Jouissance, he said

Science Fiction Practice and Theory

Jackson, Jr.


Winter 1997


What do you

A history
of jouissance?

Or a local
of jouissance?


Pleasure of the Text
Roland Barthes introduces a bipartite typology
of texts distinguished by their effects on the reading subject: the text
of pleasure and the text of bliss (jouissance). Barthes’s adaptation
of jouissance
includes its usual associations with orgasm, but also refers to a less
physiologically localized
extreme of pleasure
, one whose intensity shatters the subject’s boundaries
and exceeds stabilizing representation. For Barthes, the text of pleasure
„contents, fills, grants euphoria; comes from culture and does not break
with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading,“ but the
text of jouissance is „the text that imposes a state of loss, the
text that
,“ that „unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological
, . . . [and] brings to a crisis his [sic] relation with
language“ (Pleasure 14).
The texts of pleasure and bliss,
generally correspond
to one of Barthes’s subsequent categorical
binaries, the „readerly“ and „writerly“ texts. The readerly text, like
the text
of pleasure
, includes any form of bourgeois text, from the classical
realist novel to the romance or adventure, anything that confirms the reader
in his/her culturally allocated subject position; the text of bliss and
the „writerly“ text are, generally speaking, the avant-garde texts that
violate the norms of intelligibility securing the reader’s wholeness, destabilizing
both the social order and the ego fixed securely within it.1
The code that founds the operations of the text of
pleasure or readerly text „is a perspective of quotations . . . (The Kidnapping
refers to every kidnapping ever written); they are so many fragments of
something that has always been already read. . . . The code
is the wake
of that already. Referring to what has been written, i.e.
to the Book (of culture, of life, of life as culture), it makes the text
into a prospectus of this Book“ (Barthes, S/Z 20-21). That recognition
of the code is the response to the text of pleasure. The „already read“
is what allows the individual to recognize the codes of the social order
as natural, the process whereby the realist novel (Barthes’s „text of pleasure“)
confirms the reader as a „proper“ subject through its seductive reassurance
of comfortable intelligibility – in fact the „subject is fixed at the point
of that intelligibility“ (Heath, „Film and System“ 98). 


Contrarily, the text of jouissance or the writerly
text dissolves that certainty, exposing the „I“ as a network of textual
relays. „This ‚I‘ which approaches the text is already itself a
plurality of other texts
, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely,
lost (whose origin is lost). . . . I am not hidden
within the text
, I am simply irrecoverable from it: my task is to move;
to shift systems whose perspective ends neither at the text nor at the
‚I'“ (S/Z 10). The jouissance in this text-reader dynamic activates
the volatility
of the subject’s significatory constitution; the „already
read“ now facilitates dispersal of the self rather than its consolidation.


 An incident in his personal history that Delany
recounts in his autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water, illustrates
the political implications of Barthes’s intertextualized
. After a nervous breakdown in 1964, Delany attended group
therapy as an outpatient. Although at first he discussed his homosexuality
only with his doctor, he eventually told the group, but „it was the most
abject of confessions
. . . . I had the problem – I was homosexual,
but I was really ‚working on it.‘ I was sure that, with help, I could ‚get
better'“ (Motion 245). 

His speech omitted everything about his sex life that
was meaningful to him: „the physical pleasure of
, the fear and power at the beginnings of a political
awareness, or the moment of community and communion with people from over
an astonishing social range, or even the disappointment that came when
fear or simple inequality of interest kept encounters for one or another
of us too brief“ (ibid. 246). It occurred to him later, that everything
he had said had come from texts he had already read: one „by the infamous
Dr. Edmund Burgler that had explained how homosexuals were psychically
retarded,“ another from „an appendix to a book by Erich Fromm . . . that
told how homosexuals were all alcoholics who committed suicide;“ Delany’s
tone echoed „the pathos of Theodore Sturgeon’s science fiction story ‚The
World Well Lost‘ and his western story ‚Scars'“ (246-47).

 Delany realized then that when „you talk about
something openly for the first time – and that, certainly, was the first
time I’d talked to a public group about being gay – for better or worse,
you use the public language you’ve been given.“ In this case „that language
had done nothing but betray me“ (247). That language could only articulate
Delany’s disclosure as a confession; the only subject position it provided
him was that of a „homosexual“
observant of the „heterosexual exhortation to silence“ (248).


 In Camera Lucida Barthes compares his
wayward private „I“ with the stolid image of his „I“ that photographs preserve.
„What I want . . . is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand
shifting photographs . . . should always coincide with my (profound) ’self‘;
but . . . ‚myself‘
never coincides with my image
; for it is the image which is heavy,
motionless . . . (which is why society sustains it), and ‚myself‘ which
is light, divided, dispersed“ (12). Paul Smith reads this passage as Barthes’s
metaphor for the tension between the „coherent
ideological ’subject‘
“ and the subject’s personal experience of itself
as „I.“ Barthes’s recognition of the division between the two, and the
flux of their relations, is a space in which the subject might subvert
the ideologically imposed stasis of the proper
. Smith also identifies the transgression of the fixed subject
as Barthes’s jouissance, in contradistinction to the „pleasure“ of the
„texts of pleasure“ that relies on „the fixity of the subject within the
codes and conventions it inhabits“ (Smith, Discerning 106-107). Delany’s
“ is a „whole readerly self“ that the gay male subject’s
(his negating
) can shatter. The position of either enunciator or addressee
of a readerly text would contain both gay male subjects (reader and writer)
within an ideological paralysis. The jouissance Barthes introduces
into critical discourse and Delany politicizes informs an engaged disarticulation
of the fixed subject. The double meaning of jouissance as orgasm and as
radical dispersal of the subject nicely literalizes the correlation of
this textual practice to the negating affirmation of the gay
male subject


The correlation I give here holds true within the parameters of the argument
I will advance. I should note, however, that the textual categories of
„readerly“ and „writerly“ in Barthes’s S/Z are complicated by his
subsequent demonstration therein of the possibility to engage in „writerly“
readings of „readerly“ or „classic“ texts. Back Up to text.

and adapted from Earl
Jackson, Jr
of Deviance
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press:1995.
Theories of Representation and Difference, Teresa de Lauretis, General

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letter on Jouissance

Science Fiction Practice and Theory

Jackson, Jr.