September 3rd, 2006


The century of the self is over

Here's a snapshot of how the Western psyche looked at the end of the 20th century:

Out: Guilt, repression, class consciousness, elitism, traditional society, duty, restraint, decorum, bottling things up, deferred gratification, introversion.
In: Emotion, instinct, self-expression, atomization, immediate gratification, focus groups, marketing, psychoanalysis, the self, the now, extraversion.

It's paradoxical stuff. What else can it be than a paradox when all repression has been repressed, and when self-expression is the thing everyone is forced to do?

I've been watching Century of the Self, a four-part documentary by Adam Curtis aired on the Reithian "elitist" (ie intelligent and principled) minority BBC TV channel BBC 4 back in 2002 (thanks for the burn, Jonathan!). It's a fascinating narrative of the 20th century, and how the insights of Freud into human instinct and emotion were spread through America via his nephew Edward Bernays, the grandfather of modern marketing.

The basic narrative of the documentary is that Freud's message that instinct and society could never be reconciled has mutated into a consumer society in which the two co-exist very well. While Freud believed that guilt, sublimation and repression were all essential to the workings of a healthy society, what we've seen since the mid-20th century is a successful harnessing of the selfish unconscious desires and impulses of the individual by megacorporations and by politicians (Thatcher and Reagan are particularly singled out in the last programme), turning instinct and emotion to their own advantage. What was called, in the 1950s, the "depth psychology" of the "hidden persuaders" became, by the end of the 20th century, government by focus group. Society seen as a place in which groups had loyalties and obligations to each other was replaced by the illusion that lifestyle and politics could be offshoots of individual self-expression.

Of course, the world has changed since 2001, when this series was in production. The neo-fascism of the neo-cons is a far cry from the Me Generation politics of Clinton. And yet often the language used to justify the new imperium is Me Generation language: invaded countries are being empowered, given choices, given freedom, we're told. It's their turn to be "me me me". What the neo-cons didn't seem to anticipate, though, was that the invaded societies would opt to become traditional theocracies. In other words, they would choose a rigid, traditional conservative social structure characterized by all those "out" values I put at the top of this page.

But sympathy for these "out" values is not confined to Islamic republics. Last night at the Venice Film Festival the new Stephen Frears film "The Queen" premiered. "The Queen" stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. Watch the trailer and you'll see that the plot very much revolves around the conflict between Tony Blair's marketing-led emotional response to the death of Princess Diana (branded as the "people's princess") and the Queen's desire for reticence. While Blair and the tabloids demand some kind of emotional effusion from the queen ("70% of people believe that your actions have damaged the monarchy," Blair tells the Queen, as though quoting one of the focus groups featured in episode 4 of "Century of the Self"), Her Majesty expresses a traditional mindset more associated with the Britain of the 1950s:

"No member of the royal family will speak publicly about this... This is a private matter... We do things in this country quietly. With dignity... If you imagine that I'm going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren, then you're mistaken..."

Helen Mirren, interviewed in Saturday's Guardian, describes how her own anti-monarchist feelings had been softened by portraying the Queen in the film. She'd come to experience not so much understanding as love for her. Rather like Aleksandr Sokurov's recent film The Sun, which casts the Emperor Hirohito as some essentially sympathetic combination of Chance the Gardener from "Being There", Prince Myshkin from "The Idiot" and Robert Graves' Emperor Claudius, "The Queen" shows a character caught up in social changes she can't quite fathom.

"Something's happened, there's been a change, some shift in values," Elizabeth is pictured telling her mother. "When you no longer understand your people, maybe it is time to hand it over to the next generation." And to Blair, she confesses: "I prefer to keep my feelings to myself. Foolishly, I believed that was what the people wanted from their queen." Like Hirohito, she seems doomed, yet human.

And yet this story has an unexpected twist in the tail. As Mary Riddell says in today's Observer, it's now Tony "Focus Group" Blair who is universally hated and seen as out of touch with the public mood, largely because of the disaster of his attempts to impose Me Generation consumerist values on Middle Eastern societies he could understand only as "repressed" or "backward". His pseudo-liberal imperialist actions give Herbert Marcuse's term "repressive desublimation" a whole new dimension. "Repressive desublimation" has become an imperial tool, and in the light of this nightmare development the British Royal Family lines up, weirdly enough, with traditional Islamic culture as a valuable counterbalance; a reminder that society is not just about the "me", but about groups, obligations, duty, restraint, capitulation before central authorities, and so on. There's a parallel with the bushido values praised by Masahiko Fujiwara in "The Dignity of a State", the huge runaway non-fiction bestseller in Japan this year. No doubt Rupert Murdoch would be as down on that philosophy of stoicism as he is on the British royals.

"The Queen's horror, wonderfully conveyed by Mirren, was that she no longer knew her subjects," writes Mary Riddell. "She had believed them stoical, decorous and resilient, only to see them burying west London in Kleenex and carnations while baying for her presence or her blood. Elizabeth II may congratulate herself now on her long game. How lucky, she may think, that she has clung to the days when politicians, of all parties, observed protocol. One would not, for example, have caught Lord Salisbury promoting hoodie-hugging or wearing floral swimming shorts. Had she been swayed by the hysteria of 1997, she could have become a pretty regular kind of queen with a monogrammed coffee mug marked 'Liz'. How shrewd she must think herself to have shunned informality and change.... On the anniversary of Diana's death, few mourners scattered flowers at palace gates. The great, unprecedented, world-shifting surge of proxy grief had evaporated almost without trace."

That's the difference, perhaps, between 1997 and 2006. The century of the self is as dead as Diana. Let's try our list the other way around:

Out: Emotion, instinct, self-expression, atomization, immediate gratification, focus groups, marketing, psychoanalysis, the self, the now, extraversion.
In: Guilt, repression, class consciousness, elitism, traditional society, duty, restraint, decorum, bottling things up, deferred gratification, introversion.