Century of The Self - BBC Series

Sigmund and Anna Freud

The BBC broadcast a four part series in the spring of 2002 about how Americans and Britains views of themselves have changed over the past 100 years. This riveting series was produced and directed by Adam Curtis who more recently produced another BBC series entitled The Power Of Nightmares (see review on this weblog.) Curtis chronicles in the impact of psychotherapy techniques developed by Sigmund Freud and utilized by his nephew Edward Bernays in the development of public relations and of product marketing. The series reveals just how influential Bernays was in helping corporations change their selling techiques by understanding the fundemental and irrational needs of their customers. By marketing products to these needs, Bernays was able to coach businesses to greatly increase market sales. This series traces the history of Bernays influence and how it has shaped peoples self image of themselves as a result building a consumer society. The absolutely freightening point of Curtis's program is that catering to individuals selfish needs was applied by business and by government as a way of controlling the masses because it is believed that people could not be trusted to make good decisions. Adams purports that this in fact has become a threat to a truely democratic society, as people have changed over the century from "citizens" engaged in democracy to "consumers" who expect others (manufacturerers, government) to satisfy them. Curtis effectively demonstrates how American governmental leaders have used these ideas, particularly Bill Clinton, to attempt to gain public favor.

I found watching this series had the profound effect of increasing my own already fairly strong sense of disillusionment with our government and our society. I felt like the layers of the onion were slowly stripped away by Adam Curtis, and that he painstakingly revealed a picture of Americans that is contradictory to the self image we hold. The result was that I was left feeling somewhat hopeless about our ability to solve some of our most important problems. I was also left with a much stronger feeling about how our leaders manipulate the citizens for their personal gain. This was a painful process and I am still left wondering if what Curtis maintains is accurate. My naive self is struggling to hold on to the image (illusion?) of America as a beacon of democracy.

This series is entitled: Century of the Self. The four episodes are: Happiness Machines, The Engineering of Consent, There is a Policeman Inside All Our Head, He Must Be Destroyed, and Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering. Though this series was not rebroadcast in England and not shown in the US, copies are circulating on the internet.



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