Enjoy Your Pandemic!: Lacan, Žižek and Coronavirus

The Dangerous Maybe
10 min readMar 15, 2020

Coronavirus is in the air . . . but so is something else. Last night, like so many other Americans, I ventured out to the grocery store to pick up some provisions. All across the 50 states, people have been rushing out to stock up on food, water and toilet paper. We have seen social media overflow with photos of empty store shelves and long lines. Yes, indeed, people were going a bit overboard with their precautions. I saw one family spend over $700 on supplies (they had filled up three shopping carts). However, what struck me most about it was not so much the amount of items people were buying, but, rather, how they were buying. The “something else” that was in the air was a buzzing excitement, a strange giddiness, a liberation of a long repressed urge. No one displayed any signs of fright or anxiety. Quite the contrary. In fact, they actually were enjoying themselves. They were having fun. There was enthusiastic chitchat, energetic smiles and a festive sense of community. Americans had finally got the chance to engage in their favorite ritual after years and years of being deprived of it — the ritual of the splurge. This is not to say that there was no fear at all of the virus, but that this fear simultaneously served another function: it was a justification for excessive consumption.

Ever since the Great Recession hit back in 2007–2008, Americans have been forced to penny-pinch, which is extremely frustrating when your desires and drives are fundamentally centered around shopping. I was born in ’82 and grew up at the height of the consumer society (mall culture), so I can tell you that though the Great Recession occurred more than a decade ago, things have never really gone back to the way they used to be. Consumerism still has a death grip on our libidinal economies (desire, drive, mood, fantasy, pleasure, jouissance, etc.) but we now lack the proper means to fully participate in it, that is, we cannot afford to fuck around and blow money on stupid consumer activities like we did back in the day. Xers, millennials and zoomers would love nothing more than to splurge to their heart’s content boomer-style. We all want to buy new houses and new cars and new wardrobes. We want new furniture, new appliances and new meals (what Jean Baudrillard called the system of objects).We want to buy the lives we were supposed to have. The consumer life was our birthright, we were deprived of it and we are very, very pissed off. When it comes to the ritual of consumption, Americans have been involuntarily forced into an extended, stressful, exhausting fast. This drawn-out and undesired asceticism, this economic “mortification of the flesh”, has built up a dangerously explosive tension inside the consumer that seeks any and all means of release. We consumers are ready to fucking burst! We are Americans and we demand the right to shop! We demand the right to enjoy once again!

The psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan can help us to understand the dynamics operative within our current situation. For Freud and Lacan, the pleasure principle and the reality principle work together to establish a homeostasis or equilibrium in the body. This means that the human organism seeks a state that is free from excitation, tension, pressure, etc. To be in pleasure is to be calm, cool and collected, to have a balance in the body’s sensations. Whenever the body is filled with an overabundance of excitations, the pleasure principle kicks in and seeks to discharge these intensities so as to return to a state of pleasure. However, as Freud came to discover later in his career, there is another principle or tendency within the human being and its name is the death drive. And as Lacan put it, “every drive is virtually a death drive” (Écrits, ‘Position of the Unconscious’, p. 848). This drive does not seek pleasure (lack of excitation), but, instead, pursues jouissance (excessive excitation). Lacan said, “the pleasure principle is presented to us as possessing a mode of operation which is precisely to avoid excess, too much pleasure” (Seminar VII, p. 54). Jouissance is “too much pleasure”, that is, enjoyment to the point of pain or discomfort. Jouissance is what is “beyond the pleasure principle”. Throughout his years spent doing psychoanalysis, Freud realized that many of his patients’ behaviors and actions could not be made sense of by interpreting them through the pleasure principle. He saw how they would repetitiously and compulsively partake in self-sabotaging acts or, in other words, prevent themselves from attaining pleasure. Lacan would pick up where Freud left off and develop the concept of the death drive in a far more robust and nuanced way. Lacan viewed death drive and the jouissance it seeks as inscribed into the very core of human existence. He said that drive “can in no way be limited to a psychological notion. It is an absolutely fundamental ontological notion” (Seminar VII, p. 127). This means that drive is a part of the structure of our very being. We are beings torn between pleasure and jouissance.

But in what sense is drive a death drive? Is this to say that drive is always striving to bring about our literal death? No, it’s not that simple (though this is how it is often interpreted). For Lacan, drive entails both Eros (life drive) and Thanatos (death drive). Drive is split between these two tendencies. Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains it like this:

Insofar as, for Lacan, drive as such is ultimately the death drive, the Freudian antagonism between Eros and Thanatos has to be transposed within the death drive itself. The death drive thus stands simultaneously for life that persists beyond (what Lacan calls the first, biological) death — the life of the undead — and for the endeavor to end up this very life-beyond-death. Eros designates the horrifying Real of the “love/life beyond death,” of the immortal drive, while Thanatos stands for the striving to end this horror.
(The Abyss of Freedom, footnote 90, p. 103)

In other words, death drive moves us in a direction towards a zombie-like state of pure jouissance (an excess of sublime excitation). On the one hand, drive thirsts for a perverse kind of immorality, and, on the other, yearns for the end of this condition. However, given how Eros is at work in drive, drive does not flat out seek a return to an inanimate state, but, rather, the immortal death of the undead. But this undeath does involve a certain death and it is that of the subject of pleasure. What I mean by this is our everyday selves or, in Lacanese, our Imaginary-Symbolic identities. For us to be rational, functional human beings, for us to successfully operate in society, we must be kept at a distance from jouissance. Jouissance overrides our ability to act in accordance with social protocols, ethical principles, etc. Why? Because we cannot put things in context or mediate between them while being utterly submerged in the immediacy of jouissance. Simply put, we cannot function properly when there is too much excitation in our bodies.

Viewed from this psychoanalytic perspective, Law, rationality and the Good are in place precisely to keep jouissance at bay. In Lacan’s words, “Freud’s use of the good can be summed up in the notion that keeps us a long way from our jouissance” (Seminar VII, p. 185). We must have prohibitions placed on us in order to save us from jouissance and enable us to live amongst each other with relative ease. Žižek writes, “One should never forget that, for Lacan, the Oedipal paternal Law is ultimately in the service of the ‘pleasure principle’: it is the agency of pacification-normalization which, far from disturbing the balance of pleasure, ‘stabilizes the impossible’, bringing about the minimal condi­tion for the tolerable coexistence of subjects” (The Ticklish Subject, p. 349). So all of this adds up to identifying the pleasure principle with Law and the concept of the good (the good life). Against the unit comprised of pleasure, law, the good and reason we find the antagonistic unit of death drive, evil, jouissance and irrationality. Yet both units are operative at all times within our libidinal economies.

But things are more complicated than this insofar as Law itself is split between its official principles and is obscene underside. Within the Law, there is the law of moral ideals and the law of drive. But isn’t it an oxymoron to speak of the law of drive? Not at all. This is where Lacan’s concept of the superego comes into play: “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance — Enjoy!” (On Feminine Sexuality, p. 3). While the official maxims of the Law serve to distance us from jouissance, the unofficial side of it commands us to enjoy ourselves. This amounts to saying that we have a duty to enjoy, to get our hands on jouissance. Again, Žižek explains it for us:

Although jouissance can be translated as ‘enjoyment’, translators of Lacan often leave it in French in order to render palpable its excessive, properly traumatic character: we are not dealing with simple pleasures, but with a violent intrusion that brings more pain than pleasure. This is how we usually perceive the Freudian superego, the cruel and sadistic ethical agency that bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them. No wonder, then, that Lacan posited an equation between jouissance and superego: to enjoy is not a matter of following one’s spontaneous tendencies; it is rather something we do as a kind of weird and twisted ethical duty.
(How to Read Lacan, p. 79)

This means that the less we enjoy, the guiltier we feel about it, since we have a “moral” duty to attain jouissance. The superego is always assailing us with its commandment to Enjoy! Everywhere we go in the consumer society, every restaurant and every coffee shop, every movie theater and every sporting event, we are bombarded by this injunction. This means that when we are incapable of the “too much”, for example, spending too much money, we feel all shitty about ourselves as if we are guilty of a terrible transgression.

One more thing before tying all this together. There is a third category to mention along with pleasure and jouissance, and that category is pain. While jouissance brings with it a certain pain, an enjoyable pain, there is also pain that is purely painful, which is to say that there are states neither the pleasure principle nor the death drive seek to actualized. Lacan provides a wonderful description of pain:

We should perhaps conceive of pain as a field which, in the realm of existence, opens precisely onto that limit where a living being has no possibility of escape. Isn’t something of this suggested to us by the insight of the poets in that myth of Daphne transformed into a tree under the pressure of a pain from which she cannot flee? Isn’t it true that the living being who has no possibility of escape suggests in its very form the presence of what one might call petrified pain? Doesn’t what we do in the realm of stone suggest this? To the extent that we don’t let it roll, but erect it, and make of it something fixed, isn’t there in architecture itself a kind of actualization of pain?
(Seminar VII, p. 60)

Put differently, pain is a kind of trap, a prison of sorts. We could even say that it is the space in which the struggle between pleasure and jouissance is prevented from playing itself out. Pain is a suspension of the war between pleasure and jouissance. To be in pain is to be ossified in a position that makes both pleasure and jouissance more or less impossible. Pain is a subjective space in which the pleasure principle and the death drive fall apart.

And this bring us back to where we started. Americans have been suffering from an ability to obey the superego’s command. We feel guilty about not being able to consume more. Consumer jouissance is found in all of those activities centered around spending money and this, therefore, means jouissance has virtually disappeared from our lives. And as Lacan wrote, “it is Jouissance whose absence would render the universe vain”(Écrits, ‘Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, p. 694). Yet all of the stress brought on by our financial struggles prevents us from truly ever arriving at pleasure. When the fuck do we ever feel calm? There is always a gnawing tension inside us. All we do is worry about next month’s rent or house payment, about what happens if we get sick without having medical coverage, about how we’ll get to work if the car breaks down. To a large extent, for average Americans, both pleasure and jouissance have taken a long hiatus from our lives. We have been trapped within serious forms of pain where we find neither pleasure nor jouissance. The coronavirus scare gave us just enough of a justifying push to say fuck it and blow money we can’t really afford to spend. For a brief moment, we fulfilled our duty to enjoy. I felt that old rush course through my body and I saw it on the faces of my fellow Americans — the rush of the “too much”. The drive to buy was unshackled at long last. Is it any coincidence that the main commodity sought after was toilet paper? You know, the commodity with the most explicit connotative connection to waste. Psychoanalysis knows all too well that the act of buying is fundamentally linked to the anal drive: the jouissance is located in withholding/expelling the shit (money) at the right time. Of course, this burst of jouissance was very short lived, it might as well have been a flash, and many of us will financially suffer from the Great Splurge of 2020, but we sure needed it. The problem is that it’ll only make us miss the “glory” days of consumption even more so. Brace yourselves for the member berries but until then . . . enjoy your pandemic!