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?

12 thoughts on “On Pleasure

  1. Lyotard and Baudrillard have written interesting things about the pleasure of the text… Of course, all three refer back to Bataille in interesting ways. Bataille uses Nietzsche to some extent to illustrate some of the pleasures of the text and transgressing the text. Remember Barthes is relying on a very clear notion of myth from his semiology, related from Levi-Strauss and Mauss, but removed from the anthropological. Myths as such, are created and sustained through signs, and are particular constructions of semiotic codes. then you can build out through Libidinal Economy and the later chapters of For a critique of the political economy of the sign, until you merge into late foucault and deleuze and guattari perhaps. helene cixous and luce iriguray also play into some of these discussions around the pleasure of the text, but i’ve only seen them in reference, not read them. have fun.

  2. I found Eleanor Kaufman’s The Delirium of Praise (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001) helpful to think about the pleasures of reading certain writers’ work, and how that can generate into a critical practice. I’ve used it along with Barthes’ ‘grain of the voice’ essay (from Image, Music, Text) to describe some of the pleasures and affects of reading in scholarly life. There’s a link to the chapter here if you’re interested.

    Reading Barthes more widely is a pleasure in itself…

  3. Oh I would recommend to take a look at Deleuze and Guattarie’s Anti- Oedipus in this context. Is desire really associated with lack? Desire is pure production‚Ķ in fact even the production of production

  4. Ooh, great suggestions. I hadn’t run across the Kaufman, but I’ll definitely look into it. And I knew I needed to plunge a bit further into D&G, but I wasn’t quite sure which text I should begin with. I’ll give them another shot.

    But yeah, I think desire is (perhaps other than in D&G) associated with lack, as desire is always the longing for that which you do not have. That’s the thing that I think makes it an acceptable critical term; it’s the equivalent, with respect to pleasure, of the deferred gratification at the heart of Weber’s “protestant ethic” within capitalism. It’s okay to want, because wanting implies not having, or at least a pleasure that is eternally just out of reach. It’s interesting that desire (in the D&G model?) becomes associated with production, given the capitalist implications of that term…

  5. “What I’m after is a critical theory of pleasure, and particularly the pleasure taken in the consumption of cultural texts.”

    In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes: “Imagine an aesthetic based entirely on the pleasure of the consumer.”

    I think that’s a nice starting point for the theory you’re after.

  6. Well…for me, part of this ongoing process has been not to reject consumption (texts, meanings, products as well) the way certain types of thinking profess. What I like about Barthes is how he thinks of consumption as a rhetorical process (as opposed to a Frankfurt critique). Empire of Signs, for me, is another nice example: consuming space. The Roland Barthes book: consuming identity. I’m not saying any of this is the direction; just a place to begin.

  7. Sorry not to have taken your point before, Jeff — it’s taken me until now to fully process it, for whatever reason. More Barthes, indeed! And Roland Barthes is ideal, given the importance of identity construction and new approaches to the autobiographical in the project as a whole. Thanks!

  8. I find it so interesting that most of the people I know who really read Freud are people who study literature (even though I work with a bunch of psychologists). As someone in psycholinguistics, I hope my work is well-received in my own field, but how cool would it be if it had strange consequences in another field?

  9. How does Barthes explication of pleasure account for pleasure in fiction and non-fictional text as well as linear and non-linear interactive text?

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