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Jouissance, and the corresponding verb, jouir, refer to an extreme pleasure. It is not possible to translate this French word, jouissance, precisely. Sometimes it is translated as 'enjoyment', but enjoyment has a reference to pleasure, and jouissance is an enjoyment that always has a deadly reference, a paradoxical pleasure, reaching an almost intolerable level of excitation. Due to the specificity of the French term, it is usually left untranslated.


Lacan makes an important distinction between jouissance and plaisir (pleasure). Pleasure obeys the law of homeostasis that Freud evokes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whereby, through discharge, the psyche seeks the lowest possible level of tension. The pleasure principle thus functions as a limit imposed on enjoyment; it commands the subject to "enjoy as little as possible." Jouissance transgresses this law and, in that respect, it is beyond the pleasure principle.

The symbolic prohibition of enjoyment in the Oedipus complex (the incest taboo) is thus, paradoxically, the prohibition of something which is already impossible; its function is therefore to sustain the neurotic illusion that enjoyment would be attainable if it were not forbidden. The very prohibition creates the desire to transgress it, and jouissance is therefore fundamentally transgressive.[1]


Sigmund Freud

Death Drive

The death drive is the name given to that constant desire in the subject to break through the pleasure principle towards the Thing and a certain excess jouissance; thus jouissance is "the path towards death".[2]

Insofar as the drives are attempts to break through the pleasure principle in search of jouissance, every drive is a death drive.

Jacques Lacan

1953 - 1960

Master-Slave Dialectic

Jouissance is not a central preoccupation during the first part of Lacan's teaching. Jouissance appears in Lacan's work in the seminars of 1953-54 and 1954-55, and is referred to in some other works (Écrits, 1977). In these early years jouissance is not elaborated in any structural sense, the reference being mainly to Hegel and the master—slave dialectic, where the slave must facilitate the master's jouissance through his work in producing objects for the master.

Sexual Reference

From 1957 the sexual reference of jouissance as orgasm emerges into the foreground. This is the more popular use of the term jouissance, with jouir meaning `to come'.

The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

In his seminar of 1959-60, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan deals for the first time with the Real and jouissance. Although the Real of the 1960s is not the same as his use of the Real in the 1980s, the first concepts emerge in this seminar. Here jouissance is considered in its function of evil, that which is ascribed to a neighbour, but which dwells in the most intimate part of the subject, intimate and alienated at the same time, as it is that from which the subject flees, experiencing aggression at the very approach of an encounter with his/her own jouissance. The chapters in this seminar address such concepts as the jouissance of transgression and the paradox of jouissance.


Symbolic Castration

It is in the text 'The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious' that a structural account of jouissance is first given in connection with the subject's entry into the symbolic (Lacan, 1977).

The speaking being has to use the signifier, which comes from the Other. This has an effect of cutting any notion of a complete jouissance of the Other. The signifier forbids the jouissance of the body of the Other. Complete jouissance is thus forbidden to the one who speaks, that is, to all speaking beings. This refers to a loss of jouissance which is a necessity for those who use language and are a product of language. This is a reference to castration, castration of jouissance, a lack of jouissance that is constituent of the subject. This loss of jouissance is a loss of the jouissance which is presumed to be possible with the Other, but which is, in fact, lost from the beginning. The myth of a primary experience of satisfaction is an illusion to cover the fact that all satisfaction is marked by a loss in relation to a supposed initial, complete satisfaction. The primary effect of the signifier is the repression of the thing where we suppose full jouissance to be. Once the signifier is there, jouissance is not there so completely. And it is only because of the signifier, whose impact cuts and forces an expenditure of jouissance from the body, that it is possible to enjoy what remains, or is left over from this evacuating. What cannot be evacuated via the signifying operation remains as a jouissance around the erotogenic zones, that to which the drive is articulated.

What is left over after this negativization (—) of jouissance occurs at two levels. At one level, jouissance is redistributed outside the body in speech, and there is thus a jouissance of speech itself, out-of-the-body jouissance. On another level, at the level of the lost object, object a, there is a plus (+), a little compensation in the form of what is allowed of jouissance, a compensation for the minus of the loss which has occurred in the forbidding of jouissance of the Other.

Symbolic Prohibition

The prohibition of jouissance (the pleasure principle) is inherent in the symbolic structure of language, which is why "jouissance is forbidden to him who speaks, as such."[3] The subject's entry into the symbolic is conditional upon a certain initial renunciation of jouissance in the castration complex, when the subject gives up his attempts to be the imaginary phallus for the mother.

Law and Prohibition

The Freudian Oedipus refers to the father prohibiting access to the mother, that is, the law prohibiting jouissance. Lacan refers not only to a jouissance forbidden to the one who speaks, but the impossibility in the very structure itself of such a jouissance, that is, a lack of jouissance in the essential of the structure. Thus, what is prohibited is, in fact, already impossible.

Plus-de jouir

The lack in the signifying order, a lack in the Other, which designates a lack of jouissance, creates a place where lost objects come, standing in for the missing jouissance and creating a link between the signifying order and jouissance. What is allowed of jouissance is in the surplus jouissance connected with object a. Here jouissance is embodied in the lost object. Although this object is lost and cannot be appropriated, it does restore a certain coefficient of jouissance. This can be seen in the subject repeating him-/herself with his/her surplus jouissance, plus-de jouir, in the push of the drive.


Plus-de jouir can mean both more and no more; hence the ambiguity, both more jouir and no more jouir. The drive turning around this lost object attempts to capture something of the lost jouissance. This it fails to do, there is always a loss in the circuit of the drive, but there is a jouissance in the very repetition of this movement around the object a, which it produces as a plus-de jouir. In this structural approach, there is a structuring function of lack itself, and the loss of the primordial object of jouissance comes to operate as a cause, as seen in the function of object a, the plus-de jouir.


Jouissance is denoted, in these years, in its dialectic with desire. Unrecognised desire brings the subject closer to a destructive jouissance, which is often followed by retreat. This destructive jouissance has a Freudian illustration in the account of the case of the Ratman, of whom Freud notes `the horror of a pleasure of which he was unaware' (Freud, S.E. 10, pp. 167-8).


Seminar XX, Encore, given in 1972-73, further elaborates Lacan's ideas on jouissance already outlined, and goes further with another aspect of jouissance, feminine jouissance, also known as the Other jouissance.

The speaking being is alone with his/her jouissance as it is not possible to share the jouissance of the Other. The axiom that Lacan has already given in earlier seminars, there is no sexual rapport, comes to the foreground in Encore as male and female coming from a very different jouissance; different and not complementary. It is a difference in the relation of the speaking being to jouissance which determines his being man or woman, not anatomical difference.

Phallic Jouissance

Sexual jouissance is specified as an impasse. It is not what will allow a man and a woman to be joined. Sexual jouissance can follow no other path than that of phallic jouissance that has to pass through speech. The jouissance of man is produced by the structure of the signifier, and is known as phallic jouissance. The structure of phallic jouissance is the structure of the signifier. Lacan proposes a precise definition of man as being subject to castration and lacking a part of jouissance, that which is required in order to use speech. All of man is subjected to the signifier. Man cannot relate directly with the Other. His partner is thus not the Other sex but an object, a piece of the body. Man looks for a little surplus jouissance, that linked with object a, which has phallic value.

The erotics embodied in object a is the jouissance that belongs to fantasy, aiming at a piece of the body, and creating an illusion of a union linking the subject with a specific object. The jouissance of man is thus phallic jouissance together with surplus jouissance. This is linked to his ideas of the 1960s outlined above.

Other Jouissance

Woman is phallic jouissance with something more, a supplementary jouissance. There is no universal definition of woman. Every woman must pass, like man, through the signifier. However, not all of woman is subjected to the signifier. Woman thus has the possibility of the experience of a jouissance which is not altogether phallic. This Other jouissance, another kind of satisfaction, has to do with the relation to the Other and is not supported by the object and fantasy.

Increasingly, in his works of the 1970s, Lacan points to the fact that language, in addition to having a signifier effect, also has an effect of jouissance. In Television, he equivocates between jouissance, jouis-sens (enjoyment in sense) and the jouissance effect, the enjoyment of one's own unconscious, even if it is through pain (Lacan, 1990). The unconscious is emphasized as enjoyment playing through substitution, with jouissance located in the jargon itself. Jouissance thus refers to the specific way in which each subject enjoys his/her unconscious.


The motor of the unconscious jouissance is lalangue, also described as babbling or mother tongue. The unconscious is made of lalangue. Lacan writes it as lalangue to show that language always intervenes in the form of lallation or mother tongue and that the unconscious is a `knowing how to do things' with lalangue. The practice of psychoanalysis, which promotes free association, aims to cut through the apparent coherent, complete system of language in order to emphasize the inconsistencies and holes with which the speaking being has to deal. The lalangue of the unconscious, that which blurts out when least expected, provides a jouissance in its very play. Every lalangue is unique to a subject.

Jouis-sens also refers to the super-ego's demand to enjoy, a cruel imperative - enjoy! - that the subject will never be able to satisfy. The super-ego promotes the jouissance that it simultaneously prohibits. The Freudian reference to the super-ego is one of a paradoxical functioning, secretly feeding on the very satisfaction that it commands to be renounced. The severity of the super-ego is therefore a vehicle for jouissance.

In 'La Troisième', presented in Rome in 1974 (Écrits, 1977), Lacan elaborates the third jouissance, jouis-sens, the jouissance of meaning, the jouissance of the unconscious, in reference to its locus in the Borromean knot. He locates the three jouissances in relation to the intersections of the three circles of the knot, the circles of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary. The Borromean knot is a topos in which the logical and clinical dimensions of the three jouissances are linked together: the Other jouissance, that is the jouissance of the body, is located at the intersection of the Real and the Imaginary; phallic jouissance is situated within the common space of the Symbolic and the Real; the jouissance of meaning, jouis-sens, is located at the intersection of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. It is the object a that holds the central, irreducible place between the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary.

Feminine Jouissance

Lacan states that "jouissance, insofar as it is sexual, is phallic, which means that it does not relate to the Other as such."[4] However, he argues that there is a specifically feminine jouissance, a "supplementary jouissance"[5] which is "beyond the phallus,"[6] a jouissance of the Other. In order to differentiate between these two forms of jouissance, Lacan introduces different algebraic symbols for each; designates phallic jouissance, whereas JA designates the jouissance of the Other.

Jouissance and the Clinic

Lacan's contribution to the clinic is paramount in regard to the operation of jouissance in neurosis, perversion and psychosis. The three structures can be viewed as strategies with respect to dealing with jouissance.


The neurotic subject does not want to sacrifice his/her castration to the jouissance of the Other (Écrits, 1977). It is an imaginary castration that is clung to in order not to have to acknowledge Symbolic castration, the subjection to language and its consequent loss of jouissance. The neurotic subject asks 'why me, that I have to sacrifice this castration, this piece of flesh, to the Other?' Here we encounter the neurotic belief that it would be possible to attain a complete jouissance if it were not forbidden and if it were not for some Other who is demanding his/her castration. Instead of seeing the lack in the Other the neurotic sees the Other's demand of him/her.


The Pervert imagines him-/herself to be the Other in order to ensure his/her jouissance. The perverse subject makes him-/herself the instrument of the Other's jouissance through putting the object a in the place of the barred Other, negating the Other as subject. His/her jouissance comes from placing him-/herself as an object in order to procure the jouissance of a phallus, even though he/she doesn't know to whom this phallus belongs. Although the pervert presents him-/herself as completely engaged in seeking jouissance, one of his/her aims is to make the law present. Lacan uses the term père-version, to demonstrate the way in which the pervert appeals to the father to fulfil the paternal function.


The practice of psychoanalysis examines the different ways and means the subject uses to produce jouissance. It is by means of the bien dire, the well-spoken, where the subject comes to speak in a new way, a way of speaking the truth, that a different distribution of jouissance may be achieved. The analytic act is a cut, a break with a certain mode of jouissance fixed in the fantasy. The consequent crossing of the fantasy leaves the subject having to endure being alone with his/her own jouissance and to encounter its operation in the drive, a unique, singular way of being alone with one's own jouissance. The cut of the analytic act leaves the subject having to make his/her own something that was formerly alien. This produces a new stance in relation to jouissance.


In psychosis, jouissance is reintroduced in the place of the Other. The jouissance involved here is called jouissance of the Other, because jouissance is sacrificed to the Other, often in the most mutilating ways, like cutting off a piece of the body as an offering to what is believed to be the command of the Other to be completed. The body is not emptied of jouissance via the effect of the signifier and castration, which usually operate to exteriorise jouissance and give order to the drives.

In Schreber we see the manifestation of the ways in which the body is not emptied of jouissance. Shreber describes a body invaded by a jouissance that is ascribed to the jouissance of the Other, the jouissance of God.

The practice of psychoanalysis with the psychotic differs from that of the neurotic. Given that the psychotic is in the position of the object of the Other's jouissance, where the Uncontrolled action of the death drive lies, what is aimed at is the modification of this position in regard to the jouissance in the structure. This involves an effort to link in a chain, the isolated, persecuting signifiers in order to initiate a place for the subject outside the jouissance of the Other. Psychoanalysis attempts to modify the effect of the Other's jouissance in the body, according to the shift of the subject in the structure. The psychotic does not escape the structure, but there can be a modification of unlimited, deadly jouissance.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Jouissance, or enjoyment, does not equate simply to pleasure. In the Freudian sense, enjoyment is located beyond the pleasure principle. In his clinical practice, Freud had already observed incidents of self-harm and the strange compulsion in certain patients to keep revisiting the very experiences that were so disturbing and traumatic for them. Th is paradoxical phenomenon of deriving a kind of satisfaction through suffering, or pleasure through pain, is what Lacan designates as jouissance. If pleasure functions in terms of balance, achieving discrete objectives and so on, enjoyment is destabilizing and tends towards excess. Enjoyment can be characterized as a kind of existential electricity that not only animates the subject but also threatens to destroy them. In this regard, enjoyment is always both before and beyond the symbolic field; it drives the symbolic but can never be fully captured by it. If the body of Frankenstein’s monster is the intelligible symbolic structure, then lightning is the raw substance of enjoyment that reflects the primordial character of human drives and obsessions.

According to Lacan, jouissance has a Real status and is the only “substance” recognized in psychoanalysis. Indeed, a central goal of psychoanalysis is not so much to bring to light the “guilt” of the analysand but rather to get at their “perverse enjoyment” (SVII: 4–5): the excessive forms of investment in guilt that are themselves symptomatic of a particular mode of jouissance rooted in the Real. This is why Lacan characterizes the superego – the inherent agency of guilt that constantly recycles feelings of inadequacy and makes impossible demands of the subject – in terms of a primary injunction: namely, enjoy! (SXX: 3).

Although jouissance is viewed as a (non-discursive) “substance”, it is not one that possesses any independence or positivity of its own. Jouissance is something that can be signposted only in relation to a limit imposed by the pleasure principle (SXVII: 46). It emerges as a beyond in relation to this limit – as that which marks the domain of forbidden and/or obscene excesses. To approach this from a different angle, jouissance is produced as the excess of repression; without this repression, there can be no jouissance (LN: 308). This is why jouissance cannot be directly targeted or apprehended (despite the ambition of the “politics of enjoyment” and its various incarnations). At the same time, it cannot be directly eliminated. Jouissance is something that always sticks to the subject.

David Fincher’s Seven is illustrative of the dynamics of jouissance. Two detectives, Mills and Somerset, set out to investigate a series of brutal murders committed as a “sermon” on the seven deadly sins by John Doe. Doe’s victims are chosen on the grounds that they embody a particular sinful excess and are subsequently dispatched in an elaborately sadistic manner. He seeks to punishexecute his victims not because of any legal transgression but because they do not conform to the imaginary unity, the homeostatic ego-ideal, of a God-fearing community. Here we might say that Doe becomes a superego manifestation who acts beyond the law on behalf of the law, fi lling in for its failures (something similar could be said about Batman and various other super(ego)-heroes).

There are two especially perceptive insights in this film. The first concerns the intrinsic character of jouissance: the more Doe renounces earthly pleasures in pursuit of his cause, the more his enjoyment-in-renunciation is revealed. What Doe attempts to conceal is precisely the surplus enjoyment he takes in personal sacrifice and in stoically carrying out his duty. His enjoyment is not so much an immediate gratification in violence, but rather an obscene satisfaction in carrying out complicated and ritualized killings/torture as part of a divine mission sanctioned by God. Doe is, in fact, a classic pervert who tries to hide his enjoyment behind his perceived ethical obligation. Put in other terms, he expresses the classic ideological alibi: “I was not there as a being of enjoyment but as a functionary of duty.” This also reflects Žižek’s point against Hannah Arendt and her conclusion regarding the routinized nature of the extermination of Jews as a “banality of evil” (Arendt 1963). That is to say, what Arendt misses is the way in which the bureaucratization itself became “a source of an additional jouissance” (PF: 55); a surplus satisfaction gained from carrying out the daily torture and humiliations in the guise of a Kantian sense of impersonal duty, as an instrument of the Other’s will (the law/state/universal mission, etc.). The essence of the matter is not so much the “banality of evil”, but rather the evil/excessive jouissance contained and nurtured within the banality itself.

The second concerns the way in which Doe inscribes himself in his “sermon”. At the denouement of the film, Mills learns of his wife’s murder (her decapitated head is delivered in a package) and is consequently seized by the sin of wrath: he “over-kills” Doe in an act of desperate rage. Prior to this, Doe confesses to a powerful envy of Mills and his married life. By declaring (and demonstrating) this excess, Doe stages his own execution and literally enjoys himself to death – thus completing the circle.

From a Lacanian perspective, what this reflects is the way in which jouissance functions in terms of its “extimacy”. Extimacy is a hybrid word that combines the terms exteriority and intimacy. For Lacan it refers to “something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” (SVII: 71). It is along these lines that Jacques-Alain Miller affirms that the hatred of the Other’s enjoyment is ultimately a hatred of our own enjoyment (Miller 2008). The image of the Other’s enjoyment is so compelling precisely because it symbolizes the Lacanian “in us more than ourselves”. In this sense, the Other is always someone who gives body to the very excess of enjoyment that in our innermost being denies us homeostasis. What jouissance bears witness to is not the unbearable difference of the Other but, on the contrary, an unbearable sameness – that is, the very fascination with (the projected sense of) the Other’s enjoyment draws the subject into too close a proximity with their own disturbing excesses.

In this context, we should read Doe’s confession as fake. His real “sin” is not envy but denial. What he denies is that his entire economy of righteous retribution is driven by enjoyment. His confession functions precisely as a way of sustaining this economy at a safe distance from any direct encounter with his traumatic excesses. By sacrificing himself, he is able to avoid any confrontation with his mode of private enjoyment – it is the opposite of what Lacan means by an act. We see a similar type of logic at play in the phenomenon of stalking. In their over-identification with their object of desire (often a celebrity), the stalker is drawn into an unbearable proximity with their excesses (the anxiety generated by their obsessional economy), which they then try to resolve through an act of severance – suicide, an assault on the target of their obsession, and so on.

Ideology derives its potency from its ability to manipulate economies of enjoyment. Th rough its repressive mechanisms, the social order relies upon a certain renunciation, or loss, of enjoyment. But as Lacan points out, this enjoyment is not something that was previously possessed; it is an epiphenomenal excess of social repression itself. Where ideology succeeds is in fantasmatically translating this sense of lost enjoyment into the theft of enjoyment (Miller 2008). From a racist perspective, the immigrant is someone with perverse forms of excessive enjoyment (they are idlers living off “our” state benefits and they work too hard, taking “our” jobs, etc.) and who thereby steals and/or corrupts our enjoyment (our “way of life”). And thus what “we conceal by imputing to the Other the theft of enjoyment is the traumatic fact that we never possessed what was allegedly stolen from us” (TN: 203).

At the same time, ideology “bribes” the subject into accepting repression/renunciation by providing subliminal access to a surplus enjoyment – that is, an extra enjoyment generated through the renunciation of enjoyment itself (TN: 308–9). What is manifest in fascism, for example, is the way in which the subject derives surplus enjoyment through acts of sacrifice (renouncing personal enjoyment) in the name of doing one’s duty to the nation. With today’s (Western) ideology – basically a capitalist fatalism (“the economy is what it is”) in support of private pleasures – the subject is bribed in a different way. Ideology no longer operates simply with a particular utopian vision or with definitive objectives. Contemporary ideology consists rather in assigning demands for change to the realm of “impossibility” (as so much “ideological fantasy”). What ideology offers the subject is the fantasy of change (“freedom of choice”, “opportunities”, etc.) precisely as a means of avoiding any real (or Real) change. Change is sustained as a fantasmatic abstraction in order to prevent (the fear of) any traumatic loss of enjoyment. We see this type of ideological operation in films like Bruce Almighty where the hero actually becomes God, capable of anything, but whose own world falls apart as a result – and so he returns to a more humble “mature” existence.

One of the central lessons of psychoanalysis is that while enjoyment is experienced as Real, it is ultimately an empty spectre, a kind of anamorphic effect of symbolic circumscription. Against its numerous ideological manipulations, we need to find ways of accepting, and living with, this traumatic knowledge. Extemporizing on an old Marxist maxim, when it comes to jouissance we have nothing to lose but the myth of loss itself.

See Also


  • Freud, S. (1951) [1905] 'The Three Essays on Sexuality'. S.E. 7: pp. 125-244. In: Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Freud, S. (1951) Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis. S.E. I0: pp. 153-319.
  • Freud, S. (1951) [1920] Beyond the Pleasure Principle. S.E. I8: pp. 3-64.
  • Lacan, J. (1970) 'Of structure as an inmixing of an otherness prerequisite to any subject whatever' in The Structuralist Jouissance 109 Controversy, Richard Macksay and Eugenio Donato (eds). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 194.
  • Lacan, J. (1975) Seminar XX, Encore (1972-73). Text established by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, p. 10. Now translated by Bruce Fink (1998) under the title of On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge I972-1973, Encore. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 3.
  • Lacan, J. (1958) 'The youth of A. Gide', April, 1958; `The signification of the phallus', May, 1958; 'On the theory of symbolism in Ernest Jones', March, 1959, in Écrits. Paris: Seuil.
  • Lacan, J. (1977) [1960]. 'The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious' in Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Lacan, J. (1990) Television. New York: W.W. Norton. (note 5), p. 325. Carmela Levy-Stokes