Historians tell us that the oldest Rome of all was the Roma quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, when the colonies on the different hills united together; then the town which was bounded by the Servian wall; and later still, after all the transformations in the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the Emperor Aurelian enclosed by his walls. We will not follow the changes the city went through any further, but will ask ourselves what traces of these early stages in its history a visitor to Rome may still find today, if he goes equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge.

“Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. He can find sections of the Servian rampart at certain points where it has been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough——more than present-day archaeology——he may perhaps trace out in the structure of the town the whole course of this wall and the outline of Roma quadrata. Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient ground-plan he will find nothing, or but meagre fragments, for they exist no longer. With the best information about Rome of the republican era, the utmost he could achieve would be to indicate the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. These places are now occupied by ruins, but the ruins are not those of the early buildings themselves but of restorations of them in later times after fires and demolitions. It is hardly necessary to mention that all these remains of ancient Rome are found woven into the fabric of a great metropolis which has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is assuredly much that is ancient still buried in the soil or under the modern buildings of the town. This is the way in which we find antiquities surviving in historic cities like Rome.

“Now let us make the fantastic supposition that Rome were not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the stages of development had survived alongside the latest. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and so on. But more still: where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands there would also be, without this being removed, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, moreover, as the Romans of the Caesars saw it, but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antifixae. Where the Coliseum stands now, we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find out only the Pantheon of today as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site also Agrippa’s original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Mi-nerva and the old temple over which it was built. And the observer would need merely to shift the focus of his eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other.

“There is clearly no object in spinning this fantasy further; it leads to the inconceivable, or even to absurdities. If we try to represent historical sequence in spatial terms, it can only be done by juxtaposition in space; the same space will not hold two contents. Our attempt seems like an idle game; it has only one justification; it shows us how far away from mastering the idiosyncrasies of mental life we are by treating them in terms of visual representation.

“There is one objection, though, to which we must pay attention. It questions our choosing in particular the past history of a city to liken to the past of the mind. Even for mental life, our assumption that everything past is preserved holds good only on condition that the organ of the mind remains intact and its structure has not been injured by traumas or inflammation. Destructive influences comparable to these morbid agencies are never lacking in the history of any town, even if it has had a less chequered past than Rome, even if. like London, it has hardly ever been pillaged by an enemy. Demolitions and the erection of new buildings in the place of old occur in cities which have had the most peaceful existence; therefore a town is from the outset unsuited for the comparison I have made of it with a mental organism. We admit this objection; we will abandon our search for a striking effect of contrast and turn to what is after all a closer object of comparison, the body of an animal or human being. But here, too, we find the same thing. The early stages of development are in no sense still extant; they have been absorbed into the later features for which they supplied the material. The embryo cannot be demonstrated in the adult; the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue but no longer exists itself; in the marrowbone of a grown man I can, it is true, trace the outline of the childish bone-structure, but this latter no longer survives in itself——it lengthened and thickened until it reached its final form. The fact is that a survival of all the early stages alongside the final form is only possible in the mind, and that it is impossible for us to represent a phenomenon of this kind in visual terms.

“Perhaps we are going too far with this conclusion. Perhaps we ought to be content with the assertion that what is past in the mind can survive and need not necessarily perish. It is always possible that even in the mind much that is old may be so far obliterated or absorbed——whether normally or by way of exception——that it cannot be restored or reanimated by any means, or that survival of it is always connected with certain favourable conditions. It is possible, but we know nothing about it. We can only be sure that it is more the rule than the exception for the past to survive in the mind.”