Writing Jouissance: The limits of language & Cheap Imitations

jouissanceIf desire is the pursuit of pleasure, then compulsion is the pursuit of jouissance. While Lacan’s definition of jouissance evolved over time, he succeeded in describing something that lies, in psychoanalytical terms, beyond the Pleasure Principle; the pursuit of something beyond pleasure, beyond socially acceptable consequences, beyond safety of mind or body (Noys 3). It is something paradoxical that both disturbs and intrigues us because we recognize it in ourselves. It is the site of both our ethical liberation and our self-destruct button (Ruti 38). It requires a text that rejects closure, and leaves, like an archeology, only traces for the reader to recognize as truths.

The best erotic writing deals, not with desire, but with jouissance. And while – as any effective porn illustrates – language has no shortage of vocabulary with which to tell the story of pleasure, a halfway decent erotic writer knows how limiting this is. There are only so many ways to spin a happy couple, fucking themselves to orgasmic bliss and living happily ever after.

The story of those who pursue their pleasures further, into the shadowy realm of jouissance is more intriguing and, unfortunately, far more of a challenge to both writers and readers. While it is possible to describe the plot, for instance, of a woman who feels compelled to seek out dangerous sex with multiple anonymous partners or a man who involves himself with a recklessly sadistic mistress, these scenarios are the plot vehicles of narrative, not the substantive destinations. It’s easy to describe the car, but very difficult to describe the impact of the journey. The compulsion of jouissance aims itself at both liberation and annihilation of a self that lies beyond language. And yet, I contend, both as writers and readers, we instinctively know what it is. We know it because it scares the shit out of us and makes our pulses race. We know it because – even as I type this – I can feel the breathless, vertiginous edge of it.

This is what Lacan might call the edge of the Real and, although we spend most of our lives keeping it at bay with the robust gaffer’s tape of language and social intelligibility, it is always there, stuck to the sole of our shoes (Lacan, Ecrits 17). Moreover, there is obviously something in us, something often referred to darkly by Freud and those who built on his work as the Death Drive, which calls to us. This isn’t rational. It transgresses the social order. There are undoubtedly negative consequences to following its call and, despite much current sex-positive discourse, I believe those negative consequences are an integral part of the passage. In his work ‘Erotisme’, George Bataille describes the relationship between this transgression and its destination beyond the linguistically and rule-constructed reality of society. He, like many after him, resorted to religious metaphor because it is still, by far, the best analogy we have for it.

You can’t ‘meet the face of God’ without going blind. And, if you don’t go blind, it wasn’t God’s face you met.

We live in groups, in societies, for a reason. They are a very good survival strategy. And we need to be bound in language to maintain the bonds that keep a society together and functioning. But the price we pay to be this way is a sacrifice of the experience raw reality. I think this ‘Death Drive’ is not so much a drive toward death for the individual, but, in following where it drives us, it threatens the social order.

Many of the best erotic writings I have read are stories of individuals compelled by jouissance towards some, if only momentary, experience of the Real. While it has become politically incorrect to represent the negative consequences of following this pursuit, it seems to me that only by including those negative consequences can we tell those stories faithfully. Because, since the experience of the Real is so resistant to language, it is often only in the remnants, in the consequences, that we can know how important, how sublime the journey was.

We live in a culture that demands our pleasures be unlimited and free of sacrifice or price or negative consequences. But, to me, this is yet another form of commoditization of experience, like an ad for yet another product that will get you thin without effort or privation. It is false advertising. How much value would we put on something that entailed no risk or took no effort? How would the act of climbing Mount Everest be evaluated if it weren’t exhausting and dangerous? And ultimately who does this idyllic promise of easy and inconsequential transcendence serve? It serves the social order (Zizek). It serves a society that doesn’t wish to be disrupted by your pursuit of jouissance. So it promises you a cheaper version – an alternative that’s just as good.

Erotic fiction that eschews risk or danger, that portrays the indulgence in acts beyond the Pleasure Principle and paints the pursuit of jouissance as normative and healthy, sane and wholly life affirming, is selling us a mirage, a fantasy. While fantasies can be entertaining, they are not life altering in the way good literature should be. Furthermore, there is often a didactic, self-help quality to the narrative – an implicit message that this fiction can be easily translated into reality and used as a guide by which to conduct one’s own sexual self-realization (Illouz 27). To me, this is far more dangerous that the moralizing religious guidance of the past. At least with them, there was something to resist. This misleading portrayal of limit experiences as safe and without consequence has one of two outcomes: either misrepresents an enjoyable, socially acceptable experience as transgressive in order to make it seem more titillating, or it downplays the very real consequences and risks of real limit experiences.

If you are a writer of erotic fiction, I challenge you to take your craft beyond this. To write those ecstatic brushes with the Real as they truly are – awesome, destabilizing, dangerous, transforming, frightening, with consequences. Those elements offer you the only material you will have to convey the experience to your reader – the potshards of jouissance. Trust your reader to recognize them when they come across them. If they don’t, they are probably not ready to go there with you yet.


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

Illouz, Eva. Hard Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink, Heloise Fink, and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

Noys, Benjamin. Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction. Pluto Press, 2000

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

Zizek, Slavoj. “Religion: Between Knowledge and Jouissance.” Lacan.com. N. p., 2007. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

7 Thoughts on “Writing Jouissance: The limits of language & Cheap Imitations

  1. A very thought-provoking piece, and perhaps an encouragement to go beyond the limits of safety and pleasure to that dark area that exists in most of us, but which we are reluctant to expose to the world, exchanging safety for danger.

    • I think, especially in a lot of recent erotic fiction, we are. In our desperate bid to ‘make all sexual orientations and proclivities okay’ we are doing ourselves out of a better, more humanly poignant narrative.

      • I continue to share your work with serious writer friends, who dig deep and philosophically into the most elemental of human experiences. Your insights continue to open deeper doors. A gift to be shared.

  2. Interesting. I write erotic horror novels, which often explore Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalytic ideas. My vampire erotic horror novel, ‘Vamps’, incorporates a bit of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’, too. 🙂

    The current one I’m working on, a werewolf erotic horror novel (‘Wolfgang’), has a young woman who wants to screw her lover as he’s transforming during the full moon. 😉 How’s that for jouissance?

    • “as he’s transforming during the full moon. 😉 How’s that for jouissance?”
      My answer is that I guess it depends how it’s written. So, the plot is the vehicle, but what is the goal of the journey? See what I mean? Yes, it’s transgressive, but to what purpose? What does she think doing that is going to do for her? And, most importantly, how is she mistaken? Because the moment you symbolize a desire in fantasy, you pre-write it and limit your expectations, you are managing it and making it safe. The jouissance lies in where it goes wrong, how the experience is unanticipated and sublime.

  3. Superb RG.
    You’ve hit the heart of the target again.

    Yes, I want to read that which describes the ‘destabilizing, dangerous, transforming, and frightening’ and ‘with consequences’. I want to be taken on the journey and not know that it will obligatorily have a happy ending. I want to see how a character is changed by what happens to them.

    As you rightly point out, this is the most challenging of writing tasks, since we must look below our own surface and below and below, into the layers far beneath, to unearth ‘authentic’ emotional reactions and to seek out our true motivations.

    It’s a challenge that we must aspire to, for our own creative fulfilment.

  4. I need to keep hammering at this. I know the feeling you’re talking about but I struggle to understand it.

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