Urgent Translation: The Ambassadors


One of the most interesting theories about the role of individual psychopathology is that there exist certain psychopathologies that function as ambassadors, arriving from an imminent future of social transformation. In an entirely unconscious fashion, it is as if through their personal, suffering subjectivities and an idiosyncratic sensibility, certain individuals act out feelings and behaviours in advance that will later become the norm. The great subjects of borderline personality disorder in the post-war period heralded deep social transformations that would soon become the norm for relations between the individual and society: the weakening of social bonds, the prevalence of the subject’s dependency on the common good, a vision of the world focussed on the current moment, a concentration on feelings for representing objects and indeed the world more generally. Many of those features that Zygmunt Bauman described as the “liquid society” were already present on a mass-level in the subjective behaviour identified with “borderline personality disorder,” as Otto Kernberg has pointed out. A very curious note is that the more the anomalous behaviour spreads, the less intense the syndrome’s symptoms become.

One of the figures that characterizes our own period the most is the hikikomori (ひきこもり). Originating in Japan, the term refers to young men whose only possible, essential habitat is their own room, the border of which becomes doubly insuperable: no one can leave, no one can enter.

Their relatives manage the relation with the utmost of care and attempt to respect this insuperable threshold–more or less. Here we see radical social withdrawal as the only subjectively sustainable form of existence. Over the past few weeks, we have all been strongly invited to become hikikomori, as a gesture of subjective responsibility both towards ourselves and towards others. The declared pandemic has overthrown our own sense of suffering, and the hikikomori’s form of existence has become the desired value system. Within these forms of existence, what mode of living do we now have to manage? What affects run through us? What emotions flow into this?

We now find ourselves within something which has not occurred for generations. We are forced to confront a sly and invisible enemy, one capable of leaving the host intact as much as destroying him or her, thus increasing the enemy’s own ability to spread and, accordingly, its danger. The explicit result is a great deal of immediate contagions, and a very limited rate of fatality. And all of this, of course, is always granted in percentile terms.

The prevailing mood is apprehension, a mood that was already extremely widespread even before the current emergency exploded.

Yet fear is not only on the rise due to the continuing flow of far-from-reassuring numbers, facts, and news items about the infection’s seemingly unstoppable progress, or to the tumble of decrees and diktats, each new announcement establishing a further level of confusion and anxiety (four in the arc of a few days truly is excessive, along with all the regional variations as well). More than this, however, we very suddenly no longer feel anchored to the world of daily life. We no longer live in the same space as that of a few weeks ago, nor even in the same time. We lack any immediately foreseeable temporal horizon and thus every form of planning feels in vain, in the short term at the very least. The subjective Umwelt is undergoing an almost total catastrophic change, one of the most troublesome conditions the mind can experience. Radical social withdrawal becomes a shell: comfortable in some ways, alienating in others. The screen becomes sociality’s unique surrogate, the only practicable form of relation. As with the protagonist of the film Thomas In Love (2000), everything passes through the web.

Hyper-connected by necessity and decree. You go to therapy, you have meetings, you conduct lessons, you keep working, you entertain yourself. And we keep busy as well, in this suspended time that is not, however, an empty time–one which perhaps the majority of us fear leaving empty, fear leaving in an abnormal silence. The apprehensive mind is always tipped, however, towards the future, and rarely centres on the present moment; the internal state of alarm shifts one’s attention towards potential signals of a threat, in order to neutralize them, to stop them in their tracks. Within this staggering, off-balanced state, the power of the imagination reveals itself as a container for all previous and barely worked-through catastrophic experiences. A mental record placed under the aegis of the “if”: and if . . . and if . . . and if . . . inexhaustible and tiring, it soon blurs into a sterile rumination, saturating one’s ability to imagine possible alternatives, to extract meaningful symbols from experience, of learning from oneself. An immobile state of frenetic mental confusion that can only be stopped with the greatest of efforts.

I think, however, that soon the principle status of our collective mood will instead be a feeling of powerlessness, if all these tools of containment do not provide the expected results. Powerlessness is one of the most painful experiences, and usually takes one of two possible routes: rage or depression–or an alternating between the two. The condition of powerlessness drives the individual and collective mind towards that proto-mental functioning characterized by “fight-flight,” to use Wilfred Bion’s phrase. The complexity of the situation cannot but bring us to reflect not only on what kind of personal tools we are using to manage our experiences of powerlessness, but also to remain vigilant about those social tools that are being introduced in order to govern the current state of things.

This is not only a question of saving one’s life, and it is not only a problem of saving one’s own mental health. It is also–and in some ways, most importantly–a problem of saving the social space of the political, of our being subjects for whom critically inhabiting the space of the polis is a fundamental necessity.

Fear has always been a formidable tool for domination and the management of power by those who wield and exercise power. And it is no accident that fear has, indeed, always been artificially manipulated through the creation of imaginary enemies. Fear prepares us for obedience; fear directs us towards compliance. In many ways, the current call to arms has no historical precedent for contemporary societies, just as the enemy itself is unprecedented. And this call to arms is occurring entirely through tools of discipline, through a command to take the greatest of care over subjective behaviour and its limitation. This request for mass collaboration in a tool of discipline has been far from easy.

It matters little at this point whether this is good or bad, right or wrong. We must first examine matters consciously and clearly in order to try and govern the effects.

We are not only living through a suspension of the most basic democratic rights, of all normal democratic praxis. A totalizing adherence to underlying values is being asked of us, on pain of being identified as a dangerous anti-social type.

Our entirely legitimate fear pushes us to collaborate with this request; indeed, we want to do so more and more. More rules, more repression, more punishment. More testing.

Forgetting that we are playing with fire, we stare hypnotically and obsessively at the invisible enemy. The increasingly real risk is not only that the measures being taken turn out to be ineffective, but that they become a Trojan horse, pushed inside the city walls, for the most part, by ourselves. The risk is that we forget that well-being is a fragile and complex product of the democratic governing of ourselves and our needs, one that cannot be reduced to the totalitarianism of any single emergency; that even mere survival is tied up with a complex range of needs and desires which cannot be compromised, even while we must nevertheless adapt their extent and quality.

(Palermo, 25th March 2020)


Calogero Lo Piccolo

Calogero Lo Piccolo is a practicing group psychoanalyst and a lecturer at the University of Palermo. He completed a PhD in general and clinical psychology (University of Palermo, 1998) and specialized in psychotherapy at the COIRAG school, of which he is currently the representative in Palermo. He has published on substance addiction and the Mafia (in La Mafia dentro. Psicologia e psicopatologia di un fondamentalismo, FrancoAngeli, 1998), and personality disorders (in Psicologia della convivenza, FrancoAngeli, 2000). He most recently co-edited the volume L’inutile fatica di essere se stessi (Mimesis, 2016). His research focuses on psychic disturbance, social dynamics, subjectivity, and group analysis.

Richard Braude

Richard Braude is a translator from Italian to English. Born and educated in the United Kingdom, he has lived in Italy since 2015. Among other works, he has translated Secret Germany: Myth in Twentieth-Century German Culture by Furio Jesi and The Golden Horde: Revolutionary Italy 1960-1977 by Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni (both for Seagull Books), and selected essays in the collection Women and the Subversion of the Community: A Mariarosa Dalla Costa Reader (PM Press), as well as reports for NGOs including Borderline Sicilia and Oxfam Italia. He can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright (c) Calogero Lo Piccolo, 2020. English translation copyright (c) Richard Braude, 2020.