What can really go viral is jouissance
”Italians don't like horrific things. And I think that, when you want to deal with the Real, then psychoanalysis can be kind of a horror experience.”
Conversation with Sergio Benvenuto.
Rome, Italy, 9 February 2013.
Emil Asbjörnsen (EA): How would you describe the situation for psychoanalysis today? How is the situation in Italy?
Sergio Benvenuto: I think that for a few years now, psychoanalysis here in Italy is again in fashion, for many reasons, but also because of the success of the Italian Lacanian analyst Massimo Recalcati, who has a captivating style of writing and talking. But this revival concerns a psychoanalysis that identifies itself with only the humanities (philosophy, art and literature, existential approaches). Psychoanalysis is not at all fashionable in psychiatry or faculties of psychology. I think it's a very bad sign when psychoanalysis lands completely on the side of humanities and is expulsed from the side of sciences. I am not a positivist, I don't believe in a sort of cognitive psychoanalysis, I am not like Peter Fonagy, but still, I find that the separation of psychoanalysis from sciences is, for psychoanalysis, a sign of decline.
When I was young it was completely different. I was trained in France and Italy. At that time, the 1970s, psychoanalysts held power in psychiatry. In the 1980s, one out of four tenured University Italian psychiatrists was also a psychoanalyst. The number of analytic patients was growing. Then came the decline of the 1990s, when there was an increasingly dramatic split between psychoanalysis and scientific medicine. More and more, psychoanalysis was assimilated into alternative medicines, like acupuncture or Ayurveda. Today, psychoanalysis is more or less regarded as a kind of spiritual practice, much like yoga or transcendental meditation. And analysts cannot demonstrate their results because they don't follow the protocols of Evidence-Based Medicine, and generally don't tape their sessions, etcetera.
I know many psychiatrists here in Italy who are also analysts. They lead a kind of double life. In the national health system where they work, they follow the protocols and the DSM classifications. And when they are at home, they are in their psychoanalytical practice.
Psychoanalysis was once taken seriously by scientists and doctors. There was a continuous exchange between fields and theories. Now, psychiatrists train less and less in psychoanalysis, while more and more analysts are linked to movements of freedom and civil rights, feminism, and cultural studies. This separation of medicine and psychoanalysis is a drama. By this, I don't mean at all that psychoanalysis should join the methods of Evidence-Based Medicine, but on the contrary, that psychoanalysis should again inspire the medical practice, such as with the Balint groups, for example, or as it happened in pediatrics by the psychoanalytic influence.
Today's crisis does not necessarily mean that we analysts have fewer patients. Rather, we have today other kinds of patients and other kinds of demands. It's no longer ”cure my symptom!” It's more ”I think something is wrong in my life and I don't know what it is”. It is something you cannot heal with psychopharmaceuticals, it's a question of subtle problems that no pill can cure. Today's patients complain about problems regarding the meaning of life, professional failure, or their relations with women or men or sex. Psychoanalysis today is surviving on what psychiatry and medicine reject as ”non symptomatic”. The strange symptoms – everything in terms of what is deemed irrelevant or incurable by psychiatry, medicine or cognitive therapy – are the stuff of psychoanalysis today.
But even Freud started out in this way. He started with hysterics in Vienna, with women who were regarded as having fake illnesses. Medicine had nothing to propose to cure these hysterics. Freud started his career dealing with the no man's land of hysteria. Psychoanalysis could have a revival if it were to deal with what is rejected by medicine as incurable.
Andreas Nordh (AN): Yesterday we walked past a wall where someone had drawn Sigmund Freud with devil horns and the words ”Ego Hogre”. It made me wonder, what does psychoanalysis challenge in Italy? I mean, someone obviously wanted to defile Freud in a way here.
Sergio Benvenuto: Was this a mural?
EA: Yes. It was close to San Pietro in Vincoli. It was along the stairs leading up to the piazza.
Sergio Benvenuto: Freud is represented as a kind of devil. Hogre is a well-known Roman street artist. But I'm not sure this is necessarily against him. In any case I think it's a sign that Freud enjoys a lot of popularity. If you attack someone, it means he's popular, no?
AN: But would you say there is something in particular that psychoanalysis challenges in Italy? Does it create any specific kind of resistance?
Sergio Benvenuto: Italy is basically a conservative country and this should imply a stronger resistance to psychoanalysis. I also have some friends who say that Italy is not a country for psychoanalysis, who figure that psychoanalysis is essentially a ”gothic” practice. And the Renaissance in Italy was not at all gothic. Italy never really had gothic art, in the sense that gothic in northern Europe was very symbolic and mystical, perceived as ”deep”. Italy has always had a kind of enlightened, idealising art. Beautiful superficial forms, no transcendental drives. In Italy there has always been a certain classicist side, a ”Roman beauty”, as you can see in masters like Michelangelo, albeit a few Italian artists shifted outside this classicism. One was Caravaggio. Another was Lotto in the 16th century; he had a very deep sense of symbolism through his allegories. But in Italy, it has always been a matter of beautiful and idealised forms. And psychoanalysis is not a matter of beautiful and idealised forms. It's something very gothic and even romantic. So, if it's true that psychoanalysis is a ”gothic experience”, then it's good rather for Germans, Austrians, French, Scandinavians, Brits...
EA: But not for Italians?
Sergio Benvenuto: No, it was just a joke! But from this strange theory, some truth emerges. Rainer Maria Rilke didn't like Italy very much because he said, ”yeah, sure, it's beautiful art”, but it's ”a spring without summer, it's the triumph of the superficiality of beauty”. There is always this sense that the horrific and the vertigos are removed in Italian art. We never had Brueghel, or Bosch, or even Rembrandt or Munch. Italians don't like horrific things. And I think that, when you want to deal with the Real, then psychoanalysis can be kind of a horror experience.
In Italy, the horrific part of life is repressed. We have good food, love, sex, great art. But I don't think that Italians are especially deep. I even wrote that in the journal I gave you. And why? I think that it is a problem of history. In Italy, we've had great scientists and great mathematicians. We've had a lot of great men and women in many fields. So it's hard to say what the real reason is. We've also had some important philosophers, and we still do, even now, but not at all like the Germans, Brits and the French. Perhaps this is because philosophy in itself implies facing something horrific. If you want to be a really great philosopher, you have to confront a kind of limit of the rational, a kind of abyss, a vertigo of the mind. You have to think something unthinkable. In Italian culture, a kind of social belonging comes first. The individual research for something absolutely abysmal, something deeper, is not very Italian.
EA: So psychoanalysis is a bit traumatic for Italians?
Sergio Benvenuto: At a deep level, yes, it's a bit traumatic. Because – I repeat – Italians prefer a certain kind of harmony and social consensus. Italians profoundly don't like solitude, and the deepest experiences are connected with solitude. Even analysis is a solitude shared by two persons, but an isolation nevertheless. Even if there are some exceptions here and there, some complete outsiders who provoked common sense – like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti with futurism, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Carmelo Bene in theater – Italians, even in art, most often look for compromise.
I think this is why Italy, compared to other countries, has had few internationally recognised psychoanalysts. My own master in psychoanalysis in Italy was Elvio Fachinelli. He was a good analyst, and a very peculiar person, who was very much involved in the contentious political movements of the 1970s. But he's unknown outside of Italy. We have published some of his papers in English. The fact is that in Italy, we have never had famous great masters in psychoanalysis as there were or are in Germany, Austria, Britain, the US and France. We have good Italian analysts today, even quite original ones, but in general, Italy is thought to be on the fringe of psychoanalysis. We are at the center in arts and fashion, but on the fringe in psychoanalysis. However, we are the leading country in family systemic-relational psychotherapy, which was founded here in Italy, in Milan, by Mara Palazzoli Selvini, and is based on the theories of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick. Most psychotherapy schools in Italy are based on family systemic theory. Basically, it means that if you have a schizophrenic in your family, the whole family is in some way schizophrenic, and the entire family should be cured as a whole. The stress here is on the social network of a family. Maybe it's a cliché, but still, for deep interiority, Italy is not the best culture. Italians prefer socially oriented psychotherapy. This was clear with Franco Basaglia, the psychiatrist who completely revolutionised psychiatric institutions in Italy in the 1970s, and with his followers. Their approach to patients is essentially social therapy. Not by chance one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Italy is group analysis, inspired, depending on the case, by Bion, Foulkes or Burrow. In Italy, groups generally come before subjects.
In fact, while we now have a good level of psychoanalysis in Italy, we have no real great master. Antonino Ferro – a Kleinian and Bionian – is the leading, most recognised, and most translated Italian analyst today. In the Italian International Psychoanalytical Association (SPI) Bion was very influential up until now, although his influence has decreased a bit. I have the impression that in Italy today, there is in general a slow crisis of post-Kleinianism, which was basically the ”official” psychoanalytical theory in Italy from the 1960s to the 1990s. Today, I am struck by how often the French analyst René Kaës is quoted in books and speeches today. Lacanianism has always been another discourse, separate from mainstream psychoanalysis, but today quite popular.
It seems that the Kleinian and post-Kleinian tradition is waning, while American relationism is gaining ground. I'm not an expert on relationism – I’ve read a few authors, Owen Reinik, Robert Stolorow, Stephen A. Mitchell – but what I grasp is that it comes essentially from ethical and political issues. It's an attempt to isolate psychoanalysis from psychiatric respectability. Today, on the other hand, it is a completely different psychoanalysis – ego psychology – that aims for recognition by scientific psychiatry, or by psychology. And in Italy, ego psychology is losing ground while relationalism, and Lacanianism, are gaining ground.
This is why psychoanalysis today is becoming a kind of ”alternative culture”, more anti-culture, almost as though it were some kind of fringe ideology. There has been a dramatic re-contextualisation of psychoanalysis, and this is evident even in the kind of patients seeking psychoanalysis, as I had mentioned.
EA: You said that patients today have other kinds of exigencies. Can you say something more about what these patients are looking for in psychoanalysis?
Sergio Benvenuto: As I already told you, our patients no longer complain about a specific symptom, which is why they cannot be treated by cognitivists, who need a precise symptom to cure. What quickly emerges in modern patients is their general discontent, they feel uncomfortable in their skin. Their lifestyle is the real symptom.
I don't know if there is some quantitative research about the typical client of psychoanalysis today. But you know, only a few capitals in the world host perhaps 80 percent of all analysts: London (as well as Oxford), New York, Chicago, Paris, Buenos Aires, Vienna and a few others. It's highly concentrated. Sociologically speaking, psychoanalysis is a metropolitan practice. It's rare that you find a serious psychoanalyst in a small city. And this is why most analytic patients reflect the specific problems of a cultivated urban population. I may have working class patients, but their symptoms are very similar to those of the upper class. I realise that guys like Slavoj Zizek or Alain Badiou would say that what I am saying is anathema, because they are Marxists: but as a matter of fact, psychoanalysis is fatally linked to capitalism. It is not an opposition to capitalism, or a contradiction within capitalism, but rather a specific capitalist product, in the Lacanian sense that ”psychoanalysis is a symptom”.
AN: In what way is psychoanalysis linked to capitalism?
Sergio Benvenuto: The capitalist essence of psychoanalysis emerges clearly when a country tries to impose laws on the practice of psychotherapies, starting from the requirement that the customer, i.e. the patient, ”be guaranteed”. The state is required to guarantee who is a real psychotherapist (or analyst) and who is not. This state control of the analytic practice, and how it is exercised, is violently opposed by leftist analysts, who defend the idea of analysis as a liberal art completely free from any state control. Here, the word liberal applies to both the exercise of a profession and to the political left. The more leftist these analysts are, the more they defend by tooth and nail the capitalist idea of psychoanalysis. They barely accept the idea that analysts should be required to pay taxes, since any link with the state is perceived as an abomination. But this is the free market ideology.
Psychoanalysis is a practice linked to wealth – wealthy countries, wealthy culture, big cities – and thus to a high level of culture. I would also say that people coming from the upper classes don't have alibis: they cannot say that their discontent is caused by poverty, marginalization, or lack of culture. Psychoanalysis is a liberal art of wealthy capitalist metropolises.
I would also say that psychoanalysis is linked to a democratic political system. For example, China is now a very capitalist country, but it is not democratic. Japan is also very capitalist, but it has a form of democracy, and in Japan, psychoanalysis is now thriving, while in China, it is limited to the realm of academic studies. Mysteriously, analytic practice is possible only in pluralistic democracies like our own. And of course, all totalitarianisms – whether fascist, communist, or military dictatorships – persecute psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, capitalism and democracy are tied by a deep link.
Democracy implies freedom of the press, and the acceptance of political dissidents. In some mysterious way, the destiny of psychoanalysis is linked to the destiny of a capitalist democracy: you need wealthy, well-established clients who can pay, but you also need the idea that problems should be solved at an individual level. I mentioned that in Italy, the family systemic approach is the current fashion, because it looks more social, more communitarian. Analysis, instead, is very individual. You suspend relations with others socially when you are with your analyst. You are alone with your analyst. There is no link with the outside world. And this is possible only in societies where the individual is considered as the main source of values. You also need a certain level of culture, or at least of intelligence, in order to undertake a classical analysis. Not all our patients are cultured, of course, sometimes they are even very naive, but socially, they often at least belong to a well-read social group.
EA: What do you think about the future of psychoanalysis in Italy? Is there a place for psychoanalysis?
Sergio Benvenuto: We can focus on national particularities, as we did earlier, but Italy is just a small portion of the Western world. Since World War II, Europe has mostly followed America. The U.S. was the first country in which psychoanalysis became popular, around the 1950s and early 1960s. Everybody was in analysis in big cities such as New York, Boston or San Francisco, and a lot of movies dealing with psychoanalysis were even made (notably Hitchcock). Later, it caught on in Paris, Milan, and Buenos Aires. Were this process linear, psychoanalysis’ apparent waning in the U.S. would eventually be met by an analogous waning in Europe. But history is not so linear. If historical evolution were linear it would be very simple, but history is complex and unpredictable.
I don't think that psychoanalysis’ popularity historically is a matter of theory. The best theory does not necessarily prevail. Psychoanalysis is not just a theory, it is also a social practice – a specific social link, Lacan said – and as such, it could disappear in 20 years or less.
So who knows? It is said that the slow pace of an analysis is in contradiction with the quickness of modern life. But the fact that analysis contradicts this – slowness as opposed to ”fast food therapy” – just might be its chance. Yet more and more analysts accept Skype sessions, because we live ever more in a world where patients travel often and for long periods. In some cases, if you run against the time of the world, or of culture, it can mean that you are ”over”, that you don't have a chance. But, if you find the right type of opposition to the time of the world, you might have a great impact. Again, the nice thing about history is that one never knows. In this sense, I am an anti-Marxist, I don't think that history follows evolutionary laws; in short, progress does not exist (in this, I agree both with Freud and Lacan). History, even the history of ideas, is a matter of chance.
EA: What is your own opinion on what psychoanalysts need to do in order to keep psychoanalysis alive in some way?
Sergio Benvenuto: I don't know. And this not knowing is a consequence of what I just said. In this sense, I am a Darwinist. In a certain sense, culture is just like life: certain minds propose something, a mutation, perhaps some strange philosophy, like Socrates for example, or some strange religion, like Christ, or a strange approach, like Freud’s. You have a lot of proposals in philosophy, in science, in religion, in psychoanalysis. Which one will survive? Nobody can say at the start.
What is important is the multiplicity of theories and ideas. Psychoanalysis has to be able to produce multiple proposals, even completely opposing proposals. For example, I was talking to Elisabeth Roudinesco, who told me that in the last 15 years, there have been no important splits among psychoanalytic institutions in France. There was a lot of turmoil in French psychoanalysis the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but now, for nearly 20 years, it has been quite stable. This is a bad sign. When psychoanalysis was really thriving, when it was historically young, when it was the top interest of a lot of persons, there were many fights – a lot of scissions, severances, and hatred among schools. Any stabilisation has to be regarded as a sign of senility. And now, in Italy, a process of scission, of hatred, and disruption has re-started. It's a good sign. Psychoanalysis is alive again. Even in this sense, I am a little bit Darwinian, because without any competition between ideas, it's like a monopoly, and a monopoly – only one leading theory – is death for psychoanalysis.
I think every analyst has to have an unjustified faith, in the sense that in order to have any possibility of success – to have a future, to make one's practice survive – one needs a certain amount of dogmatic and stubborn faith. This is true even with science. I know a lot of scientists. If one doesn't believe in one's scientific theory in a very irrational way, one cannot convince others. Take Paul Feyerabend’s description of Galileo, for example. Today everybody knows that a lot of things he said were false and unjustified. But he won because, first, he had luck, and second, he had a passion for his ideas. I think it is important for an analyst to have a bit of a dogma, which is paradoxical, since the practice of the analyst is essentially anti-dogmatic; you have to be completely open, listening, ready to change all your hypotheses, which contradicts the fact that in order to impose or succeed in your way of thinking in analysis, you need to be certain. This is why Lacan was so prolific in seminars: he had a kind of ironic certainty. He was absolutely sure of being a genius, that he had found something of value. It's true that a lot of analysts think that they are geniuses, but in fact, sometimes they're just nuts! What matters is that an analyst, through his theory and practice, is able to promote his own jouissance. This is true also for philosophy, for everything. If you don't have jouissance in what you think and what you do, you are unable to succeed. What can really go viral is jouissance.
If you start to practice psychoanalysis, and you start to make too many compromises – for example, small shifts in theory, or melting it into a bit of cognitive science or neuroscience here and there – that is the end of psychoanalysis. You need passion! It's a kind of absolute risk, because passion can also lead to absolute failure.
AN: Western society is changing a lot, for example, becoming less family-oriented, and more accepting of homosexuality and bisexuality than in Freud’s time. It has also been said that there aren't as many neurotics today as there were in 19th-century Vienna. Do you think that the theory of psychoanalysis has to adapt to these changes in society? Does psychoanalysis need to change?
Sergio Benvenuto: I am not convinced that there are fewer neurotics today than in the past. What changed are the symptoms and the way to label one's sufferance, as I just said. I think that we live in a very neurotic epoch. Except in Sweden, maybe.
I don't agree also that our epoch is less family-oriented; at least in Italy. It is true that the patriarchal order collapsed, but today the family is a kind of Big Mother, very oral, from which it is difficult for children to separate.
This said, psychoanalysis has already changed a lot, just in one century, adapting itself to changes in ideologies and customs. Until the beginning of the 1960s, there were psychoanalysts specialised in the cure of homosexuality. Now that would be impossible, because it's politically incorrect. Psychoanalysis is part of the culture and society in which it exists, and it follows their changes. This doesn't mean that it is always historically conformist. In psychoanalytic theory, there is both resistance as well as some rushing forward. But it's true that for psychoanalysis, as for everything else in culture, there is always an adaptation to the new values. Even today's jihadists, ISIS are quite modernised and adapted to the modern technologies.
I just published a book on sexual perversions, where I discuss how the basic meaning of perversion has changed over the last 50 years, both consciously and unconsciously. Some perversions have been fully cancelled, for example, homosexuality. Oral sex and anal sex are no longer paraphilias, but rather common practices today. On the contrary, perversions which had been considered minor at that time are today among the worst of the worst, such as pedophilia. This is a symptom of the fact that the concept of perversion itself has shifted. I think that the task of philosophers and theorists is to clarify these shifts, because generally the adaptation to new forms of life is unconscious, and even theorists are unaware of the shift.
Take, as an example, the debate on marriage between homosexuals. What is the law in Sweden?
AN: In Sweden, homosexuals can marry, also in church.
Sergio Benvenuto: So it's completely equalised with heterosexual marriage? Okay. A lot of the resistance comes from certain churches, of course. But what does all this mean? Probably that many homosexuals want to marry, of course, but anthropologically speaking, it's clear that the meaning of marriage has changed. Up until 50 years ago, in all Christian countries, marriage was linked to reproduction. Even the words ”marriage”, ”matrimonial”, mean ”duty of the mother”. Marriage was essentially seen as a way to produce children, and to ensure their future. Now the meaning, interestingly, has changed and the essence is no longer reproduction, but instead the couple's love. When a society allows homosexuals to marry, it means that the meaning of ”marriage” among heterosexuals also has changed. It was clear for many churches that the real sense of marriage was to produce children. Now, we are shifting toward a culture where a romantic idea of love prevails, where what matters is the couple itself. This doesn't mean that the evolution of customs is linear, in fact, I don't think at all that this so-called evolution is linear like a highway. For example, in Islamic countries, the contrary has happened, with women pushed back to their previous ”scarved” roles.
Are you too young to remember the Iranian Revolution in 1979?
AN: We were both born in 1981.
Sergio Benvenuto: Okay. Everybody in Europe was convinced that the revolution in Iran wasn't really Islamic, and that it would end with the victory of the Iranian Communist Party, Tudeh, because Iran was close to the Soviet Union. They thought the revolution was Islamic only in appearance. And so everyone, even Michel Foucault, supported Khomeini, a very common mistake at that time. They were completely wrong. In fact, there was in Iran a complete ”turning back” of history. And who knows? Maybe in 20 years, we will return to a medieval prosecution of homosexuals! Everything is possible in history. It's a prejudice to think that history is predetermined. Sure, one can think about what might be the more likely, or possible, evolution, but only to a certain point. Revolution is always unpredictable. In 20 years, there might even be a witch-hunt again. I'm ready for anything!
It's even possible that in 20 years psychoanalysis will overcome its present crisis, and that it will thrive again. Maybe psychoanalysis will assure itself as a variant of Western philosophy, that is, as something that always changes (philosophy is in a continuous state of change). It's possible that psychoanalysis could go on forever, but I think that this possibility is your task, the task of young people. You should guess at which kind of jouissance will prevail in the future.
I don't know whether my conversation sounds pessimistic... or perhaps optimistic! Or maybe neither one nor the other. Personally, I would like to see psychoanalysis survive. But I would also like to cancel that 80 percent of current psychoanalytic practice and writing that I find dry and bland. And as to the question of which analytic group, school or institution... I think that it is a very personal matter, and in the end doesn’t much matter. If an analyst is smart, she can grasp something important and say it; regardless of her school of training.
Sergio Benvenuto (Naples, Italy, 1948) was previously a researcher for the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (ISTC) of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) in Rome. He is Professor Emeritus in Psychoanalysis at the International Institute of Depth Psychology in Kiev. He founded and edited the European Journal of Psychoanalysis (EJP). In 1997 he wrote an article on psychoanalysis in Italy in EJP.