Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Why cartoons are linked to human freedom

There is a very obvious reason why cartoons are inseparably linked to human freedom. And here I don’t mean the Walt Disney variety, or indeed any cartoon film, although they are clearly connected to “artistic freedom” insofar as one’s creativity sets the bounds for the imagination as source of the construction of such films. What I am writing about here is primarily the kind of cartoon that “cartoonists” like South Africa’s own Zapiro, for instance, use as a medium to reflect and comment on current events, usually in a satirical manner. And precisely because satire is often, if not always, involved, cartoons tend to tread on the toes of those in positions of power, because they are, for obvious reasons, usually at the receiving end of cartoonists’ cleverly witty (if sometimes scathing) art.

Even if satire is frequently the aim of cartoons, it is usually articulated, iconically (that is, by means of graphic images), in a humorous manner. As everyone should know, satire is inseparable from parody, or a mocking representation of someone or something in the context of events in which this person (or group) is/was involved. But make no mistake: the point of lampooning such people or their actions is a critical one, albeit graphically expressed in a humorous manner.

Hence, in the first place, the ability to produce such cartoons presupposes freedom of expression, which one should never take for granted. History is littered with countless instances where cartoons with satirical intent were (and still are) ruthlessly suppressed by autocratic regimes because the cartoons involved bathe(d) them in the light of ridicule and censure. And dictatorial governments, as well as dogmatic religious groups, do not take such criticism light-heartedly, even if it is phrased humorously – it is no accident that Sigmund Freud (Complete Works, Ivan Smith e-book, 2011, p. 1693) identified some jokes as being “hostile”, and linked this to satire. The violent manner in which a fundamentalist religious (“terrorist”) group attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year to avenge what they saw as a blasphemous cartoon depiction of a figure central to their religious beliefs is still fresh in our memories, and at the time I wrote a piece on the light that Umberto Eco has cast on the need to be able to “laugh at [vaunted] truth”.

Regardless of freedom of expression, therefore, which is the condition for cartoons of the satirical variety to see the light, as it were, there is another, less familiar sense in which they embody human freedom. This is the freedom to distance ourselves from all those things we sometimes take too seriously – forgetting that we are, after all, just finite, fallible beings without any absolutely certain knowledge – and laugh at ourselves, and at the very notion of TRUTH. This is what Eco (referred to above) teaches us in his novel, The Name of the Rose (1998).

A third sense of freedom that is connected with the ability to laugh at ourselves, whether in the form of jokes, or of cartoons as a special kind of (satirical) humour, comes into view through the lens of psychoanalysis. I would like to call this kind of freedom “the freedom of the unconscious”, given the fact that Freud, in his well-known book of 1905 on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, drew attention to the intimate links that bind one’s sense of humour (as expressed in jokes, but also in other instances of humour, which would include cartoons) with the unconscious. Take this observation, for instance (Freud, 2011, p. 1698): “A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously … ” This is the “freedom of the unconscious”, or the freedom that unconscious psychic mechanisms create for us by bringing together certain characteristics and attributes in a manner whose exaggerated proportions, or incongruities, have the effect of the comic or the humorous.

To be sure, a cartoon that paints a political figure or a corporation in the colours of ridicule or the ludicrous would run a serious risk, not merely of censure, but of downright persecution of the cartoonist, were it not for the democratic conventions of free speech and tolerance that make its circulation possible by removing the kind of “obstacles” referred to, above, by Freud. Nevertheless, even under conditions guaranteeing freedom of expression, people would probably think twice before they expressed hostile criticism, implicitly and figuratively embodied in a cartoon, in explicit speech or writing instead, if they had reason to assume that those with political power (who benefit from political correctness) would frown upon it.

It is here that the unconscious operates in a way that allows the criticism, however aggressive it might be, to be disguised in a humorously palatable manner. “The technique which is characteristic of jokes and peculiar to them … ”, says Freud (2011, p. 1721), “consists in their procedure for safeguarding the use of these methods of providing pleasure against the objections raised by criticism which would put an end to the pleasure”. The “methods” concerned are the mechanisms that Freud calls (by analogy with “the dream-work”) “the joke-work”, which function in jokes and, I would argue, in cartoons as well.

“The joke-work … ”, Freud remarks (p. 1721), “shows itself in a choice of verbal material and conceptual situations that will allow the old play with words and thoughts to withstand the scrutiny of criticism; and with that end in view every peculiarity of vocabulary and every combination of thought-sequences must be exploited in the most ingenious possible way”. Obviously, whereas jokes – which Freud is referring to here – are expressed in spoken or written language, cartoons are graphic.

Hence the “joke-work”, which functions unconsciously, according to Freud, and therefore the “verbal material” and “conceptual situations” made use of in jokes may be said to have their graphic counterparts in cartoons, in graphic techniques such as exaggeration and distortion, or incongruous juxtaposition of objects, for instance. Think of the exaggerated noses or lips, or the distorted skulls or upper bodies, and their juxtaposition or fusion with things and objects such as hyenas and shower-heads, of political figures which appear in cartoons, where such graphic techniques have the function of making someone appear comical, grotesque or ludicrous, as the case may be.

To be able to comprehend the “joke-work” (and analogously, the “cartoon-work”) as a product of the unconscious, one has to take note of what Freud meant by the “dream-work” that unconsciously produces dreams. In his The Interpretation of Dreams of 1900 he argued that dreams display two kinds of “content”, namely the “manifest content” (what one recalls about the dream) and the “latent content” (the psychical structures or “meaning” hidden by the manifest content), which may be uncovered through the technique of dream-interpretation. The “dream-work” is simply the name Freud gave to the psychical processes responsible for transforming latent “dream-thoughts” into manifest dreams.

Crucially, while the dream-thoughts are usually the “leftovers” from the day’s conscious mental activity, these thoughts are harnessed into a dream by a “wish” – a repressed, unconscious desire – by means of unconscious dream-techniques such as condensation and displacement (for instance, a series of confusing experiences may reappear in the dream condensed into the image of a tangled forest). This, he argued, is necessary because the repressed wish is “repressed” in the first place because it conflicts with accepted social norms. Hence, because one cannot face it at a conscious level, it “uses” dream-thoughts in a disguised manner to construct an oneiric “wish-fulfilment”. And in dreams the unconscious gives us the “freedom” to enjoy this fulfilment of a repressed (that is, socially censored) wish.

Transposing this explanation of the features of dreams to those of cartoons, one might say that the graphic techniques used by cartoonists come together under the “direction” of the unconscious to produce a specific cartoon. Cartoonists I have spoken to have said that the visual idea of a specific, event-rooted cartoon comes to them in a flash, with the configuration of elements (figures and objects) already in place, and their graphic work consists in drawing and refining it. Just as the dream-work allows one to enjoy a wish-fulfilment in a disguised form, so a cartoon allows one to express criticism in a similarly disguised form. And the unconscious grants us that freedom.

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