The Century of the Self – Adam Curtis

The Century of the Self is an acclaimed documentary by filmmaker Adam Curtis released in 2002.

“The series (below) is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” – Adam Curtis

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings profoundly. His influence on the 20th century is widely regarded as massive. The documentary describes the impact of Freud’s theories on the perception of the human mind, and the ways public relations agencies and politicians have used this during the last 100 years for their “engineering of consent”.

Among the main characters are Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in advertising. He is often seen as the “father of the public relations industry”. Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in the second part, as well as Wilhelm Reich, the main opponent of Freud’s theories.

Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitude to fashion and superficiality.

The business and, increasingly, the political world uses PR to read and fulfill our desires, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to us. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. He cites a Wall Street banker as saying “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

In Episode 4 the main characters are Philip Gould and Matthew Freud, the great grandson of Sigmund, a PR consultant. They were part of the efforts during the nineties to bring the Democrats in USA and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power. Adam Curtis explores the psychological methods they now massively introduced into politics. He also argues that the eventual outcome strongly resembles Edward Bernays vision for the “Democracity” during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

To quote the BBC site:

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?


Episode One: Happiness Machines

Episode Two: The Engineering of Consent

Episode Three: There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed

Episode Four: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering

For more information on ‘The Century of the Self’ click here

See Also: The Power of Nightmares – A documentary in a similar style also by Adam Curtis.

8 thoughts on “The Century of the Self – Adam Curtis

  1. I will have to reappraise this series. I have been absorbed with the current Adam Curtis 3-parter which ends the Sunday in the UK (The Trap- what happened to our dreams of freedom) . It’s depressing but enlightening stuff. His film making techniques make for interesting analysis too (for the inordinate number of media studies people). Thanks for this review of his previous works.

  2. Hi Emalyse, Thanks. I really enjoyed tonight’s episode. It was a case of Curtis picking up the pieces of recent history and sticking it altogether to make one engrossing piece of work. Much of the history I was aware of and other bits clicked into place and made sense. I would like to see the whole series again to digest it all. Good stuff. I hope that ‘The Trap’ gets broadcast to an American audience!

  3. Well it seems to be available via the usual alternative sources (I know because I originally missed the 1st episode) though I guess that may be preaching to the curious, naturally open minded and the converted somewhat (and I’m not saying that Americans wouldn’t be in that demographic).

  4. […] The defense of a form of ‘positive liberty’, the defense of a freedom far more meaningful and broader than the one we are imprisoned in, which has something to do with deep equality and genuine political empowerment, the insistence against all cynicism that it doesn’t have to lead to tyranny – this deserves sustained applause. For what Curtis has shown throughout is that the ideologies that sustain capitalism, that in fact train us to accept it as a natural and universal development to which we all tend, have as their basic premise that human beings are unfit for anything better. We are inadequate to the task of creating a world beyond selfish, narcissistic, consumerist narrowness, in which we are all mutually exploitative and indifferent, in which some thrive in the struggle better than others. […]

    See We’re Not Worthy: Two Cheers for Adam Curtis

  5. Pingback: The State of British Democracy « Bala Fría

  6. Pingback: The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis « Bala Fría

  7. Pingback: The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream of Freedom? « Bala Fría

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