The promise of objects
To reflect on the notion of comfort and introduce a selection of products from the world of physical wellbeing, we talked to neuropsychiatrist Stefano Benzoni.
What is the notion of comfort formed in our minds based on? Is this idea influenced by perceptive sensations or more by social, cultural and economic conditioning?
There is a new tradition in neuroscience that is passionate about explaining why beautiful things generate pleasant experiences. It is about fulfilling an ancient dream: providing naturalistic explanations of the reasons for enjoyment. However one should perhaps admit that the paradox of the sensation of comfort, in the contact with a number of particular environments or objects, is precisely that it does not correspond to pure sensory data. On the contrary, it consists precisely in a kind of ineffable and mysterious surplus of experience, something that’s there but you can’t see it or touch it. It isn’t contained in the experience of an object but in the silent promise of what it brings. The exact opposite of the empty and self-sufficient sense of “being in the experience” of the meditating Buddhist, anti-comfort by autonomasia, the rough feeling of your behind seated on the sharp corners of an ordinary bench.
Can you give us an example?
To use a famous philosophical example, we could say that what happens with comfort is very similar to the magical experience of consuming a Kinder egg. This is an excellent example of the split between the apparent object of our desire (the chocolate that we actually do eat) and the object that carries it, causes it and makes the enjoyment possible (the plastic toy that no child has ever played with). The idea is that the somewhat silly surprise constitutes the equivalent of the ideological promise of a reward: aspiring to possess something that makes us desirable – for example in the eyes of other children or for the fact of having the best surprise. This “empty” promise – this is the ultimate root of any ideology – is precisely what enables us to enjoy this useless bit of chocolate. The goodness of the chocolate is mediated by a surplus that makes that chocolate extraordinarily enjoyable and unique. Chocolate like no other. The experience of comfort is always suspended in this duplicity between enjoyment and desire and the object of desire is always the sign of the impossibility of complete enjoyment.
What happens when we enter the world of objects?
Objects that produce comfort are objects that are able to evoke an (ideological) promise that then takes the shape of artefacts imbued with culturally dominant values. A fragmented and accelerated society, where identity is displaced and is lost amid many virtual identities, today the myth is sold of the islands of deceleration (gentle roads in lunar landscapes, with an SUV gliding along them in a pneumatic vacuum) as an aspirational reference for the dejected spirit of accelerated consumers. Then, within the walls of the home, the mirage of comfort and relaxation is confused, as self-denial of the practices and habits of individualism typical of this era, that is at the same time the fundamental matrix of social acceleration and its exhausted attainment. To enjoy the decadent pleasure of a cooking hob, find bliss in the sublime equilibrium of soft curves and hard edges in a chair, to feel “simply at home” beneath the shade of an portable gazebo. It is hard not to agree with Slavoj Žižek when he says that if the ideology of the socalled “post-ideological” world operates precisely through a continual dissimulation of its mechanisms, few things like design can be pure ideology at work.
Right: Stefano Benzoni in his studio in Milan, the city where he lives and works. A child neuropsychiatrist and psychotherapist, Benzoni is consultant for the Fondazione IRCCS Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico di Milano. He has published Figli Fragili (2017), L’infanzia non è un gioco (2013), and Psychofarmers (2005)