Guest post by Here Comes Everyone’s Adam Steiner
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed:
everything else is public relations.”
Fear drives desire – we feel the lack of what is not – the loss
of a loved one, a lust denied, or stuff we want to buy but can never afford. As
circumstances shift, the product demands updates, is superseded or simply
rendered obsolete, our prospects improve – and so our desire shifts in
parallel. In true neo-liberal style, we are forced to adapt by wanting (more),
when we could be naturally evolving.
For more than 20 years, documentary-maker Adam Curtis has been exploring why
the shadow of twentieth-century+ life can sometimes feel like a sham of
universal progress, set against a steady landslide of decreasing happiness and
growing public discontent, manifested through voter confusion, compulsive
spending and the rise of unattainable individuality.
Our current status anxiety has its root in a
long history of control and manipulation. In the world of Curtis, the personal
and the political go hand-in-hand and nothing is as it seems. The ways in which
information is presented to us is spun by editorial angles and marketing forces
that warp reality, alter facts and so cements history – so far, so 1984.
Curtis’ 1995 documentary, The Living Dead, explores the power
of the past. The first episode talks about the raising of cultural divisions in
the aftermath of World War II that enabled the allied forces to stand as
“winners” of the war, embedding their position as the good and righteous
nations, which remained entrenched through the Cold War and continues today
amongst jingoistic nationalists.
the deliberate removal of nuance"
The desire for understanding through narrative – a brute
simplification of events skewed through a (distorted) moral prism – has a
substantial half-life in the fresh memory of future generations and establishes
a paradigm for continuing moral and ethical behaviours. To the extent that
these are born-out through a “national” and even international sense of duty,
such as the Western, Christian-leaning uni-democratic stance of policing the
world that has caused so many peace-keeping operations throughout the world (see
Curtis’ most recent doc, Bitter Lake).
Run with this extended need for beginnings and endings, binary
oppositions that bind us to positions of rightness and demand action, and you
arrive at perhaps the best series of Curtis documentaries – The Century of the Self – that
tease out the links between psychological study, consumer choice and the fate
of nations through voting behaviours and the populism of the masses.
In short, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, and Freud’s daughter
Anna, exploited Freud’s argument that sexual desire drives our decision-making
process in order to best meet these inner obligations, and the necessity of
action and potential violence to get there can be re-directed, through
convincing people they had made their own choice – re-enforcing a sense of
individual control while guiding their hand. In 1929, a notorious
publicity stunt established Bernays’ career as the father of public relations.
In a time when smoking was socially controlled as a male-only pursuit, deemed
inappropriate for women of good standing (to puff made you a prostitute of
ill-repute), Bernays hired several women to walk in the procession of the
Easter Day Parade in New York, all of them prominently smoking with ardour, and
had pre-arranged for local newspapers to photograph and report the story under
the headline banner of “Torches of Freedom” – the meaning was manifold – chiefly, the reporting
angle highlighted women’s right to smoke as a matter of democratic principle,
underlined the struggle for female suffrage in the US (women’s right to vote,
ratified 1920), and that the phallic act of smoking, lips to tip, was a
neat reference to Uncle Freud’s theories of motivational sexual desire. Public
response was largely positive and women were consequently free to smoke
whenever and wherever they might choose to – and the American tobacco companies doubled their market.
Bernays’ antics created the mechanics for the manufacturing of consent which
meant people voted less with their heads – on the basis of policy – but were
swept up in tides of euphoria and false promises, that is, voting less by
knowledge and more by likes (in the
most modern, banal style). Worse still, people were swayed to the extent that
they believed they had acted genuinely, when in fact the amount of promotion
towards particular candidates – kept afloat by the illusion of choice where
options were presented, and alternatives rendered undesirable – eroded voter
The volume of fear and its engine of anxiety is the fulcrum on which people’s lives are nudged, and ultimately, pushed, into
decision-making – most societies do not seek an end to all wars, but the
maintenance of sufficient “conflict” (a particularly dubious extremity) to keep
ourselves and our national interests safe – once again, at the expense of other
countries – this was, and remains, the illusion of democracy.