- The First Gram of JouissanceLacan on Genet’s Le balcon
Lacan introduces jouissance relatively late in his work. The term still appears only sporadically in the 1950s, where it can hardly be said to constitute an original concept. For instance, in the first two Seminars and “Function and Field,” jouissance is firmly rooted in the Hegelian, or better Kojèvian, dialectic of master and slave: put very simply, it is what the other is supposed to enjoy. We come into being through the other and are thus alienated or lacking subjects; we identify with the other and want to be in the place of his supposed enjoyment. The essence of our ego is nothing but frustration. Were we to fully reduce ourselves to the place of the other, we could not anyway be satisfied with it, since “it would still be the other’s jouissance that [we] would have gotten recognized there” (Lacan, “Function and Field” 208).
Jouissance features prominently in Seminar VII (1959–60). Here, it acquires several meanings, which are not fully developed into a circumscribed and consistent concept. Let us try to summarize Lacan’s main arguments. First, jouissance can only be inscribed within the Law. Or better, jouissance is given exclusively as the jouissance of transgressing the Law. If we try to have it done with the Law altogether in the name of an “uninhibited jouissance” (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 177), jouissance is not in the least strengthened. On the other hand, it is unexpectedly the Law itself that can be regarded as the “site of some irregularity” (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 176): interdictions grow exponentially all the more we subject ourselves to the Law. Jouissance thus amounts primarily to the Law’s jouissance. The implementation of the Law is as such transgressive, and our transgressing it presupposes this state of affairs.
Second, jouissance is an evil, even the Evil tout-court, in that my jouissance inevitably entails my neighbour’s suffering. This point was already evident in the dialectic of master and slave, and is now reiterated: jouissance is what the other is supposed to enjoy (“this register of a jouissance as that which is only accessible to [End Page 6] the other” [The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 237]), whereby I will aim at replacing him, obliterating him at any cost. Jouissance therefore goes together with a suspension of the pleasure principle as a reciprocal “unpleasure principle” or “least-suffering principle” (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 185). Moreover, given that the evil I desire is also reflexively what is desired by my neighbour, independently of the outcome of our confrontation, jouissance can only be painful for both, or at best painful pleasure. My cruelty becomes undistinguishable from that of my neighbour.
Lacan however fails here to conclude that, following on his previous claims, this whole libidinal economy is given only within the limits of the Law; if jouissance is invariably inscribed within the Law, and jouissance is evil, such evil will correspond to the subject’s transgression of the Law as contained by the Law, and as in the end based on the Law’s own intrinsic Evil. It is thus unclear how he can then maintain that jouissance—initially presented to the subject as his Sovereign Good, yet soon experienced by him as suffering and evil—amounts to something unbearable we “cannot stand” (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 73). This in fact contradictorily seems to locate it in an extra-legal domain of enhanced feelings, which, according to Lacan’s overall teaching, were never given to begin with, and can only be fantasised. Why would the subject not stand what is merely mythical?
We have to wait for two underestimated lectures of 1966 to find a clearer, albeit very concise, definition of jouissance, which certainly draws on Seminar VII, but also limits the proliferation of at times incompatible meanings Lacan discusses there. In a paper given in Baltimore at John Hopkins University, jouissance is unhesitatingly identified with what is experienced in the “sensible phase of the human being,” what he feels in the most basic way between birth and death that covers “the whole spectrum of pain and pleasure” (Lacan, “Of...