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  • Introduction to Focus: The Drive Beyond Pleasure
  • Gina Masucci MacKenzie (bio)

In the midst of a global pandemic, many of us have become quiet pleasure seekers, looking to find joy, solace, escape in small acts done in our living rooms, back yards, offices with doors closed to human contact. The contact many of us have had is unrelenting contact with our immediate family members or housemates. Even when these are the people we love most in the world, the intensity of constancy can be overwhelming. The pleasure those people used to bring us is not frequently tinged with annoyance, boredom, and frustration. There is no judgement in that statement; our new normal is exhausting, but it also reminds us of some old normals, or principles that apply in timeframes either expanded or protracted because of our current situation.

Pleasure itself is one of those old normals, at least in the world of literary criticism. We can trace the lineage of pleasure back to ancient Greece with the goddess Hedone and the concept of Epicureanism. Let’s not go back that far, though; for our critical understanding of pleasure, let us turn to Freud, one of the fathers of contemporary pleasure theories. Early in his work, Freud writes about the coordination of pleasure and reality, two concepts frequently both theoretically and practically at odds with each other, using art as a point of resolution. He writes in Formulations on Two Principles of Mental Functioning (1911):

Art bring about a reconciliation between the two principles in a peculiar way. An artist is originally a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciate of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and who allows his erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy. He finds the way back to reality, however, form this world of phantasy by making use of special gifts to mold his phantasies into truths of a new kind, which are valued by men as a precious reflection of reality.

In some ways, in the numbing quiet or rambunctious chaos of our pandemic lives, we are all artists in this Freudian concept, finding ways to combine pleasure and reality as a form of artistic salvation. The difference in Freud’s assessment and mine, is that for Freud the artist’s goal was outward, and in our current world, there is a need to turn the art inward.To explain the critical endeavor and pleasure of turning that art inward, I again consider a short Freudian snippet, “Education can be described without more ado as an incitement of the conquest of the pleasure principle, and to its replacement by the reality principle.” I would like to redefine that form of education as critical pleasure. In the act of criticism, we are not engaging in the kind of primary artistic production that is incited the pleasure principle. The act of critical inquiry and the pleasure derived from it is a refined revision of that initial artistic creation.

Much has been said in mass and social media, over the last year about self-care. For many that means Peloton, chocolate, whiskey, and fuzzy blankets. It’s a hot topic now and feels quite fresh, like a form of salvation in our current isolation. It is, however, not new. Roland Barthes talked about it forty years ago, in relation to that thing, many of us love — literature. As Kris Pint reminds us, “Literary studies were, according to the later Barthes, a way to care for the self, and this is why he viewed his lecture series at the College de France above all as an ethical experiment.” This conflation of literature, self-care, and ethics, and criticism is what I would like to name as the ultimate critical pleasure. Together, those three elements endlessly circle in the motion of the drive called jouissance. The reader derives the greatest pleasure from the act of reading, as an ethical moment of engagement with art, and simultaneously can experience enormous agitation both from the content, perhaps of the literature, but also from the very acts of self-care and ethical responsibility, as the work required to engage...


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