Century of the Self Documentary

Here is a link to the full BBC documentary by Adam Curtis The Century of the Self. It is a kind of historical, factual, British version of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. It details how Sigmund Freud’s idea of the unconscious drives was promoted in America and into advertising which was then used to control entire populations of people. The central idea of the doc is that these unconscious drives that Freud “discovered” became so popular and a part of mainstream culture in large part thanks to two figures: Anna Freud and his nephew Edward Bernais. Anna Freud practically sold her father’s ideas to the mass market, and Edward Bernais used them in principle for mass marketing schemes, pacifying the “dangerous” crowd.

It is extremely matter of fact and traces these developments all the way up into the Clinton administration’s use of them for his presidential election campaign. The entire century is taken into account, with the political implications for manipulating mass desire showing throughout the twentieth century. This is a Must Watch.

Critical Fantasies: First Attempt at a Manifesto

Critical Fantasies are a mixture of critical philosophy and a retelling of poplar stories that are made by deep analysis to serve as current day myths. The stories are selected from the cultural field with the criteria that they contain pertinent ideas or operations which can be extracted and elucidated in a conceptual manner. This conceptual exercise will encourage readers to more actively examine cherished fantasies and put into focus a transversal message from the fantasy to themselves – all the more relevant for coming from the realm of the imaginary. This intentional activity of blending fantasy and philosophy will revitalize meaning in the world by eliminating the intellectual pretension towards representing *the* world (considered in the singular) and finding meaning in moving between a plurality of fictional worlds.

The difference between philosophy and poetics, science and fantasy, or reality and fiction is not collapsed but maintained. The duality is impressed upon the reader while simultaneously, a multiplicity of worlds prevents any one world or any pair of worlds from claims to perfection. Instead of moving from one unreal world to the real world, there are many to hop around to; only wherever on begins from or ends up is always fictional. The multiplicity worlds, connected by their rejection of representation, will subvert claims to the divine authority of any one story. Many worlds are potentially inhabitable, each offering various messages. The stories of these worlds are given a fresh interpretation in being retold, but inso doing a message is released and made more explicit. Critical Fantasies translate idea kernels from the enchanting myth that the narrative invokes and in those ideas point beyond them. Examining this message conceptually will provoke the reader to in turn reexamine their own favorite fantasies in a way that draws out a meaningful lesson or truth beyond the particular fantasy world.

Far from being devoid of meaning or a source of believability, we have multiple fantasies within our cultures from which purpose, guidance, and significance can be discovered. They merely require a critical perspective with which to interpret them in moving beyond their fictional worlds. The fantasies across the cultural spectrum are many and diverse; some can be revelatory, creating an fervent attachment not so far off from belief. Crossing the world gap serves this function, but no story takes primary status over another – even if there is a favorite. A fantasy affirms its other-worldly quality without demanding precedence over any other save for the impact it has, the impression it leaves. The plurality of fantasies is only a hindrance if equality is demanded between the construction and “reality”, instead of having a higher degree of potency. The acceptance of their own unreality can only be a benefit.

Though separate realms, neither pure philosophy nor fiction can endure without the other. Indeed, philosophers have always tended to make use of myths and stories (in the form of illustrated examples, diagrams, thought experiments etc.) while every captivating narrative involves something conceptual. The themes, motifs, and characters of works of fiction become a repeatable talking point which can be crystallized in an idea. A source of wonder comes from their interplay; the fantasy requires an implicit trick of falsehood shared by both the author and audience, philosophy requires a commitment to truth and honest inquiry amidst incessant illusion and dogma. The selection of the story and the selection of the concepts with which to cross-connect will function as the creative production: in reinterpreting popular and exciting fantasies with a critical eye, the ideas projected will be illuminated and updated as well as recontextualized. Critique will not take place over and above the story but within it, offering up ideas that will inspire thought from not just an exclusively mythical or philosophical perspective but with a mutual reinforcement. This performance will necessitate inhabiting the plurality of imagined worlds while simultaneously pushing their topics and devices beyond it. Critical Fantasies are an inherently pluralistic construction.

The works of fantasy will be chosen by their critical capacity from the outset; or, the work chosen already possesses the critical power to change, provoke, inspire the audience/player within it. The mining of it from a critical-philosophical angle only serves to make its impact more forceful and its message more obvious. Each interpretation or commentary of anything from anyone will add to or alter its meaning, but the choice of candidates for a critical fantasy by itself indicates that the work contains a message that resonates beyond its world. The stories that endure in history, that have that “timeless” quality endure for a reason that exceeds its own comprehension. A critical focus on those ideas that endure past the world from which they originated discovers more than just a cold concept: it finds advice, it finds wisdom. Criticism will not be of the particular world of fantasy itself as a fantasy (its illusory, negative, or unreal quality) but come from that work and direct its latent critical capacity outward, approaching the threshold of its world as a fantasy world.

This endeavor can be called critical in three senses of the word:

First, inhabiting fantasies gives one a meaningful if incorporeal world of signification from which to base a judgment on something outside of it. By self-consciously remaining within its interpretive zone, its (illusory) hermeneutic circle, criticism can then appear to be launching outward, though the representative target remains transfixed within the fantasy zone as a concept. A world of significance is found from which critique can situate itself. This mixes an awareness of limitations with a feeling of transcendence. Second, criticism attempts to approach a condition where a body is forced to exceeded the outer limits, no longer being able to contain the force originating within the border. Critical Fantasies reach for a critical mass which overflows in its fantastic resonance. Floating between crossing the threshold and remaining at the border, these fantasies suggest a break-through that is impossible because of their self-conscious falsity. They nonetheless make the suggestion, implying a leap all the more tempting for being impossible. Third, critical inquiry necessitates close scrutiny to specific areas within the subject considered. The ideas under examination are intensified by the attention payed to them within an uncommon sphere. Dwelling on certain isolated ideas in a strange place casts a spell of significance and importance, majestic by being both fantasy and under fixated examination.

Critical theory takes on big subjects and claims to further political goals by engaging with dominant ideologies. The title ‘Critical Fantasies’ also reminds one that action in a meaningful ethical-political sense does not occur within the confines of a text or a video screen. Critical theory interprets texts and techniques closely, bringing them to their limit in hopes that this symmetry-breaking motion will be reflected elsewhere. However, the going-beyond of critical analysis, the breaking things open and/or extending them outward can only operate non-textually by addressing this world-gap. Critique can undermine beliefs, opinions, and assumptions by making them argumentatively untenable, but strong forces back those frames and institutionalized power relations stabilize them. By joining the fantastic with the critical, all pretensions to subversion emanating directly from the narrative are abandoned and immediate direct action is to be found elsewhere. Fantasy knows this about itself: it is not real. It is like Socrates who knows only that he knows nothing. Fantasy affirms its falsity. This is a relief though; the distance fantasies hold onto puts the specter of action and conversely the dogmatism of representation in another world altogether with respect to each other. Incommensurable with the present and its accompanying “here and now”, fantasy nevertheless does not forget this “other”; for in the persistence of approaching what it is not, fantasy cannot rid itself of its relation with the present, however confrontational and problematic that relationship might be. Fantasy holds onto action in the present but at a distance, a distance spanning worlds.

Fantasy sets limits on what it can do in the substantial material world – the indirectness from which it must relate to it – and continues along in its negative constrictions regardless. Fixing that material world at the outside, a fantasy world is able to play endlessly with the boundaries its willful negation sets. Indirect Critical Fantasies – Direct Action. The imagination is stretched always apart as it is forever tasked with coming to terms with its own nothingness; all the while, it cannot shake the feeling that whatever is produced, whatever piece of work the imagination creates, is somehow bound up with that other thing – matter. Neither purely false nor purely representative, fantasy moves forward in playful ambivalence.

To reflect on these aesthetic productions brimming with joyful negation, to analyze these current day myths, criticism is brought to bear on the scene – but this is no synthesis. The momentum or force of fantasies are left in tact (not that one could do anything to prevent that) but an outside line joins with it that blows up certain moments, placing a greater emphasis on the ideas of critical importance for other worlds not of its own. A concentration is built up around those flashes of wonder where something seems to jump out of its worldly confines.

Critical Fantasies put together two irreducible forces and create an entirely new non-holistic production. Neither a combination of the two nor a sublimation of them into a higher thing, it sets familiar work of art in fantasy into a different rhythm. The moments of highest intensity are given an additional push bringing it closer to the outside of its world and establishing resonance. Critical Fantasies are always found in a polarizing situation: with an understanding that they are limited to their fictional worlds of significance, they select those aspects that come the closest to breaching their worldly limits and making a connection outside of them.

I believe that people by and large already make use of fantasies in this way. What is most often missing in them and what I aim to inject is the rigor of a critical philosopher. The potential in this unholy alliance seems vast and within the care of the right hands could intensify a largely apathetic population with awesome and innumerable fantasies at its disposal. Fantasy stories in their highest moments have replaced the divine revelation as our source of ethical energy. These are those empowering moments when a vital surge breaks out like a geyser. This is when epic wins become possible, and epics always start in the middle. They don’t always end well though. It is in attempting to begin from solid ground like a tautology, as well as end in a secure and harmonious goal that we lose sight of the urgent task. Fantasies cannot provide perfectly clear answers as to what is to be done, but when it comes to teachings and inspiration, they are the best we’ve got. At the very least, their internalized negativity wards off dogmatic faith. Together with the sustained focus of criticism, fantasies can at best nudge us in the right direction.