The Forced Choice of Enjoyment:
In a public lecture delivered in New York in March of 1999, Jacques-Alain Miller remarks that the English-language reception of Lacanian theory exhibits an increasing tendency to leave many of Lacan's key conceptual terms untranslated (for instance, savoir, méconnaissance, point de capiton, and so on). Miller jokes that, given this tendency, perhaps English speakers familiar with Lacan will eventually end-up speaking French despite themselves.1 The primary notion that has consistently been denied translation into English is jouissance. Although "enjoyment" is a literal equivalent, it must be remarked that this English word just doesn't suffice. But, why does jouissance resist being translated? What is so slippery about Lacan's use of this term, and why isn't jouissance simply "enjoyment?" New light can be shed on these questions through an examination of an infrequently invoked distinction between "jouissance expected" and "jouissance obtained" (mentioned by Lacan in the twentieth seminar of 1972-1973); in fact, this difference between two modes of jouissance both problematizes Freud's drive theory as well as raises new questions about the role of this concept within the framework of Lacanian thought.
The specificity of jouissance is best established, in an initial approach to it, by contrasting it with the basic features of the pleasure principle. Based on Freud's own characterizations of it, the pleasure principle (once placed in relation to the reality principle) acts like an economic speculator, assessing potential gains and losses of satisfaction in light of possible outcomes of various courses of action. It seeks to maximize satisfaction and correspondingly minimize pain/dissatisfaction. In Freud's account, the pleasure principle qua economic speculator isn't so much a function of the primary processes within the id, but is the strategy wherein the ego negotiates with the exigencies of reality on behalf of the id (of course, the ego often performs this function unconsciously). For Lacan, the ego feels pain (in the form of anxiety, symptoms, and the like) when the homeostatic balance sheet of the pleasure principle is thrown into disorder by an insistent enjoyment than pays no heed of the speculative gains or losses of a diluted, sublimated pleasure, of a principle that routinely "sells out" enjoyment in its ongoing bargaining with its reality-level complement.2 Jouissance is "beyond the pleasure principle" precisely to the extent that it breaks off negotiations with the reality principle, that it bypasses the moderating/mitigating influence of the ego on the drives.3
Lacan's primary example of the difference between the pleasure principle and jouissance is a familiar one borrowed from Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. In demonstrating the ethical autonomy of the noumenal subject in relation to the pathological inclinations (i.e., wishes, desires, and so on) of the phenomenal portion of the self, Kant speaks of a scenario in which a man is offered a chance to have sexual intercourse with the woman of his dreams. The catch is that, after indulging in intercourse in conformity with his carnal inclinations, this man will be hanged. In Kant's view, a man faced with this choice between, on the one hand, sex followed by the gallows and, on the other hand, controlling his desires and not facing execution will obviously choose the latter option.4 Although not an ethical act in the strict Kantian sense (the man bases his decision on the future empirical consequences of his choice), the ability of the human individual to transcend his/her sensuous nature (particularly in the face of adverse outcomes) is supposedly evident in this example.
For Lacan, the subduing of the "lust" of the Kantian sensualist is effectuated under the aegis of the pleasure principle. This individual speculates that the net balance of pleasure will be negative if the short-term gratification of the sexual urge is paid for by the somewhat longer-term consequence of death. But, Lacan asks, do individuals always decide in favor of restrained abstinence as Kant alleges? If anything is evident from Freud's re-evaluation of symptoms and suffering in the second topography, it is that individuals routinely opt for (unconscious) choices that don't accord with the balancing act of the pleasure principle. Neurotics frequently "choose" to repeat painful experiences at the behest of the aspect of Trieb that unreasonably disregards empirical circumstances, namely, Wiederholungszwang (repetition compulsion). In his seventh seminar, Lacan states:
Suppose, says Kant, that in order to control the excesses of a sensualist, one produces the following situation. There is in a bedroom the woman he currently lusts after. He is granted the freedom to enter that room to satisfy his desire or his need, but next to the door through which he will leave there stands the gallows on which he will be hanged... As far as Kant is concerned, it goes without saying that the gallows will be a sufficient deterrent; there's no question of an individual going to screw a woman when he knows he's to be hanged on the way out... (pg. 108) (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960 [ed. Jacques-Alain Miller; trans. Denis Porter], New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992)Lacan continues, noting that, just like the pleasure principle, Kant's hypothetical sensualist takes cognizance of empirical reality (ironically, the main thesis of the second Critique devalues the role of empirical reality in properly ethical decisions):
The striking point is that the power of proof is here left to reality - to the real behavior of the individual, I mean. It is in the real that Kant asks us to examine the impact of the weight of reality, which he identifies here with the weight of duty (pg. 108). (Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII)Lacan proceeds to formulate two connected criticisms of Kant's handling of this example. First, there is no logical and/or transcendental necessity for the man to forfeit sleeping with the woman in order to avoid execution. It's entirely within the realm of possibility that an individual could accept sacrificing his/her life for a night of fabulous sex - "it is not impossible for a man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is to be bumped off on his way out, by the gallows or anything else... it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts such an eventuality on his leaving" (Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, pg. 109). Secondly, according to Lacan, psychoanalysis problematizes Kant's assumption about the obvious nature of the choice between the woman and the gallows (an empirical, anthropological-psychological assumption on Kant's part). If the woman in the bedroom is the over-valued object of what psychoanalysis would call a "pathological" subject, perhaps the threat of execution is insufficient to deter him from surrendering to his urges.5 Or, even better, what about the neurotic who can only enjoy sex if there's an immediate, significant threat attached to the act? Zizek explains:
Lacan's counter-argument here is that we certainly do have to guess what his answer may be: what if we encounter a subject (as we do regularly in psychoanalysis) who can only enjoy a night of passion fully if some form of 'gallows' is threatening him - that is, if, by doing it, he is violating some prohibition? ...if gratifying sexual passion involves the suspension of even the most elementary 'egoistic' interests... this gratification is clearly located 'beyond the pleasure principle'... (pg. 289) (Slavoj Zizek, "Kant with (or against) Sade," The Zizek Reader [ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright], Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1999)In Lacan's perspective on Kant's example, two choices have an equal logical possibility for the man standing before both the gallows and the bedroom door. The choice not to gratify one's lust is dictated by the pleasure principle, given its role in negotiating between the impulses of id and the external series of trade-offs in reality (the empirically-conditioned "well-being" of the ego is taken into account by the economic speculations of the pleasure principle). The ego experiences pain precisely when the orderly cost-benefit homeostasis of the pleasure principle is abandoned. This pain is what happens in the instance where the individual, for whatever reason, chooses to copulate in the face of imminent death (no doubt, when the noose is fitted around the sensualist's neck, the ego of this subject will experience a mild degree of anxiety).6 This "living out of the drives" in utter disregard of the consequentialism of the pleasure principle is jouissance. Miller states, "jouissance in itself is a certain destruction, and precisely in this it differs from the pleasure principle, in its sense of a certain moderation and a certain well-being. The very name jouissance fundamentally translates what resists the pleasure principle's moderation" (Jacques-Alain Miller, "Ethics in Psychoanalysis," Lacanian Ink, no. 5, Winter, 1992, pg. 26). Or, as Lacan phrases it in his seventeenth seminar, "ce que le principe du plaisir maintient, c'est la limite quant à la jouissance" (Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XVII: L'envers de la psychanalyse, 1969-1970 [ed. Jacques-Alain Miller], Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1991, pg. 51).
Thus far, in part due to Lacan's own pronouncements on the topic, jouissance appears to be a mode of pure enjoyment, an absolute pleasure undiluted by the subliminatory compromises struck by the pleasure principle with the reality principle. jouissance is the "Real thing," an ecstatic release without hindrance. Although it may seem that the pleasure principle avoids what Lacan designates as das Ding and settles for substitutive objects while jouissance unreservedly seizes das Ding, such is not the case. As with desire, the refrain of jouissance is "Ce n'est pas ça." In the twentieth seminar, Lacan claims:
'That's not it' is the very cry by which the jouissance obtained is distinguished from the jouissance expected... Structure, which connects up here, demonstrates nothing if not that it is of the same text as jouissance, insofar as, in marking by what distance jouissance misses - the jouissance that would be in question if 'that were it' - structure does not presuppose merely the jouissance that would be it, it also props up another (pg. 111-112). (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, 1972- 1973 [ed. Jacques-Alain Miller; trans. Bruce Fink], New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998)The "jouissance expected" is an illusory, mythicized "full satisfaction," namely, the re-finding of das Ding, the decisive, final quelling of the incessant clamoring of the drives. However, what the subject always gets (i.e., the "jouissance obtained") is, at best, a pleasure that falls short of the idealized standard. Even worse, in most cases, jouissance manifests itself as a "pleasure-in-pain" (as with Freud's position that the ego experiences the success of repressed drives as pain [i.e., disavowed pleasure, or pleasure which cannot consciously be experienced as such], the Lacanian ego too cannot fully enjoy jouissance). Furthermore, if the gap were ever to be closed between expected and obtained jouissance, the repeated resurgence of jouissance would cease (that is, the "Ce n'est pas ça" effect is required for repetition). Full satisfaction implies a kind of "psychical death," an evacuation of the tension of dissatisfaction that perpetually drives the libidinal economy.
One consequently arrives at a paradoxical point in Lacanian theory: jouissance is an enjoyment that is enjoyable only insofar as it doesn't get what it's allegedly after.7 How does this interpretation of Lacan affect what has been said thus far? What about Kant's example of the man choosing between sexual abstinence and execution? Kant takes it for granted, on the basis of empirical assumptions, that no man will choose the woman given the threat of death-by-hanging. Lacan, on the other hand, contends that some individuals not only would consider trading their lives for a night of sex with the "lady of their dreams," but that this very threat of death can serve as a requisite precondition for sexual enjoyment (for example, a man who is impotent unless the shadow of a "gallows" is cast over the bed). However, it would be interesting to go even further and imagine the man who accepts the exchange of sex-for-life caught in the midst of the long-awaited sexual intercourse for which he sacrificed himself (note that, in both Kant and Lacan's description of the example, the woman whom the man is offered is someone he has already lusted over; namely, the man has expected/anticipated sex with her). What happens if, while actually caught in the throes of physical passion, the man experiences one of those moments when sex is no longer "sexy," so to speak? What occurs when the seductive aura of his object of desire (an aura sustained in part by the previous inaccessibility of the woman) dissipates in the close proximity of the sexual act? The man might not only find that this sexual encounter isn't as good as he imagined it would be when fantasizing about this particular woman (i.e., the semblance of "jouissance expected" isn't the substance of "jouissance obtained"), but that the sexual act itself is transformed from a titillating fantasy into a disgusting, mechanical activity: two sweating, grunting heaps of flesh rubbing against each other and secreting fluids.8
In this case, especially since this activity is what he exchanged his life for, the sensualist would be crushed by a mixture of revulsion and horror (he would undergo what Lacan sometimes refers to as "subjective destitution"). He "lived out his drive," only to find that even transcending the sober calculations of the pleasure principle doesn't provide a pure "enjoyment in the Real." This man would be traumatized by the fact that the "expected jouissance" for which he traded his life (i.e., the most intensely pleasurable sex with the woman of his fantasies) is transubstantiated into the ugliness of an "obtained jouissance" (i.e., the encounter with a repulsive Real, in which the arousing image of the love-object seen at a distance becomes, when approached too close, a mere "pound of flesh" not worth dying for). As Zizek has frequently noted, the Real (more specifically here, das Ding as the ostensible goal of Trieb) only appears desirable when coated by a thin layer of fantasizing, by a veil woven of Imaginary and Symbolic threads (and, this veil is functional exclusively insofar as the drive-object is kept at a certain distance or is somehow "out of reach").9 Once das Ding is placed behind the cloth of this screen, any subsequent lifting of the veil reveals not the expected sublime Thing nostalgically prized by the drives, but, as Lacan puts it, an ugly "gift of shit." 10 Or, even better is Lacan's example of the voyeur who fantasizes about a beautiful girl whose shadow he can see moving about on the other side of a drawn curtain. As long as the curtain is situated between the gaze of the voyeur and the "real person" behind the curtain, exciting fantasies can be spun around the shadow - "What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind the curtain. There he will phantasize any magic of presence, the most graceful of girls, for example, even if on the other side there is only a hairy athlete" (Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, pg. 182). The Real is the "hairy athlete" revealed by the raising of the Imaginary-Symbolic curtain sustaining the constituted "reality" of desire. In the Écrits, Lacan speaks of the fantasmatic shadow of the Real object as a "lure," a false point of anticipated full jouissance that, due to its fundamental inaccessibility, sustains the dissatisfaction that itself is the motor of the drives. And, in the seminars, he frequently describes the structure of fantasy as a "screen" or "frame" (the Real thing framed or screened by fantasy is objet petit a; das Ding, behind the veil of fantasies, is the traumatic, extimate "thing").12
Taking into account these characterizations of both jouissance and pleasure, Kant's example of the man faced with the decision between preserving his life or indulging in sex is a paradigmatic instance of a Lacanian "forced choice." In the eleventh seminar, Lacan refers to the phrase uttered by street muggers: "Your money or your life!" This "offer," while grammatically appearing to be a choice (given the disjunctive "or"), is actually no choice - "Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something" (Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, pg. 212). In other words, either way you are about to be parted from your cash. The Kantian offer, proposed to the hypothetical sensualist, is quite similar: "Your jouissance or your life!" If the sensualist chooses life, he loses jouissance by not getting to sleep with the woman of his dreams. But, and here's the twist, if this man chooses jouissance, then he loses both his life (since he will be hanged) and his (expected) jouissance. Put differently, when he actually does get to copulate with the woman after having accepted the offer of sex for life, he is horrified to realize that "This isn't 'it!'": "This isn't what I traded my life for!"; "Why was I willing to die for this fleeting, transitory, animalistic gratification?" After his "petit mort" comes the literal "grande Mort." In the (temporal) space between these two deaths, the sensualist learns all too late that the Kantian offer is indeed a deceptive forced choice. In an enigmatic sentence from his 1960 essay "Subversion of the subject," Lacan indirectly touches upon the general parameters of this "lose-lose" situation - "Castration means that jouissance must be refused, so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder (l'échelle renversés) of the Law of desire" (Lacan, "The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious," pg. 324). If the sensualist refuses "castration" (in this case, the loss of the specific object of his libidinal economy) by not surrendering his jouissance, then he loses both life and jouissance.
In various forms, Freud reveals a belief on his part that, if it weren't for such things as the castrating paternal figure of the Oedipal scenario and a prohibitory social Umwelt of civilization requiring "instinctual renunciation," human beings would be capable of peacefully co-existing with their drives. Satisfaction could be procured for the libidinal economy, if only the external barriers to the drives were lifted (Freud's reasoning, in the second topography, that "civilization" is fully responsible for hindering Trieb is quite similar to the way in which someone suffering from a fate neurosis rationalizes his/her failure to achieve satisfaction: "Contingent, external circumstances colluded so as to thwart my ostensible desires!"). In sustaining an inherent, constitutive antagonism between two poles of jouissance - the enjoyment the subject obtains is never the enjoyment he/she expected to get (jouissance is always a "raw deal") - Lacan implicitly contests Freud's tacit assumption that, left to their own devices, the drives could, so to speak, "enjoy their enjoyment" (as late as the twenty-fifth seminar of 1977-1978, Lacan suggests a knotted intrication of drives and their inhibitors13). Even more significant is the implication that the multiple avatars of the reality principle (i.e., all those prohibitory factors holding the drives in check) are, in fact, means by which the subject, who is continually subjected to the anxiety-provoking Real of the drives, protects him/her-self from the trauma of actually having to live out his/her drives (taking the most typical of psychoanalytic examples, even though an individual might well unconsciously harbor incestuous intentions toward the maternal figure, nothing would be more traumatizing than actually "obtaining" her). The Freudian prohibitory Umwelt is an alibi of the subject facing jouissance, the last line of defense against the impasse of being caught between the less than enjoyable Scylla of expectation and the Charybdis of actualization.
Lacanian theory raises questions about exactly how external prohibition relates to the structural dynamic of the drives. What does the reality principle (whether as the paternal function or the more general authority of civilization's rule of law) actually do if its traditional Freudian task of restricting the individual's libidinal economy is complicit in maintaining the illusion of an expected form of jouissance capable of being obtained? Freud makes it seem as if prohibition is strictly opposed to the enjoyment of the drives. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. External prohibition secretly sustains fantasies in which full jouissance is possible (for instance, fantasies of, as Lacan calls it, the "jouissance of the Other"). External barriers to impossible jouissance relieve the subject of the burden of having to discover that enjoyment fails, that drives are constitutively dysfunctional, being caught-up in an ineliminable antagonism plaguing the very essence of enjoyment itself. The Kantian sensualist is able to continue believing that sex with the woman behind the bedroom door would have been fantastic... if only the gallows weren't standing outside the house.
1. "...I was at a conference in Los Angeles with people from all over the United States, and everyone said 'Jouissance, jouissance, jouissance.' [laughter] I suppose that it won't be translated. The difficulty is that the defeat of translation is taken in a movement of spreading outward - now people feel that 'knowledge' doesn't really translate the Lacanian 'savoir' - so now they say 'savoir.' If it continues a sufficiently long time, then English will transform itself into French" (pg. 18). (Jacques-Alain Miller, "Did You Say Bizarre?," Lacanian Ink, no. 15, Fall, 1999)
2. "The opposition between jouissance... and pleasure also involves a revised understanding of the latter term. Pleasure now signifies on the one hand the sensation of pleasure and on the other hand the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is one of the 'two principles of mental functioning' which Freud discusses in his metapsychological writings (the other being the reality principle). It is the innate tendency of the subject to govern his actions on the basis of avoiding pain and obtaining pleasure. Now, it should be clear that whereas pleasure in the former sense is synonymous with the earlier meaning of jouissance, pleasure in the latter sense is actually opposed to the later meaning of jouissance" (pg. 7).
3. (Dylan Evans, "From Kantian Ethics to Mystical Experience: An Exploration of Jouissance," Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis [ed. Dany Nobus], New York: Other Press, 1999)
4. "Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passion if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer would be" (pg. 30).
5. "Our philosopher from Königsberg was a nice person, and I don't intend to imply that he was someone of limited stature or feeble passions, but he doesn't seem to have considered... certain conditions of what Freud would call Uberschätzung or overvaluation of the object... conditions in which the object of a loving passion takes on a certain significance..." (pg. 108-109)
6. "If the man in Kant's example is governed by the pleasure principle, he will not pay the price of death simply in order to have a brief sexual encounter with the lady of his dreams. The pleasure principle involves a kind of cost-benefit analysis which makes the man reject the deal of jouissance" (pg. 7).
7. "If we define the Real as such a paradoxical, chimerical entity which, although it does not exist, has a series of properties and can produce a series of effects, it becomes clear that the Real par excellence is jouissance: jouissance does not exist, it is impossible, but it produces a number of traumatic effects" (pg. 164).
8. "...in the middle of the most intense sexual act, it is possible for us all of a sudden to 'disconnect' - all of a sudden, a question can emerge: 'What am I doing here, sweating and repeating these stupid gestures?'; pleasure can shift into disgust or into a strange feeling of distance. The key point is that, in this violent upheaval, nothing changed in reality: what caused the shift was merely the change in the other's position with regard to our phantasmatic frame" (pg. 65).
9. "One should not underestimate the weight of this gap that separates the 'ugly' Real from the fully formed objects in 'reality': Lacan's fundamental thesis is that a minimum of 'idealization,' of the interposition of fantasmatic frame by means of which the subject assumes a distance vis-à-vis the Real, is constitutive of our sense of reality - 'reality' occurs insofar as it is not (it does not come) 'too close'" (pg. 23).
10. "I give myself to you, the patient says again, but this gift of my person - as they say - Oh, mystery! is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit - a term that is also essential to our experience" (pg. 268).
11. "It is to this object that cannot be grasped in the mirror that the specular image lends its clothes. A substance caught in the net of the shadow, and which, robbed of its shadow-swelling volume, holds out once again the tired lure of the shadow as if it were substance" (pg. 316).
12. "Now, what our experience, the analytic experience, brings us is centered on the phenomenon of the screen. Far from the inaugural foundation of the dimension of analysis being something where at some point the primitiveness of light, by itself, makes there emerge everything that is darkness in the form of what exists, we have first of all to deal with this problematic relationship which is represented by the screen.
13. "Ce qu'on peut dire de Freud, c'est qu'il a situé les choses d'une façon telle que ça ait réussi. Mais ce n'est pas sûr que ce dont il s'agit, c'est une composition, une composition telle que j'ai été amené, pour rendre tout ça cohérent, donner la note d'un certain rapport entre la pulsion et l'inhibition, et puis le principe du plaisir et le savoir - le savoir inconscient, bien entendu. "