The term jouissance, in the Lacanian universe, is a very slippery thing. I use the term in the Lacanian sense, and yet doing that is dangerous because Lacan’s own definition evolved radically over the years, sometimes paradoxically. Dylan Evan’s chapter on the subject in Key Concepts in Lacanian Psychoanalysis is a very useful survey of the different meanings Lacan explored throughout his career. [1. Evans Dylan. “Jouissance,” Key Concepts in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (Ed. D. Nobus), Other Press, 1999]
It would be easy if those earlier definitions were disposable, if each of Lacan’s progressive usages were overwritten by the next, and I’ve noticed that some people feel they were. But as a writer of erotic fiction, the progression of signification is relevant and cumulative.
1. Lacan’s very early usage of the term to refers the formal definition of the word: enjoyment or pleasure. Initially, it has no sexual connotations, but legal and economic ones he takes this, via Kojev, from Hegel in his Master/Slave dialectic. i.e. Masters ‘enjoy’ the fruits of the slave’s labour. For me, this definition is worth keeping in mind because it is relevant, even at this very unsexual, level to the power dynamics that are at play in many sexual and romantic relationships.
2. Lacan begins to use the word to mean very biological, body-based pleasure of orgasm. And, as Evan’s points out, although he never credits Bataille with being an influence in his thinking, considering their shared history, there’s every reason to believe there is one, and that this influence is long-lived and deepens as his definition evolves. But even as he is using the word to describe Bernini’s St. Teresa, the subject he’s chosen to use this with foreshadows the way the word will evolve for him. Yes, of course, it does look like St. Teresa is in the throws of an orgasm, but keep in mind that it is not because she’s having sex. She’s about to be penetrated, certainly, but by an arrow wielded by an angel. This particular orgasm comes about through religious ecstasy. It is not simple genital pleasure. There are elements of pain, of horror, of awe. St. Teresa’s jouissance occurs in forbidden territory – past the place that mortals should go.
This is really where the debt to Bataille begins: his definition of eroticism as transgression, as deindividuation, [2. Bataille, Georges. Erotism, Death and Sensuality. City Lights Press, 1962] and as sacrificial ritual to bleed away the excess sexual energies felt by humans but unnecessary for the continuation of the species, as dancing with death, [3. Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty. Zone Books, 1993] all address the growing complexity of Lacan’s ‘jouissance’.
From the point of view of writing erotic work, now the concept starts to take on meat. Because we all know about enjoyment and orgasm, but that’s not where a rich piece of erotic writing stops. In a way, for both the reader and writer, that’s where it begins. People don’t break themselves on the rocks for an orgasm.
3. By the late 1950s, Lacan begins to discuss the relationship between jouissance and desire. Evans’ title to this part presents them as a juxtaposition, but I’m not sure that it’s quite that neat. He’s moved on from seeing jouissance (orgasm) as the end goal of desire (wanting to orgasm) to seeing it as the pleasure inherent in desiring the unattainable. To Lacan there *is* no satisfying desire because the thing we truly want (the Object of desire) can not be had, and so we transpose our desire onto things that can be had. But they never fully satisfy, because they aren’t the thing. They have, perhaps, echoes of the thing. [4. Ruti, Mari. The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within. Fordham University Press, 2012]. If one could ever attain what one truly desires, there would be no more desire. So here jouissance is the rather masochistic enjoyment of perpetual and unsatisfied desiring.
This is echoed and elaborated in the specific in Deleuze’s Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs, where he describes the masochistic hero of the novel as always adoring women who aren’t natural sadists. Intriguingly, Deleuze argues that the masochists school and, in a way, corrupt normal women to his or her masochistic aims. [5. Deleuze, Gilles. Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs. Zone Books, 1991] The end product of this, logically, since the women the hero places on sadistic pedestals aren’t really wired to be there, is that they can never truly satisfy him. His jouissance is in the process of wanting and failing to ever attain the perfect sadistic mistress.
To put it bluntly, for erotic writing, now not only do we have an interesting plot with but we have the soil for very compelling inner conflicts. Gone is the need for the shadowy villain.
4. By 1960, Lacan muddies the water even further, bringing in the dimension of Kantian ethics (the story of the man who is faced with the choice of either having sex with the woman of his dreams and execution or frustration and life) and proposing something past the rather unsatisfactory rigidity of the Freudian ‘pleasure principle’ (which states that people will always pursue pleasure and avoid pain given the choice). For Lacan, there is an ethical dimension to this ‘cost-benefit analysis’ (Evans, p. 7) and people, especially lovers, will sometimes choose pain, choose to eschew their own pleasure, for the sake of the other and this, Lacan argued, is a kind of jouissance. It is ethical inasmuch as it is being faithful in the service of desire instead of opting for self-service.
For me, this is where the term starts to take on very challenging contours. Not only has the concept of jouissance evolved past its equation with pleasure and is distinguished from the goal of desire. It is growing into both the horror and the ecstasy of the never-ending journey and, in a strange way, it becomes decentered.