I have a tattoo on the back of my neck that says jouissance. It’s a word that probably symbolises the closest thing I have to a faith or life philosophy. Despite this, I always struggle to describe succinctly the significance of the word (possibly because things worthy of such passion are often ineffable).
Here’s the most representative explanation I can find, taken from the translator’s notes of Image-Music-Text:
Plaisir/jouissance – English lacks a word able to carry the range of meaning in the term jouissance which includes enjoyment in the sense of a legal or social possession (enjoy certain rights, enjoy a privilege), pleasure, and, crucially, the pleasure of sexual climax. The problem would be less acute were it not that jouissance is specifically contrasted to plaisir by Barthes in his Le Plaisir du texte: on the one hand a pleasure (plaisir) linked to cultural enjoyment and identity, to the cultural enjoyment of identity, to a homogenizing movement of the ego; on the other a radically violent pleasure (jouissance) which shatters – dissipates, loses – that cultural identity, that ego. The American translation of Le Plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text, New York 1975) uses the word ‘bliss’ for jouissance; the success of this is dubious, however, since not only does ‘bliss’ lack an effective verbal form (to render the French jouir), it also brings with it connotations of religious and social contentment (‘heavenly bliss’, ‘blissfully happy’) which damagingly weaken the force of the original French term. I have no real answer to the problem and have resorted to a series of words which in different contexts can contain at least some of that force: ‘thrill’ (easily verbalized with ‘to thrill’, more physical and potentially sexual, than ‘bliss’), ‘climactic pleasure’, ‘come’ and ‘coming’ (the exact sexual translation of jouir, jouissance), ‘dissipation’ (somewhat too moral in its judgement but able to render the loss, the fragmentation, emphasized by Barthes injouissance).
There, now I can just link people to this blog post when the question comes up again.