Brain Pickings

The Century of the Self

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How smoking became cool, or why politicians want your brain for breakfast.

Written and produced by legendary British documentarian Adam Curtis in 2002 for the BBC, The Century of the Self offers an utterly fascinating four-part probe into the depths of consumerism and democracy. Though it focuses primarily on how those in power have used Freud’s theories to manipulate public opinion and perception, the series delves into the richest and most profound layers of 20th century culture, from the hidden mechanisms of advertising to the civil rights movement to the inner workings of political belief systems — all whilst managing to avoid the trap of conspiracy-theorism with incredible elegance and dexterity.

Mixed throughout the documentary footage are exclusive interviews with cultural influencers, ranging from Edward Bernays, the mastermind of modern Public Relations, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, by way of Philip Gould and Freud’s infamous daughter, Anna.

The Century of the Self is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in its relentless investigation of the crafting of consumer culture, with all its whims and whimsy, only layered on top of the complex political, psychological and sociocultural forces that shaped it.

The series consists of four parts — The Happiness Machine, The Engineering of Consent, There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed, and Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering — each an hour long but well-worth the time and thought.

And though Google has kindly made all the parts available to stream for free, we suggest you do your personal collection and cultural savvy a favor, and grab a copy of the DVD — settling for flimsy footage and pixelated politicians is no way to take a stance against consumerism.

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