Christian Dunker / Photo: Juca Rodrigues

Christian Dunker: The 25th Century Interview

In an exclusive interview, psychoanalyst, Christian Dunker, discusses the main dilemmas for science and psychoanalysis.
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The advancement of technology — in addition to providing a glimpse of what may happen in the future, anticipating possibilities and challenges — leads psychoanalyst Christian Dunker — a professor at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and one of the most renowned professionals in the field in Brazil — to look at History to better understand some things and to identify new forms of suffering associated with the transformations which the world is undergoing in relation to science, technique, and ethics. Dunker, author of more than 15 books and with 30 years of research and clinical practice, talks about solitude, ethical conflicts, politics, obscurantist speech, and human education for the challenges of the future.

The advancement of technology—in addition to providing a glimpse of what may happen in the future, anticipating possibilities and challenges—leads psychoanalyst, Christian Dunker—a professor at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and one of the most renowned professionals in the field in Brazil—to look at history to better understand some things and to identify new forms of suffering associated with the transformations which the world is undergoing in relation to science, technique, and ethics. Dunker, author of more than 15 books and with 30 years of research and clinical practice, talks about solitude, ethical conflicts, politics, obscurantist speech, and human education for the challenges of the future.

25th Century: In your book, “Reinvenção da Intimidade – Políticas do Sofrimento Cotidiano” (Reinventing Intimacy – the Politics of Daily Suffering)” (Editora Ubu, 2017), you speak about the existence of two forms of solitude: pathological and beneficent. What effect does this moment in history have on these new forms of solitude, especially with regard to technological advancement?

Dunker: Technological advancement induces pathological loneliness, as new technology occupies a large part of everyday life, including those periods that were formerly known as dead time, such as time spent in bank queues, waiting rooms, public transport, and in our cars. Technology has come to occupy those times in our lives, which could be used for decompression, separation of self, daydreaming, looking and experiencing life and the body from other perspectives. It does not mean that with digital technology you suppress this process; but in a way, you will need to take care of something that, previously, your understanding of the world took care of. There are people who need it more than others. There are times in life when we feel this need even more, while others might feel like it is not necessary. So when you live life being permanently occupied, like working and socializing, we begin to see pathologies of hyper-sociability.

25th Century: Could we say that new pathologies have arisen from this scenario?

Dunker: Certainly. This is what we study at the Social Theory, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis Laboratory [at Universidade de São Paulo – USP]. The idea is that mental illnesses are not really diseases, because they respond profoundly, etiologically, to our way of life, which changes according to patterns of individualization, creation, socio-symbolic, and discursive patterns. There is constancy, there are recurring symptoms, such as melancholy and hysteria, which have been described since the ancient Greeks, but at the same time there is a process of political definition—in the Foucauldian point-of-view—of which modes of suffering belong to the centres of conflict posed by this historical moment. So there are new forms of symptoms, although they are not completely new. If you look historically, you will find, at some point, a kind of historical counterpart.

Christian Dunker / Photo: Juca Rodrigues
Christian Dunker | Photo: Juca Rodrigues

25th Century: If they are neither completely new, nor exactly the same as what we saw at other times, what is different about them?

Dunker: This is because the symptom has a formal envelope, which relates to its modes of presentation and interpretation. Let’s think, for example, of what anorexia is nowadays. It is a situation in which you begin to develop a certain preference for the  experiencing hunger which is transformed psychologically in order to bring you to a kind of satisfaction, from which you cannot not pull yourself away, and which is at the same time lethal, as it can lead to your death. This is also a response to a world that constantly tells you to “eat more”, that “eating is a way for us to satisfy ourselves”, “eat with us”. So, anorexia is a form that you find to separate yourself from others. Historically, we see that, every 50 years, we have an anorexia epidemic which then passes. If we go further back in time, we will find the mystics of the 12th century, in the Rhineland, located between present-day France and Germany. They said that because they had specific contact with Jesus or because they had a relationship with God, it fed them, they did not need to eat, because Jesus or God placed light within them and nourished them. Who were they? These women, like the Catholic saint Marguerite Porte, were in a completely anomalous social situation for the time. They belonged neither to a husband, nor to a religious order. They lived alone in their homes. What a scandal for the 12th century! Their anorexia was also a way of articulating this separation. If we look at the history of these saints and our anorexics, it could be said that they are very different things, that is, it is not even perceived as the same symptom, since one is studied theology, as part of Christian mysticism, while the other comes under the discourse of medicine, health and well-being.

25th Century: In the same way, do you believe that we are paying enough attention to the growth of hate, especially on social networks?

Dunker: Social networks produce three types of things: affection, emotions, and feelings. All three are overinflated. Affection is the way in which we receive what is said to us. Emotions are the ways we respond to this affection, the destination we give it. Feelings are the forms in which we share, socially, affection and emotions. So, social networks are typically places for homogenizing feelings and catalyzing affection.

25th Century: Why?

Dunker: The algorithms in the network follow a basic, genetic rule, which is to offer more of the same. If you consume x, you will be offered x-1. If you consume it, you will be given x+2, and so on. This also applies to affection. This way, social networks will catalyze affection that begins to create communities, which are not based on the possibility of being affected by it or by acting, but by a certain basic feeling, such as pity or affection for a certain species of animal. Hate seems to be more conspicuous because it is a form of feeling that we do not usually see in such an organized way. Generally, hatred is a feeling with which one deals only reactively. It is not common to feel hatred and act on it. However, we see this a lot on social media. From this, we have a connection with institutional politics, because established political parties and political projects ask: What is the landscape of affection that suits us? From this, they connect with communities, whether of hate or fear. They articulate. This means the discourse assumes new and unprecedented political power.

Christian Dunker / Photo: Juca Rodrigues
Christian Dunker | Photo: Juca Rodrigues

25th Century: In one of your texts, reflecting on death and dying, you write that, “those who trust science or who view their own way of life without lack of meaning will be more exposed to difficulties in dealing with panic attacks”. What, after all, is the role of science?

Dunker: Science underwent a very great adjustment twenty or 30 years ago, even in the way it considers itself. Let us not forget that the first uses of Internet were linked to Science and Technology. Nowadays, we have, for the first time, systems controlling the online supply of training for medical decisions. We have a consonance of this with a new type of medicine: evidence-based medicine. In this way, it is possible to collate what the consensuses and protocols are, the procedures on which one should rely more in decisions in those cases. This runs like a vein through other ways of doing science and mixing two things that, historically, were separate: science and technique. One thing is the discovery of a specific form of knowledge, which has a kind of predicted universality that depends on a language, a logic of knowledge among scientists, a debate. But this was a debate in which few were involved. What we have in techno-science is another way of characterizing this new phase, which works on an open platform. So the debate has expanded considerably and the self-sustaining relationship between science and technique becomes much stronger and faster. In physics, for example, the possibility of constructing machines to investigate a given hypothesis determines the scientific validity of that hypothesis. So, who is able to build this machine? Who is going to decide whether it will be machine A rather than machine B that will be built? This is a political decision. This means that politics, including state policy, will directly influence what we call ‘science’ and what we exclude from it. Science has become politicized, just as culture. These are two generic effects of the digital language, in the same way we have two pathological effects, such as post-truth and fake-news, which are expected deviations from it. When one works with an open platform—which is no longer guaranteed by vertical social organization—the authority that says something is scientific or not is also dismembered. We now see resurrected, medieval, obscurantist attitudes in terms of rationality, which is frightening. They are no longer just erratic and controversial opinions; they are the reason why we have people contesting global warming, people talking about a flat earth or believing that men did not travel to the moon. In a certain way, a sort of democracy is created for scientific discussion. Of course, this will be accompanied by discourse that will dismiss such positions because there is a fairly complete set of rational arguments, the history of science, which tell us how unlikely it is that things are going that way.

25th Century: But how can we think of educating human beings that consider both the idea of democratization and the overthrow of these obscurantist effects?

Dunker: This will be a task for the digital natives; they will propose models of training, education, organization of knowledge, which we still do very precariously. My generation will only contribute to this. In the digital sphere, certain concepts and legal consensuses have not yet been established. What exactly can you NOT do? Certain institutional consensuses also have not been reached: which sites, which methods of verification do we trust more and which do we trust less? This depends on a certain amount of time that needs to be established. It depends on use, bad experiences, successful cases, on the one hand, and unsuccessful ones on the other. Until this happens, many people will die; not biologically, but psychologically and cognitively.

25th Century: We are at a stage where, for example, we can talk about the possibility of humans choosing the characteristics of a child through genetic engineering. How do we handle this, ethically?

Dunker: In general, these are questions that accurately reset the boundaries between science and technique. These are points where a collision happens. You look at it and think that science is always in a harmonious combination with technique, in which one helps the other and both form one single system, where you can no longer discern what is what. But that is not true. There are times when both things really are opposed and one needs to counter such axioms as “if the technology exists, it will be used.” We have been able to counteract this axiom historically with the issue of the atomic bomb. Does it exist? Yes. Was it used? In a certain way. We still fear that it will make a return and it is the precursor to this discussion. The difference is that the bomb was not used because there are States that have done a good job of managing the access to this technology. Can we do the same with genetic manipulation? Probably not. We are going to have genetic accidents along the way and we will need those cases to create legislation. It will happen in the same way as the relationship between ethics and law. First come the ethical experiments, then the law comes after, restricting the use and abuse of these instruments.

25th Century: And, according to this context, what is the role of psychoanalysis?

Dunker: First, Psychoanalysis serves to detect new types of suffering and new symptoms before they become absolutely ‘normalized’. However, psychoanalysis has questions to be analyzed from its foundations. This means that if there is a change in the use of language, psychoanalysis also changes. It also changes the training of psychoanalysts’ points of view, which is now much less vertical than it was. Psychoanalysis also shows itself in a more rhizomatic way, which has made it become much more visible in culture. It is an effect of this repositioning. In my opinion, psychoanalysis is appearing as an alternative point of view, when we listen to research institutes and they indicate latitudinal attitudes of behaviour. This one is psychology, that one is psychometrics. Today, instead of applying tests, as it was done in the 60s or 70s, we go in loco and capture people’s real behaviour. Trends of repetition are identified from those behaviours. But what, historically, opposes psychometrics? Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the discourse within psychology questioning methodological foundations, which questions the subject model that comes along with psychometry. Psychometry offers a perspective that tries to take into account the anomalies of this model. When created, this model works well. It responds, acceptably, to 70% or 80% of how people act massively. But, compared to real experiences, inter-subjective experiences begins to fail. It is what we are familiar with from economics and the concept of subjects that act rationally with respect to ends, according to their own interests. Psychoanalysis loses some of these contentions, but it has points to offer against the psychometric power. It seems to me that this is its role in a new political technology of activities.

25th Century: It is estimated that in 20 or 30 years, artificial intelligence could surpass human intelligence in terms of the ability to read scientific material. However, there is a mismatch between subjectivity technology advances, making medieval discourses reappear, as we have mentioned. Do you believe that the human being can evolve to the point of making ethical use of technology?

Dunker: Here we have what we might call a short story of futurism. Let’s reread what Nicholas Negroponte said 30 years ago about how digital life would be like. It’s a classic. Let’s reread what Faith Popcorn said about wishes. Let’s reread the classics about life in the future. All of them were right, but they also missed a lot, especially in the technological social impact. This is reasonable, because technologists, in general, understand techniques. Techniques are successful or unsuccessful because of temporal effects that have another inscription in the chronos, when one thinks about geopolitics and the forms of desiring and loving. Nowadays, there are many things which, according to the 80s vision of the future, should be accessible. But they can barely expand, they do not reach ordinary people. For example, one prediction I remember was that people would not leave their house anymore, because everything would arrive from the Internet. Is it correct? It’s correct. Has it happened? No. People like to leave their house. The idea of staying in your environment all the time may not be interesting. This was not considered in those predictions. People even go to places where they work electronically in front of a computer, and then return home. This shows us that there are things that cannot keep up with technique, such as labour law, mental health and forms of sociability, which are once again underestimated. We see the forecast of artificial intelligence, which is great, but its main problem is the its costs. Everything you can produce on a scale of millions becomes free. This gratuitousness becomes a pattern of behaviour, but it interferes by destroying jobs and creating an additional difficulty, that is, the question of what to do so that people have money and continue to consume. It is a regulation that technique alone cannot undertake. If it does not change the economy, technology will be limited to one social group.

By Fabiano Ormaneze

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Albina Retyunskikh

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