The Century of the Self

One the hardest things for me about introducing students to critical media studies is getting them to really interrogate what it means to think about identities as socially constructed. I want them to understand in a deep way that “the self” is a powerful discourse. Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self is perfect.  The film traces how psychoanalysis, especially Freud’s theories of the unconscious, emerged as a powerful technology of social control for corporations. I especially like the third episode, “There’s a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed.”  It’s about the historical and political paradoxes of the human potential movement.  It’s also a fascinating look at the birth of lifestyle marketing.

Adam Curtis’ acclaimed series examines the rise of the all-consuming self against the backdrop of the Freud dynasty.

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

The Freud dynasty is at the heart of this compelling social history. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis; Edward Bernays, who invented public relations; Anna Freud, Sigmund’s devoted daughter; and present-day PR guru and Sigmund’s great grandson, Matthew Freud.

Sigmund Freud’s work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.

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