A few weeks ago, a team of BBC documentary film-makers working with David Attenborough were caught on camera helping some penguins escape imminent death.[1] But some people, seeing this, were outraged: who were these technical experts who dared to ‘play God’? There was a heated flurry of communications in the public domain. Letters were written to newspapers, tweets were tweeted, statements from senior managers were issued. It made the front-page news. The symbolic structures and institutions that have underpinned our democracy, already weakened over past decades, are now regularly the target of these more overt attacks, which aim not merely to level the playing field but to subvert the hierarchy and bring specialists and experts down into a position where they can be lectured to by any miserable member of society tweeting in the night.

One humorous moment in this distressing fiasco was a cartoon printed on the front page of the Daily Telegraph newspaper (20 Nov 2018), which gave pleasure on a number of levels, not least because this newspaper is well-known for its energetic support for Brexit.

We are living in a time that needs humour, writes Natalie Wülfing,[2] and thanks to Freud we know that humour comes in different forms.[3] The joker can invite the listener to form a horizontal bond in order to extract pleasure from objectifying a third party, the butt of the joke. Another kind of humour, however, manages to divide the subject and we end up laughing at ourselves. By inviting us to identify with penguins and laugh at the humans in Britain is one way of taking the joke, but there is also the ice and snow to identify with, and this hits a lower note, resonating deeper and longer. If humans really did take seriously the idea of ‘not interfering in nature’, then why has our lifestyle, our form of capitalism, caused the ice to melt at a catastrophic rate?

Lacan’s analysis of jokes in Seminar 7 asks another question about humour.[4] In the session “Love of One’s Neighbour” (20 March 1960), he contrasts the fool with the knave. “The fool is an innocent, a simpleton, but truths issue from his mouth that are not simply tolerated but adopted… The knave … is, to be precise, what Stendhal called an ‘unmitigated scoundrel’” (p. 183). Jacques-Alain Miller draws out the point as it relates to contemporary politics. The left-winger can find himself laughing in the place of the fool[5], the right-winger from the position of the knave. “The fool is the one who speaks the truth, who says … that what it is really about is a distribution of surplus jouissance. But he is the fool at the level of consequences, in other words he doesn’t want to deal with them… The fool plays at being the angel.”

While British politicians continue to drown themselves in the oil slick of Brexit, David Attenborough was at the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland – COP 24, 2 December 2018 (a few days after the cartoon was published), talking (from the position of ‘The People’s Chair’) about the ‘man-made disaster on a global scale’.[6] On YouTube, Cambridge Professor Peter Wadhams can be found regularly speaking about the need to focus all our attention on sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and finding somewhere safe to bury it. In his book A Farewell to Ice[7] he tells us about his long career measuring ice at the poles of the earth and about the gigantic loss of ice he has witnessed since 1970. We have masters displaced to the edges, fools and knaves in Parliament, and the rest of us are caught up as willing slaves to the discourse of capitalism: an eternal, twisted loop, like a drive belt on a machine, with the divided subject ($) in the place of the agent. $, thinking himself ‘lacking’, responds to the S1 which whispers up from below: ‘buy, buy’. $ obeys, buys big cars, second houses, bigger fridges… ultimately throwing them all away to make room for the next item, producing waste on a massive scale that itself becomes toxic. What is designated with object a – on the one hand the obscure object of desire, on the other, trash – is a way of representing the unrepresentable, of reminding us of the real. The increased levels of CO2 are coming from the ‘developed world’. Continually seeking absolute satisfaction, we produce C02, which melts the ice, causes droughts and flooding, displaces peoples, sparks wars, and so on.[8]

In the TV drama Brexit, the Uncivil War, by James Graham[9], we see Benedict Cumberbatch playing Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings. Benedict is already famous for playing social misfits Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing, but today’s misfit (Dominic Cummings) may be brilliant enough and bullish enough to cut through the bullshit of political inertia, but his cleverness, unlike that of Turing and Holmes, cannot save the world from toxic spillage, it can only add to it. The movie begins by telling us that Cummings’ father worked in the oil industry, and we see Dominic being disturbed by something he can hear but that no one else can. Dominic says ‘the earth is groaning’, and he says that it is the sound of Britain moaning; he frames and fans the flames of the underlying resentments to be found in the indigenous population of Middle England[10] thinking of it as a natural resource that is building up ‘beneath the surface’, and that can be tapped, extracted, exploited (but with what clever turbine? and through which grid will it be transmitted to warm the cockles of the country’s heart? this has not yet been invented). He interprets these noises as the sound of the fossils buried deep within the earth, moaning and shifting, and waiting to be tapped. He did just that on 23 June 2016, even while knowing perfectly well that the machinery of the UK referendum was the crudest kind.

It was while reading Peter Wadhams’ book that I was reminded of the disaster that befell the Deepwater Horizon rig, a BP project to tap into oil off the Louisiana coast. There is a rather good film about that, directed by Peter Berg (2016), which also had a reference to the fossils, the dinosaurs beneath the earth. The hero’s daughter likens the oil to dragons buried deep beneath the surface, dragons whose anger can and did indeed erupt, causing disaster.

In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud wondered whether our cultural inventions would succeed in allowing us to master the disturbances we suffer as a result of communal life. He was speaking about that daily renewable energy whose source lies within each and every one of us – the drive and its tendency towards aggression and self-destruction.[11] As the population of the world continues to increase exponentially, and as the changes in climate lead large numbers of people to move away from danger and towards other centres of civilisation, the structures that currently ‘displace’ this energy will come under increasing stress.

[1] See for example, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/stop-shooting-penguin-dies-dynasties-tricky-ethics-documentary/  Cartoon appeared on the front page on 20 November 2018.

[2] http://www.forumeuropeomilano.org/love-and-hate-for-democracy-not-without-humour/#_ftnref5

[3] Freud, S., Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), SE8.

[4] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis tr. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992, pp. 182-4.

[5] Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Psychoanalysis, the city and communities’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks No. 24 (2012): p. 15.

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46398057

[7] Wadhams, P., A Farewell To Ice, Penguin, (2016)

[8] There are some excellent films that present the argument, see for example Michael P. Nash’s film, Climate Refugees, 2010, Al Gore’s films An Inconvenient Truth and its Sequel (2006 and 2017), or Charles Ferguson’s Time to Choose (2015).

[9] Brexit, The Uncivil War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rory Kinnear, written by James Graham, directed by Toby Haynes, and first screened on Channel 4, UK, Monday 7 January 2019.

[10] Jonathan Coe, Middle England, Penguin Viking, 2018.

[11] Freud, S., “Civilization and its Discontents” (1930), SE21, p. 145.