Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


A Conversation with Mario Perniola
by Sergio Benvenuto and Cristiana Cimino,  
in ”Journal of European Psychoanalysi. Humanities, Philosophy, Psychotherapies”
Number 24 – 2007 Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

JEP question: ”How did your interest in psychoanalysis arise?”

Mario Perniola: Psychoanalysis came into my life-long before it entered my philosophical and aesthetical thought-due to two volumes I came across in my father`s library, two volumes that marked my adolescence. The first of these was La psicoanalisi by Enzo Bonaventura, published by Mondadori in 1938: it was a red hardback edition that was part of a collection of scientific works. The second was the first italian edition of Freud`s The Interpretation of Dreams, published by Astrolabio in 1952. I later wondered why Mondadori published Bonaventura`s book at the time of italian racist legislation, discriminating against the Jews. That same year Bonaventura emigrated to Jerusalem, where he died in 1952. My father, who had a scientific background, was extremely interested in psychoanalysis and was in correspondence with Emilio Servadio-one of the founders of italian psychoanalysis-discussing the interpretation of dreams.
These two books, which I read between the ages of 12 andROM had a deep impact on my formation, equal only to that of the Iliad. From Bonaventura`s book I drew my mental asset focused on sexuality and psychopathology, one that has accompanied me throughout my life; from the latter work, I can trace back my extreme attention to the oneiric world, something that quickly led to my interest in Surrealism and which makes up my primary source of inspiration. I was very surprised, therefore, when I recently met a set of people for whom sexuality has no importance and more surprised still when I recently found out that there actually exists a sort of association of people who call themselves ”asexual” and who want social recognition, so to speak. While, as far as Surrealism is concerned, my delusion came about very early on, dating back to the foundation of the ”Gruppo 63”, the Association of italian avant-garde artists and writers in the 60s. The birth of an avant-garde that did not consider itself the heir of Surrealism, even indirectly, was something that shocked me somewhat. After many years I finally read that Roger Bastide couldn`t wait to go back to sleep to take up again the dreams interrupted when he had to wake up in the morning. I`d like to be like Bastide, but unfortunately I`m distracted by my philosophical and aesthetical work.

Sergio Benvenuto: ”So what aspects of psychoanalytical thought have particularly influenced your philosophical work?”

M.P. Psychoanalysis represents a constant point of reference in my work. However, there have been two periods when I`ve studied it more systematically. The first in the 70s, focusing on Freud and his school; the second in the 90s, focusing on Lacan.
My theoretical starting point is the question of opposites and their relation. This is where the decisive choice between a thought of conciliation and one of conflict comes into play. If one takes the former path one takes the Neo-Platonic stance and sides with Jung. For several reasons I`ve always been a stranger to this current, which has had such an influence on contemporary italian thinking. I`m a stranger to it, first of all because of my philosophical background: my teachers at the University of Turin, the philosophers Nicola Abbagnano and Luigi Pareyson, were resolute in their stance against the line of thought of harmonizing opposites. The former`s entire History of Philosophy is an argument against Neo-Platonism and its 19th-20th century spiritual heritage. While the latter was a leading spokesman of a tragic thought that brings conflict even within God.
Secondly, in the 60s and 70s Western society was pervaded by a conflictual fever that solicited a new theoretical interpretation: to me it`s blatant that neither contradiction (Hegelian and Marxian dialectics) nor polarity (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) are capable of supplying adequate conceptual tools to understand the radicalness of the conflicts in action. I take the other path-different even from Umberto Eco`s return to Aristotle or Vattimo`s ironic-nihilist vision of polarity-discovering that Freud has created an incredibly vast conceptual apparatus based on an opposition of the asymmetrical type, where one of the terms (the unconscious) is by definition hidden and can only be reached indirectly through the formation of compromise. A thought that remains on the surface is destined to naivety, in other words it can only fall victim to ideological and spectacular exploitation.
This is where some of the consequences I developed in the late 70s and early 80s originate. The first of these would be the link to the notion of difference, which must be understood as much stronger than just diversity or dialectical distinction. This notion, one that comes from Protestant theology (the abyss between God and man), was transported by Heidegger to philosophical ontology (difference of Being compared to being, ens). It was later introduced to French philosophy, which in the meantime had received a huge theoretical impact from Freud, concentrating on literary problems that went as far back as Mallarmé (the difference between literary and common language). A tradition that applied its thought to difference existed In italy too, although it referred neither to God nor to literature, but to History. My attention to the three dimensions of human experience, where difference manifests itself historically-death (finiteness), sexuality (not two, but an infinite number of sexes) and the world (outcome, effectuality)-, derives from this.
The process of making difference worldly, which in italy has distant roots (Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Loyola), makes the very notion of the unconscious come across as a crypto-metaphysical assumption one can easily do without, or, better still, as something that ought to be brought to the surface, for example in language, or in rites, ceremonies, clothing, forms, in everything that is exterior. This is exactly what happens with Lacan, who in the early 90s introduced me to a conceptual framework more suited than Freud`s to the understanding of more serious individual and collective psychopathological modes of being than the ones I had met up with until then. Lacan`s influence thus becomes an essential element of my theoretical production, especially in the books Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, Art and its Shadow and Against Communication.
I would say that there are two key points to explain my theoretical interest in psychoanalysis: first of all the unconscious as an asymmetrical opposition and as the basis of all survival strategies in this biased mass-media society (Freud), then extimité (outwardness) as an outward appearance with no inwardness, the basis of all survival strategies in the digital society of Internet (Lacan). In a nutshell one could say: first the Baroque, then Mannerism.

SB: ”Like Lacan and other interpreters of psychoanalysis-known as the `post-structuralists` in the 11lish-speaking world-your reading of psychoanalysis doesn`t follow an intimist key but, as you say yourself, a perspective of `outward appearance without inwardness`. I wonder whether this distrust of intimateness-and of all its sentimentalist, emotionalist, affections-centered and mentalist panoply along with it-wouldn`t be the specific inheritance of phenomenology. Sartre rightly said about Husserl: ”he has freed us from the inner life`. And, according to phenomenology, subjectivity consists just in `going towards things themselves`. It`s no coincidence that the authors you say have influenced you-Abbagnano, Pareyson, Heidegger, Lacan-all have a phenomenological background. Now we, who deal with analysts, especially italian ones, get the opposite impression: to psychoanalysts, apart from a few fortunate exceptions, psychoanalysis is a sort of intimist psychology, a psychological ontogeny of interiority. That`s why notions like mind and self are so in vogue in italy. I then wonder: why-apart from Lacanians-does the philosophical reading of psychoanalysis, of which you are an eminent representative, diverge so much from the image practicing analysts have of it? Are there not two psychoanalyses? One for the philosophers and one for the analysts?”

MP It`s difficult to compare theory and practice. I wonder whether the practice of philosophers, the so-called ”philosophical counseling”, is less subjectivistic than the practice of the majority of psychoanalysts when it ventures beyond simply dispensing common sense advice. In the Jesuit tradition there`s a figure who has, let`s say, a phenomenological aptitude, i.e. one for suspension and detachment with respect to subjectivity: this is the director of exercises, who, in contrast to the spiritual director, has nothing to teach and no advice to give. On this point Ignatius is categorical: ”He who is giving the Exercises ought not to influence him who is receiving them more to poverty or to a promise, than to their opposites, nor more to one state or way of life than to another. [...]he who is giving the Exercises should not turn or incline to one side or the other, but standing in the centre like scales” (The Spiritual Exercises, the 15th Annotation). The director of exercises is not a confessor: his relationship is not with the thoughts and problems of the people exercising, of their conceptual or moral identity, but only with their consolations and grief. He acts as a catalyst in search of a solution he has no idea about, in a process the result of which he absolutely ignores: he can give no answers. This function of the director of exercises is repeatedly affirmed in the Dírettorii, where he is defined as ”an unworthy instrument of God”: he must be wary of himself and be indifferent for the will of God to accomplish itself without his interference. I wonder whether the practice of Lacanian analysts isn`t akin to this.
Concerning my personal experience, I have managed to overcome the crises I`ve been through alone, shifting my investment energy from the Self, intended as the narcissistic organization of the psyche, to something external.

SB: ”Your reference to the spiritual exercises speaking about analytic practice is significant. As you know, the current cliché in italy is that psychoanalysis is the lay version of the Catholic confession. That`s obviously not what you`re saying, but in any case you do compare it to spiritual exercises. But what then is, in your opinion, the difference between analytical practice and Christian spiritual exercises or, earlier still, the self-examination of the Stoics?”

MP The Spiritual Exercises are to Loyola a way of choosing and deciding upon important matters, for example finding a path to follow in life. They therefore have nothing to do with a confession, with a spiritual direction or with a retirement consisting of prayer alone. As a method they could also have been practiced by non-believers, provided that they managed within one week to reach a state of indifference regarding their fate and stay suspended like a scale, ready to lean with equal detachment towards anything the future had in store for them. This is the original sense of the Exercises, which however waned a little for the generations of Jesuits following Loyola, so that, by the end of the 16th century many followers no longer understood their essential characteristic as a method. But as long as the Old Society of Jesus, abolished in 1773, existed, something of this method did survive.
Of course one must look for the origins of this method in the ancient Skeptics and Stoics, who invented the word epoché, suspension. A notion that was taken up again by Husserl, by phenomenology, and which is opposed to the Cartesian cogito. Therefore, along with the subjectivistic current, there is in the West another great current that puts the stress on ”becoming no one”, on depersonalization, on looking at oneself with a stranger`s eyes. Freud, by turning the human soul into a battleground where opposing impersonal drives fight each other, belongs to this second current. I have so far found my own survival by treading this path, because it has given me the guarantee of a higher degree of familiarity with the three great enigmas I have come across: illness and death, sexuality and the world. I`m about to finally buy some land for my grave: so I shall finally be able to carry there the remains of my first wife (something I`ve been waiting to do for almost 19 years) and make room for myself and for a few other people I`m close to. Indeed, due to various circumstances, I`ve been excluded from the larger tombs that still belong to me (one of which I haven`t even seen yet). A few years ago I was told that it was about to collapse, but this was false and misleading information.

Cristiana Cimino: ”Insofar as the old spiritual exercises, in the form of the Platonic dialogues themselves, consist of an itinerary of the mind towards the divine and of an emancipation from the senses and the chains of the body, they then approach analytical practice in some way, in the sense that the latter has indeed progressively taken up a path of mentalization and of `spiritualization`. However, this path of distancing from its original corporeal, biological roots and drives, seems to me to have marked a taming of the psychoanalytic practice. Perhaps one ought to begin to think, in the psychoanalytical field too, about a backward path, already open in other fields: I`m thinking of Giorgio Agamben and his book The Open, where he argues against the modern (Heideggerian) rupture between animality and humanity. What`s your opinion on this?”

MP: Discourse on the human being can follow three itineraries, according to whether you compare it to the divine, to animality or to things. The first is the spiritualistic itinerary (which was widespread mainly in 19th century French and italian philosophy): despite their name, the ”Spiritual Exercises” have nothing to do with this itinerary, for they teach to choose and to behave in the world. The second itinerary branches off into two roads: one stressing the difference between humanity and animality (for example Gehlen`s philosophical anthropology) and one stressing proximity in the name of ”the naked life”, i.e. life seen not as bios (human behavior in life in the ethical sense) but rather as zoé (life seen in its naturalistic crudity, common to the vegetal, the animal and the human). This second road is that of italian Naturalism, expressed excellently by Pirandello, when against Neo-Idealism he opposed the ”naked life” to the ”clothed life” of culture and history. Pirandello`s Naturalism (which originates in a `way of being italian` that has its roots in previous centuries) has remained submerged in 20th century italian philosophical culture, but reemerged in the 60s with Giorgio Colli, Cesarano, Carla Lonzi, Sgalambro, Gargani and finally Agamben, who limits himself to inverting Pirandello`s formula (vita nuda) into nuda vita, ”life naked”, and giving it a political revolutionary emphasis that was already present in Cesarano. My work has nothing to do with either spiritualism or naturalism, because it focuses on the comparison between the human way of being and the way of being of things. In my opinion this is today`s real chall11e, which manifests itself in so many spheres of individual, social and cultural experience: from genetic 11ineering to mass sensologies, from drug addiction to virtual technologies, from allergies to psychoses, from deconstructive architecture to post-human art, from diseases of the immune system and from agonistic sports to certain genres within the cultural industry, such as horror, science-fiction and rock music.

CC: ”In your latest book Contro la comunicazione (Against Communication), you claim that the goal of the communication society is to remove reality altogether, more than that, to remove the very principle of reality. The consequence would be a psychosis-like pathology. With reference to what you call ”performance subculture”, you underline the attempt to keep up a state of excitement to guarantee a sort of inexhaustible performance through consumption, for example, of alcohol, drugs, but also any object capable of fuelling addiction. I wonder whether, in the light of the privileged role you think objects intended as things have for human beings, you might say that perversion rather than psychosis is the most representative pathology of the contemporary world. I`m thinking about perversion as a mode of reifying relations dependent on fetish objects, which tries to exclude temporality and favor the annihilation of differences and conflicts. On this point I also have in mind what you say about the communication society: that it considers a similar attempt at annihilation as one of its prerogatives.”

MP: Perversions are big things. They have hardly any room in contemporary life. They were probably quite rare in the past too, but they occupied a fairly relevant place in the imaginations of cultivated and excitable individuals. Today the cultural industry and consumerism have trivialized them, turning them into something extremely banal: they have been sucked in by pornography, the sex and fashion industries, by advertising and the new poverty and slavery. This is how the meanness, pettiness and sloppiness that surround us have transformed perversions into other types of pathologies, more modest, but more opaque and harder to deal with, such as addictions and allergies. A few tiny sparks light up now and again and quickly disappear; our journals (JEP, Agalma...) and our books are like messages in a bottle thrown out to sea. What`s essential is for them to reach the ocean and not just float in our local harbor: otherwise the chances of someone picking them up is more or less the same as before.
With regard to reification and fetishism, one must have a strong awareness of the dignity of human beings and their greatness to be able to perceive and practice them as perversions: lacking this awareness, it becomes impossible for anyone to reach the splendid shining status of a thing. One may feel, in the best of cases, like human capital; although even this is not very feasible, because on the one hand it is too much hard work, and on the other gives rise to too much hate. Most are not even a living commodity, because the supply is too high, but consumers of something lacking value. There`s probably a certain parallelism between the decline of psychoanalysis and the decline of the economic mentality.

SB: ”You say that today perversions are trivialized and banal. Yet pedophilia, today, isn`t at all. Pedophiles have always existed, but in the past they were more or less tolerated. Not so today. In the U.S. pedophiles de facto risk the death penalty: in U.S. prisons they are usually murdered by other inmates. Furthermore, susceptibility is so high that merely uttering the obvious-for example that there is such a thing as child sexuality-can immediately lead you to being charged with being a pro-pedophile, even by psychologists and psychoanalysts. If you write a clinical paper on pedophilia and don`t vehemently condemn pedophiles, you`ll never get published. The question of pedophilia seems to be going in the opposite direction compared to what you`ve been saying.

MP: It seems to me that under the name of ”pedophilia” two very different phenomena are being confused: love for adolescents and sexual abuse on children. The former phenomenon, as you rightly pointed out, has a tradition that dates back several thousand years at least to Ancient Greek pederasty, and I don`t see why it should find a place amongst perversions. However, because of the collapse of family authority, the immaturity of today`s kids, youth consumerism, the democratization of pornography, the decline of censorship and the rise of sexual tourism, pedophilia has become an issue that concerns the statute of the bodies of all under eighteens: it is an interesting and complex problem that brings into play economic, educational, moral, social and legal aspects. Child abuse is something completely different, it is a criminal issue and has little or nothing to do with perversions, because it is practiced on children, the most vulnerable and helpless of subjects: but this is a matter that has to do with the psychopathology of aggressiveness and crime.


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