woolly bully

Thus spake this year’s Nobel and Y2K’s Ig Nobel Prize laureate in Physics Andre Geim: “Instant information about everything and everyone often allows an individual opinion to compete with consensus and paranoia with evidence. It is a time when one blunt honest statement can finish a life-long political career, and one opinionated journalist can bully a government or a royal family. […] And we sink deeper and deeper from democracy into a state of mediocrity and even idiocracy.”

Geim is on record taking the side of the Chinese government against fellow Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, even as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s office has been heard from nominating Julian Assange for the next Nobel Peace Prize. It remains that one man’s valiant dissident is another man’s cyberbully. Perhaps at 52, bound to evidence by his profession in the natural sciences, the inventor of graphene should not be faulted for identifying with an oppressive consensus. But there is no shortage of reasons to prefer a digital conduit of individual paranoid discontent to the dagger of a François Ravaillac, the infernal machine of an Ignacy Hryniewiecki, the Browning of a Gavrilo Princip or the Carcano of a Lee Harvey Oswald. Our tutelary champion of a new kind of “scientific journalism”, Assange is the only Voltaire we need and deserve for the XXIst Century. We can only hope that neither our Maximilien Robespierre nor our Napoléon Bonaparte will be long in coming.

4. terror and virtue

Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force.’ This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization.

— Sigismund Schlomo Freud, 6 May 185623 September 1939,  
Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929[0]  

In 1905, at the height of his renown as the creator of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud published a deceptively slight volume on the clandestine nature of jokes. According to Freud, jokes employ the methods of condensation, displacement, and indirect representation through allusion, absurdity, and substitution of trivialities for matters of profound importance, in the service of man’s repressed instinctual nature, epitomized in the instincts of sex and aggression. These instincts serve as the wellspring of all wit. In civilized society, they seldom wield direct influence over human affairs. Only owing to a momentary suspension of salubrious repressions that constrain them in the service of the super-ego, do sexuality and aggression enter into collective consciousness. Thus jokes enable the brief pleasure in discharging the energy of the anticathexis responsible for maintaining these repressions.
    The nature of this discharge is best illuminated by example:[1]

Itzig ist zur Artillerie eingeteilt worden. Er ist offenbar ein intelligenter Bursche, aber ungeschickt und ohne Interesse für den Dienst. Einer seiner Vorgesetzten, der ihm wohlgesinnt ist, nimmt ihn beiseite und sagt ihm: «Itzig, du taugst nicht bei uns. Ich will dir einen Rat geben: Kauf dir eine Kanone und mach dichselbständig.» Itzig has been declared fit for service in the artillery. He was clearly an intelligent lad, but intractable and without any interest in the service. One of his superior officers, who was friendlily disposed to him, took him on one side and said to him: “Itzig, you’re no use to us. I’ll give you a piece of advice: buy yourself a cannon and make yourself independent!”

Freud goes to some trouble to explain the joke. The advice, says he, is obvious nonsense. Cannons are not to be bought and an individual cannot make himself independent as a military unit — set himself up in business, as it were. But in so far as the advice is not mere nonsense, but a joking nonsense, it merits scrutiny of the means whereby the nonsense is turned into a joke. And here Freud infers that “[t]he officer who gives Artilleryman Itzig this nonsensical advice is only making himself out stupid to show Itzig how stupidly he himself is behaving. He is copying Itzig: ‘I’ll give you some advice that’s as stupid as you are.’ He enters into Itzig stupidity and makes it clear to him by taking it as the basis of a suggestion which would fit in with Itzig wishes: if Itzig possessed a cannon of his own and carried out military duties on his own account, how useful his ambition and intelligence would be to him! In what good order he would keep his cannon and how familiar he would make himself with its mechanism so as to meet the competition of the other possessors of cannons!”
    In this hasty reading, Freud seems disingenuous in decrying Itzig’s stupidity. After all, his underachieving artillerist hero, denied the opportunity to make a snappy comeback, shares his name with the quick-witted protagonist of Freud’s favorite joke: “Itzig, wohin reit’st Du?” “Weiss ich, frag das Pferd.” That other Itzig has no idea where he is riding to. All interested parties should ask the horse. In a hallowed equation, his self-deprecation compensates for his complacency. As an admirer of this tranquil rider, the physician who built his worldview on a painstaking investigation of ostensible coincidences is unlikely to have overlooked this instance of homonymy. The implication of Freud planting his tongue in cheek is borne out by the fact that the butts of each joke derive their shared name from an aphaeresis omitting the first letter of the German word Witzig, witty or jocular.[2] Through the silence of its protagonist, the joke evinces an elusive quality that resists interpretative closure, suggesting great deeds to come from this intelligent but intractable Jewish underachiever. Be it real or feigned, Freud’s confidence in the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force already rang hollow upon publication in 1905. The reluctant artillerist had come into his own. His self-employment inaugurated a new stage in democratic pluralism. No longer will this plebe be meekly carried along by the steed of History. Continue reading 4. terror and virtue