And while I’m airing my Lacanian dirty laundry, let’s talk about jouissance. What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about jouissance in Lacan? Lacan distinguishes between jouissance and pleasure. Despite the fact that jouissance translates as “enjoyment”, it appears that there’s very little about it that is pleasurable (this is one of my problems with Fink’s use of the term in his writings; he seems to assimilate it to pleasure, when it’s very different from pleasure). Pleasure, says Lacan, is a reduction of tension in the psychic system. For example, pleasure is the satisfaction I get when I eat a great meal when I’m very hungry. Jouissance, by contrast, is when you compulsively eat and eat and eat, despite the fact that your continued consumption causes you a great deal of pain and discomfort. You can’t stop yourself. Pleasure is sneezing after a build-up of your nose itching. Jouissance is cutting yourself with razor blades. Pleasure is making love. Jouissance is fucking fifteen or twenty times in a single day– or doing the masturbatory equivalent –even though it’s no longer pleasurable and has even become painful. Evoking Lacan’s example from Seminar 7, jouissance is going through the door to be with the forbidden woman even though you know you’ll be punished for all eternity for doing so (i.e., you destroy yourself).
The concept of jouissance is slippery. We’re told that jouissance is something that we lose when we enter the symbolic order and that we perpetually try to regain. However, given the examples above, it sounds like jouissance is a pretty horrible thing. Indeed, Lacan often talks about jouissance as something that’s traumatic, and speaks of desire as an attempt to defend against jouissance. These strike me as incompatible concepts. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that pleasure is something that we lose when we enter the symbolic order and that jouissance is the repetitive trace of this traumatic loss that we can’t escape from in our lives (i.e., classical Epicureanism is impossible)? Rather than claiming that jouissance is something we try to regain— how could that be true if desire defends against it –it would be more accurate to say that jouissance is the repetition of a trauma that perpetually subverts pleasure and happiness and from which we cannot escape. Yet if we say this, then it seems as if we must substantially revise our understanding of fantasy– ($ <> a) –in Lacanian theory, as “a” is one of the symbols for jouissance and it would be strange to suggest that the subject wants to be unified with this traumatic excess. That would be exactly what the subject doesn’t want. Indeed, when the person enters the clinic their demand is often “How can I get rid of my jouissance?!?! Free me of my jouissance!” In other words, jouissance is that which derails and subverts our aims, plans, and pleasures, not something that we “enjoy”.
Then we have the whole problem of how to understand the different forms of jouissance. Lacan distinguishes between surplus-jouissance or the objet a, phallic jouissance or jφ, Other-jouissance or J(~A~), and “joui-sense”. How do we clinically identify these different sorts of jouissance?
* Surplus-jouissance or objet a, I think, is the easiest to understand. The objet a is the trace of a remainder or loss that takes place when we enter the symbolic order or are alienated in the signifier. Why does the signifier do this? Because, as Lacan said in his Rome Discourse, “the word kills the thing”. The world kills the thing because it introduces absence into the world. With the word, it is now possible to refer to things that are absent and that don’t even exist. Moreover, the word “freezes” the thing. As Hegel argued in the open of the Phenomenology when analyzing sense-certainty, words are always general universal terms, whereas things are singularities. As a consequence, there’s always a disadequation between word and thing. We want the word, as it were, but no thing is ever adequate to the generality of the word. As a consequence, every time we get the thing (not to be confused with what Lacan called The Thing), we’re disappointed. It’s not it. That experience of “it not being it” is what generates surplus-jouissance. We repeat because that gap between word and thing perpetually reappears. “One more time for the sake of it!” The surplus of surplus-jouissance is not a pleasure, but the perpetual reappearance of a traumatic lack arising from the gap between words and things. I hear a number of Lacanians say that objet a is the object of our desire, that it’s what we want. I think this is profoundly sloppy and not at all true. Objet a is what causes our desire, not the thing we say we want. It’s why we’re not simply creatures of need (beings that could be satisfied and where the pleasure principle would reign), but are desiring creatures. The objet a’s are never the objects we think we desire, but always function “behind our backs”, leading us to repeat.
* Phallic jouissance is one form of jouissance that I find deeply mysterious. This might be because I have trouble with the concept of the Phallus in Lacanian psychoanalysis in general (maybe this says something about my own subjective economy, who knows… If there’s one concept I hate more than any other in Lacanian psychoanalysis, it’s that of the phallus). I read “Signification of the Phallus” in Ecrits where Lacan teaches that the phallus is a signifier, the signifier of the Other’s desire, not the penis. “Yay!” I say to myself, “we’re beyond Freud’s talk about the penis! Wundabar!” Why does this make me so happy? Well because 1) I could never bring myself to believe that a contingent encounter such as a parent threatening to “cut it off” or an encounter with one’s sister who “doesn’t have it” could have such profound and widespread effects in producing the symptom, and because 2) I’ve never been able to figure out how this dialectic works in the case of girls, given the original point of identification for children of both sexes is the mother (and I just could never buy talk of “penis envy”). Theorizing the phallus as the signifier of the Other’s desire gets rid of those absurdities. For example, “novels” could be the signifier of the mOther’s desire insofar as she’s always reading– it could be the phallic signifier –and the subject’s psychic life could come to be organized around this signifier if they identify with it insofar as they grow up to write novels as a way of providing the Other with what it lacks. Of course, here we still have the problem as to why a subject comes to fall on the masculine or feminine side of the graph of sexuation. What developmental process takes place here? Unfortunately, again and again I find Lacanians treating the phallus as the penis, talking about the problem of the hysteric as one of “accepting the penis” (ie., being willing to be penetrated), and so on. Big sigh. Is this really believed? When we say all meaning is phallic, are we really saying that all meaning is ultimately grounded in the penis? Seriously? Really? That’s your theory of meaning?
At any rate, working on the premise that jouissance is not pleasurable, what would phallic jouissance be and how does it differ from surplus-jouissance? In the clinic, what instances of jouissance could we identify that lead us to say “this is an instance of phallic jouissance, not surplus-jouissance?” Why do we see surplus-jouissance appearing in the place where the three orders overlap, while we see phallic jouissance appear in the point of overlap between the symbolic and the real? I’ll hazard a guess: The Real, in Lacanese, is the impossible. The symbolic is the domain of the “hole” (for the reasons I outlined above pertaining to the manner in which the signifier introduces absence into the world). If it is true that all meaning is phallic, this would entail that meaning is the attempt to totalize the symbolic order riddled with contradictions and antagonisms (the real) in a single, coherent order. Phallic jouissance would be the perpetual attempt to pin everything down in a coherent order (like I’ve been trying to do in the last two posts!). Of course, the real always returns, so this project is never successful. We never get a Hegelian absolute. Yet Lacan also describes this sort of jouissance as “masturbatory”. What is the relation between the painful experience of the symbolic not being coherent and the pursuit of totalized and coherent meaning, and masturbation? Maybe we’re to interpret it as a sort of a riddle: Masturbation is “doing it without an Other, the pursuit of total meaning is an attempt to eradicate or erase the Other insofar as the Other is the enigma of opaque desire.” Think about having a conversation with Zizek. Zizek’s speech seems to be pervaded with phallic jouissance insofar as when you talk to him his rapid and non-stop speech is experienced as erasing you, of mortifying you in a body of interpretations, so as to erase the enigma (for him) of your opaque desire. He’s talking to you but really talking alone. You’re not there. The problem with this take on phallic jouissance is that the categories of totality and consistency belong not to the symbolic, but to the imaginary yet we don’t see phallic jouissance appear in a zone where the imaginary overlaps. Perhaps this is to say that it’s very exteriority to consistency is what generates the endless push to totality?
I’ll set aside the other two forms of jouissance for the moment (maybe that’s telling), as I am avoiding marking papers for my students (can’t you tell?). That too would be a form of jouissance. If I don’t get these papers graded, my students, who have already been quite delayed in learning their grades, will pull out the torches and tar and feather me. Perhaps my avoidance of marking has been a form of jouissance designed to get me beaten. Moreover, since I promised my students they would get my papers tomorrow, from the standpoint of the dynamics of jouissance I’ll get beaten anyway as my procrastination has ensured that I will either be up very late or will have to get up at an obnoxiously early time, therefore ensuring that I suffer. Such self-destructive patterns repeat fractally in a variety of forms throughout my entire life. So at the beginning of this post you might have thought that my desire was to get clear on the concept of jouissance, but perhaps that desire or wish is just an alibi to get myself beaten!