The Century of the Self is a brilliant history of how professional psychology impregnated corporate and then political advertising in the 20th century, and how America was caught and sickened by its gaze. Written and produced for the BBC by Adam Curtis.
Advertising as we know it seems to have been invented by one man in New York in the 1920s: Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who began as Enrico Caruso’s press agent. Beguiled by his uncle’s ideas about primal irrational desire, Bernays began to sell to such desires with images, rather than to reason with words. He was the first professional media consultant and perhaps the most influential ever, advising Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower, and later in life working for the CIA.
During the Depression the corporations hired Bernays to battle FDR’s efforts to banish fear and restore (?) reason to politics. Bernays responded with the 1939 World’s Fair, where the radiant Futurama and DemocraCity were brought to you by General Motors and Westinghouse, not Congress. The battle for the soul of the American people was on: would they be citizens, or would they be consumers? Josef Goebbels, the Nazi ad man, read and publicly praised Bernays’ books.
The four episodes are The Happiness Machine (about Freud and Bernays post World War I), The Engineering of Consent (into the 1960s), There is a Policeman Inside Our Heads (post 60s reactions, into the Reagantime) and Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering (the 90s). All four (on small screen) are gathered with some commentary here. (See also for video the Info Clearinghouse link atop this page.)
Mr Curtis & co. (hats off) have also produced The Power of Nightmares (2004), about the parallel lives in the postwar era of American so-called Neo-conservatism and the anti-Americanism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Paramount perhaps is the well-made argument that Al Qaeda is not a network or even worthy of organization but rather a disjointed collection of activists who, when in need of funding for their projects, asked Osama (until he died). To quote Curtis:
although there is a serious threat of terrorism from some radical Islamists, the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.
As an explanation of American foreign policy it falls short for failing to speak of the oil mafia (without whose consent the Likud lobby’s dreamwar of pacification in the mideast would never have been realized). But one can’t say everything in three 60-minute episodes. Don’t expect to watch just one.
The Power of Nightmares had a limited theatrical release but neither it nor Century of the Self has been released on DVD or broadcast in the US. Thank goodness for the free press and public life of the mind. In Britain.