Century of the Self

I watched Adam Curtis’ 4-part series The Century of the Self (2002) and my brain went into “too much information” mode and left me overwhelmed and mind-blown. It was the moment in the Monkees’ film Head, where the band are sitting for hours in a steam bath with the Maharishi, hoping to gain some insight into the meaning of life. After hours of lecturing, the Maharashi concludes by questioning everything he’s just said. “But why should I speak?,” he asks. “For I know nothing.” The Monkees flip out. “You know nothing?!” they ask. And Davy Jones storms off in a huff.

After absorbing 240 minutes worth of footage on propaganda, PR, consumerism, and psychology, I was left with the frustrating yet oddly liberating feeling that I know nothing. When the film reveals that women’s “choice” to take up smoking in the 1920s was not actually a radical expression of equality and feminism, but a carefully constructed PR plan to get the other half of the population to cough up their cash for cigarettes, it leaves you questioning your own forms of personal expression, and begs the questions, Am I in charge of myself and my thoughts? Are my thoughts and ideas derived from some sort of PR masterplan to keep me spending? Are my interests in music, film, art, and fashion even genuine? I have no doubt that those women who took up smoking truly believed that they were being radical (as opposed to falling into a well-planned trap). Are we not falling into similar traps?

The Century of the Self frequently makes the point that our society is no longer based on what we need, but what we desire. What we need is pretty basic–food, shelter, healthcare, some clothing, shoes. What we desire is endless. And the encouragement to “dream big”–make more money, buy more things, do more–stems from a market-driven culture that can only succeed if we are slaves to our desires, with consumption as the sole way to satiate those desires. If we strictly bought what we needed, the current system would fall apart. I realize I’m not saying anything new or profound here, but what The Century of the Self awoke in me is that I know I’m being manipulated, I know that my desires may not necessarily be my “true desires,” I know there are PR firms, think-tanks, advertising and marketing agencies that are getting better and better at manipulating my emotions and desires to encourage further consumption, yet I continue to buy into it. I may think that my interest in vinyl, films from the ’40s, and vintage furniture makes me unconventional, but does it really matter whether I spend my money on a Justin Bieber or Ronettes records? Consuming the unconventional is still consumption. I’m just part of different “demographic” than the Justin Bieber fan, whatever that actually means when you think outside the marketing box.

I’ve been wracking my brain to think of a public figure who has managed to free themselves of a life dictated by desires, and I remembered Bill Cunningham, the 83-year-old street photographer for the New York Times. I remember watching the incredibly uplifting documentary Bill Cunningham New York, and being shocked by the apartment he had lived in for much of his life. Here was a photographer employed by the New York Times since 1978, clearly worth a hefty salary, yet he lived in a cubby-hole of an apartment, with a mattress on top of his files, few clothes, and no kitchen. The man had a place to eat and sleep, and a camera with which to take photos. That was all he needed. To have the money to spend on infinite desires yet to only desire what you really need? That is pretty much unheard of in New York City, and probably a good part of the world. It’s like someone winning the lottery and deciding that they want a smaller house!

Everyday I am reminded both directly and indirectly to strive for success, to work hard, to achieve, to do more, to buy more, to grow, to be all that I can. And I feel those desires very strongly. I’m on top of the world when I am successful and achieving, and insecure and lost when I’m not. And then I wonder, what if I could be satisfied with little financial success, no major achievements, and few desires to be fulfilled. I’d have a lot more rainy-day savings, a lot less stuff, and I would truly be sticking it to the man (and contributing to the downfall of a system that only values me if I’m consuming and achieving). But looking around at my apartment filled with records, dresses, furniture, books, knick-knacks, makeup, DVDs, shoes, CDs, and magazines, I can only conclude that I have a long way to go. 

Watch “The Century of the Self” (for free!): http://vimeo.com/20861423

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