Today, I was standing by the sofa, watching my two nephews as they played videogames. Far from being a solitary activity, the video gaming of my nephews is a social event. They play at the same time, telling each other about their virtual achievements and use the time to chat and joke with each other. The younger of my nephews, M., is six, while the older, N., is seven.
Now, while they were playing, the younger boy, M., asked his older brother, N., what he thought was an ‘unanswerable’ question. He asked him something like “What is ten plus ten plus ten plus ten plus ten plus ten…etc.” This habit of his, of asking a ridiculously long problem of addition, is something I have noted on numerous occasions. The question is, why is the young boy constructing such ‘unanswerable’ questions which he poses to his older brother?
I believe that by posing his ridiculous addition problems, the boy is parodying the power/knowledge coupling. It is adults that ask children questions to which they do not always know the answer. The boy is trying to move into the position of authority and knowledge and power by becoming the adult that asks the question. Not only this, but a crucial aspect of the role play is to gain authority by posing an ‘unanswerable’ question. When his older brother guessed that the answer to his question was 130, the child immediately and defensively said this wasn’t the answer. The guess was puncturing the fantasy of authority and power and knowledge. It is worth noting that the role playing game has a particular target – the older brother. The younger boy is trying to dominate the older one, the stronger and more intelligent of the two, through his fantasy. The fantasy therefore appears to be rooted in a feeling of inadequacy, of lack of knowledge, power and authority.
The younger boy’s fantastic game, which is a parody of the questioner and of the subject of mathematics, exaggerates the respective positions of those involved. Hence the necessity that the question be ‘unanswerable’: there has to be one that has the awesome total knowledge of that which is unknowable and incomprehensible, while there has to be the symbolic obliteration of the ignorant and insignificant other through the power/knowledge/authority axis. The purpose of the game is to create confusion in the mind of the other – one could go further and see it as a strategy of transferring anxiety from one child to another. The symbolic role that the child takes on is that of ‘the trickster’, which should be familiar to any readers of Jung. The game is also directed at the self, even though it involves the other player. Hence the child’s surprise when his brother gave him the answer to the ‘unanswerable’ question – the proper response is supposed to be silence, or an admission of ignorance, not a number.