Monday, June 16, 2008

There is a Policeman Inside all our heads, he Must be Destroyed

A good friend recently lent me several documentary productions by Adam Curtis, and I must say I've been enjoying them. The two I've watched so far have been The Mayfair Set and The Century of the Self. The former documents "Four Stories on the Rise of Business and the Decline of Political Power" mostly in England, but in the US as well. The latter looks at "how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy."

Curtis' method is quite elegant; he focuses in many cases on the actions and activities of individuals, but at no point does his narrative collapse the historical events he is analyzing into hagiography or conspiracy (for the exact opposite of this approach, see Alex Jones' innumerable conspiracy-mongering films). Especially in the Mayfair Set, where the story is really about the rise of Finance Capital and what David Harvey would call "Fictitious Capital" and "Accumulation by Dispossession," the narrative uses its individual players and actors to paint what is ultimately a structural critique. The Century of the Self starts earlier, with the prewar period, but chronicles roughly the same late-20th century arc to examine the rise of psychology and psychoanalysis in marketing and political governance. Here he uses the twin figures of Edward Bernays (Freud's nephew) and Anna Freud as placeholders for the influence of Freud in capitalism and the state, respectively.

While excellent pieces of criticism on their own, watching the two together creates a powerful interplay; one could conceivably alternate between episodes of the two (4 episodes each) following two sides of much the same story. Psychoanalysis and political economy dovetail into one another, the former providing the symbolic kernel within the latter's material effects. For all of the seeming negativity, Curtis does not let the narratives fall into the fatalistic despondency of the current left; there is no ressentiment of "the masses" or characterization of people as gullible, stupid, or the like. In Curtis' picture, strong structural forces roll out changes in subtle and slow ways, and even the blameworthy in his view can hardly take much of the credit.

In the self-obstructing fashion of the documentary, Curtis lays out his critiques but cannot or does not 'document' ways out or possible futures and alternatives. As critic he is not to be blamed for this, I suppose. I'm hoping to watch The Take later this week, made famous to me by our Latin American graduate student friends, which seems to take up on the stage set by Curtis, but looks at at least putative types of resistance to the millstone of our recent 'history'.


Blogger Robot said...

Never heard of him, but will surely check some of this out.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

mayfair set looks pretty sweet--i watched the first few minutes on youtube but the dvds look a bit hard to find.

8:18 PM  
Blogger pd said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:31 PM  
Blogger pd said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:35 PM  
Blogger pd said...

watch "The Mayfair Set" on google video. First part is at:

5:36 PM  

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