How to find the lost joy

Image: Sandro Sandrone Lazzarini


The fundamental problem of capitalism is this: it does not allow recognizing jouissance or even understanding jouissance as what moves people.

Marx indicates how the capitalist mode of production captures and transforms the driving force of human activity, seeing communism as an implicit corrective for this distortion. In his critical view, the impulse to accumulate is not an impulse inherent in human subjectivity itself in such a way that an alternative appears as possible. In the second volume of The capital, Marx essentially enunciates the position of emancipatory politics that comes from psychoanalysis when he says: “capitalism will already be essentially abolished when it is assumed that satisfaction is the main motive of human action – and no longer enrichment for its own sake”. Here, the distinction between enjoyment and enrichment as motives for action separates capitalism from other economic systems, even those not mentioned. The alternative to accumulation is satisfaction – or, more specifically, the recognition of satisfaction.

The fundamental problem of capitalism is this: it does not allow us to recognize jouissance or even to understand jouissance as what moves people. It is not that capitalism deprives them of the satisfaction of thinking, loving, theorizing, singing, painting and fencing – to use Marx's own examples; it does not allow people to see satisfaction as a possible motive for their actions. One can think of the impulse towards enjoyment or an impulse centered on enjoyment as an existing possibility beyond the capitalist system. Outside of him, this drive – death drive[I]– would have no other purpose than jouissance, that is, it would operate in opposition to the accumulative logic of the capitalist impulse. The capitalist accumulation drive represents a distortion of the death drive, a rewriting of it that changes its structure.

But the capitalist impulse to accumulate does not simply wipe out satisfaction. Even being rewritten, this drive continues to provide a customary satisfaction. However, the dominant accumulation drive makes it more difficult for subjects to identify how they enjoy it. Personal adherence to capitalism does not come about through a complete neglect of self-satisfaction, for in fact it depends fundamentally on the satisfying capacity of that system. If capitalist subjects were not really enjoying themselves, they would not continue to be capitalist subjects. People really enjoy themselves in the capitalist world – the death drive continues to work – but they don't enjoy themselves in the way in which capitalist ideology captures them in its economic logic.

The political struggle is not simply a struggle for the right to enjoy certain goods and for the best distribution of that right. It is also – and even predominantly – a struggle over how to identify and locate the satisfaction mode. Capitalist ideology is triumphant today because it won this fight in the past. As subjects subject to capitalism, people define enjoyment in terms of accumulation: one enjoys insofar as one accumulates desired objects. And this definition has become ubiquitous: according to the logic that prevails today, even the satisfaction that one derives from romance comes from the acquisition of a desired object. But this is not the only way to think about satisfaction. One of the most important tasks for emancipatory politics today is to transform the usual way of thinking about jouissance – through a break in the bond placed by capitalist ideology between accumulation and jouissance.

At all times, capitalist ideology works to persuade subjects that their pleasure derives from the acquisition and possession of objects of desire. As a result, people's fantasies turn much of their focus to those moments when subjects obtain such consumer objects. Rather than emphasizing the moments when a couple struggles to overcome the everyday aspects of their relationship, the typical Hollywood romance emphasizes the moment when the couple comes together.

The film tune of love (Nora Ephron, 1993) reaches its climax when the long-separated couple embrace; and this embrace, according to the logic of the film, provides viewers with maximum satisfaction. The final embrace is the high point (the moment when each lover gets their love object for themselves). Furthermore, one leaves the cinema convinced that this embrace, this union, is the source of our joy. In this way, the very structure of circulating fantasies today underlines the link between acquisition and jouissance.

The problem with such an emphasis on the satisfaction provided by accumulation does not arise simply from the fact that it tends to produce a destructive society, formed by selfish subjects (which it certainly does), but, rather, due to the fact that it is not really efficient. When watching a movie like Tuning in Love, the joy felt – if it appears at all – does not actually derive from the moment when the lovers obtain their love objects.

To understand where to locate the film's source of amusement, one must note the rigid distinction that exists between jouissance and pleasure. Pleasure occurs, for Freud, with a release of excitement, when one is able to overcome the barriers on the way, fulfilling the liberating desire. While pleasure provides a good feeling and a sense of well-being, jouissance rips us off and disturbs our well-being. There is pleasure, but the enjoyment, in a certain sense, is what possesses the subjects.

Although the viewer clearly experiences pleasure in the conclusion of Tune in, he or she does not get satisfaction. Rather, it is the moment when the real enjoyment fades away. One appreciates the events that lead to the outcome – the struggles of each character in the face of the absence of an object – but one does not love the acquisition of the object itself, when it happens. The moment of acquiring the object represents the end, not the beginning, of satisfaction, although it marks the point at which more pleasure is experienced.

There is a link between Freud's conception of the pleasure principle as the motivating force for human activity and the capitalist drive to accumulate. In both cases, the focus is on the final moment – ​​the one when the psyche gets rid of the stimulus and gains pleasure. Now, this occurs when the subject obtains goods or more capital, acquiring things to enjoy without apparently worrying.

But what distinguishes them are their different ways of envisioning the final moment: according to the logic of the pleasure principle, the subject works to eliminate excitement and, according to the capitalist drive, the subject tries to increase excitement through purchasing more and more goods. It is possible to reconcile the two positions by thinking of acquisition as a way of calming psychic arousal and at the same time increasing the possibilities for physical arousal. If someone has enough capital, he can avoid disturbing thoughts about the possibility of losing it. But sustaining the homology between the psychoanalytic conception of motivation and the impulse to accumulate becomes impossible when one moves from the pleasure principle to the death drive as the fundamental psychoanalytic category.

Before 1920, Freud identified jouissance with pleasure; he saw jouissance as the product of activity guided by the pleasure principle. As he stated in “Instincts and their vicissitudes”, written in 1915, “the objective [Sail] of an instinct, in all instances, is satisfaction and the latter can only be obtained by removing the state of stimulation which affected the instinct.” Pleasure or pleasurable satisfaction results from the elimination of the stimulus, which is precisely what the pleasure principle demands.

After typing Beyond the pleasure bases, however, Freud failed to view the pleasure principle as the primary explanatory category of human activity. He retained pleasure as a category, but the death drive displaced the former from its fundamental place. Instead of explaining human activity itself, the pleasure principle begins to function as a supplement to the death drive, as an explanatory category.

Pleasure complements the death drive by providing a lure for consciousness. The subject actively assumes the offer of the death drive – an impulse that uses the subject and produces pleasure at the expense of his/her well-being or his own – because the moments of pleasure provided are bearable and even attractive. But this pleasure can only be imaginary: it is more the image of a future pleasure to be obtained than a pleasure actually experienced. This is the fundamental problem posed by the logic of accumulation and the supposed pleasure derived from enrichment.

Every capitalist subject has already experienced the dissatisfaction that inevitably results after having obtained the desired commodity. As an absent object, the object of desire seems at first to bring incredible pleasure, but when that object becomes present, it becomes an ordinary thing. In the act of getting the object of desire, that object immediately loses its own desirability. The pleasure embodied in the object exists only in so far as it remains beyond the subject's reach. How to wish for a lost object[ii], of an object that is absent, its actual obtaining causes more disappointment than pleasure. As pleasant as the presence of the object is, this presence never offers what is truly desired beyond it.

The big lie of capitalist ideology is its insistent message that one can enjoy the very act of accumulation. However, this act inevitably produces disappointment in the subject who accepts it as an objective. And that disappointment is never stronger when the purchase to be made looked before as the most satisfying of all.

For capitalist subjects, the disappointment that follows the acquisition of a valuable commodity is no reason to abandon the process of accumulation. Indeed, it is suggested to such subjects that they have simply not taken accumulation far enough and therefore need to go further. In this way, capitalist ideology feeds on the disappointment it produces.

If it really produced the promised ultimate enjoyment for subjects, they would no longer feel compelled to enter into the accumulation process. After a little accumulation, the subjects would be satisfied and thus cease to be capitalist subjects proper. Capitalism needs dissatisfied subjects, but it also needs subjects who believe in the ultimate satisfactions that it can eventually provide. This happens because the final satisfaction is connected to the act of accumulation.

The subjects assume the capitalist ideology because they accept the entertainment program that the system offers as their own. The key to combating this ideology does not consist in undermining the fantasies it raises, but in revealing where pleasure is to be found, thus offering a different alternative. Instead of enjoying the accumulation process itself, one needs to enjoy the experience of loss – the loss of the privileged object. Accumulation allows one to have objects, but it does not allow one to have the object in its absence.

That is why accumulation does not lead to satisfaction with what one has, as it produces the desire to accumulate more and more. Loss, in contrast, allows people to experience the object as such. Through the act of losing the privileged object, this privileged object is actually caused to emerge. There is no privileged object before its loss. Understood in this way, loss becomes a creative act. The loss of the object is the basis of our pleasure because this act elevates an object above the rest of the world and embodies that object with the power to generate satisfaction.

Through the loss of the object, we are able to enjoy the object in its absence; now that is the only way in which the object can motivate human desire. When you like that way, you don't like anything. This seems to offer, at first sight, an inferior mode of amusement. Why would anyone settle for enjoying an absent object rather than a present one? Because this type of enjoyment – ​​the enjoyment of absence – is the only type of enjoyment truly available to desiring human beings.

When you really have the object, it loses the quality that makes it enjoyable. One can enjoy the object, but one can effectively appreciate it only through its absence. The subject who recognizes this link between the absence of the object and enjoyment – ​​at the moment of this recognition – ceases to be a subject subordinated to capitalist ideology. This ideology holds sway over human beings only to the extent that they believe in the image of ultimate enjoyment associated with accumulation.

This does not mean that subjects who recognize that pleasure depends on loss will become completely ascetic beings. Subjects who take advantage of the tablets, the wide-screen televisions and the luxury cars they don't own. Rather, they will assume a different relationship to their objects of desire; these will be pleasant for the loss and sacrifice they embody.

One cannot accumulate such objects because they have no positive value assigned to them. They arrive without the promise of ultimate future enjoyment and, in that sense, do not function as commodities. The commodity depends on the invisibility of the work that produces it. Now, the subject who recognizes the loss in the object makes work visible, which is the loss that gives value to the object. Those who manage to locate their enjoyment in loss ipso facto value the sacrifice of producers in favor of society and align themselves politically with this group. This transformation results not so much from a change of activity as from a change of perspective.

We can think of this shift in perspective in terms of how athletes and fans view their devotion to sports. The growing importance of sport in the contemporary world attests, in a certain sense, to the dominance of the logic of merchandise and its narcotizing effect. Sports stars and their fans associate ultimate pleasure with winning. Its focus on victory provides an escape from the dissatisfaction that is inherent in everyday life under capitalism. But the focus on victory hides where the real joy lies, both for the athletes themselves and for the fans. While one finds a passing pleasure in winning, the joy derives from sacrificing time and effort to make victory possible.

Both the athlete and the fan make this sacrifice to different degrees – the athlete through long hours of hard training and the fan by giving up free time to follow the trajectory of each athlete or team – although the prevailing commodity logic obscures the role that this sacrifice acts as a source of satisfaction in both cases. According to this logic, the pleasure of victory justifies the sacrifice, when in fact the pleasure works as an alibi for the enjoyment of the sacrifice.

Psychoanalysis allows us to turn the tables on the logic of the commodity and place emphasis on the act of sacrifice. One strives for victory only to sustain the sacrifice that makes it possible. This shift in emphasis represents a radical transformation that stems from recognizing how one enjoys, something different from knowing the nature of pleasure.

While a simple shift in emphasis hardly seems to transform society in a fundamental way; well, that is precisely what Giorgio Agamben suggests in a striking passage from the future community (The Coming Community). Agamben quotes a story that Walter Benjamin supposedly told Ernst Bloch to describe the reign of the Messiah. In the messianic kingdom, says Benjamin that "everything will be like now, just a little different". Agamben sees the halo image as the indication of this slight difference that Benjamin identifies. However, one can also see the halo as a different way of approaching the commodity – an ability to see the commodity as an object of sacrifice rather than an object of accumulation.

Although capitalist ideology focuses subjects' attention on the process of having the object and accumulating it, rather than experiencing it as lost, capitalism as a mode of production continually forces subjects to bear the object in its absence. In this sense, the capitalist ideology and the practice of capitalism are completely at odds with each other, and this discrepancy is crucial to the functioning of capitalism. The cumulative logic does not allow the subject to recognize himself as the subject of loss, nor to identify enjoyment with the absence of the object. Even so, capitalism provides pleasure to the subject through a process of guaranteeing this absence.

This contradiction is fundamental for the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. The satisfaction that capitalism provides sustains the subjects, while the desire that the capitalist ideology provokes pushes them to expand the system, which is what it needs to survive. As capitalism forces subjects to perpetually endure the absence of the privileged object, it offers pleasure to subjects who surrender to its ideology. However, this ideology never allows these subjects to locate the true source of their satisfaction. With the act of reallocating pleasure – of exposing the connection between satisfaction and loss or absence – the ability of capitalist ideology to seduce contemporary subjects is undermined.

* Todd McGowan is a professor at the University of Vermont. Author, among other books, of The end of dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the emerging society of enjoyment, (State University of New York Press).

Translation: Eleutério Prado.

Book excerpt Enjoying what we don't have


Translator's notes

[I] The expression “death drive” is the cause of many confusions. As is known, to arrive at it, Freud generalized from cases observed in clinical situations, but also in general, but from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Now, as other authors have already highlighted, the death drive would be better said if it were considered a drive to live more, to live more intensely. Thus, it would work better as a contribution to social science that is guided by the critique of capitalism.

[ii] The lost object is an imaginary object that arises with a traumatic loss and that accompanies human beings throughout their lives. And this loss occurs when the child separates from the mother and recognizes himself as a distinct person capable of using language to express himself.

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