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The Sociologist

Parent, not father

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04 December 2021

The paternal code. An interview with Mauro Magatti, a father of seven children


The photograph of the father has faded. At least two generations of children, maybe three, have had to open their eyes ever further to recognize his profile. In doing so, there is the persistent risk of putting on the too tight or too large clothes, which were almost never adequate and often uncomfortable, of the “evaporated father”.

In the Paris when children rebelled against the paternalistic authorities, Jacques Lacan, spoke of the “evaporation of the father” (an expression made popular in Italy by Massimo Recalcati, but we are here in the turbulent and revolutionary sixties) Mauro Magatti (in the photo on page 21) was a child in short pants in elementary school. A graduate in Economic and Social Disciplines at Bocconi, a Ph.D. in Social Sciences at Canterbury University, is today full professor at the Catholic University of Milan. In addition, he is a Sociologist, economist and columnist for the Italian national newspapers, Corriere della Sera and Avvenire.  For the past thirteen years he has directed the Centro ARC (Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change), a laboratory of ideas that has focused on the theme of “social generativity”, a concept that is psychologically and philosophically well founded, so much so as to emancipate itself from the mere biological dimension of existence and its strict determinism. For Magatti, especially in this era, we find ourselves on a new curve in the long history of freedom, and states, “The one conquered after the changes brought about by the 1960s was an adolescent type of freedom, nor could it be otherwise”. Nevertheless, it was in the transition from the age of adolescence to the adult phase that “the crossroads between stagnation and generativity is placed”.

The very emergence of a “generative” social dimension indicates that Lacan’s prophecy has come true, though fortunately, only partially. If the youth protests of 1968 demolished the symbolic authority of the father in the life of the family and in the life of society, the French psychoanalyst imagined, the void left by the disappearance of the Law - and the decline of authority – would end up filled by the fetishism of commodities. To triumph, that is, will be the consumer society and its homologated inhabitants, i.e. the consumers. “The world of consumerism in which we are immersed cannot be overcome with a moralistic discourse”, Magatti continues, “but with the construction of another sense-generating lung”. In addition, here we return to the question of the father, “His figure and his affective code is naturally affected by social changes and especially those within the family structure. The father of tradition, as you mentioned, has long been lost. Yet in this transformation, which certainly has elements of weakness, I do not and do not believe that a complete ‘evaporation to have taken place’. There are possibilities for building a more harmonious identity, both for the emotional tones that the father can finally bring into play, and for his renewed place in the social environment”.

To procreate, therefore, is not only a biological action; it is also a social and symbolic act that opens up new paths. As Hannah Arendt stated, “We are made to begin,” and about this, Mauro Magatti has something to say. The father of seven children, some his own, others adopted, “of three different colors”, as Mauro and his wife Chiara Giaccardi sometimes say. A father and a mother, a ‘parent’, "does not limit themselves to giving birth to a child, but also assumes the task of bringing to maturity, of taking care of what they have generated, be it a company, an organization, or a family”. However, at a certain moment, to let that go too, without transforming this event into an object of possession and, therefore, once again of personal consumption. On the other side of the kitchen table - and in particular with regard to the male reference figure - another great psychoanalyst such as Luigi Zoja recalls, a son endowed with sensitivity feels that his father is the one who chose him. This comes before, and more so than the one who generated him. Therefore, the father is always a figure contextualized by the cultural context. The natural one is not enough for a child, for he must still look for his parent. This research has even more complex implications when the possibility of generating biologically is emancipated from the man-woman couple, making the first element superfluous. After all, technology and science no longer set limits to motherhood, through the “surrogate” father, and this can only have an impact on fatherhood.

The field of technology and its power is one that Mauro Magatti has explored profoundly in his research. He confirms, “The surrogacy of the father made possible by biotechnology is a great provocation to the male gender. So much so, that today, in a dystopian vision, it is more likely to hypothesize the disappearance of man and not woman from the face of the Earth. An inversion in power recorded by the collective subconscious.  Man is not destined to disappear, I believe and I hope, but the father is definitely missing the pedestal on which he has been sitting for thousands of years”.

This sensation of lack, of emptiness, thinks Magatti, is slowly leading men and women -despite the difficult ridge along which the family is walking-, “to a redefinition of parental roles in terms of greater co-responsibility”. In other words, the concept of generativity is also “the child of this loss of identity of the image of the father-master and of the mother as a figure dedicated exclusively to looking after them”. In short, there is “a renegotiation within the couple, and it leads men to realize that if they want to be fathers, they have to play the game of parenthood, and not live it out of simple role opposition”. If every paternity is a decision - to repeat it once again with Zoja and his Hector's gesture, the Greek hero who, unlike Achilles, is able to take off the armor of the father-master-warrior and embrace the unarmed Astyanax, as a father and nothing more, as a brother-man - every paternity requires adoption. At the same time, however, continues Magatti, “even for women, who today can already give birth to a child without a man, a subsequent and consequent elaboration of parenthood becomes necessary, since, for reasons “of flesh and blood”, the bond of a mother with her child remains increasingly visceral and therefore “unmediated”, as occurs instead in conception through an intermediary”. There is therefore a greater adherence in the female mind to the concept of generation as a fact of blood and womb. However, generation in its fullest sense, continues Magatti, “is the link between life and death, and therefore is fully ‘generated’ when the otherness of the child is accepted. The child can thus recover a bond that does not suffocate them and does not kill them”. This is true, Magatti emphasizes, for all types of non-biological generative capacities, not only for adoptive experiences, he continues, “Generative bonds extend to the relationship between a professor and their students, to young people in general, to colleagues in the office, to a company or a volunteer association”. The generative dynamic is therefore always broader, “If you understand this, to return to the topic of surrogacy, you understand that the generation of a child does not have the logic of the product. Inherent in the semantics of the expression “womb for rent” is the same matrix of consumption. As soon as this type of extended generative dynamic is valued, the way is immediately opened up for a society, or rather for a humanity that does not become a slave to the realm of technology”.

Among the side effects of technology’s homologating power in the construction of social space, it also has the effect of annihilating the so-called “rites of passage”. For centuries, these have been the symbolic place and time guarded by the father figure and his emotional code, the father understood as “the one who accompanies” in order to “let the son walk by themselves” through the stages of life. “Today, however, the world is very poor in symbols”, notes the philosopher Byung Chul Han. “Data and information do not possess any symbolic power, so they do not permit recognition”. Moreover, in this symbolic void images and metaphors capable of giving foundation to the sense and the community, stabilizing life are what is lost. Magatti states, “The rites of passage such as baptism or marriage and even the first day of that full-time employment that has become a chimera for today's youth, allowing the newborns, girls and boys on the one hand, and their parents on the other, to elaborate that link between life and death we were talking about earlier. Their disappearance, which is a very serious fact, and the effects on the construction of meaning throughout life are still too rarely discussed”.

In a society, symbolic actions pass on and represent those values and orders that support a community, while today “everything seems to be dumped onto the shoulders of individual lives. Among other things”, observes Magatti.  Continuing, “I think that at the basis of many experiences of conflict within couples or in society there is precisely this lack of relationship, of ties that structure. And a consequence of this isolation due to the ‘absence of stabilizing rituals’ seems to me to be the depression that can be glimpsed in many young people who do not want to leave home and take life for what it is”, with its contradictions and its windows of opportunity. In short, in an increasingly “liquid” society, where passages become blurred and references become atomized, a greater awareness of parenthood, understood as co-responsibility, fortunately comes into play. Even when mothers and fathers leave each other, without ceasing to feel at least and, when it is possible, to be parents as well. Often, in fact, it is the children themselves, as they grow up, who restore the “generativity” of this bond. “For us” - and the “us” in this case stands for Mauro Magatti and Chiara Giaccardi – “the most beautiful thing is to see how the bonds between our children have been strengthened, even in the diversity of their birth and arrival. Even in those relationships between them that sometimes tend to cut us off”. In the end and above all, Mauro thinks, “the most beautiful gift for our family is to see how our children have learned to love each other”.

by Marco Girardo
A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, Avvenire