Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Century of the Self

Been on a documentary kick of late.

Just finished the four-part BBC4 Doc: The Century of the Self. Part 1 here.

It covers the rise of psychoanalysis in America (and Britain in the 4th installment) and how it from the beginning merged with marketing and public relations. In fact, PR was founded by Freud's nephew of all people (Edward Bernays)

The main argument there being that Bernays took Freud's idea that the human being is a non-rational self, beset by the chaos of the unconscious desires of the id. Bernays was the first to connect that idea with product placement and the idea of selling a product, marketing a product to the unconscious desires. "By driving this car I will have this attractive woman after me...."

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From Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, who brought his work (with Bernays) to wide audience in America, the idea was to control the unconscious. Freud was famously pessimistic about human nature and conservative bourgeoisie by nature. Even more so Anna. Consequently the application of marketing to the unconscious by the business community involved a discourse of control.

The third part (my favorite) deals with the rise of the ideas of William Reich. Reich was famous for arguing that the unconscious should not be controlled/repressed but expressed and thereby brought into harmony with the conscious self. When his ideas finally reached critical mass in the late 50s, 60s, Reich was behind the rise of the New Left, 60s Counter-Culture, etc. Integral fans watch for interviews with Mike Murphy and George Leonard as Esalen is featured in the piece.

If Freud's main flaw was controlling the unconscious (and overly pessimistic as well as pathetically reductionistic), then Reich's was that all suffering was due to societal repression and that repressed was inherently good. Hence the naivety and rise of narcissism in the Counter Culture movement.

The episode is entitled: "There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads and He Must Be Destroyed."

It shows how originally the radical movement meant to overthrow the government socially, politically (the policeman), but that failed in the face of armed reaction from the establishment. The New Left shifted to arguing one could remove the controls in one's own head. So the initial inner transformation was meant to cause social transformation.

What eventually will happen of course is that the second part of that equation will fail away--no social transformation. Which left only a more solipsistic, often ir-rational (pre/sub-rational), isolated self interested only in its own transformation. Particularly with the rise of altered states, transcendence, etc. It was a much more Gnostic move on one hand.

On the other hand, there was Werner Erhard. Fascinating interview with him and frightening clips (very cult-like) of some of his groups. He argued that the Human Potential Movement (Esalen) had one main flaw--it thought there was some core "down there" that was good and should be released. Existentialism (say of the Sartre variety) argued that you could peal away even that repressed core and there was nothingness. In other words, nihilism.

Erhard said that even emptiness and meaningless was itself empty and meaningless. This is the real rise of the postmodern self. With Nietzsche there is terror in the face of the death of the bourgeoisie self and the bourgeoisie god. With existentialism there is the nihlistic edge. With this there is the total non-interest in the question of meaning or its opposite. Everything can be created (so it is thought) from this space and what matters is one's own creation and tolerance towards others expression.

What the film then details well is that Reagan (and Thatcher) capitalized on this newly minted, "fragile" self-centered sense by saying he would give that new self what it wanted. It went hand in hand with business pitching their products to these new selves--categorized via Maslow's hierarchy of needs into groups.

Reagan and Thatcher were extremely optimistic about human nature--freed from the state control. In other words, they sounded awfully like the New Left. The hippies became the Yuppies and greed became the prime mover of the economy (think Gordon Gecko in Wall Street).

The fourth and last segment, deals with the rise of the Third Way/New Democrats and Labour (Clinton and Blair) and how politics became seen through the lens of consumerism. And how this has hurt abilities to lead, long term planning, sense and respond policy measures.

Definitely worth the watch, though of course it overplays the control through business marketing to the unconscious. But there is an interesting admission at the end--Bernays did not believe in democracy and that through the superficial illusion of control (via the market of individual choice), mass society could be controlled. Important to keep in mind.


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