The Man Without an Unconscious

The work of Massimo Recalcati is not much discussed in Anglo-American culture or academia. His writing is barely found in English translation (I know of only one article translated into English on hate in the journal Qui parles?), although he has produced a number of very popular (and pleasingly short) works as well as some more philosophically dense books and articles. Recalcati is an Italian psychoanalyst, philosopher and writer (you can see his web site here. He’s quite the looker). Over the last two decades he has published a number of reflections on Lacanian psychoanalysis and its enduring value for thinking about emergent clinical problems. In addition to some heavy duty volumes explicating the work of Lacan, he has authored volumes on the changing experience of masculinity, Italian politics, personal relationships, the value of education, and on art. He has developed an agreeable style of popular psychoanalytical observation that might be (roughly) compared to the work in the UK of Darian Leader. His short books sketching the experience of desire and the importance of being ‘a subject with an unconscious’ are accessible and enjoyable crystallisations of a general position he has staked out over the years as a psychoanalytical writer. Unlike many Lacanian writers, Recalcati has the virtue of writing cogently and directly about both Lacan’s work and how it illuminates our contemporary situation.

I find Recalcati very helpful not only in clarifying Lacan’s thought (which is notoriously opaque) but also in articulating psychoanalytical observations — which are by necessity of a clinical origin — to prevailing social and political issues. One of his most interesting texts is L’uomo senza inconscio (‘The Man Without an Unconscious’), published in 2010. Here Recalcati explores what he views as the emergence of a type of cultural persona: a subject without a deep well of unconscious desire. The classic image of the neurotic developed by Freud in the 20th century was of the repressed, emotionally aberrant subject, whose unconscious desire seeped out in the form of symptoms (slips of the tongue, hysteria) that served as a kind of protest against the constraints of repressive civilisation. This was the ‘subject of the unconscious’, overwhelmed by desires it could hardly contain, perpetually at odds with its own place in the social order. This subject (or person) could be treated by psychoanalysis, which gave it a way of acknowledging its desire and finding a way of living with it, sublimating it in some way.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this awkwardly desiring subject is under threat by contemporary capitalism. Recalcati borrows Lipovetsky’s reading of ‘hypermodernity’ to discuss the way subjectivity is increasingly encouraged to bypass the unconscious and to evade the dissatisfactions of desire in order to encounter ‘enjoyment’ instead. Increasingly, he argues (in tune with ideas also explored, for example, by Slavoj Zizek and Todd McGowan) individuals are invited to seek intensive experiences of fulfilment rather than the compromises of mere pleasure. Whereas pleasure (in a Freudian sense) always entailed a compromise with the social order, a delayed or partial gratification (get your exams, save up, choose the car you can afford, etc), enjoyment (the translation of the French ‘jouissance’. In Italian it’s ‘godimento’) entails the thrilling prospect of full exposure to a corporeal satisfaction (go directly to Bali, live authentically, have the things rich people own, be recognised for your talent, etc).

For Recalcati, contemporary capitalist discourse promotes a personality type primarily directed at enjoyment. But the command to enjoy is deeply damaging both socially and psychically. Above all, bypassing desire renders subjects unable to cope with the scale of enjoyment. In Lacan, unconscious desire is always formed in relation to the symbolic law – that is, it is always a relation to the Other (eg the external rules that we internalise but never fully master). To experience desire (as a kind of longing for something more or better) is simultaneously to feel the limits of the Other (love, school, family, society) and to take some measure of one’s behaviour by its constraints. This can be discomforting but its virtue is that it also produces creative responses anchored in our social reality. But the pursuit of enjoyment evades any sense of responsibility to the Other. As a consequence, Recalcati notes two distinct forms of psychopathology, which he meets personally in the clinic: (1) the ‘chaotic’ but compulsive search for enjoyment via ‘unregulated drives’ that produce, inter alia, drug dependency, addiction to consumption, obesity, panic attacks and so on that reflect the absence of strong symbolic mediation; and (2) ‘hyper-identification’, a form of narcissism that involves rigid attachment to disciplinary regimes of the body, apathy and a refusal of difference. Both are forms of evading the travails of desire by reproducing a sameness: for (1) it is a constant enjoyment; for (2) it is a rigid conformism. Each refuses to ‘form alliances’ with the unconscious and negotiate its relation to the Other. In his book, Recalcati goes on to examine the psychic logics supporting anorexia, bulimia, panic and anxiety disorders, drug additiction and so on: all of which he calls the ‘new symptoms’ of the hypermodern age.

Some day, a publisher might translate into English Recalcati’s work as a whole. But they would certainly do us all a favour if they started with The Man Without an Unconscious.

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