Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The century of the self

Just finished watching Adam Curtis's documentary about the history of psychoanalysis , public relations , Freud and how all of them define the world as we know it today.

The 4 hour documentary was too much of a information overload for me and so I decided to start writing down a blog on it so as to be able to wrap my head around all the ideas that the documentary talks about.

Here are a couple of themes that I thought were important in the documentary

The documentary focuses on two studies about what actually drives humans to do things a certain way in life . Hundreds of psychoanalysts have worked on this over the last century and there are two predominant theories -

1) Humans are actually driven by the irrational desires such as sex , power and other animal instincts. Very few of them have the consciousness to be aware of these underlying desires and are able to overcome them to make rational decisions. Freud proposed this theory and he came to believe it more and more after seeing how people behaved during the world war . Nothing else could justify soldiers burning women and innocent children alive in gas chambers, other than the fact that most of people in the Nazi Germany were driven by a irrational desire for power over other humans. Freud and his followers believed that until and unless masses were not taught how to control these irrational desires there would always be a possibility of them being driven by these desires which would eventually lead to a unruly state of affairs . Based on this philosophy a bunch of psychoanalysts set down to the task of understanding the dark side of humans and exposing it so that they can be aware of it and avoid these desires from playing out in the open.

2) Anti - Freudians believed in exactly the opposite philosophy , the animal instincts that humans had were a part of being human and they should be embraced and not shunned. This was the start of the hippie generation of the 60s where open sex , open expression of emotions was encouraged. Each individual was considered a separate entity and the individual's desires were paramount in ensuring his happiness and as a result happiness of the entire society. People were asked not to suppress their emotions because only then would they achieve the ultimate liberation. The post 60s era till now has been focused primarily on the individual and his desires , they are no longer considered as irrational desires.

The interesting part of the documentary was actually how all of these theories have been used by the Big American Corporations to influence people's irrational minds to promote businesses.
During the Freud era , led by his nephew Edward , public relations came into being for the first time in the corporate world and with that came the world of advertising. Cigarette ads that showed men as masculine and lingerie ads that brought out woman's sexuality . The idea was that although people would not like to say openly, they actually were driven by their hidden sexual desires when purchasing items.

Then came the era of individual self in the 60s and the corporations then took on to that bandwagon . Corporates catered unique items to unique individuals so that they could use it to express their individuality. These liberated souls believed that they were making these choices out of their own thought process but in the background the corporate was actually working on their minds to convince them that only by carrying around certain material objects could people express their individuality.

The influence of the PR did not stop with corporations , it even went into politics , politicians started using statements that would appeal to the inner desires of the masses because that is the only thing that seemed to sell . Great ideas such as universal health care or increasing taxes did not go well with the new individualistic people , because they believed that a idea was only worth pursuing if it was going to give them individual happiness. So no matter how much debt the economy was in , increasing taxes was something which never got any votes from the masses , from their individual perspective , it made no sense.

So why d0 I think this documentary was important ? It is because each one of us in our own way is trying to find a meaning to being human and find the right way of leading the most fulfilling life but the problem with that is there are a lot of forces lurking out there which can influence what your chosen path in life is. If you believe Freud and think you should not let your animal instincts rule you , you can actually end up suppressing them instead of getting rid of them and unknowingly your hidden desires can still continue to rule your life.
If you are a part of the other camp which believes in the power of the individual you can fall prey to instant gratification because in the shorter term that might seem to guarantee maximum liberation.

Lets take a example , there a lot of theories on how humans are not monogamous creatures and the society is actually forcing the idea on us . As a result of forcing marriage on people we force them to suppress their desire to have sex with multiple partners which eventually shows up as frustration in other areas of life .

The other side of the story is open relationships were you have sex with anyone that you feel like getting involved with. Although this guarantees immediate gratification , it mostly does not guarantee a manageable social structure.

Same holds true for journalism , what should you present in newspapers. Sensible journalism that does not show all the crap that happens in the world or show all the crap that happens around and pitch it by saying that people are intelligent enough to choose for themselves.

We are all a product in some or the other way of the 1960s individual, consumerist generation and like the recent collapse of the economic system showed us , just catering to the desires of the masses although maybe a great PR stunt but in the longer run is good for no one. We need to think about these questions deeply , look at the hidden influences in our lives and see which way should each of us lead our lives .

No comments: