An instructive example of the use of Lacanian theory to examine film is provided by Parveen Adams in her essay on Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which tells the story of a young man, Mark Lewis, who films women as he kills them. The film raises questions about the pleasure of the spectator, since the spectator is placed in a position similar to that of Mark Lewis, who Adams argues is a pervert. Such a comparison between the pleasure of the spectator and the enjoyment of the pervert is certainly not new to film theory; it has even become somewhat of a cliche. However, it is precisely this comparison that Adams objects to, on the grounds that it ‘fails to distinguish between a pleasure and the question of jouissance. Adams argues that while Mark Lewis is (almost) entirely caught up within the perverse circuit of jouissance, the spectator is gradually separated from this scenario by a number of crucial shots in the film which disrupt his/her identitication with the protagonist. The jouissance of the perverse Mark Lewis leads him eventually to his death; the framing of certain key images in the film puts the spectator in quite a different position, a position from which a safe pleasure may be derived.
Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
If the distinction between jouissance and desire, which Lacan begins to develop in 1958, constitutes the first specifically Lacanian axis of the term, then the opposition between jouissance and pleasure constitutes the second. Lacan develops this opposition in 1960, in the context of his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Here, jouissance is no longer simply equated with the sensation of pleasure, but also comes to designate the opposite sensation, one of physical or mental suffering. This is not to equate jouissance with masochism, for there is an important difference. In masochism, pain is a means to pleasure; pleasure is taken in the very fact of suffering itself, so that it becomes difficult to distinguish pleasure from pain. With jouissance, on the other hand, pleasure and pain remain distinct; no pleasure is taken in the pain itself, but the pleasure cannot be obtained without paying the price of suffering. It is thus a kind of deal in which pleasure and pain are presented as a single packet. Lacan illustrates this with an example from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason: a man is given the opportunity to have sex with the woman he most desires, but told that if he does so he will be executed afterwards.
The opposition between jouissance, understood in this newer sense, and pleasure also involves a revised understanding of the latter term. Pleasure now signifies on the one hand the sensation of pleasure and on the other hand the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is one of the ‘two principles of mental functioning’ which Freud discusses in his metapsychological writings (the other being the reality principle). It is the innate tendency of the subject to govern his actions on the basis of avoiding pain and obtaining pleasure. Now, it should be clear that whereas pleasure in the former sense is synonymous with the earlier meaning of jouissance, pleasure in the latter sense is actually opposed to the later meaning of jouissance. If the man in Kant’s example is governed by the pleasure principle, he will not pay the price of death simply in order to have a brief sexual encounter with the lady of his dreams. The pleasure principle involves a kind of cost-benefit analysis which makes the man reject the deal of jouissance. Or, in Lacan’s words : ‘it is pleasure that sets the limits on jouissance.’
However, it is precisely the merit of psychoanalysis to point out that there is something ‘beyond the pleasure principle.’ In other words, not all human decisions are governed by a ‘rational ‘ calculation in which potential pleasure is weighed against potential pain. There are those who would indeed pay the price of death in order to spend one night with the woman of their dreams . The deal of jouissance is not always rejected.
Kant uses this example of the man faced with the choice of paying the price of death for sex to illustrate the hypothetical imperative, which precedes his discussion of the true ethical decision. If the man chooses to renounce the deal because of selfish ‘pathological’ considerations – that is, if the man decides not on the basis of the moral law but on the basis of a calculation which weighs up the gain in pleasure against the price to be paid for it – this is not a radical ethical stance. Only an act which disregards the normal calculations of weighing up potential pleasure against potential pain can be called ethical . If this is now transposed to Lacan’s opposition between the pleasure principle and jouissance, the pleasure principle would correspond to Kant’s pathological calculation of pleasure and pain, whereas jouissance would be located on the side of the ethical , ‘given that jouissance implies precisely the acceptance of death.’
By distinguishing pleasure and jouissance in terms of Kantian ethics, Lacan also clarifies the nature of the death drive. What is it that allows someone to disregard the normal, ‘rational’ calculations of pleasure and pain, and thus become capable of a truly ethical act? Is it not precisely the fact that the pleasure principle does not hold universal sway? In other words, Lacan’s point is that it is precisely the existence of the death drive, the ‘beyond’ of the pleasure principle, which makes possible the ethical zone.
From Kantian Ethics to Mystical Experience: An Exploration of Jouissance – Dylan Evans
- Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (abbottgran.wordpress.com)
- More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze (abbottgran.wordpress.com)
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