Here at Eleusis we have all been (separately) watching the film sequence Century of the Self. So far Adam has watched the whole thing, I have watched about two thirds and Elja is about a quarter of the way through. It is the kind of film that in some respects works best taken in small chunks because the story is told using a series of vignettes and each one is worth reflecting upon. It has provided us with a lot of breakfast time conversation.
The basic theme is how the ideas of Sigmund Freud have been applied (or corrupted, according to your perspective) to maintain stability (or oppression and exploitation) in the population, especially the population of the USA. It raises a host of questions.
Is the psyche deeply populated by destructive, irrational forces, by a benign self-actualizing tendency, or just meaninglessness?
Does not having enough sex make you ill (Freud) or is it better to be celibate like Freud's daughter Anna who became the leader of Freud's movement after he died?
A tangential question might be: Is it good for the human race that Gengis Khan had 1600 great grandchildren but the Dalai Lama will not have any?
Does one need a strong ego in order to keep repression in place and make social rules workable, or is it better to 'let it all hang out' and kick over the traces, or is there some middle position, and if so what/where?
The film highlights the power of propaganda, public relations, spin and general manipulation of the population, often using subtle (or not so subtle) sexual imagery to sell products that become identity tags that then keep people in line. Is democracy only possible with such manipulation? Is democracy inseparably tied to capitalism and product fetishism?
Some particular vignettes that stick in my mind include
- how women were persuaded to smoke
- how the attempt to make her normal killed Marilyn Monroe
- how the USA sabotaged central American regimes that did not kowtow to American corporations
- how Nazism made sense to many people in the wake of the 1929 financial crash
- A snippet from a speech of Martin Luther King saying he is proud to be 'maladjusted' to racism and oppression
Freud thought that civilisation was necessary for survival, yet inevitably was won at considerable cost to the individual, especially in terms of deferred sexual gratification. A moderately high incidence of neurosis was therefore inevitable in any civilised society, since the creative energy that builds society was a 'sublimation' or diversion of sexual energy and as the capacity of individuals to achieve such diversion varies, some will become 'well-adjusted', good citizens and some will succumb to the difficulties of what is demanded of them.
His successor, Anna Freud, thought that a strong ego was essential and that it was built by conformity to social values. The central figure in the film, however, is Edward Bernays, Freud's nephew who took his uncle's ideas and used them initially to make money and later to help the CIA.
The film is shocking in some ways, making plain some of the awful way that politics has, on occasion, been lethally manipulated for the sake of greed. It highlights the dilemmas of power and need for order and the repression and reaction involved. Facile answers to the questions raised do not suffice - it is all very challenging and sometimes chilling. One knows some of these things in general, but the film included details that were new to me on top of what I already knew.
Thanks Dharmavidya. Even though i knew quite a bit about Freud's ideas and am fairly familiar with the fact of manipulation of the masses, to whatever end, I was still quite stunned to learn about the initiatives presented in this documentary. I couldn't help but feel a sense of increasing vulnerability at the depth and effectiveness of the principles applied by Bernays and all of his subsequent followers. Apart from the obvious dangers implied by the potential for their use against mankind, I got a sense of a terrible momentum behind the machine that drives the corporate and political worlds toward power. As if the whole human race is being blown around by this phenomena like a leaf in a gale and at the same time yanked from pillar to post in the cross-currents of conflicting political agendas. One of the most disturbing themes raised in the film is the fact of how primitive and easily influenced we become in the collective. The collective psyche of any crowd, no matter what the size, can be crafted and divided into opposing forces and turned against a perceived enemy,(an enemy of the manipulator's choice) as demonstrated by the Nazi's mastery of the methods in question. The consequences and potential for consequences for the psychological health of the world in this nightmare of manipulation are surely accumulative and therefore represent a growing threat with every day. As a long term conspiracy theorist my initial response is outrage, but after many years of angrily stewing over the injustices that these issues highlight, i find myself drawn to the question of how would it all turn out if we were left completely to our own devices as free living and thinking products of ''true democracy''? This question has been answered many times over the decades and the evidence tends to leave us in no doubt that at some level we need to be controlled in order to prevent us from tearing ourselves and each other apart. I find myself tending towards Freud's conclusions about the nature of the human race as being pretty hopeless when i consider the impossible difficulties and complexities of the situation, in the spirit of finding a solution to it. Clearly the intervention of the fundamentally flawed human psyche, employed in the ways described here to this infinitely complex problem, are tantamount to the merits of the blind leading the blind and can only lead to further, deeper and more widespread catastrophe! But the fact of our collective and individual needs for some kind of extra, para-political guidance, seems to remain the central issue. I'm not going to lay claim to any sensible ideas as to a successful resolution to this, but it makes me feel ever more grateful for the gift of spiritual refuge in my life, and wonder about how things might be if everyone else felt the same! Namo Amida Bu( :
Yes, the question of mass psychology and what happens to people in crowds is fascinating, complex and sometimes very alarming. People in groups seem sometimes to lose all connection with their better principles. There is something about being part of a group that reduces the sense of responsibility and gives a kind of permission. It can be permission for good things, but often it is the opposite.
Glad to come upon this here.
I've watched Adam Curtis' two most recent films in the past few months (Bitter Lake, and the up-to-the-minute Hypernormalisation.) I've heard of this, but not seen it, so will work my may through it and come back.
Thanks for the link, which feels timely.