Jean-Luc Nancy and Adèle Van Reeth. La jouissance. Paris: Éditions Plon, 2014; 144 pages. ISBN: 9782259223201.

Reviewed by Peter GrattonMemorial University

When we fuck, have we lost something? Together and apart, alone and with many others, is there no jouissance? As Modernity reaches beyond its end, pleasure machines just keep us ultimately inside of ourselves, and yet we will come, we who still can—some of us pumped up with pills and others helped out by a whole slew of techné. Has the banality of capitalism and its creation of desire run so deep there is no jouissance, no excess, nothing left to give, such that we can’t give a fuck? When we make love, are you just imagining some other while I do the same—you imagining the other while I also imagine some objectified other, ad infinitum, so ultimately it is all just onanism and solitude? Am I fucking alone?

These are among the questions raised by Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book, La jouissance, published as part of the series Questions de caractère. Edited by Adèle Van Reeth, the producer of France Culture’s quotidian series on philosophy, Les Nouveaux chemins de la connaissance, this series looks at human emotions and those aspects of the soul that animate our lives. Broken into five chapters, La jouissance is a set of interviews with Jean-Luc Nancy around the tricky title word and the meaning of pleasure today and in Western history. At times ribald, at others highly academic, this book should be important to scholars of Nancy and contemporary Continental theory who will not just find extended discussions of the topic of jouissance, but also on Platonism, différance, Lacan, Spinoza, the feminine, community, the history of Christianity, and other important topics in Nancy’s work. For those beginning with Nancy, no discussion is too difficult and it’s carried along, no way around the pun, by a sexy topic. The interviewer is amiable and presses just the right questions—those that the reader will be thinking about, given Nancy’s previous answers. But more importantly, jouissance is revealed—in retrospect it is obvious—as a key term in Nancy’s oeuvre.

As Van Reeth notes at the beginning of the interview, jouissance has several senses and there is something vulgar or obscene about its use; it is a word that is “indecent or suspect.” (13) In current usage, the term refers to enjoyment, most notably in the consummation of coitus, but also has an older sense of enjoying one’s property or rights: “Etymologically, there is no privileged relation between the word jouir and sexuality. For quite some time, la jouissance had a wholly juridical meaning…the entire possession of something.” (14) The term, as Nancy explains, derives from the Latin gaudere (to enjoy) and this juridical meaning is akin to saying, in English, “to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.” By the sixteenth century, jouissance began to take on a sexual meaning, the subjective feeling of enjoyment to the point of excess, one that is sinful since it takes oneself out of what is proper. This links the word to the French jouir (to enjoy) and joie, and what interests Nancy is the origins of joy in middle French designating the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour, but which do not culminate in jouissance in terms of an orgasm. It is this sense of a jouissance irreducible to sexual completion that will interest him throughout the interviews, including through a brief reference to both the Kama Sutra and art as having a “sexual rapport without orgasm.” (52)

Jouissance is also irreducible to pleasure. For Nancy, pleasure (plaisir) has traditionally been something that belongs within the circuit of the self, like the Greek hédoné or pleasure that enslaves one to hedonism. Joie, however, as in the English “joy of Good Tidings,” is related to the other and brings oneself out of oneself, in a state of ecstasy, which can be either religious (spiritual) or more base (bodily), an “earthly meaning” through which jouissance takes on a more bodily sense. (17–19) Hence the difficulty of translating the title term of this text, which was also used to mark the time of a festival or la jouissance as the joyous acclamations to an important person, such as an arriving king. Nancy’s argues that there is paradox at the heart of jouissance between its meaning as appropriation and as that which ex-appropriates those who experience it. As he notes, “there is a contradiction in the usage of the terms [joie and jouissance], which perhaps refers to a contradiction at the heart of the thing itself,” which is found in moments of passion: “Take me,” “Be mine,” and so forth, marking appropriation while the moment of consummation is said to be one of communion, a bringing oneself out of oneself. (17; 23) Nancy also doesn’t shy away from mentioning the link between the English “to come” and the French venir, the coming of the other, that is a central term in his and Derrida’s texts. (28)

Nancy plays on each of these meanings throughout the interviews, and clearly his thinking of the impropriety that brings one out of the proper (which was never there in the first place) belongs to his sustained thinking of the legacies of the deconstruction of the subject. Asked about the ambiguity of who enjoys and what is enjoyed in joie and jouissance, he notes:

With jouissance, these two questions of the subject and the object are aligned perhaps in close proximity not only with joy but also with rejoicing (la réjouissance) and excitement in general….One can think of ecstasy, a term from Heidegger and Schelling that means “to be outside of oneself” or rather a “surging out of oneself [élan hors de soi].” In this “outside of oneself,” there is an impossibility of appropriation, because the subject is not a thing, a substance, but a simple, punctual “I”…which can no longer accompany the experience of jouissance. I believe this is truly what this is about, the loss of the subject capable of saying “I.” (25–6)

But it’s not just that jouissance is a concept referring to that which is outside itself, but the concept itself, Nancy argues, is semantically open: “I would even say that the property of jouissance is to be constantly renewed [sans cesse renouvelée].” (29) This semantic openness will be familiar to readers of Derrida on the notion of democracy, or on a “messianism without a messiah,” etc. This exstasis cannot have a pre-given form without domesticating the jouissance in question. Ultimately, then, Nancy will define the undefinable term simply as Derridean différance. (69) Therefore it is not something to be achieved by the sovereign self; it is the incommensurability of the relation between one and the other, one or the other, and thus links up with his notion of “exposure” (in all meanings of that term as well, for example, “to expose oneself”). (23)

In the background of Nancy’s discussions is a confrontation with Georges Bataille, whom Nancy has discussed at some length in such texts as The Inoperative Community and The Birth to Presence, and psychoanalysis. In his Eroticism, Bataille forges a thinking of community as a sacred fusion of each finite, singular being, which he argues occurs in the communion of sexual partners, the loss of finite identity through death, the bliss of the sacred—in short the loss of the self and its limits. Jouissance marks that which cannot be brought under any given social order; it is a transgressive dissolution of the self in a movement of excess marked by the orgasm and the sacred. While acknowledging Bataille’s “sharp sense of the excess and the infinity of desire,” Nancy argues that he, as always, is “too Catholic,” wanting an ultimate fusion and trying to think an end of eroticism by which there would no longer be desire. (44) In this way, jouissance and jouir are neither an experience of the self, since for Nancy the self is not a substance out of which such a relation can happen, nor the dissolution of the self into some Other, be it a God or community. Jouissance—as sexual (not sexed or a specific gender) difference and ontological difference—is therefore implacably shared (partagée) and embodied. (35)

Bataille’s notion of the excessiveness of jouissance is taken over by Lacan. In the Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–60), Lacan differentiates the Freudian drives (Trieb) from desire, which is structured like the bad infinite in Hegel and can never be sated. (We will see in a moment where Nancy takes this.) The drive, however, paradoxically feeds off this restless desire and is irreducible to the pleasure principle. In this way, like Freud’s death drive (Todestrieb), jouissance is beyond the pleasure principle and, as in Bataille, has a link to the death and dissolution of the subject—and thus to pain. It is precisely that which accompanies the law and the thwarting of desire itself, and thus Lacan joins together both the sexual and juridical meanings of jouissance—hence one can see, for example, what Nietzsche called the sadism of Kant, the joy of the no and its limitation. At the heart of Lacan’s theory is that the subject’s ability to take up the symbolic requires giving up on jouissance, which, like the Lacanian Real, was always impossible anyway. Thus taking up the symbolic holds within it, through symbolic castration, a fantasy that there could be, if it were not for the symbolic, access to the immediacy of jouissance. Accordingly we have the hunt for excessive experiences that are transgressive and annihilating, yet impossible for the subject to bear given that they are always traumatic and overwhelming. Since the publication of Title of the Letter (1973), Nancy has at points has been dismissive of Lacan, but here he finds laudable Lacan’s “attempt to find the meaning [le sens] of jouissance, beyond the accomplishment of satisfaction.” (38) Yet Nancy argues that far from operating at the limit of the symbolic, jouissance both “passes by the spoken word, whether as ‘come [viens]’ or ‘I’m coming [je jouis]’” and is fully embodied:

In the sexual relation there is created a body that is on the side of the body without organs in Antonin Artaud, that is, a body conceived no longer as an organism, but as the production of desire…Jouissance is carried to this point of the experience of alterity, as an alterity of bodies that no longer conform to their functional organization. (40)

Yet, one would be mistaken to think that Nancy circumscribes jouissance and its meaning to what occurs in the mélange of bodies in the sexual relation. For Nancy jouissance is aesthetic, that is, the opening in which alterity takes place. What is common to both art and sexuality, he argues, is a “relation to the infinite,” and consequently jouissance in the sexual sense is metonymic for the “with” and “co” of existence for Nancy. Against this “good infinite” of jouissance, Nancy opposes the “bad infinite” of what we could call, following Guy Debord, the society of the spectacle. Jouissance, he argues, has given way to the “inverted, destructive jouissance” (117) of addiction, while pleasures are rendered as quantifiable and any excess simply has the meaning of a profit that is without any stake or play: “The profiteering jouisance does not play: it is within the anxiety of satisfaction, it is within addiction.” (124) In this way, he argues—perhaps showing his age, at points looking longingly at the late 1960s culture while condemning video games as akin to alcohol or tobacco—that the jouissance that points towards a beyond “is absent.” (125) This is the malaise of contemporary civilization.

What remains unclear is the move Nancy makes between the ontological claim of the with or rapport of jouissance and its absence in an addictive culture. If it were merely a misrecognition of our ontological being-with, then this would seem to be merely an epistemic problem, or worse, a fall from the heyday of 60s counterculture, as he suggests at various points. How to think such a jouissance without making of it a past from which we have fallen or a naturalized ontological category outside historicity? These are questions that can only be broached by passing through, joyfully, Nancy’s important new text, touching as it does on what is lost and gained in the expenditure of jouissance for which we should give a fuck.