Lacan’s notion of jouissance comes to the fore for the first time in Seminar V. One is tempted to suggest that it does so not as an exhaustive theoretical concept, but with respect to the way in which it works as a central component of civilisation and its discontents. Surprisingly, in order to show jouissance in actu, Lacan refers to Jean Genet’s 1956 irreverent play Le balcon, which stages a revolution as seen from a brothel. Jouissance has undoubtedly a sexual dimension, but enjoying requires an elaborate socio-political context. In short, jouissance is inextricable from the Law and its inherent transgression.
In this paper I primarily aim at showing how Lacan recovers in Genet a fundamental tenet of jouissance, which as a rule needs to remain hidden in the constituted order of a community: jouissance cannot but be sustained by a symbolic function, or better, by its intrinsic profanation, the assumption of a ‘position of disrespect’ towards it. Symbolic functions of power on which civilisation rests go together not with a neutralisation of supposedly pre-existing sexual urges, but, on the contrary, with an ‘eroticisation’ of the functions themselves. Society is structurally perverse, Lacan concludes. Civilisation is no doubt discontent, but also content with its discontent.
Secondly, I intend to explain the reason why, for Lacan, comedy and, in particular, Le balcon also effectively stage how the unveiling of the obscene side of a constituted order is not sufficient to cause the demise of order as such. In spite of the degradation of symbolic functions, i.e. the identification of the most sacred societal roles with sexual perversions, the relation of the subject to the Law ‘continues to be sustained; it purely and simply subsists’. There is no access to any extra-legal domain. Transgression has no beyond. Society ‘will always be a mess [bordel], after just as before the revolution’.
I will conclude by arguing that this take on society does not at all call for political apathy. Expanding on Lacan’s reading of Le balcon through his later logic of sexuation, it is in fact possible to delineate in this play a specific feminine jouissance that accompanies the masculine and circular jeu of Law, transgression, and revolution, yet also remains external to it. This is clearly insufficient to straightforwardly produce an alternative form of politics (psychoanalysis is not inherently political) but can fruitfully be developed toward a novel – both supplementary and subtractive – political orientation that, so to speak, transgresses the by now explicit late-capitalist injunction to transgress.