No survey of Lacanian terms would be complete without a discussion of jouissance.1
And yet, as more than one commentator has pointed out, jouissance is certainly among the most complex and ambiguous terms in the Lacanian oeuvre.2
The problem begins with translation. The closest literal translation is 'enjoyment,' both in the sense of deriving pleasure from something, and in the legal sense of exercising certain property rights. But while jouissance is often rendered simply 'enjoyment' in many English works on Lacan, this obscures the directly sexual connotations of the French term, which can also mean 'orgasm.'3
In order to escape these difficulties of translation, most have opted simply to retain the French term, thus consolidating the tendency of many anglophone Lacanians to intersperse their discourse with the ocassional French word.4
The difficulties of finding an appropriate way of rendering the term in English are matched by the complexities of its conceptual references. During the course of Lacan's teaching, jouissance is used in a series of different contexts, in each of which it acquires a different nuance. The first step, then, in examining this term, must be to examine these different contexts in order to unravel these various nuances. Only then will it be possible to examine and assess the clinical and cultural applications of the term.
II. The Various Nuances of Jouissance in Lacan's Work
It is perhaps surprising, given the importance that jouissance comes to acquire in Lacan's later work, that the term does not appear at all in his early writings. There is no mention of it in the pre-war writings, and in fact it does not make its first appearance until Lacan's first public seminar, which he gave in the year 1953-54.5
Even then, it figures only occasionally, and it is not until 1958 that it begins to play a major part in Lacan's theoretical vocabulary. From then onwards it takes on an ever greater significance until, in the 1970's, it is so crucial to Lacan's thinking that, were one to single out the most important Lacanian concept, the only contenders would be jouissance and the object a.
In the course of this rise to prominence, the term jouissance does not retain a stable meaning. On the contrary, like most Lacanian terms, its resonances and articulations shift dramatically over the course of his teaching. One way to examine these shifts would be to read them as the progressive unfolding of a single concept; this is how Nestor Braunstein presents jouissance in his informative work on the topic.6
However, such an approach is peculiarly at odds with Lacan's own style of exposition, which never aims at producing a single consistent meaning for each term, but rather at developing different meanings which are often at odds with one another. In what follows, therefore, I have simply sketched some of the different nuances of jouissance as they emerge at different sites in Lacan's texts, without trying to reconcile them in some masterful synthesis. It is not that such syntheses are necessarily wrong, since one attraction of Lacan's teaching is that it invites the reader to construct such syntheses for himself or herself. It is simply that when the commentator on Lacan constructs a synthesis, care must be taken to foreground its interpretative nature, for otherwise one runs the risk, as Braunstein does, of presenting a particular reading as immanent in the text itself. In opting to discuss jouissance in a fragmentary way, I hope to leave the task of synthesis up to the reader, as well as providing the grounds for criticising the syntheses that are produced.
1. Jouissance as pleasure
Before Lacan, the term jouissance did not figure in the terminological apparatus of psychoanalysis; the closest German equivalent (Genuß)
does not form part of Freud's theoretical vocabulary, nor had any French psychoanalyst assigned any special value to the term. Lacan seems to have imported the term into psychoanalysis from a certain tradition in philosophy, namely the Hegelian tradition as it was developed by Alexandre Kojève, whose lectures on Hegel Lacan attended in the 1930's. Lacan himself attributes the notion of jouissance to Hegel, but such a remark must be qualified by the fact that, whenever Lacan refers to Hegel, it is always Kojève's Hegel he has in mind.7
Thus it is Kojève, rather than Hegel himself, who first stresses the dimension of enjoyment in the dialectic of the master and the slave:
[The Master] can also force the Slave to work
for him, to yield the result of his Action
to him. Thus, the Master no longer needs to make any effort to satisfy his (natural) desires . . . Now, to preserve oneself in Nature without fighting against it is to live in Genuß,
in Enjoyment. And the enjoyment that one obtains without making any effort is Lust,
It is not hard to detect the influence of Kojève when the term jouissance first appears in Lacan's work, in the seminar of 1953-54. Here, the term is used exclusively in the context of discussions of the dialectic of the master and the slave, and seems to denote no more than a form of pleasure. Thus, when the master puts the slave to work, the slave produces objects which only the master can possess and enjoy:
Indeed, beginning with the mythical situation [of the master and the slave], an action is undertaken, and establishes the relation between pleasure [jouissance]
and labour. A law is imposed upon the slave, that he should satisfy the desire and the pleasure [jouissance]
of the other.9
Thus the slave becomes the paradigm of the obsessional neurotic, who is dead, not to himself, but for his master, because he has effaced his own enjoyment.10
Giving up his own enjoyment, the obsessional neurotic transfers it onto an imaginary other whom he can then watch with the envious eyes of a caged animal.11
2. Jouissance as orgasm
If the sexual connotations of jouissance are absent from Lacan's initial use of the term in the seminars of 1953-54 and 1954-55, they become explicit a few years later, when Lacan uses the term to refer to the pleasures of masturbation.12
This marks a turning point in Lacan's use of the term, after which it is always marked explicitly by the dimension of sexuality, even though at first the sexuality in question has a distinctly biological flavour. In other words, jouissance is equated simply with the pleasurable sensation of orgasm, and thus still located in the register of need and biological satisfaction. In 1958 for example, in a paper on feminine sexuality, Lacan speaks of frigidity as a lack of 'clitoral jouissance.'13
This must be read alongside another paper dating from the same year, in which frigidity is defined as 'a lack in the satisfaction
proper to sexual need.
Even much later in Lacan's work, when jouissance has taken on multiple significations far removed from the simple equation with the orgasm, this register is never completely abandoned. Thus Lacan can gloss jouissance simply as 'orgasm' in 1963 and play on this meaning overtly in his remarks on Bernini's Saint Theresa in 1973.15
If Lacan's first uses of the term jouissance in 1953-55 are inspired by Kojève, the shift towards the sexual connotations of the term after 1956 may be inspired by the work of Georges Bataille. Lacan himself does not acknowledge this debt; there is, in fact, only one direct reference to Bataille in the whole of the Ecrits,
and Bataille's name is mentioned only once in the seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis
, where the discussion of Sade might well have merited more.16
However, as both François Perrier and David Macey have argued, there are many indications of the influence of Bataille in Lacan's later conceptualisation of jouissance.17
Not only is the deadly character of jouissance strongly reminiscent of Bataille's view of the erotic as a realm of violence which borders on death itself, but Bataille also
characterises erotic joy (joie
) as necessarily excessive in character, and compares it to an incommunicable mystical experience (as does Lacan).18
Again, anticipating Lacan's remarks on the paradoxical character of jouissance, Bataille writes that 'we should, enduring it without too much anxiety, enjoy [jouir
] the feeling of being lost or being in danger.'19
For Bataille, this paradox arises from the very nature of the orgasm itself, which is always finalised by a death-like shudder.
3. Jouissance versus desire
Prior to 1958, Lacan's occasional uses of the term jouissance seem to be in keeping with common usage; it is a synonym for pleasure, particularly pleasure of a brute physical kind, the paradigm of which is the pleasure of orgasm. However, beginning in 1958, the term gradually acquires a completely new, specifically Lacanian meaning. This new meaning emerges from distinctions which Lacan develops, first between jouissance and desire, and then between jouissance and pleasure.
The distinction between jouissance and desire is first developed in the seminar on the formations of the unconscious, in the sessions of March 1958.20
Here, Lacan states that it is important to distinguish carefully between these two terms, but provides only a few hints on how he understands this distinction. His most explicit statement on the matter comes in the lecture of 26 March 1958, when he claims that 'the subject does not simply satisfy a desire, he enjoys [jouit]
desiring, and this is an essential dimension of his jouissance.'21
In other words, desire is not a movement towards an object, since if it were then it would be simple to satisfy it. Rather, desire lacks an object that could satisfy it, and is therefore to be conceived of as a movement which is pursued endlessly, simply for the enjoyment (jouissance) of pursuing it. Jouissance is thus lifted out of the register of the satisfaction of a biological need, and becomes instead the paradoxical satisfaction which is found in pursuing an eternally unsatisfied desire. It is no surprise, then, that Lacan immediately links it with the phenomenon of masochism.
These first remarks on the relationship of jouissance and desire suggest that jouissance is what sustains desire, since it is the enjoyment
of desiring for desire's sake that keeps one desiring in the absence of satisfaction. Later, however, the relationship between desire and jouissance is presented differently. In the seminar on anxiety, for example, when Lacan states that 'desire presents itself as a will to jouissance,' this seems to posit jouissance as the terminus of desire, as that which desire aims at.22
It is now a question of explaining why desire never attains that jouissance which it seeks out, of explaining why the will to jouissance is always 'a will which fails, which encounters its own limit, its own restraint.'23
it is important to note the difference between these two accounts of the relationship between jouissance and desire. In the first account, the two coexist: if the subject enjoys desiring, then jouissance sustains desire. In the second account, in w...