The Century of the Self contrasts whimsical film footage with an ominous narrative. It describes the way our ideas about human nature have changed and how the development of psychology has allowed social institutions to use these ideas to exert more and more control over people. This documentary focuses its attention on Sigmund Freud's family, especially his daughter and nephew, who exerted a surprising amount of influence on the way corporations and governments throughout the 20th century have thought about, and dealt with, people.
At the end of the 19th century, Freud had a remarkable insight into human behavior. He believed that people were, often, unaware of what motivated them and didn't really know how they felt about things. He called this part of the mind, the part that people couldn't recognize, the subconscious. Being the cynic he was, Freud decided that the unconscious was filled with irrational, destructive, emotions which posed a danger to society. This was, unsurprisingly, a very unpopular point of view when Freud first wrote about it. At the time, people knew that they were, actually, divinely rational beings who were in complete control of themselves.
But Edward Bernays, Freud's American nephew, was a little more receptive to his uncle's ideas, not because he was concerned with whether or not people were naturally destructive, but because Freud's ideas about people having strong emotions might help him convince people to buy things they didn't really need, and make a lot of money for him and his clients in the process. As long as his uncle wasn't completely wrong, then all Bernays had to do was associate emotional ideas with pointless products, and then consumers just wouldn't be able to help themselves. He was right, and his remarkable successes created a new industry, called public relations, which relied, almost entirely, on playing emotional games with people's heads.
Worse, the terrifying events, fueled by Freudian propaganda, that began to occur in Germany during the depression convinced politicians that Freud had been even more right than they suspected. People's emotions were clearly dangerous and had to be controlled. Government agencies began using Bernays' PR techniques, and Himmler's propaganda methods, to convince people to suppress their emotions and conform to social norms. Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter, and one of his most influential evangelists, even decided that she would see to it that her British nephew and niece were raised this way, as an example.
However, one of Freud's students, Wilhelm Reich, eventually decided that Freud had been a little paranoid. Emotions weren't bad, people weren't evil, and the solution wasn't control and repression, but expression. Freud's daughter didn't like the sound of this, especially since her nephew and niece had since grown up to be severely troubled adults, providing an unnervingly good proof of his thesis. This Reich guy had struck a nerve, and so she ostracized him from the psychology movement. But Reich's ideas still caught on.
And this didn't make either industry or government any happier than Anna. Neither of them knew what to do with the individuals that self-expression created. They had mass-produced products and policies that they sold through massive public-relations campaigns. Then, they noticed that self-expression gurus were organizing "focus groups" where people met to work out how they felt about things. All these institutions had to do was ask these focus groups the right questions, and they'd tell them how to sell people more products and policies than they had ever imagined possible.
It turned out that all business and government really had to do was categorize people according to their emotional development and social attitudes and then play each category off of one other. Corporations could sell slight variations of the same mass-produced products to people, as long as they associated one variation with one group of people, and then convince them that this variation allowed them to express their true nature. And politicians no longer had to worry about sweeping social changes, they could just play off one segment of voters against another and then sit back and watch all the consumers obsessively buy things, oblivious to social problems.
Documentarian Adam Curtis' bewildering collage of film clips, pop-music snippets, and interviews helps portray the slightly absurd and surreal cynicism and manipulation practiced by the 20th-century's supposedly enlightened business and political leaders.
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