I have high regard for Owen Gleiberman. As a film reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, his view of Hollywood and contemporary culture is observant and thoughtful, and not infrequently illuminating.
Gleiberman (and his colleague Lisa Schwarzbaum) represent an interesting episode in the evolution of popular culture. Until standards rose, there was no hope that a popular magazine could attract, or would hire, critics as good as this. And once these two were in place, standards would have to rise again. Hollywood was being held to a higher standard.
That’s why it is really very irritating that Gleiberman should have reviewed The Century of the Self in such glowing terms. The COTS is a four-hour BBC mini-series, make in 2002 by Adam Curtis. The terms actually do glow:
It’s rare to see a documentary that bursts your mind right open, exploding your perceptions of the world we live in. […] The Century of the Self is rapt, heady, and startling: the most profound documentary I’ve seen this decade.
Here’s the sad part. This documentary is junk social science. It persuades Gleiberman that he has glimpsed the origins of contemporary culture when in fact he has seen yet another recitation of ideas that are shop worn and wrong.
The writer-director, Adam Curtis, crafts a vast and searching essay-mosaic to explore how the consumer culture recoded the nature of who we are inside. His film takes us back to the primal seed of modern marketing: the creation of public relations in the 1920s by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who drew on his uncle’s theories to envision a new kind of human being – not a rational citizen but an irrational consumer, enslaved by unconscious desires. Curtis uncovers how the 1939 World’s Fair, with its famous ”futurama” visions, was in fact a propaganda stunt of American business; how Joseph Goebbels drew on Bernays’ techniques to inspire the masses of the Third Reich; how the psychiatric elite, led by Anna Freud, were co-opted in secret by the corporate boardroom to create a homogenized vision of suburban normalcy.
There is so much that is sloppy, silly and exuberantly mistaken here, it’s hard to know where to begin. But let us note three conflations: 1) marketing with public relations, 2) public relations with one practitioner thereof, 3) the idea that the 1920s represents the beginnings of marketing. These ideas are not just incorrect, they are egregiously wrong. They are what English school boys call “howlers.”
Let’s press on. “Curtis uncovers how the 1939 World’s Fair…was in fact a propaganda stunt of American business.” It is hard to reckon how thuggish you have to be as a public communicator, how openly and utterly hostile to intellectual substance and finesse, to make this claim…or report it with approval. Only a hooligan would so declare himself. (This is self promotional of me, but there is a chapter in Culture and Consumption II that takes up this very question with a little more, oh, I don’t know, thoughtfulness.)
And finally, Gleiberman claims Curtis shows, “how the psychiatric elite, led by Anna Freud, were co-opted in secret by the corporate boardroom to create a homogenized vision of suburban normalcy.” Well, yes, this is precisely what intellectuals thought was true of contemporary culture in the 1950s. But in the last 50 years, we have come to a somewhat more nuanced and intelligent view of these particulars.
Here’s the deal. There was a time when Curtis’ argument was an open and lively issue in intellectual circles. But now we know it must be wrong. Scholarship aside, there is prima facie evidence that this is so. What evidence? Magazines like Entertainment Weekly and writers like Owen Gleiberman. If our culture truly were a wasteland, neither one would or could exist.
Contemporary culture has got better in almost all respects but the ideas with which we think about it have not. These ideas, cultivated by the likes of David Riesman and John Kenneth Galbraith, have not caught up. That these ideas are wrong does not discourage public critics like Bill Moyers and Bernard Barber from getting out the cardiac paddles in the hopes of animating the corpse for another 60 minutes or couple of hundred pages. I thought critics were meant to kill bad ideas, not revive them.
And this for me the real puzzler. When people like Gleiberman recite this now antique, discredited and ludicrous concept of contemporary culture, they tend to do so as if it were brand new, as if it has just come to them as a wondrous revelation. They act, in sum, as if this argument has the power of an idea we have only just achieved. But it is a long standing myth we have entertain about ourselves for at least have a century. Apparently this idea hangs out in Shangri La between airings. Or there may be a better account for its perpetual youthfulness. Thoughts?
That this myth, this meme, should have colonized even someone as smart and well informed as Owen Gleiberman, that’s just sad. But there is good news: Gleiberman the critic is refutation of Gleiberman the argument.
It should be remembered that Adam Curtis is the documentarian who in 2004 accused British politicians of having constructed a “phantom enemy.” Curtis called international terrorism, “a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media. … In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power." No apology for this position was forthcoming in July when “phantoms” killed more than 50 civilians in London.
Anon. 2004. The Making of the Terror Myth. The Guardian. October 15, 2004. here.
Gleiberman, Owen. 2005. The Century of the Self: a magnetic doc about marketing’s powerful hold on us. Entertainment Weekly. September 8, 2005, p. 60.
For citations of the academic literature at issue here, please see the bibliography in
McCracken, Grant. 2005. The culture wars continue. This blogs sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics. May 10, 2005. here.