Key Terms in Literary Theory by Mary Klages

By | March 13, 2012

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog post, you already know something about literary theory; perhaps you are a student, or someone who has wondered what “literary theory” is all about and is looking for some explanations. There are lots of useful guides explaining various types of literary theory but this new book by Mary Klages is different.  This is the book you pick up when you come across an unfamiliar term in another resource and you want an understandable definition. Or, you encounter a name you don’t recognize, and want to know what kind of theory he or she is associated with. It’s a glossary, a dictionary, a reference book.

From today until Sunday we'll be blogging key definitions from the book. Words or phrases that tend to baffle and confuse. To start with…


Jouissance is a French word meaning “enjoyment.” It is used specifically in Lacanian psychoanalysis and in post-structural feminist theory in sexual terms, with the connotation of “orgasm” or “coming.” Le jouissance is an experience that is beyond language or mere pleasure, in these theories; its closest parallel would be the experience of the sublime, which is a combination of ecstasy and terror, according to the Romantics. This experience, which is beyond the aesthetic appreciation of beauty, is terrifying because it threatens the dissolution of the self, the bounded rational ego; experiences of the sublime are linked to death because both challenge the omnipotence of the existence of the Cartesian self. In Lacanian theory, jouissance is unspeakable, meaning that it is an experience outside the Symbolic realm, not governed by the control of the Phallus. In post-structural feminist theory, jouissance is a distinctively female or feminine experience, a form of sexual pleasure that is disruptive to the phallogocentric Symbolic order and which creates instability and play in language.

– the definition above is taken from Key Terms in Literary Theory by Mary Klages, now available to buy in the UK (and publishing in the US in May 2012).

Jenny Tighe

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