It seems simplistic, infantile even, to talk about the Lacanian term ‘jouissance’ as it relates to erotic writing. I feel that, in some ways, it’s the jouissance in a piece of writing that distinguishes porn from erotic literature. But in order to explain my reasoning for this, a closer look at the word is needed.
The word’s routine translation into English is simply ‘enjoyment’ which only encompasses the public and legalistic side of the word:
droit de jouissance – the legal right of possession and the use of something
(i.e. the house is yours – you own it, have the right to take possession of it and to enjoy the use of it)
Il jouit d’une popularité phénoménal – he is phenomenally popular
(i.e he enjoys phenomenal popularity).
But even in these asexual examples, there is complexity. It’s not just a matter of owning something, but understanding its worth, enjoying and benefiting from that possession. The sexual aspect of the word jouissance, and the one which would seem initially to be of more use to us comes from the verb form: jouir, which is the verb to ‘enjoy’ but is also used as a term for reaching orgasm.
It is wisely often left untranslated, because we have no English equivalent. It’s not just the event of orgasm or ejaculation, but the pleasure that comes from its anticipation, the struggle of reaching towards it. There is, inherent in the word, the complex and hard to pin down meaning of a curious erotic phenomena – one which Bataille wrote a whole book trying to unpack – of the curious excess feeling beyond pleasure.
The climb toward orgasm is a pleasure/pain. Your body wants something, it knows its goal, it both desires and takes pleasure in its incipient achievement of the orgasm. And, most paradoxically, in the midst of attaining it, one already acknowledges its passing. The birth of the orgasm is simultaneously the beginning of its death. It’s a strange and recursive human experience. I’ve seen jouissance equated with ‘satisfaction,’ in Lacanian terms, by scholars like Bruce Fink. But I find that equation problematic. In English, satisfaction implies a stabilized state. A closure which doesn’t incorporate the transient, ephemeral aspect of jouissance.
There are other human experiences that show a similar pattern in their anticipation: one can have the pleasure/pain in anticipation and enjoyment of the taste, the texture, the juiciness of a perfectly ripe peach, for instance but, biting into it, few people have a simultaneous sadness that it will soon be eaten. Only if there is no hope of eating another in the near future, or unless you’re Proust.
The act of falling in love comes a little closer. There is a pleasure/pain in the excitement and risk of falling in love and, when you know the love is returned and feel secure in it for the moment, there should be a wonderful sense of completeness and satisfaction. But for some people, it can never be fully enjoyed, because some of us cannot truly live in the moment. We cannot help but know that things will change, people change and there will eventually be loss – a fall from that state of grace.
Even in its most literal sense, you might start to see why porn lacks jouissance. Porn can trigger interior fantasies in the consumer, whereby they may generate their own jouissance, but no form of remediation that fails to address the internal experience can contain it. Jouissance is not an act or an event but the individual experience of it. Some erotic writing does address not just what is going on sexually, but how the character experiences it. So, if you want to produce ‘texts of bliss’ as a badly translated version of Barthes called them (texts of jouissance) you are going to need to focus more on the internal experience, than the events of the moment.
Now, of course, I get to tell you that jouissance, in the sense I’m using the term, really isn’t about orgasms, but a state beyond that sense of physical relief. It’s about the climb towards and experience of all ecstatic ruptures. They are all exhilarating, frightening, and bittersweet.
(pause for musical interlude)
This is a piece by Wim Mertens, used in the film The Belly of the Architect by Peter Greenaway. The film is, in some ways, about a man’s struggle to pleasure in the face of his impending demise. Unfortunately, although I loved it when I first saw it, it has dated rather badly and some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy. But the sound track is excellent and I like this piece because its title is perfect for my purposes.
There is a ‘struggle’ towards pleasure, towards bliss. It is not a wholly positive or pleasant experience. Moreover, when it is truly momentous bliss – ecstatic – it’s frightening. At its height, if we are open to it, it threatens to destabilize our established ordering of the world around us and our carefully crafted understanding of who we are as individuals.
I say ‘if we are open to it’. Because I think there are many strategies we find internally, and many external forces also, that can preclude that. There are a lot of cowards in the world. This sounds judgmental, I realize, and to a certain extent it is. Subjectively, I have a very hard time understanding why someone would get on rollercoaster and spend the entire time refusing to allow themselves the full thrill and terror and giddy joy of it. But it happens. For reasons of a brittle sense of pride or a terror at the possibility of losing of control, they go on the ride, but refuse to have the actual experience of it.
Externally, there is a consumerist world out there which enjoins us to buy, to consume, to enjoy. Through marketing, it vastly exaggerates the pleasures to be had from the thing it offers us. At the same time, it must superficialize the experience of that jouissance in order to encourage a continuation of the cycle of desire, possession, use, and abandonment. If we could ever buy something that actually gave us bliss, the producers would be in serious trouble. We’d be very reluctant to part with it and buy a new one.
I think one of the fundamental worries in this fully blown state of consumerism is that this practice of how to orient ourselves towards what we desire (buy, possess, use, throw away) becomes internalized. It is easy for us to begin applying it not just to the newest iPhone, but also to human experiences which possess the real possibility of jouissance. So we learn to ‘perform’ ecstasy without actually feeling it. Because it is about a very material sort of ownership, we begin to find pleasure in being seen to fuck, rather than in the embodied act of fucking. We become fixated on being identified as an object of desire, rather than experiencing what being desired feels like.
There is a fair amount of erotic writing, especially what is sold to women as ‘erotica’, that basically does this. The characters are superficially drawn, cliched and disposable. Under the banner of ‘sex positivity’ the sex is pleasant, easy, uncomplicated. Something fun and naughty and light. Even when kinks are portrayed, they are stylized fun and games. There is no ‘struggle for pleasure’. There is no acknowledgement of the ambiguity of jouissance.
In writing the erotic, the presence of jouissance always contains an in-built conflict: its attainment is always the first stage of its passing.