Owen Gleiberman and popular culture


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.  

Post script:

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.

5 thoughts on “Owen Gleiberman and popular culture

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Nicely said, Grant.

    I believe this meme has legs because of the image of mind control that resides in the collective cultural unconscious, going back at least as far as Anton Mesmer in the late 18th century. The notion that people can be hypnotized by clever conjurers to commit acts against their will (awful things, like buying margarine, gasp!) reduces “psychology” to a carnival trick. “Create desire for products by connecting them with various pleasurable states”: it didn’t take Sigmund or Anna to come up with that one.

    As for the “homogenized version of suburban normalcy” the “psychiatric elite” was “co-opted in secret by the corporate boardroom (!!)” to “create”; I’m too stunned to even begin to comment. This fellow needs to take a brief look at the history of urbanization in America to get a little better perspective on the roots of suburbia and its veneer of conformity.

  2. Grant

    Tom, great point, perhaps as culture moved away from “time out of mind” status into something more dynamic, negotiated, changeable, and contestable, this fear beset us. And yes, there was a side show aspect to this fear, to fan the flames. It would be nice to think that the “sex in the ice cubes” guy was the last gasp of this moral panic. And again the thing I can’t get over is that we continue to regard as alternative something that is now so built into our culture, a virtual boilerplate for many people. Thanks, Grant

  3. steve

    I’m afraid that the roots of this recurring myth lie in the deep hostility that dynamic market processes invoke in so many people, particularly among the articulate and those who self-identify as “intellectuals” or “social critics.” The Future and its Enemies traces some of the main sources for this hostility, but it should be no shock that the hostility is deeper than any espoused rationale. Thus, when commercial culture gets less homogeneous, the critics complain about fragmentation, alienation, and “bowling alone,” When the critics saw culture as more homogeneous they unleashed the now-dated critique you decry.

    In my opinion, the desire to stand apart as an enlightened observer among a benighted crowd is the psychological mainspring of such criticism. The ideological or philosophical mainsprings are more diverse, coming variously from obsessions with stability, control, equality, or some particular narrow virtue spuriously elevated to the summum bonum. In addition, some people have a great deal of cognitive difficulty with the notion of unplanned, emergent social phenomena; they find conspiracy theories more intellectually satisfying.

  4. y bates

    owen recently gave Date Movie a good review. i’ve lost a lot of repect for the guy. he should read the review written by the onion and be enlightened.

  5. you

    Owen Gleiberman did a review on “we are marshall” and was quoted saying “The film keeps insisting that we mourn for a team we didn’t know” well you know what you slime, i didn’t know ANYONE that died in the 9/11 attacks i also don’t know ANYONE in iraq who died. So does that mean i shouldn’t have any feeling for them? So why do we have to KNOW this team to mourn there loss. I think a statement like that says very much of the character of person you are, LOW and SHALLOW. And i will never read another review from you again you piece of shit. Maybe you have something against West Virginians because we all know how backwoods and stupid they are. Even though West virginia has the most soldier recruitment per capti then any other state. Or maybe your just an asshole period.

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