On the bridge between last night and this morning, I watched the first episode of Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self. Yancey introduced me to Curtis’s work: documentary as collage, assembled out of archival footage and bold type. This first episode, Happiness Machines, touched on so many of my interests that it’s hard to know where to start.
The first thing to know about Curtis’s documentaries is that they’re dreamlike; every minute of film holds so many disparate-yet-connected clips that your mind will feel like it’s roaming and skipping beats, building wordless understanding in the gaps. (Seconds will feel like hours, yet they pass quickly.) The second is that almost all of them are available online in one form or another; you can watch Century of the Self here in full.
Episode 1, Happiness Machines, is about Sigmund Freud’s impact on society by way of his nephew, Edward Bernays. He coined the term “public relations” as a more palatable alternative to “propaganda,” and effectively popularized his uncle’s work in the United States as a roundabout way of increasing his own cachet. He engineered the 1929 stunt that dissolved the taboo against women smoking in public, and plotted the vision for the 1939 New York World’s Fair that would paint a picture of a utopian future achieved through consumer technologies. (My fascination with world’s fairs in general, and that world’s fair in particular, is well-documented.) Corporations called on him to manufacture desire, and he was incredibly effective at doing so; the dreams he sold still hold power, almost a century later. But his attitude toward human rationality unnerved me: according to the film, he believed most people were stupid, and all could be made docile through fantasy. By the end, I understood Bernays as a sinister figure—but one I’m drawn to. I’m now overwhelmed by a desire to seek out a dissertation, a book, an archive…anything to understand him better.
And I’m returning to the mantra I repeated a hundred times in college, when people would ask me what I would study, and I would say “History!” and they would say—”What kind of history?” And I would say, “20th-century U.S. history, especially the history of consumerism—and some Soviet history, too.” All true, all connected, but especially all connected to this: a film I watched on a slim silver device on the sixth story of a building in a city without satisfaction.
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- papemobile said: Also, I did a report in high school on Bernays’ interference in the Guatemalan government— he was essential in overthrowing its democratically elected president. I couldn’t have written the report without a great book called Bitter Fruit.
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