Age of jouissance; age of madness

Do we now live in an age of jouissance, an age of enjoyment?  Certainly there appears to a compulsion to enjoy and, linked to this, the drive towards ‘happiness’ and the desire for the ‘good life’.  This can also be linked to the idea of trying to measure happiness,  along with the growth of the therapy industry to try and help people become happier and more fulfilled.   In this post I will argue that this compulsion to enjoy is powered by the capitalist economy, which since the collapse of communism (China not withstanding) has become the dominant and globalised ideology.

However, we need to be clear that happiness is not jouissance, is not enjoyment.  Jouissance is in the domain of the Real, and the domain of the death drive, which is the compulsion to repeat.  This is something that Freud was already aware of when he wrote his controversial paper Beyond the Pleasure Principle.1  This is why jouissance is experienced as suffering rather than pleasure; it is in the realm of pain, but is also in the realm of passion, of rapture, of martyrdom.

Jouissance is also about meaning, which is why it is sometimes written as enjoy-meant. It is the meaning of suffering, and the suffering of meaning.  This is also linked to the enjoy-meant of the letter, which is the enjoy- meant of the materiality of the signifier, rather than its meaning.

But what do we mean by the term ‘madness’?  And how could it possibly relate to enjoyment?  The first thing to point out is that term ‘madness’ tends not to be used (at least not officially) in psychiatric and clinical psychological discourse nowadays.  Rather the focus is on an ever-expanding set of diagnostic categories.   The problem with this approach is that it suggests that madness, or if you like, mental illness, is a function of diagnosis.  In other words, it only becomes a mental illness if you can put a diagnostic label on it.  Furthermore, it implies that the mad, the mentally ill, are somehow different, that they ‘are not like us’.  Of course, viewing the mad as different has the distinct advantage of ensuring that other people can view themselves as being ‘normal’.  It also means that it becomes harder to speak of an ‘age of madness’  – at least not in terms of madness being a universal condition.

Traditionally the mad have been viewed as being different, which is why the history of madness is also the history of exclusion of one form or another. Even today the ‘mad’, i.e. anyone with a diagnosed mental health problem, are viewed with suspicion, as being different.   But in what way are the mad different?

Although Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation has been heavily criticised in terms of historical detail2, his basic argument is a powerful one.  This is that the history of madness is, amongst other things, the history of attempts to contain Unreason.

The mad are essentially those who have lost the faculty of Reason, and whereas in the past they were treated as lepers, criminals and paupers and excluded from mainstream society, since the Age of Enlightenment they have gradual been brought back into the mainstream through advances in psychiatric and psychological treatments.  And the ‘mainstream’ is a world built on Reason, on Rationality.  Reason is the light of Truth which shines mercilessly on the follies of the mad, on the Folly of Unreason.

However, as Foucault points out, what actually happens is that the mad are still excluded, but in a far more subtle manner.  Whereas in the past they were physically excluded by being shut up in asylums, now they are ‘allowed’ back into society on the condition that they renounce their subjectivity, that they surrender to the Light of Reason.

Of course, it is also true that a lot of mad people are still incarcerated, but now it’s in prisons rather than asylums.  Furthermore, society itself has become one massive asylum; the rise of Therapy Nation where we are all being constantly re- engineered to conform to the needs of consumer society.

Freud took a somewhat different view of madness (although he tended not to use this term).  Although Freud did not argue that everyone was mad, he did argue that most people, if not everyone, was susceptible to some form of psychopathology.  However, with the early Freud at least, there does seem to be a strong supposition that, with the correct treatment, i.e. psychoanalysis, people can become ‘well’, even if ‘wellness’ equates with ordinary, everyday unhappiness.

From a Lacanian position, however, this notion of ‘wellness’ becomes untenable.  Even if one adopts the ‘classical’ Lacanian position we are either neurotic, perverse or psychotic.  With the ‘later’ Lacan, we are basically all mad, but some people cope with this better than others through the construction of various forms of sinthome, including the Name-of-the-Father.

Is it true, however, that psychopathology changes over time.  Certainly there have been a number of attempts to correlate particular forms of psychopathology with modernity and post-modernity.3 A classic example of this is argument that whereas in Freud’s time (which in fact covered nearly half a century of rapid social change) the predominant psychopathology was hysteria, nowadays, depending on which writer takes your fancy, it’s depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, trauma or bi-polar.

However, if this is the case then there needs to be some explanation of the mechanism of such changes.  A possible one relates to the (apparent) decline in the authority of the father, and a consequent feminisation of everyday life.  On this basis we are all psychotics now.

In many ways it could be argued that capitalism is the engine of jouissance, the driving force behind enjoyment.  We live in a world geared towards enjoyment, and the economy is the powerhouse for delivering such enjoyment.  This is both through the production of commodities for consumption, and also through the manufacture of lack, of desire.  A great deal of marketing is designed to convince people that they lack something and that their lives would be greatly improved if they had that particular something that they currently lack.

In many ways the collapse of communism, at least in its Soviet form, marked the (final) collapse of the authority of the (totalitarian) master.  Equally, the triumph of capitalism marks the ascendance of the discourse of the capitalist.4 The triumph of capitalism is equally the triumph of jouissance, the triumph of the death drive.  All that matters now is that we enjoy, we repeat endlessly our drive to consume, to be satisfied.  Nothing must stand in the way of this endless quest for satisfaction, which masquerades as happiness.

  1. Freud, S. (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp.3-64. []
  2. Foucault, M. (1989) Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London, Routledge. []
  3. For example Stephen Frosh’s exploration of schziod- borderline states: Frosh, S. (1991) Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self. London, Macmillan Education Ltd. []
  4. See Bryant’s paper on this: Bryant, L. (2008) Zizek’s New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist. International Journal of Zizek Studies, Two (Four), p.pp.1 – 48. []
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