This article was originally delivered as ‘From a Tickle to an Inferno: The Theory of Jouissance in Psychoanalysis’ to the School of the Freudian Letter, Cyprus, May 2015.

We are at the Catholic University of Louvain in the early 1970s. The lecture Lacan is about to give is the only known recorded instance of his appearance in front of a public audience. He enters to applause, jokes with the crowd, and his performance thereafter is extremely theatrical. Later, the camera will capture some equally dramatic interventions from the audience.

When things quieten down Lacan recounts the story of a patient who, “a long time ago had a dream that the source of existence would spring from her forever more. An infinity of lives descending from her in an endless line.”

After a pause, the question he shouts at his audience, emphatically, is:

Est-ce que vous pourriez supporter la vie que vous avez?”
– “Can you bear the life that you have?”

This is the essence of jouissance.

The life that Lacan talks about here is not our day-to-day lives, replete with the little dramas of our jobs, friends, and family relationships, but the excess of life commensurate with going beyond the pleasure principle. Life itself, as he describes it at one point, is simply an “apparatus of jouissance”.

Two Definitions of Jouissance. And What it ‘Feels Like’

Here are two definitions of jouissance as a way to orientate ourselves in this topic. We will come back to them in everything that follows:

1. Jouissance as an excess of life
2. Jouissance as an enjoyment beyond the pleasure principle.

As an ‘excess of life’ Lacan describes it in Seminar VII as a “superabundant vitality” (Seminar VII, 18th May 1960). It cannot be correlated to affect, or to an emotion.

As an enjoyment that goes beyond the pleasure principle he describes it in Seminar X, beautifully, as a “backhanded enjoyment”. (Seminar X, 23rd January 1963).

But in order to understand jouissance we have to understand what it ‘feels like’. Lacan expresses this in a sharp analogy in Seminar XVII: jouissance “Begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol”. (Seminar XVII, p.72).

Finding the Idea of Jouissance in Freud

Jouissance is a Lacanian notion, but where can we find its heritage in Freud’s work? Let’s briefly retrace this in three stages:

1. Early Freud

We can start with the idea of the pleasure principle, foundational from Freud’s early writings. It is essentially an economic principle to limit a quanta of excitation and is therefore presented by Freud as a principle of constancy or inertia. The job of the pleasure principle is to regulate an increase or decrease of tension on a pleasure-unpleasure scale. This picture becomes more complex over time, up to the point of Instincts and their Vicissitudes (Triebe und Triebschicksale) in 1915, where he portrays a very complicated relation between pleasure and unpleasure (SE XIV, 121 and accompanying footnote).

From the outset the excitation, or energy of the drive, has a sexual colouring – libido. Freud sees this as its essential feature. But in the Écrits Lacan notes – in a beautiful expression – that this sexual colouring is nothing more than “the colour of emptiness, suspended in the light of a gap” (Écrits, 851-852). We will return to this idea.

Concurrent to the theoretical orientation Freud found in the pleasure principle is another idea from the early part of his work – that the symptom is a sexual act. In other words, that it represents an enjoyment, and a specifically sexual enjoyment.

This idea seems odd. A symptom is surely a problem, a suffering. The symptom goes beyond the pleasure principle and expresses itself in a disturbance, an unlust. But Freud saw that in the early examples his hysterical patients presented with, the complaint, the suffering, expresses itself in a paradoxical way, as if two wishes were simultaneously expressed. As if, he believed, the symptom was a compromise between two contradictory desires. Take the example of one hysterical patient: with one hand she pulls off the dress, with the other she puts it back on.

There is a wonderful example of this in the Rat Man case history. As he is describing the great obsessional thought which haunted his patient, Freud observed:

“His face took on a very strange, composite expression. I could only interpret it as one of horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware. (SE X, 166-167).

2. Mid-Freud

Broadly speaking, in this period we have the development of libido theory in the context of the theory of narcissism from 1914, and the metapsychological papers of 1915 (SE XIV). Although Freud has used the term ‘libido’ since his first writings on anxiety in the late 1890s, by this point he increasingly emphasises the quantitative aspect of libido. When he comes to write the Group Psychology papers in 1921 (SE XVIII) he refers to a “quantitative magnitude” to libido. Freud’s project between these years is to develop an economic model in which ego-libido and object-libido are balanced against each other, with one rising as the other falls. However, the transformation of a quantitatively high degree of tension produced by the damming-up of the libido in the ego produces unpleasure. Its outlet is found in the attachment of libido to objects in the external world. As Freud summarises,

“A strong egoism is a protection against falling ill, but in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we are unable to love”(SE XIV, 85).

Love is thereby the antidote to a kind of caustic narcissism that we can see as correlated to Lacan’s idea of jouissance. Lacan echoes Freud’s words in these terms in the early sixties when he says that “Only love allows jouissance to condescend to desire” (Seminar X, 13th March 1963).

3. Late Freud

In this period the two fundamental drives – Eros and the death drive – are introduced in place of the libido theory from the 1920 ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ article onwards (SE XVIII). But from a Lacanian perspective we might be inclined to question the dualism this supposes. If jouissance is an experience of an excess of life, is the death drive not actually its opposite?

This idea seems to run counter to the whole of psychoanalytic metapsychology: what place for psychical conflict if the death drive is just an excess of life? It is as if Freudian theory has to maintain a place for a basic dualism animating internal conflict – whether that dualism is located between desire and defence; between the sexual and self-preservative instincts; between the ego, id, and super-ego; or between eros and the death drive. A conflictual dualism lies at the aetiology of the neuroses and animates their insistence. Indeed, it is from conflict that the symptom gains its strength, satisfying both sides of this conflict – for example, desire and defence – through a compromise formation. Ultimately Freud comes to believe that the struggle between different thoughts, desires, and fantasies is a reflection of a struggle between drives (SE XI, 213).

But at the end of his life, in ‘An Outline of Psychoanalysis’, things get a little trickier. It would seem initially that the dualism is maintained at the level of the id on one side, and the ego/super-ego on the other. The id does not care whether you live or die – it just cares about satisfaction; the ego/super-ego’s job is to moderate the ways by which this satisfaction is achieved, and thus it inherently limits satisfaction. This is how Freud expresses the difference in the opening lines of that paper:

“The power of the id expresses the true purpose of the individual organism’s life. This consists in the satisfaction of its innate needs. No such purpose as that of keeping itself alive or of protecting itself from dangers by means of anxiety can be attributed to the id. That is the task of the ego, whose business it also is to discover the most favourable and least perilous method of obtaining satisfaction, taking the external world into account” (SE XXIII, 148).

But what animates the id and the ego are instincts (drives), thereby taking the topography to another level:

“The forces which we assume to exist behind the tensions caused by the needs of the id are called instincts. After long hesitancies and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct. The contrast between the instincts of self-preservation and the preservation of the species, as well as the contrast between ego-love and object-love, fall within Eros.” (SE XXIII, 148).

So we have the Freudian dualism manifested across two levels, as it were:

Psychical agency-level – Id vs ego/super-ego
Instinctual or drive level – Eros vs the death drive

But then Freud says something extraordinary:

“In biological functions the two basic instincts operate against each other or combine with each other. Thus, the act of eating is a destruction of the object with the final aim of incorporating it, and the sexual act is an act of aggression with the purpose of the most intimate union. This concurrent and mutually opposing action of the two basic instincts gives rise to the whole variegation of the phenomena of life” (SE XXIII, 149).

It would be too easy to think that Freud’s words here refer only to the pure satisfaction of basic biological functions, like eating to satisfy hunger, and that in the service of this need the two instincts combine. But if Freud’s work teaches us anything it is that Freud never subscribed to a definition of satisfaction as simply the sating of a need. Satisfaction is much more problematic for him. We have only to think about cases where an act that ostensibly satisfies a need exceeds that satisfaction, not just to the point of pleasure, but beyond it (in alcoholism, or binge-eating, to use Freud’s model of oral satisfaction above). The qualification Freud introduces in this passage complicates the picture greatly, as if we take him seriously it means that the dualism is really maintained only at the id vs ego/super-ego level; at the Eros vs death instinct level there is not necessarily any opposition – they can work against each other or with each other, he says. And this is why as Lacanians we can defend the thesis that the death drive can be manifested as an excess of life, correlate to the “superabundant vitality” in his definition of jouissance (Seminar VII, 18th May 1960).

What’s more, Freud says that we don’t even have to think of the death drive as an instinct of destruction: “So long as that instinct [the destructive instinct/drive] operates internally, as a death instinct, it remains silent; it only comes to our notice when it is diverted outwards as an instinct of destruction.” (SE XXIII, 150). This would help us understand why people who seem to be ruled by the death drive in cases of excessive jouissance are not violent or unpredictable. They can destroy themselves without destroying others.

Although people usually talk about the idea of the death drive as being a destructive or aggressive drive, Freud is careful to point out that “It is not a question of an antithesis between an optimistic and a pessimistic theory of life” (SE XIII, 242). The two fundamental drives are much more mixed together than any simplistic duality would suggest. And this is what is expressed in the concept of jouissance, which we can perhaps see Freud struggling to articulate in dualistic terms at the end of his life.

The Connections between Freud and Lacan

So where does Lacan stand in all of this? Where can we locate his concept of jouissance in the issues that Freud was battling with?

Lacan maintains his dialogue with Freud on these issues throughout his life, referencing the same conceptual vocabulary that Freud used to express the complicated relation between pleasure, unpleasure, and the drives when he is developing his notion of jouissance.

The pleasure principle is his starting point, and the long discussions with colleagues such as Mannoni, Valebrega, and Pontalis on the meaning of the term are a constant feature of the first part of Seminar II.

In Seminar XIV he gives what we can view as some substance to the notion of jouissance – what it actually ‘is’. There he tells his audience that jouissance is an ousia – a term borrowed from Aristotle’s book on the Categories – to mean an essence, related to being, at the level of the body (Seminar XIV, 31st May 1967). And we know it in relation to the pleasure principle – it marks its traits but also marks its limits.

Lacan concurs with Freud’s definition of the pleasure principle as “a principle of the least tension, of the minimum tension that needs to be maintained for life to subsist”… but, he adds, that “jouissance overruns it” (Seminar XVII, p.45-46).

This quote from Seminar XVII in the late 1960s encapsulates the two definitions of jouissance that we started with: as an enjoyment beyond of the pleasure principle, and as an excess of life.

However Lacan’s idea of jouissance evolves over the course of his work, and in the early Seminars he does not use the term to describe this kind of malevolent enjoyment as he will come to do later. Instead in Seminars I, II and III we largely find references to the ‘jouissance’ of the master and slave, drawn from the influence Kojeve’s teaching of Hegel’s slave-master dialectic had on Lacan. Jouissance here is presented either as enjoyment or usufruct rights over the other. It is a jouissance linked to the body, but the body of the other realised in terms of the fruits of the other’s labour. It is not until Seminar VII that we find Lacan start to talk about jouissance as malevolent or evil (Seminar VII, 20th March 1960)

But we can see that even at this stage he is clear that jouissance is a phenomena at the level of the body. This idea continues throughout his work, and in Seminar XIV from 1967 we find Lacan stating not only that the body is the locus of jouissance, but that it is also the place where the Freudian ideas of Eros and Thanatos connect to each other, where they coincide.(Seminar XIV, 24th May 1967).

Jouissance and Desire

As an excess of enjoyment – an enjoyment that may not even be consciously experienced as such – jouissance is the most powerful counterforce to the work of a psychoanalysis. So what protects against or limits jouissance? The first answer is desire, and this is one of the ways that Lacan defines the latter. In the Écrits he writes that “Desire is a defense, a defence against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (Écrits, 825). What this means is that rather than indulging a passion for jouissance, the metonymy of desire protects against going beyond a certain limit of pleasure, from going beyond what he calls in Seminar XIII the foyer brulant, or the burning hearth (Seminar XIII, 23rd March 1966).

From early on in his work Lacan presents the symptom as a machine for ciphering unconscious desire, ensuring its repetition under a multitude of guises. Symptoms may perform different functions for different people, and perhaps a different function for the same person at different points in their life. They are not inherently a bad thing. But the symptom also carries with it a malignant jouissance. Insofar as the work of a psychoanalysis may involve supporting a symptom, or even helping to develop one that works better for a person, the criteria for a good symptom is one that will allow you to sustain your desire in its precariousness, rather than hooking you into a negative infinity around the object a (an idea we will explain below). In Seminar VI Lacan talks about these types of symptoms as “phantasmagoria”, a term which brings to mind a shifting series of illusions which are neither enjoyed too much nor too little. “Symptoms which are nevertheless so little satisfying in themselves”, as he describes them – not grossly unpleasurable, nor excessive, but simply “so little satisfying” (Seminar VI, 10th June 1959.) The task of a psychoanalysis then would be to enable the subject to walk the line between the tickle of the symptom and the inferno of jouissance (Seminar XVII, p.72).

Is Desire a Defence against Jouissance?

However, three caveats to this idea that desire is a defence against jouissance:

  • Firstly, that desire provides an insufficient satisfaction. As Lacan says in Seminar XI, “The subject will realise that his desire is merely a vain detour with the aim of catching the jouissance of the other” (Seminar XI, 183-184).
  • Secondly, desire can be a defence against jouissance but – as Lacan says about the hysteric in Seminar VI – jouissance can be a defence against desire. We can think about how Lacan understands the strategy of the hysteric in this regard. Speaking about hysterical subjects, Lacan makes the point that “here jouissance is precisely to prevent desire in situations that she herself constructs” (Seminar VI, 10th June 1959.) The hysteric does not necessarily want to stifle desire, but – as Lacan puts it here – to “prevent desire coming to term in order that she herself will remain what is at stake”, in other words, to keep desire going. Why does she want to keep it going? Because it is her being that is at stake, a being that exists to elicit the desire of the Other. This is a crucial clinical point therefore in being able to differentiate the ‘savage’ jouissance seen in some cases of psychosis from the ‘strategic’ jouissance which Lacan detects in hysterical subjects.
  • Thirdly, that desire cannot be an antidote to jouissance because it is not qualitatively equivalent to it. Jouissance is of a different nature to desire insofar as is at the level of the drive. In Seminar VII Lacan describes jouissance as “not purely and simply the satisfaction of a need but as the satisfaction of a drive” (Seminar VII, 209), whereas desire emerges from the split between this need and the demand for it to be satisfied, which is addressed to the Other. More simply, to explain this difference Lacan describes a sort of canyon, where “desire reveals certain ridges, a certain sticking point”, but in which jouissance “presents itself as buried at the centre of a field and has the characteristics of inaccessibility, obscurity and opacity” (Seminar VII, 209). Another more poetic formulation is given to this difference in the Écrits, where Lacan sums up the relation between desire and jouissance by describing the

    “Misadventure of desire at the hedges of jouissance, watched out for by an evil god. This drama is not as accidental as it is believed to be. It is essential: for desire comes from the Other, and jouissance is located on the side of the Thing.” (Écrits, 853)

    If we were looking for a dualism in Lacan to parallel what Freud is trying to construct perhaps we can find it between jouissance and desire.

  • Jouissance, Transgression, and Prohibition

    So, if desire can’t put a satisfactory limit to jouissance, what can?

    One of Freud’s ideas is that culture itself puts a break on our ability to obtain full jouissance, full enjoyment. The exemplar of this is the prohibition on incest. But Lacan contradicts this. In the Écrits he says that jouissance is usually forbidden to the subject, but not because of “bad societal arrangements”. He calls people who believe this “fools”. The Other is to blame, but as the Other does not exist we instead put the blame on ourselves and call it Original Sin (Écrits, 820). In Seminar IX Lacan is more explicit. The Other does not prohibit, he says. The Other – the Other as the Law – is a metaphor for prohibition rather than the cause of it. What looks like a prohibition from the Other is actually an impossibility of accessing the jouissance of the Thing (Seminar IX, 14th April 1962).

    Lacan does say however is that jouissance is prohibited [interdite] for he who speaks, as such (Écrits, 821). What does he mean by this? It is not law or culture that makes jouissance forbidden to the subject, but rather a natural limit to pleasure itself. The law or culture “makes a barred subject out of an almost natural barrier”, he says in the Écrits.

    “We must keep in mind that jouissance is prohibited [interdite] to whoever speaks, as such—or, put differently, it can only be said [dite] between the lines by whoever is a subject of the Law, since the Law is founded on that very prohibition
    [….] But it is not the Law itself that bars the subject’s access to jouissance—it
    simply makes a barred subject out of an almost natural barrier. For it is pleasure that sets limits to jouissance, pleasure as what binds incoherent life together, until another prohibition – this one being unchallengeable — arises from the regulation that Freud discovered as the primary process and relevant law of pleasure.”
    (Écrits, 821).

    The idea here is that we cannot go beyond a certain level of pleasure before we hit a wall of pain, the experience of jouissance. And what marks this limit is termed in psychoanalysis ‘castration’.

    What is castration? Rather than being the removal of the genitals, Lacan sees it as a process by which a sacrifice is given a mark. This mark is a lack, something with a negative attached to it. The name Lacan gives to this is the phallus – the phallus not as the penis, but as the mark of a lack:

    “… The sole indication of this jouissance in its infinitude, which brings with it the mark of its prohibition, and which requires a sacrifice in order to constitute this mark: the sacrifice implied in the same act as that of choosing its symbol, the phallus. This choice is allowed because the phallus—that is, the image of the penis—is negativized where it is situated in the specular image.” (Écrits, 822).

    As the mark of a lack, the phallus allows us to enjoy only partially, with a ‘paltry’ jouissance. Lacan says that the phallus reduces jouissance to an auto-erotism (Écrits, 822). (Whether there is another kind of jouissance that is particular to women or to the mystic is something for speculation, but not something we’ll go into depth with here. For more on that point, see this article).

    Nonetheless, Lacan hints that there is a way to use prohibition to augment this phallic, or paltry, jouissance. Prohibition, he believes, is the all-terrain vehicle that allows us to overcome some of the limits in jouissance – to stop our journey being just a series of well-trodden satisfactions.

    “If the paths to jouissance have something in them that dies out, that tends to make them impassable, prohibition, if I may say so, becomes its all-terrain vehicle, its half-track truck, that gets it out of the circuitous routes that lead man back in a roundabout way toward the rut of a short and well-trodden satisfaction” (Seminar VII, 177).

    But rather than trying to ‘maximise’ our paltry jouissance through transgression when we feel we are not enjoying enough, if prohibition comes from a natural barrier to pleasure rather than a Law imposed by the Other, then surely transgression itself is a sham? Enjoyment is not about transgression – if there’s really no law to transgress how can we do so? Lacan expresses this nicely in Seminar XVII:

    “We don’t ever transgress. Sneaking around is not transgressing. Seeing a door half-open is not the same as going through it….”

    And he then adds a crucial twist:

    “There is no transgression here, but rather an irruption, a falling into the field, of something not unlike jouissance – a surplus” (Seminar XVII, p.20).

    It is with this surplus that jouissance obtains a kind of ‘life of its own’. The excess invades or ‘irrupts’ as he puts it here, and leave us a surplus jouissance. Despite this ‘paltry’ phallic jouissance that we castrated subjects have to deal with, an excess of enjoyment – a plus de jouir – is generated in the place of castration. He calls this a compensation for a loss, and we can think of it as a kind of ‘plus of a minus’ – what he names in Seminar VII as “something that necessitates compensation… for what is initially a negative number” (Seminar VII, p.50).

    But then Lacan issues a warning: you have to get rid of this surplus – “it is very urgent that one squander it”, he says in Seminar XVII – or you’re in big trouble:

    “What’s disturbing is that if one pays in jouissance, then one has got it, and then, once one has got it it is very urgent that one squander it. If one does not squander it, there will be all sorts of consequences.” (Seminar XVII, p.20)

    The term ‘squander’ here is an interesting one. Just as to squander money implies to frivolously spend it without care as to where it goes, so an ‘urgent squandering’ of jouissance implies the importance of finding an outlet without too much regard for how or where it gets expended. Any serviceable route to its evacuation is preferable to living with excess jouissance.

    Jouissance and The Thing

    This brings us to the idea of the Thing – das Ding – which Lacan goes on and on and on about in Seminar VII, from 1959-1960. It somewhat morphs into the theory of the object-cause of desire from then on, starting with the notion of agalma in Seminar VIII the following year, and then being more fully developed into object a around Seminars X and XI, and over the course of the rest of his work.

    To explain the Thing and its relation to jouissance, here are two diagrams to illustrate the encounter with jouissance when we go beyond the pleasure principle.

    Seminar VII - Around the Object a

    This first diagram shows the path of the drive around the object, represented by a. The course of the drive is a kind of elliptical orbit around the object, rather than a straight line by which it would reach it. It is flung back around the object at the moment it is closest to it.

    What this attempts to show is that the beyond of the pleasure principle is something internal to it. It is an internal flaw in the pleasure principle rather than something that intervenes from outside to limit pleasure (for example, the law or prohibition). As Slavoj Zizek writes,

    “The space of the drive is as such a paradoxical, curved space: the object a is not a positive entity existing in space, it is ultimately nothing but a certain curvature of the space itself which causes us to make a bend precisely when we want to get directly at the object.” (Enjoy Your Symptom, p.56-57).

    But even if this trajectory around the object produces displeasure (frustration, exhaustion) there is a kind of satisfaction found in this nonetheless. This is one way of understanding jouissance. Freud tells us that the drive is indifferent to its object, and can be satisfied without obtaining it (sublimation). It is not the object itself that is of importance, but what Joan Copjec describes as,

    “a particular mode of attainment, an itinerary the drive must undertake in order to access its object or to gain satisfaction from some other object in its place. There is always pleasure in this detour – indeed this is what pleasure is, a movement rather than a possession, a process rather than an object” (Copjec, UMBR(a): Polemos, 2001, p.150).

    The ultimate example of this is courtly love. The Lady in courtly love represents this kind of curved space towards the object. You cannot approach her directly, only in detours and ordeals. The Lady is less a substance than a semblance. You write a song about her rather than having sex with her. Any attempt to reach her is doomed to fail because her bodily materiality is really just a lure, a lure which is illustrated by the curvature of the drive: an attempt at a direct encounter, but one which cannot but miss.

    Seminar VII - Three Rings to the Thing

    Here is the second diagram, based on Lacan’s ideas on the Thing – das Ding – in Seminar VII.

    If we were to give a brief explanation of the Thing it would go something like this: the Thing is less a ‘thing’ than a point, though it is unreachable as both. We know the Thing only through our proximity to it, where the pursuit of a desired object in the service of the pleasure principle shades off into jouissance, up to the point that it implies what Lacan says – in no uncertain terms – is “the acceptance of death” (Seminar VII, p.189). Desire itself can be distinguished from jouissance. Lacan says in Seminar X that jouissance aims at the Thing (Seminar X, 23rd January 1963), whereas desire aims only at the promulgation of desire.

    The first ring in the diagram is that of the good. In Seminar VII Lacan presents the good as the first barrier of protection against the jouissance of the Thing. This is what he believes Freud was getting at in Civilisation and its Discontents. Except that loving one’s neighbour neglects the fact that the neighbour’s jouissance poses a problem for your love (Seminar VII, p.187).

    When we overcome the demands of the good we overcome a certain conception of ‘the good’ that Lacan wishes to distinguish from that of psychoanalysis. This might be the teleological good, the moral good, or simply the ‘good’ life of blameless bourgeois domesticity. Whatever, this entails the traversal of shame, the second ring.

    The last ring or barrier is that of beauty. And it is the most odd. In his discussion of Sophocles’ Antigone in Seminar VII Lacan is very interested in the few words that Antigone says at the graveside of her brother. Her desire to bury him is what Lacan seizes on as the exemplar of the ethical act. What she wants for her dead sibling is the minimal sign that the body is registered in the symbolic, and this is why his burial is so important for her. Indeed, burials are important for all of us. Anthropologically, rituals around the burial of the dead are one of the few common practices linking all human cultures throughout history.

    Beauty as the Veil of Horror

    In the moments before she is entombed alive Sophocles has the chorus talk about Antigone’s beauty. This is a term that is especially odd in this context and there is debate about whether Lacan translated it correctly. Nevertheless, his idea is that the ultimate barrier between death and life is the screen or veil of beauty which separates – is to final limit to – the horror of the Thing (Seminar VII, 248).

    This idea of beauty as the final veil before the horror of death comes up again and again in Sade’s work. Lacan references him heavily in Seminar VII. Sadean victims rarely die – they endure all manner of painful tortures but retain their pristine beauty nonetheless. The image of the crucifixion shows this as well for Lacan (Seminar VII, 261-262). Throughout these examples runs the same thread: a barrier of beauty before we reach the horror of the Thing. This is the space between two deaths that Lacan talks about in Seminar VII.

    There is a nice anecdote about the Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed that illustrates this idea of beauty veiling the horror of the Thing. For the purposes of hotel registers when on the road Reed would adopt the pseudonym Raymond Chandler. Asked what he liked about the noir genius of the detective story he replied, “Biting humor and succinctness”. When asked for an example he gave the line ‘That blonde is about as beautiful as a split lip.’

    Sublimation as Raising the Object to the Dignity of the Thing

    There is also a special role for sublimation in the proximity to the Thing. In Seminar VII Lacan says that we can’t ever reach the Thing, and so as a compensation for that inaccessibility we sublimate:

    “We have at present reached that barrier beyond which the analytical Thing is to be found, the place where brakes are applied, where the inaccessibility of the object as object of jouissance is organised. It is in brief the place where the battlefield of our experience is situated… in order to compensate for that inaccessibility, all individual sublimation is projected beyond that barrier…. The last word of Freud’s thought, and especially that concerning the death drive, appears in the field of analytical thought as sublimation” (Seminar VII, 203).

    Lacan’s famous definition of sublimation as raising the object to the dignity of the Thing has precisely this meaning. The Lady in courtly love, and ‘the ‘broad’ in Lou Reed’s anecdote, are examples of this.

    The Burning Bush and the Madonna

    When the veil of beauty is removed we arrive at the Thing. In the term ‘Thing’ we can hear the resonance of the Kantian thing-in-itself (Ding an sich, “thing-as-such” or “thing per se”). Lacan’s idea is that the Thing is brutal and raw in its immediacy; it cannot be substituted for or assimilated to anything else. As an example, he describes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in the old testament:

    “Moses the Midianite seems to pose a problem of his own – I would like to know whom or what he faced on Sinai and on Horeb. But after all, since he couldn’t bear the brilliance of the face who said to him “I am what I am” we will simply say at this point that the burning bush was Moses’ Thing, and leave it there.” (Seminar VII, p.174 – see also Seminar VII, p.180).

    Another example of the immediacy of the Thing comes from the Dora case. Describing to Freud how she sat transfixed in front of the painting of the Madonna in a Dresden gallery, she cannot find the words to describe it except than as itself:

    “When I asked her what had pleased her so much about the picture she could find no clear answer to make. At last she said: ‘The Madonna’.” (SE VII, 96).

    Jouissance and Anxiety

    The confrontation with the Thing provokes anxiety. Again and again in Seminar X Lacan talks about anxiety as the middle term between jouissance and desire.

    Jouissance – Anxiety – Desire

    What Lacan had to say about the relation between anxiety and desire in Seminar X is well-known. The confrontation with the Other’s desire is like being in front of a female praying mantis – you know that the female bites the head off her partner after sex; and you know you are wearing a mask; but you do not know whether it’s the mask of a male or female praying mantis (Seminar X, 14th November 1962). But what does he have to say about the relation of anxiety and jouissance?

    Here we can return to the topic of castration. Lacan’s idea in Seminar X is that castration covers the anxiety presented by the actualisation of jouissance (Seminar X, 5th June 1963). Let’s look at this in relation to what one of his smartest followers, Piera Aulagnier, had to say about jouissance and sex.

    Piera Aulagnier

    Piera Aulagnier

    Lacan gives her the floor for a session in Seminar IX in 1962. Aulagnier is interested in what difference there is between masturbation and sex. And the answer she proposes is that in sex both partners have to accept their castration. If either partner is focussed only on the partial object there is no recognition of theirs or the other’s subjectivity. This creates a situation analogous to the story of the preying mantis from Seminar X that we touched on above – you have no idea what you are for the other person. For Aulagnier, this generates anxiety, and so castration is necessary to avoid it (Seminar IX, 2nd May 1962).

    But then Aulagnier says something brilliant about castration: rather than being the fear that the penis will be cut off, the real fear is that the penis will remain but that everything else will be cut off. This would make it impossible for the subject to be recognised as a subject which, as we have seen, is the most anxiety-provoking of experiences because you would not know what you are for the Other. We are back to the praying mantis.

    Modalities of Jouissance

    Although the experience of jouissance will be different for each subject, let’s conclude by looking at some of what Lacan has to say about the character of jouissance in different subjective structures.

    Firstly, for the neurotic, the greatest fear is that he will be forced to sacrifice his castration to the jouissance of the Other (Écrits, 826). The neurotic not only believes very strongly in the Other, but believes the Other demands his castration so as to serve the Other’s enjoyment.

    For the pervert, secondly, the situation is a little more complex. Taking the example of sadism, Lacan argues that rather than being the master of his object, the sadist actually serves his own master. We find again here the theme of alienation from one’s enjoyment that Lacan thought was so interesting in Kojeve’s work on Hegel’s slave-master dialectic. The sadist is simply the agent of the jouissance of the Other. “I will ask you to look at my article Kant avec Sade”, Lacan says in Seminar XI, “where you will see that the sadist himself occupies the place of the object, but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert.” (Seminar XI, 185). The sadist’s partner does not matter as such, only insofar as it is what he believes the Other wants.

    Aulagnier however goes further. She argues that the pervert obtains jouissance by identifying with an object that produces the jouissance of the phallus. But there are two crucial modifications in her argument compared to Lacan’s. Firstly, in her view this object is not the partner but a material object which is used to procure the jouissance of a phallus which is not the sadist’s own. We can think of all the iconography of sadism – whip, chains, and so forth – as examples of this object. Secondly, that the jouissance the sadist aims at is not for the Other as such, but for an anonymised phallus. Her remarks are worth quoting in full:

    “The pervert neither has nor is the phallus: he is this ambiguous object which serves a desire which is not his: his jouissance is in this strange situation where the only identification possible to him is as an object which procures the Jouissance of a phallus, but he doesn’t know to whom this phallus belongs. One could say that the desire of the pervert is to respond to the demand of the phallus. To take a banal example I would say that in order for the Jouissance of the sadist to appear, another is pleasured by the fact that he the pervert makes himself into a whip. If I speak of phallic demand, which is a kind of play on words, it is because for the pervert the other exists only as the almost anonymous support of a phallus for whom the pervert performs his sacrificial rights. The perverse response is always a negation of the Other as subject. The perverse identification is always to this object which is the source of the jouissance for a phallus which is as powerful as it is phantasmatic.” (Piera Aulagnier’s presentation in Seminar IX, 2nd May 1962)

    Thirdly, to take just one example of psychosis, we can look at the work done on autism by the Belgian clinic Le Courtil. This is something we have looked at before on this site in regards to topology but to summarise that article briefly in the context of jouissance, autistic subjects face being overwhelmed by a jouissance at the level of the body that they have great difficulty defending against. Why? The topological approach in psychoanalysis answers this in terms of weak separation axiom. In short, a difficulty dealing with certain kinds of spatial realities.

    Finally, the inability to manage a jouissance in the body also manifests itself very forcefully in addiction. Rik Loose’s work here is key. He argues that the addict short-circuits castration to go straight to the object:.

    … Addiction can produce pleasures for the subject in a manner that is independent of the Other and […] can provide the illusion that there is a pleasure to be obtained that is not curtailed or limited by the social bond. This allows one to understand that some addictions function as a social “short-circuit” symptom and contains the desire to pursue a pleasure beyond normal pleasure. This is a form of addiction that tries to break away from the “cut” of castration, that is to say, it tries to regain what had to be given up, or was lost, as the result of castration”. (Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment, p.69.)

    The real question is what kind of object is aimed at by the addict? In his paper ‘From saying to doing in the clinic of alcoholism and addiction’, Eric Laurent offers the answer that the object of addiction is not a substance but a semblance. Irrespective of the particular drug the addict depends on, the drug is not what the subject is really interested in when it comes to the ‘hit’. For Laurent, addiction is not about pleasure but the ‘verification of the colour of emptiness’.

    “The first thing that drug addiction teaches psychoanalysis is that the object is a semblance, not a substance. It is precisely in drug addiction that we can find the most strongly sustained effort to incarnate the object of jouissance in an object of the world…. The true object of jouissance – if that word means anything – is death. The quest is not, as some say, for ‘some pleasure’; the quest is more precisely for the verification of the colour of emptiness [see E852, below] surrounding jouissance in the human being.” (Eric Laurent, ‘From saying to doing in the clinic of drug addiction and alcoholism’, in the Almanac of Psychoanalysis – Psychoanalytic stories after Freud and Lacan, p.138-139.)

    Dealing with Jouissance

    So what we can we learn from all of this about treating, managing, or otherwise dealing with jouissance? By way of summary we can highlight three points from Lacan’s work that can serve as a general guide:

    1. Embrace castration by positivising a lack. The ethical dimension of this lesson is to not cede your desire; and to desire means to take lack as your object.

    2. Mastering jouissance means loosening the bonds to the semblance, the unattainable object that is infinitely deferred. This means not becoming stuck in the paradoxical curvature of the space of jouissance that we sketched out above. This leads only to a kind of ‘negative infinity’.

    3. Evacuate jouissance to the margins of your life in a fashion that would mimic the classical Freudian model of castration as the evacuation of jouissance to the margins of the body.

    The philosophy behind these three lessons is encapsulated in one of the most beautiful lines from the Écrits, which ends ‘The Subversion of the Subject’ paper:

    “Castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire.” (Écrits, 827).

    By Owen Hewitson,


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