The term jouissance refers to blissful, orgasmic sexual enjoyment. Because the French carries connotations of the sexual lacking in “enjoyment,” the term is usually left untranslated. The introduction of the term into the postmodern critical vocabulary can be credited to the French psycho¬ analyst Jacques Lacan. Although in his earlier lectures Lacan deploys the term as synonymous with pleasure in general and sexual enjoyment in particular, by his 1959-60 seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, jouissance is opposed to pleasure as such.
For Lacan jouissance is key for any under- standing of Freud’s description of the death-drive: if the pleasure principle sets the limits of what the subject can experience as enjoyment or pleasure (for example, the satisfaction of an appetite), jouissance is the result of the subject’s drive to transgress limitations placed upon pleasure and go “beyond the pleasure principle.” However, since there are limits to the amount of stimulation that the subject can feel and still find enjoyable, any excess of pleasure is experienced as pain.
The Importance of Jouissance In Psychoanalytic Paradigm
Thus within a psychoanalytic paradigm, jouissance illustrates the logic of the subject’s attachment to the symptom: pain experienced in the pursuit of pleasure becomes pleasure in the experience of pain. The prohibition of jouissance is a constitutive element of the linguistic and social field that Lacan calls the Symbolic. In order to negotiate the Oedipal triangle and enter into the field of the Symbolic, the subject is compelled to renounce jouissance by submitting to castration and aban¬ doning the hope of being reunited with the mother. However, because castration is inevitable and a return to the mother impossible, this prohibition seems redundant, and has the effect of making the object of desire seem accessible to the subject, were it not for the prohibition of the Symbolic.
Thus in the form of jouissance, the Symbolic creates a desire for its own transgression. Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, reworks Lacan’s term in a modernist literary context. His distinction between pleasure and bliss parallels Lacan’s between pleasure and jouissance. Following from his conceptions of the text and textuality, Barthes argues that the text of pleasure is essentially bourgeois and affirmative, confirming and reifying the reader’s beliefs. The text of bliss, however, “unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language”
Yet finally, pleasure and bliss are not as opposed as they are in Lacan: in fact, the distinction between the two often blurs within Barthes’s text. This is unavoidable to the extent that “pure” or unremit¬ ting bliss would soon ossify into mere pleasure. Therefore it is within a space opened up by the oscillation between pleasure and bliss that true bliss manifests itself. For Barthes, bliss is finally a utopian process that refuses to subsume or repress anything, even the more mundane pleasure.
It is important to note that for Lacan jouissance is associated with Freud’s concept of the libido, which is masculine. In his 1972-3 seminar On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, Lacan revises the concept again, suggesting that there is a jouissance that is specifically feminine. Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva are among those who have explored the ramifications of a particularly feminine jouissance in order to critique the essentialism inherent in psychoanalytic descriptions of feminine subjectivity.
In much feminist theory, feminine jouissance provides a point from which to affirm a specifically feminine sexuality that enables a feminine creativity inde¬ pendent of oppressive patriarchal determinants. Irigaray, for instance, suggests jouissance as one potential tool for disrupting inflexible binary hierarchies of sexual difference that privilege the masculine term, demonstrating the extent to winch such binaries have structured Western philosophi¬ cal and cultural traditions.
Helene Cixous sees jouissance as an essential component of a distinctively feminine artistic and cultural production that is open and multiple. Jouissance is strongly identified with revolutionary artistic production in Julia Rristeva’s work too, where it is closely linked with her notion of the semiotic, the preOedipal plenitude that pre-exists sexual difference and lacks nothing.