The Paradox of Enjoyment

downloadMost of you who visit this blog know that I use it as a sort of mental sorting space, a way to digest a lot of the theory I’m reading, processing and incorporating into my thesis – both the critical and the creative portions –  on postmodern (or post-postmodern) eroticism.

Hopefully, if you’ve been reading along, you already know that what I’m referring to as eroticism is something quite specific. I’m not addressing just all kinds of ‘sexy’ writing, but work that theorizes on, or fiction that addresses  a kind of peak erotic experience described by Georges Bataille in his work ‘Erotism: Death and Sensuality’. For Bataille, eroticism is almost indistinguishable from an ecstatic religious experience – with four very important aspects: transgression, transcendence, the temporary destruction of the individual as a socially intelligible subject, and the instability or failure of language to communicate or make sense of it in the moment.

The most important of all of these is transgression: it’s really the key to all eroticism as Bataille and many theorists that came after him define it.

Unsurprisingly, this tends to upset a lot of people who feel that sexuality is still very much repressed and controlled within our contemporary society.  They imagine an ideal utopian mode of erotic being in which pleasure and the enjoyment of erotic sensuality is seen as a positive force within our culture, very much in line with the ideology of sexual liberationists.

But the Lacanian theory of enjoyment, of jouissance – which I argue is exactly what Bataille is describing as eroticism –  is structured on a model of desire and drive that is very complex. Jouissance can only be yearned for in its absence, in its prohibition. For theorists like Todd McGowan, “enjoyment is something that does not exist prior to its renunciation” (16). This seems counter-intuitive. Wait up, you say, I can enjoy a sunset, a wank, a glass of wine without someone telling me I’m not allowed to have it! Absolutely, but that’s not the sort of ‘enjoy’ that we’re discussing. We’re not discussing a simple sensory pleasure. We’re talking about a yearning for a form of enjoyment that seems to promise a meaning, a satisfaction beyond the object or act itself. We’re discussing a transcendence, a sublime experience.

Later Lacanian-inspired thinkers like Zizek and McGowan, and also people like Jean Baudrillard, feel that with the evolution of the consumer society, something has changed very radically. We’ve moved from a society of prohibition to a society of enjoyment. As McGowan explains:

“Whereas formerly society has required subjects to renounce their private enjoyment in the name of social duty, today the only duty seems to consist in enjoying oneself as much as possible. The fundamental social duty in contemporary American society lies in committing oneself to enjoyment. Advertisements, friends, movies, parents, television shows, internet sites, and even authority figures all call on us to maximize our enjoyment. This marks a dramatic change in the way the social order is constituted: rather than being tied together through a shared sacrifice, subjects exist side by side in their isolated enclaves of enjoyment” (2)

Slavoj Zizek frames it another way: “Public order is no longer maintained by hierarchy, repression and strict regulation, and therefore is no longer subverted by liberating acts of transgression” (“You May!”). His argument is that, within a social paradigm that commands you to enjoy, that tells you that greed is good and no boundaries should exist to seeking your own private enjoyment, there is no mechanism by which you can rebel against the power-structure that makes the rules (or lack of them).

It’s really hard to get your head around the trap of this, so let me offer you a little narrative to explain why a consumeristic society of enjoyment is a tremendously frightening trap:

Salesperson: Hey, buy this Hugo Boss suit. It will let people know exactly what kind of a man you are.
Buyer: It’s really expensive.
Salesperson: We have easy credit. You can apply for it, and then buy the suit.
Buyer: But… I really don’t need a suit to express my masculinity.
Salesperson: I can see that you’re a real radical. Excellent. Why don’t you buy this “Fuck Hugo Boss”  t-shirt to let the world know that you think men who buy Hugo Boss suits to attempt to express their masculinity are insecure losers.

When it comes to erotic aspects of life, it gets even more insidious. The labels that once served to remind you of the consequences of pursuing forbidden enjoyment are now used to sell enjoyment that isn’t forbidden at all: your purchase “Natasha’s Naughty Confessions” on Amazon infers that someone – either you or Natasha is probably going to incur punishment. But the reality is that there’s nothing ‘naughty’ about it. None of you are going to be punished for enjoying it. Same with XXX, or sinful, or forbidden or explicit. They’re all marketing tags that infer a barrier, a prohibition that simply isn’t there. They appeal to our nostalgia for an earlier society in which slinking into a porn flick was a socially risky thing to do, when doing something ‘sinful’ really DID make you worry that you might be locked out of a blissful afterlife for indulging in it.

I know this is going to piss off some sex-bloggers and online erotica writers I am very fond of. They’re not literally trying to ‘sell’ anything with their ‘sinful confessions’ and their ‘naughty stories’. These are ‘bell words’ to attract people to their content. What I would ask them to consider is just to acknowledge that they are, unwittingly, indulging in false advertising. They’d be outraged if anyone tried to actually punish them punitively for their ‘naughtiness’ or if someone threatened them with hellfire and damnation for their ‘sinfulness’. I want them to acknowledge the dichotomy: unless there really ARE negative consequences to their supposedly transgressional acts of expression, they aren’t transgressive. You can’t actually transgress anything if you have no value for the line you’re stepping over.

Wait up! You say again. What about all those new regulations that British Board of Film Censors just brought in: no spanking, no face-sitting, no golden showers, no fisting. Isn’t that prohibition? (UK Porn Legislation) Well, yes it is. And this serves to remind us that cultural and sociopolitical theorists tend to state their ideas in absolutes, but reality always looks a little choppier. But I would argue that a) no one has prohibited you from actually DOING this in your bedroom and b) they have made themselves ridiculous in the eyes of mainstream society for attempting to ban in remediation what many people do in their bedrooms and c) there’s a frightening application of power at play here: we have a society full of government-supported sex-educators telling us that its healthy to express our sexuality any way we want to in the bedroom (as long as its consensual) and a government-supported media regulator who claims it’s obscene to show those very things we are being told are so essential to our self-realization as healthy sexual beings.

This application of power is so frightening because it doesn’t even bother to try to make any sense. It appears whim-driven and unintelligible.  Lacan calls it the enigmatic desire of the Other. And it is, in Lacanian terms, the most traumatic form of power abuse there is. When a power structure imposes rules that seem relatively logical to us, we tend to find a way to cope with those. But when the rules seem utterly senseless, it is a subtle form of psychological terror because there is no way to even begin to imagine what insane rule they’ll try and impose next (Ruti 44)

So, as I approach the end of my graduate work, I’m confronted with theorists who are basically claiming that the form of eroticism I wish to represent in my fiction simply can’t exist in a society of enjoyment. And their arguments for why it can’t aren’t easily dismissed.

And yet, I feel they are wrong. Not completely, but they ignore the fact that there are prohibitions and sins in our culture of enjoyment. We are prohibited from NOT enjoying, we are prohibited from feeling ashamed or guilty when we enjoy, it is a sin to be fat and not be constantly promising you’ll lose weight, it’s a sin to indulge in activities that aren’t healthy – like smoking, and, as we’ve just seen in the last election in the UK and in the punitive and repressive policing tactics that led to the tragedy in Ferguson – it’s a sin to be poor. It’s a terrible sin not to have the means by which to participate in all this guilt-free enjoyment, and a sin to made a decision not to do it.

Admittedly, none of these forms of transgression will do what Zizek dreams of, which is to change the current neo-liberal social order. But I am not in the business of revolution. I am in the business of telling stories of eroticism. And I think there is plenty of scope here for both external transgressions of willfully rejecting the values of a consumerist society and internal transgressions – because we DO have the power to draw our own lines, set our own limits, and then step over them.


Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.

McGowan, Todd. The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. Ed. H Sussman. SUNY Press, 2004.

Ruti, Mari. The Singularity of Being. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

Žižek, Slavoj. “You May!” London Review of Books (Online) 21.6 (1999): 3–6.

16 Thoughts on “The Paradox of Enjoyment

  1. We’ve given up a real concept of ‘danger’ for the theme park version. We see more acceptance of tropes and cliches, and little to challenge them when they are wrapped up in the essential, delicious angst that is so easily drip-fed to our blood streams via a purple-headed needle of self-congratulatory self-loathing. We love to hate ourselves, I think. We like to think we know better, too. Punk was fashion. Hippies were rich kids. Sex? Isn’t that for amateurs?

    Might seem unrelated, but I was discussing the ‘problem’ of music recently – it’s lack of distinct instrumentation vs. ‘sound effects.’ There used to be a band. Now there’s a computer. You can have it perfect, if you want. If there are no layers to peel away, if it’s all just surface noise, what are you listening to, exactly? Yet, there it is, enjoyed by so many, no permission needed, no thought necessary. We’ve packaged culture, art, sex, life, war – all of it – into a microwave meal that cooks itself in minutes.

    Somewhere, someone will tell you it’s all about taste.

    • “We love to hate ourselves”

      I don’t know that we love to. I think we are encouraged to enumerate our flaws so that we can purchase some product or service that will improve it. The narcissistic project of ensuring that we are fully self-actualized and that we present ourselves as a product, self-promote and participate in the mutually congratulatory rolling out of our latest version of ourselves is very time-consuming and serious.

      This is not about taste. This is about being so completely submerged into an ideology of commoditization that we don’t even recognize that it IS an ideology, and that there ARE alternatives we could choose. It has become almost impossible to see where the borders of this are. And should you find them, and venture further, you are surely mad.

  2. As always, beautifully written and argued. I love reading your blog and should comment more, instead of replying in my head – after all, the beauty of sharing our thoughts is the possibility of discussing them 🙂 (in part, I don’t reply because theory is a bit rusty in my head, I need time to digest it and refresh it).

    And yes. In all the apparent freedom we have nowadays, we are as prisoners as we have always been: of DOs and DONTs, of rights and wrongs (perceived in nothing else). For my own writing, I’m deep in Victorian studies, and my impression is that the frosting has changed, but the cake is made with the same ingredients.

    Our freedom is apparent, and there is indeed plenty scope for transgression, for seeking that which is not to be achieved and yet aspired to. And I believe, especially in stories of eroticism. If you think of the poor sensationalist mess of 50 Shades, financially a success but as constrained and farfetched an erotic story as few have been – it felt to me like feeding people bits of raw potatoes wrapped in gaudy colours, to distract them from the poor content and make people feel ‘naughty’ with no harm done (in theory, anyway).

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hi. I’m so glad you did comment. And don’t sweat the theory. Ideas are what matter and, ultimately, how they apply to writing eroticism.

      I had to make a choice to consciously exclude any stories from my thesis that are set in earlier time periods, because I wanted to hold myself to the challenge of setting the eroticism now. But I can know just how strong the allure is to retreat back into earlier cultural periods, where it was so much easier to find rules to break.

  3. Certainly technological advances have changed our perception and ways in the last few decades. One point from McGowan stood out to me in his quote.

    “isolated enclaves of enjoyment”…so true, but really is it enjoyment?

    Interesting thoughts RG.

    • The irony in Baudrillards’ writing is often implicit, TFP. Consider the connotations of “Isolate” and “enclaves”.
      Observation – has anyone else noticed the huge disparity between ads of people “enjoying’ the wonders of technogy as they gaze ecstatically at the various irridescent screens of iphones, tablets and lap-tops, and the actual reality of facial expressions on public transport and cafes as they engage with the same electronic devices. In the ads, they look enlightened, blissed out, amazed, often as if they are on the verge of some ecstatic orgasm. In reality, more often than not, they look anxious, stressed, unhappy or bored. Here, truly is a ‘paradox’ of enjoyment.

      • Oooh, well spotted. That IS McGowan paraphrasing Baudrillard!

        Honestly, I have big problems with Baudrillard. Wonderful, challenging ideas, but I find his absolutism unhelpful. I always imagine him as one of those people who says “I hate to tell you this” while smiling with barely disguised glee.

    • Sorry for the late response, TFP. Your question of a good one, but a Lacanian framing would ask you to go one better: whose enjoyment is it? I’m going to post a blog about this once I get my references together for it.

  4. This is what you achieved in Lucy the Scholar. Isn’t transgression achieved to some extent in every erotic story that fails to end with happily-ever-after or with refusing the hegemony of sexual pleasure in our culture of enjoyment? Lucy appears unexcited about her own performance/experience as a scholar, pursues potentially transformative sex, but presumably chooses a future of bored scholarship. Although I can see how this might be seen as the opposite, because it is “safe” choice. I’ll say it seems a transgressional choice in writing but perfectly “normal” as a real life situation. She tasted the apple and returned to Garden. THAT is a transgressive fantasy.

    • It’s really interesting that you should make this observation, and I’m so thrilled that you feel Lucy the Scholar applies to this because I’m including it in my thesis as an address to this question.

      There is a faction in Lacanian theory that hypothesizes a masochistic form of jouissance that, instead of aiming towards a transgression of the social order, voraciously aims itself at a dramatic identification with the strictures of the social order itself. Ruti’s account of the scholar as vampire is a great example of this:

      “If I have presented the undeadness of the real as a rebellious force that connects us to an “immortality” beyond hegemonic sociality, the scholar as vampire could be said to uphold precisely such sociality: He or she personifi es the kind of infl exibility of being that results from an excessive allegiance to symbolic investitures that seek (sometimes quite brutally) to bind our energies. In other words, Rosenzweig’s vampire implies that our undeadness can, under some circumstances, lose its counterhegemonic quality and, instead, become tied to certain forms of normativity (such as the rules of scholarly pursuit).” (Singularity of Being 32)

  5. More than the culture of enjoyment, I think to some degree the fading of religion as a controlling force has removed much of the fear from what was formerly considered transgressive in a public sense. In a personal sense, transgression is easier to achieve as our internal boundaries are more clearly delineated and crossing them takes a supreme act of will. In many cases, it seems to me, transgression is not so much in what you do behind closed doors, but what you will claim in the light of day. As writers, we transgress when we plant that seed in a reader’s brain that causes them to question the boundaries they operate within and admit that they are aroused by acts they would never have considered.

    • I think as Sessha points out – whilst what is defined as “transgression” publicly has diminished in contemporary Western culture – almost to the point that sin can ONLY be portrayed as a parody (a la erotica sell-slogans, and also countless chocolate ads). It is still a publicly condemned sin to rape, to murder. Countless crime shows such as SVU capitalize on these tropes as reliably transgressive.Your ideas and the theorists you’re looking at here appear to sit quite firmly within a Western secular framework, and perhaps it could be helpful in regards to your ‘intellectual despair’ to bear in mind other forces at work in society. There is still much in the personal realm of the individual psyche that is delineated by ideas of right and wrong. Sex workers I know tell stories of many clients who come to them to enact things they feel excessive guilt or shame about. Also, I will argue that religion such as Christianity still operate in the cultural consciousness of significant proportions of the population. And even adult sons and daughters of Christians who don’t identify as Christian struggle with a kind of inherited guilt around many things – sexuality in particular. So I think there remains much for the erotic writer to “play upon” – but perhaps these audiences are becoming more fragmented to identify *because* of the diminishing public discourses of transgression and the increasing ideological imperatives to “enjoy ourselves”- at all costs.

      • “There is still much in the personal realm of the individual psyche that is delineated by ideas of right and wrong.”

        Oh, I absolutely agree with you! For a lot of people, no amount of public approbation of a certain act will make them feel okay about it. It will always feel transgressive to them! For instance, I had a boyfriend who would not – could not – come in my mouth. All the BJ porn, all the facials, all the bukakke, and it didn’t matter to him. Internally, he just felt it was such an awful thing to do to a woman you loved. Consequently, when I finally hijacked him into doing it, the experience was pretty transcendent for him – and I mean that in every sense of the word – wonderful, terrible, shameful, ecstatic, horrific.

        So, yes. I think for erotica writers looking for sites of genuine transgression, writing complex characters with internally constructed taboos and boundaries who cross them is a very fertile area. The trick is to write the character well enough to get the reader to buy into the truth of that person’s sacred/profane space.

    • “it seems to me, transgression is not so much in what you do behind closed doors, but what you will claim in the light of day”

      This is a really interesting statement. I need to ponder it. The light of day implies what you say and how you are seen in the realm of sociality. So it plays into the problematic idea that we are free to construct our own identities in the Symbolic order.

      While I think it is certainly possible and wonderful when writers DO plant that seed, I think much of fiction today is more aimed at reinforcing the trees that are there, rather than planting new ones. And for good reason. Planting really new ones is incredibly hard. Sometimes just destabilizing a reader’s preconceived understanding of the world is heroic enough!

  6. Your post provokes many thoughts RG – perhaps more space-conscious to express as fragments. Do with them what you will 🙂

    * Grafitti seen 15 years ago on a Melbourne overpass that I’ve never forgotten: “Commodify your dissent” An ironic manifesto on the impossibility of creating anti-establishment countercultural identity in a consumerist society in 3 words.

    In “Brave New World”, the hedonistic, anti-intellectual, superficial culture Huxley satirized of soma, sex-as-pleasure, and endless entertainment-as-distraction (the “feelies” ) holds up a confrontingly relevant mirror to where we are right now. Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death) puts it succinctly in his essay comparing an Orwellian vision of a future society with Huxley’s.

    “In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

    Common to both visions is a society suspicious of solitude. It seems both Orwell and Huxley identified that in order to have a thinking culture, people need to feel permission to spend time alone – to read, to think. Is this too, like the ‘sin’ of poverty you refer to, becoming a transgression? You’re right about this new sin – the sin of making a decision to “not enjoy” – to wilfully spend time doing things as transgressive as critiquing enjoyment – or writing erotica. (Being playful here with this last point)

    • See, both Zizek and Foucault would disagree with Postman on this. There IS a Big Brother. For Foucault, it is that we don’t need massive prohibitive power structures because we internalize that big brother so thoroughly (panopticon) on our own. Those technologies that allow for the internalization and love of the oppression is the Big Brother – inside us. For Zizek, it’s a bit more complicated: that there is a hegemony that has two faces – one says, don’t objectify, sacrifice your pleasure, etc, and the other that implicitly encourages you to ignore the explicit ideology. That together they make for a powerful and stable hegemony that dominates while providing pressure valves to keep the machine working.

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