Saturday, August 06, 2005

On Bloopers and Free Will

A friend of mine passed on a piece from the International Herald Tribune called "Confessions of a Blooper Snooper." Its pretty interesting and has this succulent morsel from a student essay:
Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.
This got me thinking about malapropisms. At the time and for the life of me, I couldn't remember the playwrite of "The Rivals" until the author of the blooper piece reminded me that it was Sheridan. (I remember seeing this play 30 years ago in a production at the Folger. Excellent.)

Bloopers are interesting on a number of levels. In the first place, they frequently point to a truth that no amount of vitriolic ranting (the kind we engage in with blogs) can drive home. It is almost as if the humor of a phrase ungirdles the mind from what flows beneath. Within hours of the space shuttle Challanger's fatal flight, their were jokes circulating relating to the disaster. While these are not bloopers per se, they serve do allow expression of underlying feelings that more formal discourse inhibits or even forbids.

(Actually, in thinking about it, humorous blogs such as TBogg and Billmon are frequently more acute in their observations than the straight blogs like Eschaton and Kos.)

This whole area of underlying feelings is rather fascinating. We are so inundated with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) that people tend to forget about the subconscious. This may be because that champion of the SC, Sigmund Freud, is no longer in ascendancy. I was recently in Vienna and visited the Freud museum.
I guess I hadn't realized what lay behind his work of 100 years ago until I visited this museum. He had a number of interests other than the psychoanalysis for which he is famous. He had an avid interest in the artifacts of ancient civilizations including totems and statues. Mirriam Webster defines totem as:
an object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry; also : a usually carved or painted representation of such an object

I think that Freud's colleague and later antagonist, Karl Jung, was really into this, the idea that humans carry emotional baggage that is below the surface.

Most of us, particularly in America with our hyperreflexive concept of personal autonomy, will tend to deny that things we do are in any way dependent on a subconscious. Our entire legal system is based on the idea of free will and personal responsability. Free Will assumes that all decisions are the product of conscious, rational thought. Yet the evidence that we do not make decisions based on rationality is all around us. Indeed, one of the most common defenses in serious criminal cases is "insanity," whatever that means these days.

Freud was a fairly good teacher, if a little pompous. He delivered a series of lectures to medical students in 1919 which was collected in his book "Introduction to Psychoanalysis."
Right up front, long before the dreams, is his exposition of bloopers. Of course we now call them "Freudian Slips." But, we need to recognize that it is not merely serendipity that has someone substitute 'circumcise' for 'circumnavigate.' It was most certainly a male who did this (females usually don't say 'circumcise,' it is a taboo word; taboo is a whole area in itself that relates to the subconscious that we will go to some day). And this is a male who knows what the word 'circumcise' means. And the word 'circumcise' is one of the most frightening words in the whole, round, circumnavigatable world for a male, right up there with 'castrate.'

Freud spent a lot of time expounding on what Freudian slips told us about the subconscious. The problem for most of is that, while his theory is quite rational, the explanation is constructed out of whole cloth. We just don't know at all what goes on in the subconscious (those that believe in Free Will might even go so far as to say that we don't have a subconscious.) Said in another way, the scientific method cannot be applied to Freud's theory because there is no way to do a controlled experiment. It is based on explanations that seemed rational to Freud (and others).

But of course Freud was a product of his subconscious also. And within this subconscious was his entire childhood (I won't go there) and, if you believe Jung, many ingrained human memes. This gets into very dicey evolutionary theory. To say that a subconscious meme such as fear of castration results in the construction of totems (a la Jung), results in 'circumcised' vs 'circumnavigated' (a la Freud), and gets implanted in the human consciousness through natural selection (males who are castrated can't reproduce) is a tall order. And to go further and to postulate that Freud's theory itself was the product of a subconscious fear of castration that was evolutionarily selected stretches the imagination.

But, it could be true, I guess.

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