A few days ago I suggested that psychoanalysis poses a fundamental challenge to Epicurean and Spinozist frameworks of ethics. Some responded by pointing out that perhaps we can establish a consistency between psychoanalysis and Spinoza on the ground of inadequate ideas. The symptom, says Lacan, is a sort of unknown knowledge. As he remarks in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, “…it is not certain that knowledge is known…” (30). The symptom expresses a knowledge that is not known. Drawing on Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, Jonathan Redmond gives a nice example of this in Ordinary Psychosis and the Body:
in…the case of Fraulein Elizabeth von R. shows how a conflict concerning the emergence of erotic ideas was pivotal in the development of conversion symptoms. In this particular case, Freud states that Elizabeth’s conversion symptom– a localized pain to her right upper thigh –first developed when a series of ideas concerning her duty to care for her sick father conflicted with an erotic desire for another man. Her self-reproach became a prelude for repression, which was subsequently the basis for her hysterical pain… Localization of the hysterical conversion symptom to her right thigh correlates with the place her father would rest his foot when Elizabeth was bandaging his ankle during his convalescence; these memories provided the ‘content’ for the dissimulation of erotic wishes via the construction of the symptom. (75)
Elizabeth’s symptom, her localized pain in her right thigh, embodied a “knowledge that was not known”. That knowledge was knowledge of the desire or wish. Her conscious self was unaware of the wish, but still that knowledge was there in the symptom. As such, the symptom here is a sort of inadequate knowledge in Spinoza’s terminology. As she engaged in the work of free association, bringing the knowledge expressed in this symptom to the fore, she gradually developed a more adequate knowledge of her desire. This, in turn, is accompanied by a disappearance of the symptom. The signifiers mutely expressed in the conversion symptom of the body are exchanged for signifiers in speech and as a consequence the symptom disappears.
So far, so good. However, the place where I see the real conflict is not so much at the symbolic level of the symptom, but rather at the level of the jouissance of the symptom. The universe of the Epicurean– and I think there’s a great deal of Epicureanism in Spinoza –is premised on the pleasure principle, which operates in a way quite different than jouissance. Pleasure is what arises when there is a reduction of tension within the psychic system. Take a simple example, someone throwing the curtains open in a dark room. Bright sunlight fills the room. Immediately the person who was before in darkness experiences intense pain from the rise of tension in their perceptual system produced by light. How do we respond? We throw the covers over our head or tightly close our eyes. There’s a relaxation of the painful tension as a result of this operation that eases the pain. That’s how the psychic system works.
Matters would be very easy if we were beings organized around the functioning of the pleasure principle. It would simply be a matter of organizing encounters so as to minimize tension within the sorts of systems that we are. Matters are very different, however, with jouissance. I think the term “jouissance” is often misleading because it translates as “enjoyment”. However, there’s very little about jouissance that is “enjoyable”. More often than not, jouissance is intensely painful. Take the manner in which the superego tortures us in irrational ways. In “Kant avec Sade”, Lacan says that the command of the superego is “enjoy!” A perplexing statement if we think of enjoyment as “pleasure”. But jouissance is not pleasure. The enjoyment, the jouissance, that’s found in the tortures of the superego is crushing guilt, depression, and anxiety. There is a rise of tension here within the psychic system and it is a rise in tension that the psychic system pursues without realizing it. There’s a compulsion to pursue this sort of jouissance, a repetition. The subject will, without realizing it, even create situations that will afford her superego the opportunity to flagellate her.
This is the real challenge to Epicureanism: jouissance. Everything suggests that we are not beings governed by the pleasure principle, but that there is something about us, about how we come to be in the field of the Other or the signifier, that leads us to pursue this painful jouissance without realizing it. Why is this and how is it that this comes to be? In many respects, more adequate knowledge– the work of the signifier in free association –can ease the compulsiveness behind this sadistic jouissance, yet like a two sided piece of tape that you can never get rid of, there’s something about jouissance that can never entirely be eradicated. The Epicurean question, then, is not one of abandoning the Epicurean project but rather that of how this ethic changes when we take this feature of our being into account.