Book Review: Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
‘The salient feature of contemporary American society is the premium that it places on enjoyment’ (1), proclaims Todd McGowan confidently in the opening line of his new book. McGowan argues that this characteristic of American society is symptomatic of a cultural change so radical that it is as significant as the onset of modernity: a brave claim to say the least, but it is nonetheless what he spends the rest of the book attempting to prove. His style is readily accessible and instantly engaging, an attribute that is in no way hindered by his sharp and frequently witty use of illustrative examples from popular culture that range from U2 to Ronald Reagan. Lacanian theory forms the theoretical matrix of this book, as is duly acknowledged in the subtitle, which McGowan makes sparing but purposeful use of in the course of his argument. If there is a flaw in this courageous foray into a new episteme of American cultural history, it perhaps lies with McGowan’s use of Lacanian theory. Each chapter is carefully peppered with selective quotations from a broad range of Lacan’s oeuvre. Yet the brevity of explanation that accompanies the theoretical quotations may prove problematic for the uninitiated in psychoanalytic jargon. This in no way detracts from McGowan’s overall project however, which proves to be as entertaining as it is informative.
According to McGowan, contemporary American culture has shifted from a society founded on the prohibition of enjoyment to a society that actually commands enjoyment or jouissance. In the society of prohibition, all members must sacrifice their private enjoyment for the good of society as a whole. In this way, ‘one receives an identity from society in exchange for one’s immediate access to enjoyment, which one must give up’ (3). For example, many traditional religions promise an afterlife of enjoyment in return for the eschewing of enjoyment in earthly life. McGowan even sees incest prohibition, described by Levi-Strauss and later by psychoanalytic theory as the cornerstone of modern society, as characteristic of the society of prohibition in its demand that private satisfaction be repudiated. In the new society of enjoyment, such a sacrifice is no longer necessary. Rather, private enjoyment has become almost a social duty, tantalizingly promising an end to dissatisfaction. Yet the impossibility of the fulfillment of desire is a central tenet of Lacanian theory. Therefore, rather than producing a idyllic society of contented citizens, the new society of commanded enjoyment ensures that enjoyment itself is just as unattainable as before, but for a different reason. In the society of prohibition, ‘enjoyment is something that does not exist prior to its renunciation’ (16). McGowan argues that since there is no longer a barrier to enjoyment, enjoyment itself cannot exist.
From this foundational thesis, McGowan analyses various aspects of this new society, which fall into nine main chapters. Employing a wide range of topical cultural theory along with his mainstay of Lacanian psychoanalysis, McGowan constructs a fluid yet wide-ranging argument. Each chapter begins with a detailed outline of the particular facet of the society of enjoyment that is to be analysed, followed by an illustrative example from popular culture, usually literature or film. In the chapter entitled ‘Embracing the Image’ McGowan argues that the shift from prohibition to enjoyment has engendered a similar shift in emphasis in Lacan’s orders from the imaginary to the symbolic. Images have always provided a direct means of engagement for the human subject, and for Lacan the image hails the onset of subjectivity in the mirror stage. As McGowan elucidates, the image has become more powerful in this technology-driven age than ever before. In Don DeLillo’s Americana, ‘the image is the ultimate measure of reality’ (61). The decline of the symbolic is also the subject for another chapter ‘The Appeal of Cynicism’. The rise of the imaginary has caused a mistrust in language and in law. McGowan states, ‘[t]his turn away from belief in the symbolic fiction and toward the image beneath it reaches its apotheosis in the postmodern cynic’ (123). The irony of such cynicism from a Lacanian point of view is that the symbolic always governs the imaginary, whether the subject is aware of it or not. The subject ‘fails to see the power that the symbolic fiction has in structuring the experience of reality and the image itself’ (123-4).
The End of Dissatisfaction attempts to articulate the radical changes that have taken place in the era of post-modernity from a highly original perspective. Although McGowan’s debt to Lacanian theory is obvious, the book falls into the category of cultural studies in its broadest and most challenging sense. Not only does McGowan succeed in arguing his thesis across the arenas of literature, film, sociology and politics, he also succeeds in proving that Lacanian psychoanalytic theory continues to be a powerful tool in the analysis of culture, negating arguments that it is a science of the particular. In a tightly-structured argument that draws on a diverse range of literary, cultural and social theorists, McGowan shows that contrary to being the society of enjoyment described in the title, the endless lust for private satisfaction has detached us from that possibility in a more tragic way than ever before, producing what could more appropriately be named the society of un-enjoyment.