I want to talk to you about something which I have struggled with for months to understand, but is really important. What Lacan termed Jouissance cannot be contained within the language, as we know it. Jouissance is the engine and the tension, which drives our relentless, restless and often irrational desires. Jouissance cannot be defined without using words that already have other meanings, which is confusing, so I will stick to calling it Jouissance. It is as if a new way of thinking requires a new language. So let me try to make my language reach beyond its usual uses, to help you recognise something previously un-articulable. And trust me, I am getting somewhere with this.
Jouissance drives desires for pleasures beyond what comes out of just fulfilling our basic needs.
And why is this so important for me to talk about Jouissance? Our Jouissance is a constant tension, a desperate energy; a willingness to act and repeat acts with an effort, which may not stand in a rational proportion to the reward to be expected. Jouissance is the engine behind our ideological fervors, our erotic desires, what drives us to stay up at night to create or seek something or someone. So, the reason I want to talk about Jouissance is that it has implications for how we understand love, sex and politics. Understanding the power that Jouissance has over us is essential for understanding ourselves and how we interpret the actions of people around us, beyond a simple doctrine of utility maximization (or the balancing of pleasures versus pains as in the pleasure principle).
What I will try to convey is obviously none of my own, but has all been conceptualized by Freud, Lacan and the interpreters of Lacan. My need to reformulate my own understanding of Jouissance comes from the struggle I have had to make sense of their language, the language of the psychoanalysts and the philosophers. To me it is impenetrable and instead I have understood Jouissance from a scientific paper written by Ariane Bazan and Sandrine Detandt 2013 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: "On the physiology of jouissance: interpreting the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward functions from a psychoanalytic perspective." Unfortunately this paper, though extremely rich in thoughts and references, was also more or less unreadable (took me weeks). Still I think it is possible to understand the Lacanian concept of Jouissance without understanding neither psychoanalysis nor neuroscience, which is why I try here. Jouissance can be felt from our experience of being humans, with all our memories of our inexplicable desires, urges and obsessions.
So, Jouissance is the restless willingness to act, a tension in the body, an impatience and a longing, which is in itself both pleasurable and painful. Sometimes we are fixed firmly on something or someone that we have identified as the release of this tension, sometimes the longing is for something diffuse, conceptual or religious. Whatever our Jouissance hooks onto it has at some point in the past given an unexpected, surprising pleasure (or sudden release from pain). We are then doomed to repeat the behavior that got us to that initial satisfaction. But whenever we manage to get it again, the reproductions will be compared to an idealized memory of what we had that first time. And the reproductions always turn out to be somewhat disappointing. Instead we find a compulsive pleasure in reproducing the act (or the search) itself, even without the reward. We might even fear the reward or we savor the painful pleasure of an unfulfilled wish.
That’s it. Did you get it? Then we can cut to the chase.
I will follow up this blog-post with one on the importance of Jouissance for sexuality and love, drawing from the thoughts of Bataille. I will also follow up with a blog-post on the implications of Jouissance for politics and ideology, because only then does Slavoj Žižek start to make sense to me (and that’s a startling thing in itself). To tap our Jouissance is of utter political importance and companies try all the time in their PR. To fix our Jouissance to an idea of a future (which we then imagine will be satisfying) is the essence of all opinion formation and what ultimately determines citizens willingness to organize and act. The energy released from capturing our Jouissance can recently be exemplified by the mobilization of volunteers in the #refugeeswelcome movement.