Jokes and the unconscious

It is often said that humour has an important function in society, that satire plays a significant role in politics, that humour helps in transmitting thoughts that in other ways would be difficult or impossible to say. That there is always an element of truth in a joke. Even that comedy plays a moral role in society …

Ken Dodd would say that jokes are simply about pleasure. But what was interesting to Freud was the idea that there is something in the structure of jokes that reflect the structure of language and the unconscious.

Duck goes into the chemist’s shop.
‘A tube of lipsol please.’
‘Certainly, that will be fifty pence.’
‘Put it on my bill, please.’ – (Les Dawson)

A semiotician would say that the pleasure comes from the play of signifiers themselves, the process by which they attach and become detached from the signified, that there is a pleasure we enjoy from language itself.

Displacement; replacing one meaning of a word with another meaning of the same word is one of the main functions of jokes, because words, according to psychoanalysis, are overdetermined, i.e. that one word can mean many different things, and both jokes and the unconscious allow signifiers to slide.

But there are also condensations of signifiers to form metaphors, and displacements and condensations of ideas such as habitat, economy, language, social etiquette all play a part in jokes, which reveal structures of language itself.

Jokes can also erupt from a repressed part of the unconscious and Freud devotes a sizeable section of his book ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’ to smutty jokes and sexual innuendo to show how repression functions as a release within language, speech and the unconscious.

Jewish jokes also feature in Freud’s book and one that he and Lacan refer back to a number of times is this one:

A couple of men are talking to each other and one of them says “I am going to Cracow”. And the other replies – “Why are you telling me you are going to Cracow? You are telling me that to make me believe that you are going somewhere else”.

This joke plays on a certain structure of our speech, where we never directly send the message, but conceal it within a decoy. A bit like when someone says to you, I’m going to be completely honest with you … you can be sure that they will be concealing the main point!

“What the subject tells me is always fundamentally related to a possible feint, in which he sends me, and I receive, the message in an inverted form.” Lacan Seminar III


Until our last breath

This morning I was reading in the Guardian an interview with the writer, journalist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich on her latest book Natural Causes, which appears to be a critique (with ‘a very keen bullshit detector’) of the ‘scrambling for new things that might prolong’ our lives.

There was something refreshing about her dismissal of the ‘wellness’ industry (what she calls a ‘middle-class signifier). Ehrenreich’s [politics of the body] came with her insight that our cells didn’t respond as if in a communist dictatorship but that there are rebels, that cancer was a cellular rebellion. That in nature, even the cell has agency. It seems that at the age of 76, the idea that a cell has it’s own mind made the idea of death fine for her.

The problem with the idea of a dying from natural causes is that it relies on the idea of nature as a concept outside of the human experience, and when you start to think about it, nature is a human construct. Ehrenreich’s concept of the body as a political organisation in itself shows how culture and politics colonise our body and the unconscious. The dilemma that faces us, is that there are policies that we can adopt to direct our cells, get off a stop early and walk a little bit further, eat less sugar etc, but then there will always be that unknown pocket of rebellion.

We don’t talk about death very much, perhaps because in essence it is impossible to talk about. Why did Freud talk about the death drive? It is in fact the other side of the life drive and my experience about being around people who are dying is that they are as full of drive and desire as others who are, not knowingly at least, so close to death. In a way the death drive is the need/demand we feel for controlling death. And this was the thought that I was left with from reading the interview with Ehrenreich. Perhaps the fear is not the moment of death itself, but the fear that we will always be be captured between drive and desire until our last breath.

The Semiotics of the Crucifixion

One of the frustrations faced by an atheist – is that in the act of negating the existence of God, one somehow acknowledges in a certain kind of way the existence of God. Somehow atheism seems to end up as a Christian argument which is why a book like the God Delusion can end up reading like a biblical treaties.

The crucifixion of Christ is seen by some as the idea that God killed off a part of himself, his son, in order to free his followers from the idea of an all powerful creator in the sky – the staging of his own death on the cross so that the Holy Spirit is left as a kind of remainder to act as a social bond amongst his believers. An intervention or cut into the Real, leaving the existence of God in the form of language in the registers of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary.

This symbolic/real staging can easily be overlooked by atheists/pragmatists who often fail to recognise their own attachment to the discourse of science where science, like any discourse, relies on the assumption that both it and nature are constructs of language and semiotics, an assumption that is rarely put in question by the pragmatist.


Lying and Truth

The difference between the language of humans and animals, is that humans have the capacity to lie. In fact our whole communication is based on lies. We give a good face, edit our images, speak our beliefs knowing that they can only, by the very nature of truth function, be partially true, and knowing that the Other is also lying to us. The machines and apps and algorithms will never be really effective until they find the capacity of language based on the function of lying. But lying is very complex, involving truth.


Will Self came to talk in our psychoanalytic seminar last Saturday. The subject was Trump and the media. Self started by reading from a piece that he wrote in 2014 about ‘Fatbergs’ – those huge balls weighing tons that role around in the sewers under our feet, consisting of fat, shit and wet wipes. Alongside Fatbergs, Self elaborated on the theme of his self-named ‘Bidirectional Digital Media’, the idea that the internet allows a two way flow of self expression. The pipeline between the two ideas flowed freely throughout the talk.

For Self the Fatbergs are the big balls like Trump, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Corbyn but also “YOU!”, as he pointed to a room full of psychoanalysts. “What’s wrong with you, you weirdos, don’t you laugh!” … “I mean you’re all Freudians, you know all about the anal stage, wiping your bottom with wet wipes…. hahaha!”

Apparently Self’s mother was in psychoanalysis whilst she was pregnant with him and went ahead with the pregnancy because of her analysis – so he joked that maybe he owes his life to psychoanalysis … but that is where his belief in the psychoanalytic theory ends. He spent a short period in analysis with a ‘very famous analyst’ but complained that if he was to talk about his sex life, he wanted to know the sex life of his analyst … that he didn’t just want the shiny mirror held up to him. It was pointed out that the idea of the reflective mirror went out about 70 years ago, and someone else said that it sounds like he wanted an analyst a little like Trump himself. Another person pointed out that he knew a certain amount about psychoanalysis but he clearly didn’t understand some important points, but it seemed like he wasn’t interested in a bidirectional discourse.

His Bidirectional Digital Media had fired off in the middle of his reading his own piece from 2014 directly off the mobile device – “Oh … sorry … that’s my daughter …”

Self looked super suave as he swung his scarf around his neck and placed his hat on his head and left the room saying “goodbye … and I love you very much!” [despite your weirdness?]

On the tube this morning

I was on the tube this morning thinking about Stephen Hawking in heaven and (assuming that he was able to take his voice [as with everyone’s voice a partial object] with him) that he might be having a conversation with William Shakespeare. Would the language of black hole and string theory end up in iambic pentameter? Speech being the letter containing the message which always arrives at its destination, even though the message is only ever partially understood.

International Women’s Day : Orlando


For International Women’s day today I’m thinking about gender and transgender and the extraordinary Virginia Woolf. Her romp of a novel “Orlando” explores time and gender. Her main protagonist, Orlando, starts off in Elizabethan England as a boy and transforms one night during the reign of Charles II in Constantinople into a woman and ends up in the following moment getting into a car in London in 1928. I think that for Woolf time was vertical as well as horizontal and she implies in this paragraph that somehow the more a person could embrace the whole of their lived time the more successful a “practitioner in the art of life” one could be (it’s all quite tongue in cheek):

“That Orlando had gone a little too far from the present moment will, perhaps, strike the reader who sees her now preparing to get into her motor-car with her eyes full of tears and visions of Persian mountains. And Indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronise the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of these we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life, others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty six. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business – this time-keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts; and it may have been her love of poetry that was to blame for making Orlando lose her shopping list and start home without sardines, the bath salts, or the boots. Now as she stood with her hand on the door of her motor-car, the present again struck her on the head. Eleven times she was violently assaulted.”

The internal logic from beginning to end

ONE of the many things that I value about reading the complete works of Freud Standard Edition volumes 1 – 24, which I completed a couple of weeks ago, was the time I spent alone with the physical books, faithful to a line of thought, to the internal logic of an author, saved from the distractions of social media, news stories and gossip.

Yesterday I was reading Lacan’s Seminar on Freud’s Technical Papers and with a pencil in hand underlining significant words and phrases and writing notes in the margin – I find myself more engaged with the text in this way, but I was wondering how differently I might read it the next time around – perhaps in a few months or years I will be more interested by the words that I have left unmarked …

 Version 2

‘Truth emerges from the mistake’

‘Augustine’s main objection to the inclusion of the domain of truth within the domain of signs is, he says, that very often subjects say things which go much further than what they think, and that they are even capable of owning the truth while not adhering to it. The Epicurean who maintains that the soul is mortal quotes his opponents’ arguments so as to refute them. But those who have their eyes open can see that that is the true speech, and recognise that the soul is immortal.’

Jacques Lacan Freud’s Papers on Technique

The ‘nearest to truth’

Virginia Woolf once wrote that music was “nearest to truth” and in a famous letter of 1940, Woolf wrote that ‘I always think of my books as music before I write them’.

Music may go beyond or precede the explicit meaning of words, but it is still a language in the same way that the unconscious is a language; that they are both structured like a language, both function on different registers at the same time, and have their own unique relationship to topological space, duration and time.

In her 1925 novel ‘A Simple Melody’, Woolf alludes to the correlation between music and psychic space:

“Mr Carslake, at least, thought it very beautiful because, as he stood in the corner where he could see it, it had the power to compose and tranquillise his mind. It seemed to him to bring the rest of his emotions – and how scattered and jumbled they were at a party like this! – into proportion. It was as if a fiddler were playing a perfectly quiet old English song while people gambled and tumbled and swore, picked pockets, rescued the drowning, and did astonishing – but quite unnecessary – feats of skill. He was unable to perform himself.”

… that music had the power to (re)compose and tranquillise his mind, to reform the structure of his thoughts, that this simple melody had an internal logic and proportion; a sense of truth, unperturbed by its jumbled and scattered surroundings.

I imagine this as a possible evocation of Woolf’s own internal world (innenwelt) – and her unconscious phantasy that somewhere there would be a place in a corner in her thoughts where she could be content with a simple melody. Like so many creative people, the Real is sometimes too vivid, too overwhelming to render it simple and normal for the everyday.