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On Pleasure

File this under “things I really ought to have read a long time ago, but am just now getting to”: I’ve spent the last few days slowly working my way through The Pleasure of the Text. And I found myself quite astonished by how much there is in this deceptively tiny text, and how elusive it all is.

What I need now is to do a bit more reading on the question of pleasure, and particularly in relationship to cultural consumption. In part I’m looking for critical responses to Barthes, but also for competing or complementary theories of pleasure. And it’s specifically pleasure that I’m interested in, as distinct from desire. As Barthes points out,

Pleasure is continually disappointed, reduced, deflated, in favor of strong, noble values: Truth, Death, Progress, Struggle, Joy, etc. Its victorious rival is Desire: we are always being told about Desire, never about Pleasure; Desire has an epistemic dignity, Pleasure does not. (Barthes 57)

Desire is permissible within criticism, and can even be acknowledged as having a revolutionary force, precisely because it operates around a lack — for desire to be desire, it cannot be satisfied. Pleasure, by contrast, implies satisfaction, and thus, both politically and psychoanalytically, pleasure comes to be seen as regressive and infantile. And, in fact, much of The Pleasure of the Text is at pains to distinguish between the confirming power of pleasure with respect to the status quo and the rupture produced by bliss. On the other hand, Barthes also indicates that there is “an entire minor mythology [that] would have us believe that pleasure (and singularly the pleasure of the text) is a rightist notion” (Barthes 22), suggesting that pleasure — at least in the broader category that includes both plaisir and jouissance — is not so aligned with the conservative as we have been led to believe.

What I’m after is a critical theory of pleasure, and particularly the pleasure taken in the consumption of cultural texts. I’m going to go reread some Freud, and I’m thinking I need to revisit Foucault and The History of Sexuality as well. But what else should I be looking at?


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