In this excerpt of Coming, his latest work in English translated by Charlotte Mandell, French Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explores the elusive and titillating word jouissance. This section is the second of a five part interview between Nancy and Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy. Through Van Reeth’s astute questions, Nancy discusses and elaborates on whether or not jouissance can ever be considered a solitary act by exploring some of his most favored topics: the body, sexuality, community, psychology, and Plato. —Melissa Considine Beck
Adèle Van Reeth (AVR): Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the questions of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?
Jean-Luc Nancy (JLN): It is because, in jouissance, these two questions of object and subject are linked, that jouissance can be in such a proximity not only with joy, but also with réjouissance , exuberance in general. Exuberance is a word marked by femininity: It is the swelling of the breast (uber in Latin), the milk that gushes forth. We can also think of ecstasy, a word of Heidegger’s and Schelling’s that signifies “being outside of oneself,” or rather “élan, impetus, outside of oneself.” In this outside-of-self, appropriation is impossible, because in it the subject is not a thing, a substance, but a simple punctual “I,” which allows us to unify our representations. But this relationship no longer functions in jouissance, which implies rather that we abandon representation, and thus leave that “I” that can no longer accompany the experience of jouissance. I think that is really what we are talking about, that loss of a subject capable of saying “I.”
AVR: Yet jouissance, far from being abstract, is always an experience, which means that it holds meaning only for a particular person. For instance, if we confine ourselves to sexual jouissance, the one who is coming [jouit] can say, “I’m coming…” Who is this “I,” then, who comes?
JLN: This crucial question finds a privileged inscription in Sade, for whom the one who comes enters into a twofold relationship with destruction. First of all, the relationship of the one coming with the one with whom he or she comes is a relationship of possession pushed to the point of destruction; he is enjoying [jouit] the risk of opening a gaping chasm in the very place where what is causing him or her to come exists. But this relationship with destruction turns against the one coming himself, who can try to go as close as possible to his own death. In Sade, we find heroes who have themselves hanged in order to ejaculate, after asking their valets to cut the rope at just the right instant. It’s in these sorts of situations that, often, the Sadean hero says, I am coming [je jouis]. That is: I am being carried away by jouissance. The exclamation is torn from him. Often some sort of blasphemy is added: “Fucking God!”—which also testifies to his being carried away.
AVR: But does this mean that jouissance is inseparable from pain? Here, the person who says “I am coming” says it simultaneously with the experience of pain.
JLN: Pain is always present in jouissance, tangentially or asymptotically. The extreme intensity becomes unbearable, and perhaps one comes precisely from being at the limit: there where the height of excitation is exceeded and is beaten back, only finally to fail.
The Sadean hero intensifies the ambivalence of that instant when he cries out “fuck! [foutre],” which means baiser, and which he uses as a kind of condemnation or insult for what he is in the process of doing or undergoing. Today, we don’t say foutre much anymore, or else just to designate sperm (cum). The Sadean hero, though, says, “Fuck! In the name of God, I’m coming!”—It’s a proclamation. We can find these proclamations in a number of erotic poems, in Apollinaire’s Poems to Lou for instance, where they are addressed to the other: “You are coming!” We hear it, too, in the “come” [viens] of Deguy that we mentioned earlier. What’s more, in English, jouir is to come, venir.
AVR: …which we don’t hear in the French term of jouissance.
JLN: In fact, the term jouissance is difficult to translate in a certain number of languages. In English and German, there is no word that is in the same family. Either the register is sexual, or, more rarely, legalistic. In German, Genuss evokes more the idea of satisfaction. But being satisfied with something signifies having enough of it, which leads us to the opposite of jouissance. Of course, the possessive aspect of jouissance is also linked to the idea of satisfaction: I want to have enough of it. But what does “having enough of it” mean? That implies the idea of an objective measure, which can be that of my means: I possess so much money and I will be satisfied if I obtain everything this money allows me to possess. But can I have enough of something that has no measure? That makes no sense. If my desire is measureless, it will never have enough, it will never reach a threshold. That is what happens for jouissance: It occurs outside of any measure or any idea of a threshold. Which does not mean that it never terminates, but rather that it is very difficult to know that that stopping-point is made of.
I would even say that the property of jouissance is to be endlessly renewed. This is very striking in the case of aesthetic jouissance, which we find in works of art, and to which we will return. Why doesn’t art stop, why do people continue to create? Because in art as in sexual jouissance, we never say we’ve had “enough” of it. This idea makes no sense. If people continue to create and jouir, it’s because desire doesn’t stop when it takes one particular form. Because there is a constantly renewed desire, the desire to make new forms arise, that is, to make a new sensibility perceptible [sensible]. And this new sensibility is desired and created not because we lack something, or out of a compulsion for repetition, but because what is desired is the renewing of meaning as such. What art testifies to, then, is our desire to make sense infinitely.
AVR: Do you think that jouissance expresses a desire to meaning? If that is the case, this desire must emanate from someone, thus presupposing a subject of jouissance. But you have insisted on the dissolution of the subject in jouissance. Isn’t there a contradiction?
JLN: Unless we wonder if it’s desire itself that is the subject. In the same way that it’s language that speaks and makes us speak, it’s desire that is the subject of our desire. This desire has no relationship to self: It is impulse. When Freud says, “Impulses are our myths, and our doctrine of impulses is our mythology”—an extraordinarily bold, even provocative statement—he is expressing something very important. Here, we should understand “myth” in the sense of fiction, that is that space where explanation becomes useless; but we should understand it also as muthos, uttered speech. It is Plato who defines myth as a lying fable, whereas in Homer muthos refers to speech. There can be logos only because at a certain point, muthos opened the way to it, with Plato especially. What’s more, Plato set about fabricating his own myth, which is called philosophy.
Let’s return to Freud: What is an impulse? The term designates the fact of being unable to think of ourselves otherwise than as driven on by something, which you could call gods or material forces (you can choose your myth). Heidegger would say we are driven, set off by the very fact of being. Freud, however, does not tell us by what we are driven, but this movement is precisely what we find in jouissance.
AVR: Not only does jouissance have no precise subject, but might it be the sign of belonging to a community, something that surpasses the subject and makes us join with being? We are almost in the Kantian experience of the beautiful, which attests to a sense shared by everyone. Jouissance might be the locus for such a shared meaning, a common sensibility.
JLN: Exactly, because since I am not the owner of my jouissance, I still experience it in a way that I can actually be there where however I cannot find myself. It is not enough to say that the subject is lost in jouissance—rather it is as if the self is subjected to it, in the earlier sense of subject, the subject of a monarch. Jouissance is stronger than me, but this subjection I know comes from elsewhere. It comes to me from the other, from others. This is why there is no solitary jouissance. Already I can hear the objections pouring forth: “Of course there are solitary jouissances, everyone talks about solitary pleasure!” But precisely, the pleasure in question is not in fact solitary, because it cannot take place unless the subject places himself in exteriority in relation to himself—this can take several forms. First of all, this relationship is always imaginary, fantasy-based. Then, procuring pleasure by oneself implies a splitting in two [dédoublement] It’s a little like the famous chiasmus of Merleau-Ponty: When I touch my hand, I am both the hand that touches and that hand that is touched, I am both inside and outside. And when I touch myself, I experience this self as being outside of myself. I refer [rapporte] back to myself. This experience raises a classic question: Do I have a body or am I my body? To this very pertinent question we must reply: both. Because when I say I am my body, I cannot disregard the fact that I also possess it; and when I say I have a body, I am forced to note of this body that…I am it. Having a body refers to the object, being a body refers to the subject. But I myself am object as subject. At least so long as I regard my body not just as a tool. If I touch my body, and if my body touches itself to give itself pleasure, it is outside of itself. That said, masturbation is not exactly the same thing as the sexual relationship, since, precisely, in masturbation the other is reduced to the state of a fantasy. Whereas in the sexual relationship the other is not based on fantasy—although a certain kind of psychoanalysis says there is no sexual relationship without fantasy…
—Jean-Luc Nancy with Adèle Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Jean-Luc Nancy is a widely published French philosopher. His books in English include Inoperative Community, The Disavowed Community, Being Singular Plural, The Birth of Presence.
Adèle Van Reeth is the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy.
Charlotte Mandell is an American literary translator. She has translated works by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Antoine de Baecque, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jonathan Littell.