novembre 18, 2018

Love and Hate for Democracy: Not Without Humour

Democracy may soon be history. The refugees instruct us about the state of our world. This may be one of the meanings in which Lacan’s statement “only the deported take part in history”[1], can be taken. The words of refugees who speak about their experiences as deported human beings, give us the history that is our future.

In the year in which Germany is marking the 100th anniversary of its first democracy’s beginning, the Weimar Republic, we are reminded that it did not last very long. As one refugee, in Bertholt Brecht’s satire “Flüchtlingsgespräche”, says to the other, while insisting on the fact that ‘democratic’ is altogether a look, associated with looking well fed and generally solid somehow: “Germany looked absolutely democratic, until it looked fascistic…”. Democratic is a quality here, a look, something with the air of being trustworthy, but this air is precisely that. The air changes, sometimes without much ado. Elsewhere, one of the two remarks that “it is unbearable to live in a country that has no humour, but not as unbearable as living in a country where one needs to have humour”.[2]

Gallows humour, described by Freud in 1927[3] and distinguished from the Witz, is common to the best writings about being displaced. Hannah Arendt, in her essay “We Refugees”[4] speaks with the greatest irony about the impossibilities of the refugee in their new environment. The gap between being human, being a human being, and the passport is often evoked. The same sentiment appears in Brecht’s text as the rumination of one of the protagonists. He muses that “[T]he passport is the most noble part of a human being. It does not get made as easily as a human being. […] In return a passport is recognised when it is valid, while a human being can be as valid as he wants and still not be recognised”. Brecht’s satire ends with a reassuring human trait, that of lethargy, mocking the (inhuman) industriousness of the other: “The world is full of insane demands and impositions. We need a world in which one gets by on a minimum of intelligence, courage, patriotism, feelings of honour, sense of justice, etc., and what do we have? I tell you […] I am sick of all virtues, and I refuse to be a hero.”[5]

In the absence of democracy, the demands of the super ego increase exponentially, and the humanity of our symptoms is refused.

The recent increase in neo-nazi marches and related events, together with the seats in parliament gained by the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), is well documented and commented on in Germany. The editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) Bertholt Kohler, therefore employed satire to comment on the AfDs second in command, Herr Gauland’s remarks about the events in Chemnitz. Gauland feigned understanding for people being incensed, furious and ready for violence after the knife killing of a man in the streets of Chemnitz, allegedly perpetrated by young immigrants. Kohler’s satire makes this understanding extend to all rage and aggression in the German population, using Gauland’s term “ausrasten” (flipping out). The German needs it every once in a while. One is reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s dictator and his absurd irruptions of hate speeches.

Nazis and fascists are nothing new. In the last few years their context has changed though, due to the weakening symbolic structures and institutions that underpinned our European democracies, which are more and more making way for the horizontalisation of influences that our new technologies so easily disseminate. There used to be one extreme right political party, the NPD, which often achieved less than one per cent of votes in general elections, and was not banned for its insignificance. We now have European wide international movements and a political party, the AfD, which, although also under investigation for its anti-constitutional rhetoric[6], has 94 delegates in the Bundestag having achieved 12.6 per cent of the vote, being the third largest party in Germany.

And every Friday evening, their activist arm that is organised as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) and some other groupings such as Pro-Chemnitz, gather to march through the city centre of said little eastern town, putting fear into people’s minds and shouting the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people). Its satiric uptake is the counter slogan “Wirr ist das Volk” (Confused are the people), pointing out the nonsense in the idea that “das Volk” is a term reserved for some and not for others.

So confused are the people that they stage fake people, disguised as real people, in order to deliver their message. This takes comic character in a newspaper report, of a woman who poses as a “concerned citizen”[7], disguised in ordinary clothing, speaking on video about her fears about the foreigners in our midst, and the safety of her children. The newspaper discovers this woman to be a prominent member of several extreme right groupings, appearing in photos in which Nazi symbols are present, which she also sports on her usual clothing.

Freud’s neighbour is the prime example of the difficulty of living with others whose intentions are suspect. “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self destruction.[8]

What Lacan isolated as the passions, love, hate, and ignorance,[9] thrive in the failure of democracy, coinciding with unlimited expectations[10] and the “instinct of aggression and self destruction” – in face of which one needs to have humour.

Natalie Wülfing

[1] Lacan, Jacques, Joyce le symptôme, Autres écrits, Seuil, Paris, 2001, p.568

[2] Brecht, Bertholt, Refugee Conversations, not available in English translation. Posthumously published in 1961, written in 1949, after Brecht returned to Germany from exile, “Flüchtlingsgespräche” depicts two Germans from different strands of life, discussing life and politics, while refugees in Helsinki in the early 1940s.

[3] Freud, S., Humour, SE vol. XXI

[4] Arendt, Hannah, We Refugees, online:

[5] Brecht, op.cit.



[8] Freud, Sigmund, Civilisation and its Discontents, SE vol. XXI, p. 145

[9] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book I, edited by J-A Miller, transl. J. Forrester, Cambridge Press, 1988, p. 271

[10] Bauman, Zygmunt, Strangers at Our Door, Polity, Cambridge, 2016