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The Century of the Self

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While I recently wrapped up watching the entire series, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watch the first episode of Adam Curtis’ 2002 BBC mini-series, The Century of Self. It’s easily the most stimulating of the documentary’s four episodes, skillfully framing much of the blueprint for what has become our consumer state in just under an hour. The bulk of the episode’s focus is placed upon Edward Bernays—Son of Anna Freud, nephew of Sigmund Freud, commonly acknowledged as “the father of public relations.”

As Alexandra Dantzer writes,

“Bernays managed to convince whole industries that advertisement is not what sells the product, but the carefully thought out combination of news and playing on the unconscious. He used his uncle Sigmund Freud’s findings on psychological motivations and applied them with the goal of manipulating people into believing in the necessity, rather than the wish, of having something. […] In 1928 he published his most important work, still read today under the simple name of Propaganda.

The Conversation published an excerpt of his book to show his standing on the importance of public relations: ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.'”

One of my favorite examples of Bernays’ influence sounds so absurd it could easily fit as a slogan of hyper-patriotic imperative among the current breed of Americans now claiming that their constitutional rights are being infringed upon because they’re not able to visit their favorite watering holes amid a global pandemic. Publicly brandishing cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom,” Bernays aligned them with feminist ideals, while accompanying advertisement campaigns were used to portray an imagine of slender femininity as one held primarily by the smoking class. Nothing screams sexualized personal empowerment like rolled up tobacco. It was utter bullshit and Bernays knew as much, as he didn’t smoke and implored his own wife to quit the habit due to its negative health implications.

Bernays almost single-handedly summoned Consumptionism into existence, and with it came a blurring of identity, the “self” now influenced as much by what a person purchased as anything. Goods were no longer consumed to satisfy a need, but to project an expression of identity.

Century of the Self Adam Curtis

While unrelated in its focus, a rabbit hole this week led me to Ted Giola’s article, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting,” which has tied some broader ideas together for me relating to Bernays’ impact and an outward-focused sense of identity.

“Few can remember a time when music wasn’t a tool of self-definition, but until the second half of the twentieth century this was only a small part of a song’s appeal. For most people living in the world, circa 1920, music was embedded into their life, not chosen as a lifestyle accessory. But gradually, over the next several decades, music’s value as a pathway of personal definition came to the forefront of our culture. Sometimes the shift was barely perceptible, but in retrospect we can gauge its profound impact. For example, people in rural America didn’t choose country music during the early decades of the 20th century, but were literally born into its ethos; yet by the ’70s, country music had evolved into a lifestyle choice, a posture adopted by millions who never roped a steer or herded cattle, but still wanted to affiliate themselves with the values espoused by the songs. By the time we arrive at the age of disco and punk rock, the music consciously builds its appeal on lifestyle considerations.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since I watched the Time Life docuseries The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and about that long since I padded my community college course plan with a class tracking the history of popular music. But from the bits and pieces I do remember from the broader timeline, there was a switch flipped along the way, and with it music shifted toward becoming a measure of self-definition, or a lifestyle accessory, as much as it would ever again just be something that existed in people’s lives.

Giola’s essay focuses largely on the down-shift in cultural criticism (this follow up does well to round out its perspective), leaving arts critiques—more specifically music criticism—largely stripped of technical knowledge, and instead reverting to a flavor of “lifestyle reporting.” But I’d argue that the art itself, or the image thereof, has also shifted with time to become something other than itself. That “something other” is also a tool of self-definition. That’s the part of this picture that really has me thinking today (by accident, many of those thoughts are squarely in line with the reading I’ve been doing recently on Zen and the relationship with Anatta, or the “non-self”).

I had begun reading Giola’s article as one of several which I hoped might aid in figuring out what purpose there could be in (me, a layman) attempting to write critically about film or music. Now, much of the takeaway from that thought process is centered on recognizing how much of my own “self” has been padded by outward protections of personal taste (sometimes showing up as “critiques” on blogs or social media sites, sometimes as playlists on Spotify, sometimes just a mention of having I’ve watched something to a friend), and what the implications of all that might be.

Is it simply that I find a song enjoyable sounding, or does acceptance of it also relate to how its inclusion on a playlist might reflect upon me? Does that band t-shirt say about your identity or is it just a shirt? What about my Blu-ray collection? Does an annual membership to the Frist reflect anyone’s outward projection of identity, or is such patronage just a nice-to-have because art is important societally? Can it be both? “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” I’m bound to be missing glaring elements to this conversation, but for now I feel like it’s served its purpose, renewing a sense of awareness surrounding what’s driving certain behaviors and how little of what I want others to see of me has to do with who I might (or might not) be.