views updated May 08 2018


French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's (19011981) use of the term jouissance, like most other Lacanian concepts, shifts over the years and can be difficult to pin down. Translating from the French, jouissance can be rendered literally as "enjoyment," "both in the sense of deriving pleasure from something, and in the legal sense of exercising property rights" (Evans, p. 1). The term has sexual connotations as well, also meaning orgasm in French.

Lacan's Early Work: Jouissance as Pleasure

Lacan's first use of the term jouissance can be found in the seminar of 19531954, where it appears just twice (1998, pp. 205 and 223) and is used only in relation to Hegel's dialectic of the master and the slave. Here Lacan equates jouissance with pleasure, noting the "relation between pleasure [ jouissance ] and labour" and notes that "a law is imposed upon the slave, that he should satisfy the desire and pleasure [ jouissance ] of the other" (1998, p. 223). Until Seminar IV (19561957), jouissance as simply "pleasure" is Lacan's only and infrequent use of the term.

In his early work, Lacan's notion of jouissance, although not a Freudian term, has parallels to Freud's concept of the drive. After 1957, the sexual connotations of the word move to the forefront, and in 1958 he first uses jouissance to refer explicitly to orgasm. Thus, in 1958, Lacan speaks of "masturbatory jouissance, " which he attributes to the phallic stage and the "imaginary dominance of the phallic attribute" (1977, p. 282).

Lacan's Work of the Late 1950s and 1960s: Jouissance Versus Pleasure

After 1958, Lacan begins to distinguish between jouissance and pleasure. This can be found in Seminar VII (19601961), where Lacan discusses jouissance as an ethical stance in relation to Kant and Sade. In this phase of his work, jouissance comes to figure as that which Freud referred to as "beyond" the pleasure principle or, as Lacan puts it, "jouissance is suffering" (1992, p. 184). In relation to Kant's example of the man who refuses a night of pleasure with a woman if the price to be paid is death, Lacan remarks that, although that may be true for the man in pursuit of pleasure, the man in pursuit of jouissance (as the figures of de Sade's are) will accept death as the price to be paid for jouissance : "one only has to make a conceptual shift and move the night spent with the lady from the category of pleasure to that of jouissance for the example to be ruined" (1992, p. 189). In the acceptance of death as the price, the subject experiences jouissance, in which "pleasure and pain are presented as a single packet to take or leave" (1992, p. 189).

Despite these earlier references, it is not until 1960 that Lacan gives his first structural account of jouissance. In "Sub-version of the Subject," he posits pleasure as that which "sets the limits on jouissance " (1977, p. 319). The sacrificing of jouissance also becomes here, for the first time, a necessary condition for subjectivitythe subject, by submitting him-or herself to the symbolic order must sacrifice some jouissance, since "jouissance is forbidden to him who speaks" (1977, p. 319). In this Lacan rewrites Freud's theory of the castration complex: "Castration means that jouissance must be refused" (1977, p. 324). The sacrificed (or "alienated") jouissance becomes the object, that which is the cause of desire but never attainable.

Lacan in the 1970s: Masculine and Feminine Jouissances

Finally, in the 1970s, especially in Seminar XX (19721973), Lacan brings to the forefront his distinction between masculine and feminine jouissance. Although he had discussed jouissance in conjunction with femininity as early as 1958, it is only in Encore that Lacan first comes to speak of a qualitatively different type of feminine jouissance. He posits feminine jouissance against that of the phallic, termed the "jouissance of the Idiot" (1998, p, 81). In Encore, Lacan defines phallic jouissance (which he sometimes refers to as sexual jouissance ) as that which "is marked and dominated by the impossibility of establishing as such the One of the relation 'sexual relationship'" (1998, p. 67). Lacan's use of the term One refers to mathematical logic (Frege), to the Platonic myth of the lovers' unity in the Symposium, and to the (presumed) unity of the (male) subject in a philosophical sense. Phallic jouissance is thus seen as a barrier to these forms of unity. Or, to put it another way, "[P]hallic jouissance is the obstacle owing to which man does not come to enjoy woman's body, precisely because what he enjoys is the jouissance of the organ. Jouissance, qua sexual, is phallicin other words, it is not related to the Other as such" (1998, pp. 7 and 9). The term Other here refers both to the linguistic Other and to the Other sexwoman. It is precisely man's experience of phallic or sexual jouissance that "covers or poses an obstacle to the supposed sexual relationship" (1998, p. 9).

Although women have, according to Lacan, access to a jouissance that is beyond the phallus, men, by virtue of the fact that it is "through the phallic function that man as whole acquires his inscription" (1998, p. 79), have to make do with inadequate phallic or sexual jouissance, one that causes him to be unable to "attain his sexual partner except inasmuch as his partner is the cause of his desire" (1998, p. 80). A further cause of the inadequacy of phallic jouissance is its incompatibility with feminine jouissance, thus posing an obstacle to the sexual relationship.

Feminine jouissance differs from masculine or phallic jouissance through its relation to the Other, especially the Other sex, which for Lacan means woman. Although in his earlier work, Lacan attributed to women a jouissance associated with the phallic stage and the clitoris (1977, p. 282), his work of the 1970s moved away from that position. In particular, Lacan posits for women a specifically feminine jouissance that is "beyond the phallus" (1998, p. 74). Women have access both to phallic, or sexual, jouissance, and to a supplementary form of jouissance by virtue of being not wholly subsumed by the phallic function as men are: "being not-whole, she has a supplementary jouissance compared to what the phallic function designates by way of jouissance " (1998, p. 73). It is, however, impossible to know anything about this other jouissance other than that some women (and men) experience it. Lacan's paradigmatic example of feminine jouissance is that of mystics such as Hadewijch d'Anvers, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa, thus relating feminine jouissance to God. As he asks in relation to mysticism, "Doesn't this jouissance that one experiences and knows nothing about put us on the path of existence? And why not interpret one face of the Other, the God face, as based on feminine jouissance? " (1998, p. 77).

In his later uses of the term jouissance, one can see just where Lacan parts ways with Freud. First, in his claim that "there is no sexual relationship," Lacan asserts the inherent failure of genital sexuality, which Freud did not do. Finally, through his description of a specifically feminine jouissance, one that implies a different type of sexual satisfaction for women, Lacan's later work does away with Freud's notion of libido's being only masculine.

Feminist and Political Applications of Jouissance

Feminists and cultural critics have appropriated Lacan's term and refined it for their own purposes. Among feminists, jouissance is most often used by French feminists. The two most prominent are Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. Similarly to Lacan, both also discuss a specifically feminine jouissance, related to the mother and woman's body. Kristeva views jouissance as bound up with the maternal and the semiotic chora and views art as "the flow of jouissance into language" (p. 79). Irigaray, in a manner almost as cryptic as Lacan's, also claims that women experience two types of jouissance : a phallic one and one "more in keeping with their bodies and their sex" (p. 45).

In terms of the political, theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Tim Dean have picked up on Lacan's remarks in Television regarding racism, the melting pot, and the jouissance of the Other to view social problems such as ethnic hatred or homophobia as motivated by resentment of the (ethnically or sexually) Other's jouissance.

See also Body, The ; Other, The, European Views of ; Sexuality .



Irigaray, Luce. "The Bodily Encounter with the Mother." Translated by David Macey. In The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 3446. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book I: Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-54. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translation and notes by John Forrester. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1956-1960. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translation and notes by Dennis Porter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX: Encore. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge 197273. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translation and notes by Bruce Fink. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

. Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment. Edited by Joan Copjec. Translated by Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Jeffrey Melhman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.


Dean, Tim. Beyond Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Evans, Dylan. "From Kantian Ethics to Mystical Experience: An Exploration of Jouissance." In Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, edited by Dany Nobus, 128. New York: Other Press, 1998.

Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. New York: Verso, 1991.

. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.

Brenda L. Bethman

Jouissance (Lacan)

views updated May 11 2018


In his seminar of 1959-1960 The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992), Lacan developed the concept of jouissance (enjoyment) while discussing Civilization and Its Discontents (Freud, 1930). In that work, Freud had articulated a contradiction inherent in the concept of pleasure: "This endeavor [of striving for happiness] has two sides. . . . It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. . . . The task of avoiding suffering pushes that of obtaining pleasure into the background" (1930, pp. 76-77).

For Lacan, these two aspects of pleasure were irreconcilable, and he argued that Freud connected the pleasure and reality principles under a no-displeasure principle. This is the very principle that blocks the path to jouissance. "Who is there who in the name of pleasure doesn't start to weaken when the first half-serious is taken step toward jouissance?" asked Lacan (1959-1960/1992, p. 185). Even an animal, he added, "has an economy: it acts so as to produce the very least possible jouissance. That's what we call the pleasure principle" (1969-70/1991, p. 88).

It is true that once we start down the path of jouissance, we do not know where it will lead: "It starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames" (Lacan, 1991, p. 83). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud had already noted that "the most painful experiences . . . can yet be felt . . . as highly enjoyable" (1920, p. 17). On the basis of this text, Lacan made a connection between jouissance and repetition. He drew support for his argument from the hysterical symptom of repetition, as in the case of Elizabeth von R., and defined repetition as a trace, a kind of writing, that commemorates "an irruption of jouissance" (1991, p. 89). Jouissance (Genuss ) is involved when the pleasure principle yields not necessarily to pain, but to unpleasure. The term was already present in Freud, but Lacan developed it as a concept. Still, he complained of never having had the time to outline its parameters, which he would have likely called "the Lacanian field" (1991, p. 93).

In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992), Lacan emphasized that Freud posed the question of jouissance in terms of drive. The energy of the superego derives from the libido of this unsatisfied drive; the more the subject fails to feel jouissance, the more libido there is to feed the superego, and the more the superego will demand new renunciations. Lacan believed that in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud was stating that "everything that is transferred from jouissance to prohibition gives rise to the increasing strengthening of prohibition" (Lacan, 1992, p. 176). Thus the guilt triggered by masturbation can be understood as an increase of libido in the superego, brought about by a short circuit in masturbation that achieves only a brief and stifled satisfaction instead of jouissance.

What is involved here is not the satisfaction of need, but of the drive. In fact, Lacan placed the two in radical opposition to one another: "And if the social bond is established by renouncing the satisfaction of the drive, it is because this satisfaction implies the enjoymentin the juridical sense of the termof objects that could either belong to others or deprive them of their jouissance." This situates jouissance in another field and simultaneously introduces the question of religion, moral precepts, and the law.

In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992), Lacan based jouissance on the law. If jouissance consists in breaking the barrier of the pleasure principle, if it can only be attained through a transgression, then only a prohibition opens the path toward it. As for the "other," he is already implicated in Freud's analysis of sadism: when we inflict pain on others, "we enjoy by identifying with the suffering object." From his reading of Civilizationand Its Discontents, Lacan concluded, "Jouissance is evil . . . because it involves suffering for my neighbor" (1992, p. 184). Moreover, he noted that love of one's neighbor seemed absurd to Freud. Each time that this Christian ideal is stated, "we see evoked the presence of that fundamental evil which dwells within this neighbor. But if that is the case, then it also dwells within me. And what is more of a neighbor to me than this heart within which is that of my jouissance and which I don't dare go near?" (Lacan, 1992, p. 186).

In "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire" (2002), Lacan inscribed jouissance in the topography of his graph of desire. At the upper level of the graph, jouissance is indicated by signifying lack in the Other, S(A̷). This is phallic jouissance, which is related to castration as lack. Traditionally, the erectile organ, the phallus, represents the object of jouissance, not so much by itself, but rather as the missing portion of a desired image. Phallic jouissance is inscribed in the diagram at the level of a vector that starts out from S(A̷), the Other's lack, and goes toward (S̷ D), the drive as articulated by the subject and the demand of the Other. Thus jouissance is "of the Other" and at the same time operates on the level of the drive. Recognizing the Other's lack produces a fantasy in the subject's unconscious. In this fantasy, the object represents what the subject imagines that the Other is deprived of.

In everyday life, the mother, as primordial Other, is prohibited from making up for her lack with her child. Thus the Other remains prohibited. In his diagram, Lacan located jouissance at the place of the barred Other, S(A̷) this is also where Lacan inscribed the superego that orders the subject to enjoy, "Jouis!" To this command, the subject can only respond, "J'ouis!" ("I hear!"), for such jouissance is structurally prohibited. Lacan repeated that while the superego prohibits and punishes, it also requires that the subject experience jouissance. For Lacan, the requirement to enjoy is directly related to a taboo. But what is prohibited, what must remain unsatisfied, is only the subject's jouissance. Giving the Other an experience of jouissance does not seem to be prohibited.

The Other is barred in the diagram only by being marked by the loss of object a. Thus if a subject assumes the position of the Other's missing object and if this can make the Other whole, then "It would enjoy," as Lacan said (2002, p. 311). He thus introduced a jouissance outside the phallic order, a mystic jouissance, which he defined as a nonphallic, feminine jouissance (1998). For being not whole, a woman "has a supplementary jouissance compared to what the phallic function designates by way of jouissance. . . . Y]ou need but go to Rome and see the statue by [Gianlorenzo] Bernini [the Ecstasy of St. Teresa] to immediately understand that she's coming. There's no doubt about it" (1998, pp. 73, 76).

But what did Lacan mean when he said that a woman, for being "not whole," was capable of a supplementary, nonphallic jouissance? With the "formulas of sexuation," he proposed dividing subjects not according to their biological sex, but according to their relation to the phallus. On the masculine side would be those subjects who take object a as the cause of their desire and depend upon their phallic nature to attain it. Subjects on the feminine side have one eye on the phallus and one eye on the jouissance of the Other, S(A̷). The male or female mystica designation independent of biological sexis situated on the feminine side. Supplementary jouissance, strictly speaking, is feminine. But to attain it, the subject must stop looking both waystoward phallic jouissance and jouissance of the Otherand become devoted only to the latter. Such an experience was attained by St. John of the Cross, for example, who was familiar with a mystical jouissance "outside sex," and thus beyond the mark of difference and beyond lack. The moment of ecstasy arrives when the mystic, entirely desubjectified and merged with object a of the Other's desire, becomes one with the Other, who in turn no longer lacks. The result is that to represent the Other's jouissance, "A" is rewritten as unbarred, S(A). In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud referred to the "oceanic feeling" of being at one with the greater Whole. Such is the feeling of mysticism, and also of trances and ecstasy.

Whereas Freud discussed the dark relationship between mysticism and suffering with great hesitation, Lacan spoke of them more positively by remarking that on the cultural level, adoration of Christ suffering on the cross naturally sustains jouissance. If certain mystics directly experience jouissance by looking at the Other's faceby looking at the face of Godothers can attain it only by allowing the ever so broken body of Christ on Calvary to sustain it. They partake of a vicarious jouissance from Christ's mutilated body offered up to God. Commenting on Catholicism, Lacan wrote, "That doctrine speaks only of the incarnation of God in a body, and assumes that the passion suffered in that person constituted another person's jouissance" (1998, p. 113)

Marie-Christine Laznik

See also: Autism; Castration of the subject; Dark continent; Fantasy, formula of; Fetishism; Graph of Desire; "Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses"; Kantianism and psychoanalysis; Masochism; Matheme; Narcissistic elation; Object a ; Phallus; Phobias in children; Repetition compulsion; Sexuation, formulas of; Subject's desire; Subject of the drive; Suffering; Symptom; Symptom/sinthome; Voyeurism.


Freud, Sigmund. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

Lacan, Jacques. (1991). Le séminaire. Book 17: L'envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970). Paris: Seuil.

. (1992). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 7: The ethics of psychoanalysis (1959-1960) (Dennis Porter, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1998). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 20: On feminine sexuality: the limits of love and knowledge, encore (1972-1973) (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

. (2002). The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960.)

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