The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed): a stroll through an amusement park of curious cultural fads and trends

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed)” (2002)

The third installment in Curtis’s series focuses on the rival psychologists and radical groups that challenged Freudian psychoanalysis and its use as an instrument by governments and corporations for containing and controlling the supposed irrational desires and fears of human beings. Included is an inquiry into ways in which people and groups outwardly resisted being dictated to, and methods and techniques of inner examination and exploration with a view to finding a breakthrough to inner freedom. The upshot of using such strategies to resist external controls of oneself, physically, mentally and spiritually, is that these same methods ended up being co-opted by businesses in much the same way and towards the same ends as Freudian psychoanalysis had been used.

The documentary strolls through an assembly line of personalities, groups and pop culture movements and trends, all of whom and which had little in common except a general desire to be free of external social and cultural restraints and to pursue self-fulfilment and individuality. The corporate world rose to this challenge to its power by absorbing this drive for individual self-expression into its agenda: ideas, states of mind, methods and strategies arising from the counter-culture movement were adopted by companies which made them their own. This led to the development of new marketing strategies such as market segmentation based on lifestyle differentiation and the use of demographics, surveys, polls and statistics as well as psychology to measure people’s motivations and buying behaviours, and to predict these. Such strategies not only laid the groundwork for the birth of the consumer society, they also percolated into politics, education, health provision and other areas beyond buying and consuming goods and services. Politicians and political parties began to mould their strategies of attracting voters by appealing to their fears, desires and lifestyle preferences.

With the documentary moving into the 1960s, Curtis’s choice of music soundtrack becomes more eccentric and kitschy, and the images he chooses range from movie snippets to newsreels to what look like excerpts from home videos. Emphasis is on the idea that corporations not only found the drive for self-expression and individuality a godsend in their quest for profit but subverted this drive so that people’s need for self-affirmation and individualisation ultimately depends on buying products and services seemingly tailored to their “needs” and “desires” as determined by business.

Walking through a bewildering amusement park of different counter-cultural fads and trends, I couldn’t help but notice how casually Curtis saunters through them all without giving viewers some idea of where these fads came from, what inspired them and ultimately what happened to them, whether they were fully or partly incorporated into corporate culture or if they died out because of some financial or other scandal. The man stands accused of picking whatever fits his thesis in much the same way that corporations sampled whatever self-actualisation methods fitted their particular agendas. Business is presented as always playing catch-up with whatever fancy notions get into the public’s collective head; there’s no suggestion that companies and government agencies might have seeded the cultural underground with substances like LSD (developed by the CIA and introduced into colleges and universities and other places where young people went) in order to derail it and divide it into segments more susceptible to infiltration and control.

It’s not a bad episode on the whole but it does get repetitive and a shorter running time could have been considered. The development of the consumer society with its concomitant treatment of citizens as consumers and clients rather than as individuals is documented fairly well.  The information given can be patchy and it wanders all over the shop as Curtis trots through one fad or cultural tendency after another.


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