The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Jouissance: A term used in several approaches to literary criticism, including psychoanalytic criticism, deconstruction, and feminist criticism, to refer in various ways to the enjoyment of language and literary texts. Beginning with his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959—60), French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan developed the concept of jouissance as a paradox, going back to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s argument in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that the quest for happiness is twofold, involving both the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Lacan distinguished jouissance from simple plaisir, or pleasure, arguing that jouissance entails sensation verging on discomfort — pleasure to the point of pain, so to speak — experienced upon union with the Other, which the subject desires in order to overcome a sense of absence or lack and achieve wholeness. Subsequently, in his seminar On Feminine Sexuality (1972—73), Lacan spoke of a “jouissance au-delà du phallus,” a jouissance beyond the phallic, which he described as a feminine, supplementary jouissance that could be spoken but not written.

Drawing on these psychoanalytic concepts, French poststructuralist theorist Roland Barthes characterized plaisir and jouissance as a binary opposition in Le plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text) (1973). While acknowledging that “there is always a vacillation,” Barthes contrasted the “texte de plaisir” with the “texte de jouissance”:

Text of pleasure [plaisir]: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss [jouissance]: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.

For Barthes, plaisir was associated with culture, criticism, and the canon, jouissance with “the untenable text, the impossible text,” a “text outside pleasure, outside criticism,” for “pleasure can be expressed in words, bliss cannot.”

Practitioners of deconstruction, led by French philosopher of language Jacques Derrida, have used the term jouissance differently to refer to the attitude of pleasurable playfulness with which they approach literary texts. Deconstructors seek to show that every text dismantles itself because each text contains opposed strands of meaning or conflicting discourses that cannot be reconciled, making it impossible to discern or establish any one, “true” meaning. In Acts of Literature (1992), Derrida claimed that the “subtle and intense pleasure” deconstructors experience arises from the “dismantl[ing] of repressive assumptions, representations, and ideas — in short, from the lifting of repression” that occurs during this reading process.

Jouissance has also been used in feminist criticism to refer to sexual as well as textual pleasure or, more precisely, to a feminine, linguistic jouissance grounded in women’s sexual potential and pleasure. As French feminist critic Luce Irigaray argued in Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (This Sex Which Is Not One) (1977), not only is a woman’s jouissance more diffusive and diverse than a man’s unitary phallic pleasure, but it also cannot be expressed by the dominant, masculine language. Irigaray, like many other feminist critics, connected this difference in bodily sensation and experience to a difference in the way women and men write, postulating and celebrating the existence of a “feminine language,” or feminine writing, that is more diffusive and fluid than its “masculine” counterpart.