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.

Domus - - RASSEGNA - Edited by Gi­u­lia Guzzini

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)

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