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Civilization, Sexuality, and the (Dis)satisfactions of Enjoyment

Updated: Oct 13, 2023




“Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance -Enjoy!” (Lacan, 1975, p.3)



The first lecture on the topic of “Sexuality, Excess and Representation” organized by the Free Association and presented by Rosine Perelberg was dedicated to the theme of bisexuality. In this lecture, Perelberg made a connection between the differences in gender, sexuality, and culture by citing the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. According to Lévi-Strauss (1949), culture requires rules in order to emerge from nature and the fundamental rule is the prohibition of incest. Prohibition becomes the basis for social organization and introduces a distinction between humankind as animal, governed by instincts, and humankind as social and cultural beings, ruled by social conventions that add social reflection upon the natural order of the instincts. Therefore, culture and nature appear to be in opposition to one another.


In Civilization and its discontents (1930), Freud claimed that life in society entails a loss of personal happiness due to the non-satisfaction of instinctual needs. In order to live in society and benefit from its protections against nature, individuals are required to renounce the intense enjoyment made only possible by the immediate and direct satisfaction of their sexual and aggressive instincts. Such ethics of renunciation create frustration for the individual by imposing a limit to satisfaction in accordance with cultural ideals and its taboos, laws, and customs.





“In Civilization and its discontents Freud claimed that life in society entails a loss of personal happiness due to the non-satisfaction of instinctual needs.”


Since the natural satisfaction of the instincts is forbidden, the transformation of such instincts into culturally accepted forms requires psychic work. For example sublimation allows sexual and aggressive instincts to be fulfilled in socially acceptable ways such as psychical and intellectual work, art, imagination, aesthetics, etc. Also, the impossibility for full pleasure and satisfaction needs to be mourned for. Nevertheless, there is the acknowledgement that replacement satisfaction is not the same as ‘the real thing’ and therefore can only provide a fraction of the total enjoyment contained within the instincts. And although the sacrifice of personal enjoyment for the group can create some degree of enjoyment through social recognition, sometimes such high demands become too unbearable to tolerate or accept. Freud believed that the neurotic is unable to endure the frustrations required by civilization and continues to seek enjoyment through the neurotic symptom and its substitution satisfactions.


Considering the discontents of civilization, a sense of moral consciousness is necessary to enforce the adherence of the individual to the cultural ideals. The superego is the critical agency that exercises censorship over by ego through guilt. However, this sense of guilt is not only personal but also at work at a societal level, meaning that beyond a personal superego there is also a cultural superego. If we are to live in society, we must comply with the law and suffer guilt as a result of real or imagined transgressions to social norms and expectations. Freud claimed that “The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual.” (1930, p. 88) and that “The cultural super-ego has developed its ideals and set up its demands.” (1930, p. 89). The censorship and surveillance of the societal superego can heighten feelings of guilt, adding an additional layer of morality to the already existing demands of the personal superego, thus contributing to the struggle of life in civilization. But is the society of modernity also a society of prohibition or is it something different? And is there still a need for a prohibitive superego?


Todd McGowan (2004) argues that in modernity there was a shift from a society of prohibition into a society of enjoyment. Whereas in the society of prohibition individuals were required to renounce their private enjoyment due to a sense of social duty and obligation, in the society of enjoyment the duty is precisely to enjoy oneself as much as possible. Slogans such as “Just do it”, “Treat yo’ self”, “You deserve it”, “The sky is the limit”, “Yes we can!”, etc. all seem to express this commandment for enjoyment and the disregard for any limits on personal satisfaction. Dissatisfaction, renunciation, frustration, and sacrifice have no place in the new social order. In fact, dissatisfaction becomes something akin perhaps to a disorder, or even a perversion. In the society of enjoyment there is no place for the negative since only the positive can exist. Psychology becomes positive psychology. Negative thoughts become thoughts that became distorted and therefore need to be re framed into something more positive and adaptive. Trauma, losing a job, or a cancer diagnosis are not tragedies but blessings and opportunities for growth and self-development.





“In the society of enjoyment there is no place for the negative since only the positive can exist. Psychology becomes positive psychology. Negative thoughts become thoughts that became distorted and therefore need to be re framed into something more positive and adaptive. Trauma, losing a job, or a cancer diagnosis are not tragedies but blessings and opportunities for growth and self-development.”


The superego in the society of enjoyment is different from the superego of the society of prohibition. In the society of enjoyment, the ethics of renunciation are replaced by the ethics of enjoyment since individuals must live under the constant obligation to enjoying themselves. This superego does not exclaim “Thou shall not enjoy!” but “Thou shall enjoy!”. However, like the superego of prohibition, the superego of enjoyment can also assume a harsh, persecutory, and cruel presence and demand relentless satisfaction and happiness. Enjoyment without limits nor prohibition can become what Lacan termed as jouissance, a painful form of satisfaction that is fused with the death drive. At a personal and society levels, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) becomes the primary existential anguish when individuals struggle to fully enjoy life in a society that is saturated with commandments for enjoyment.


In the society of enjoyment, the depressed individual becomes the anti-hero, the personification of resistance, the uncanny stranger, the remainder of the old society of prohibition that must be buried and forgotten. The depressed is like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener, who embodies negativity and refuses to act by simply stating “I would prefer not to”. In the midst of the frenzy of activity, enjoyment, and satisfaction, we must imagine Bartleby and the depressed both standing still, holding hands, immobile, like ghosts from a distant past that only have the power to haunt us. If positivity and enjoyment are the rule of society, these must flow endlessly and without any obstacles that would slow down the machinery of happiness and fulfillment. The hegemony of enjoyment with its intolerance to difference forecloses new and disruptive states of mind capable of thought, contemplation, or reflection. Bartleby and the depressed have no place in the new order of civilization.





“The depressed individual becomes the anti-hero, the personification of resistance, the uncanny stranger, the remainder of the old society of prohibition that must be buried and forgotten.”


The problem with the society of enjoyment is that although it promises full satisfaction, it actually can have the paradoxical effect of making enjoyment even more difficult and elusive. For example, it is estimated that from 5% to 6% of the world population suffers from major depressive disorder, the contemporary malaise. Also, data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicates that just in the United States 57.2 million individuals sought medical care in 2021 due to a mental health disorder. As McGowan argues, the problem with enjoyment is that is somehow elusive and cannot be experienced directly but only indirectly as a by-product of something else. To the despair of many psychologists, psychotherapists, and happiness gurus, happiness is not something that you can simply tell yourself and others to feel. Moreover, enjoyment is only possible when there is desire. And desire can only appear when there are barriers for enjoyment, when an object is inaccessible and out of grasp. It appears that what we enjoy the most in not the object of desire per se but the barriers to the object of our desire. It is the establishment of the Law and its prohibitions, with its opened possibilities for transgression, what creates the potential to enjoy.


But what are the implications of modernity and the society of enjoyment for sexuality? In the first seminar Perelberg mentioned the concept of Pharmacopornographic by Preciado to describe on how capitalism and its technologies of the self are shaping sexuality and the production of the body. In late capitalism and under the power of the pharmaceutical and pornographic industries sex simply becomes sex design since there is nothing to be discovered in sex, no depth. This is the toxicopornographic subjectivity. In the “Ecstasy of Communication”, Baudrillard (1987) describes as obscenity the tendency for a society to make everything transparent, visible, and exposed through uninterrupted communication and information. In an obscene society there is no more illusion, no theater, nor secret rituals. In 4K high resolution, pornography becomes the full presence of the body and its parts in full detail but what is missing is the erotic, fantasy, or imagination. According to Baudrillard, what remains is the obscenity of the real under complete transparency and the image of sex becomes the true object of desire. What appears to be excluded from sexuality in the society of enjoyment it’s its traumatic and disruptive components.





“In an obscene society there is no more illusion, no theater, nor secret rituals. In 4K high resolution, pornography becomes the full presence of the body and its parts in full detail but what is missing is the erotic, fantasy, or imagination… the image of sex becomes the true object of desire.”


Psychoanalysis appears to exist at odds with the society of enjoyment because psychoanalysis places crucial importance on the negative. For Freud and Bion, the development of a mind and the capacity for thought is dependent on the capacity to tolerate frustration. Freud (1920) claimed on how the shift from the pleasure principle to the reality principle can only happen with the acknowledgement of the absence of the object and the development of the domain of the symbolic (e.g. the “fort-da” game). Bion (1967) pointed that a ‘no breast’ can become a thought and an apparatus for thinking only if there is sufficient tolerance for frustration. For Klein (1940), the transition from the Paranoid-Schizoid position into the Depressive position entails the acceptance of the loss of the ideal ego and its objects with the acknowledgement of separateness and the resulting loss of omnipotence and idealization. Klein linked this recognition with the Oedipus complex and stated that the loss involved in the Depressive position “is the deepest source of the painful conflicts” (1940, p. 345). And Lacan placed lack, the forever lost signifier, at the center of being and desire. It is clear that for psychoanalysis, frustration appears to be a necessary condition for the development of a thinking mind that is capable of symbolization, representation, and speech.


Freud recognized on how civilization is a rather tenuous achievement for humankind. Eros, the builder of higher units of individuals through the works of libido, is constantly under the threat of disintegration by the work of the death instinct. In the society of prohibition, the social order is maintained at the expense of personal happiness. In the society of enjoyment, personal enjoyment flourishes but with a consequent decline for social cohesion. In both forms of societies, the problem of the relationship between the individual, the collective, and enjoyment has not been resolved. But can Eros ever be fully reconciled with the death instinct? When writing about the struggle between Eros and the death instinct in society Freud (1930, p. 92) raised an important question: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”.



References:


Baudrillard, J. (1987). The Ecstasy of Communication. The MIT Press: Cambridge.


Bion, W., R. (1967/1984) Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Jason Aronson


Freud, S. (1920). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, volume VIII, 1920-1922, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works. Hogarth Press: The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.


Freud, S. (1930). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, volume XXI, 1927-193, The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. Hogarth Press: The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.


Lacan, J. (1975). Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil.


Klein, M. (1940) The Writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 1. London: Hogarth Press.


Lévi-Strauss C. (1969). The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon Press.


McGowan T. (2004). The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. State University of New York Press.

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