Some Pleasures of the Text -- James Bond


This handout revises some themes in the studies of pleasure.You will know that pleasures in viewing materials (including Bond movies) can be approached in a number of different ways. If we ask most viewers, we would get a list of things that they liked about the films ... but this list would gloss a number of important matters e.g.

  1. it would omit any unconscious pleasures, or unconscious elements or origins of the ones they named
  2. it would omit the crucial issue of the source of these pleasures -- in the texts or in the audience’s reading (formations).
Both of these issues have been of special importance for those theorists concerned in the process of ideology and its transmission in film, of course, and especially in feminist work (a particularly good recent review of the main points is found in Cowie (1997)). In what follows, we might make an expanded list of pleasures, using this more theoretical work. I have included some personal examples ...please add your own.

Unconscious sources of pleasure

Clearly, Freud’s work is of major importance here. He was able to suggest that many of our conscious pleasures are informed and energised by far less respectable themes arising in our unconscious. These themes often take on a particular connection with sexuality, of course, and this work has been seized upon by feminists to account for the usual role of women in mainstream films as ‘sexual objects’. There are several specific approaches:

We have already explored the ‘phallic codes’ of Bond films in Bennett (Open University 1982) ... the obvious phallic symbolism of Bond’s gun(s), the familiar Oedipal scenes between M, Bond and Moneypenny, the ways in which Bond’s (real and symbolic) penis dominates wayward women ...and so on.

In the ‘controlling gaze’ (developed by Mulvey in Bennett et al.1981, for example), film develops a pleasure based on what Freud called ‘scopophilia’, where we see women undressed or in a sexually vulnerable position, and we can gloat over their exposure, and feel a sense of power in being unobserved.

There may be many scenes in Bond films that energise these sorts of pleasure -- Honey Rider on the beach, Pussy Galore in the hay, Jill Masterson naked, dead and covered in gold paint, Stacey trapped in the lift or threatened by the Zorin airship -- and so on. 
Bennett and Woollacott (1987) want to say that scopophilia is not only a male pleasure, and not only directed at women, however. Llike all unconscious pleasures, this one carries many other sexual charges, not always neatly confined to conscious sexual preferences. Thus the famed ‘male torture’ scenes in Bond (Bond spread-eagled on the laser table in Goldfinger is their example) can provide both men and women with scopophilic pleasures, charged with (repressed) homosexual or transsexual, sadistic or masochistic desires.

There is the whole complex area of fantasy. Like dreams (which are also connected to the pleasures of viewing films -- see Cook (1985), for example), fantasies work unconscious material into conscious identifications. We can all recapture this mechanism to some extent (probably). We identify with characters on the screen and imagine ourselves taking part, thus projecting our desires in to what we see. This is a pleasure often described in ordinary terms as ‘escapism’. Of course, such identification can be undesirable, as when we might come actually to model our behaviour on the men and women we see in a Bond film. We are back to the classic fears about ideology again, of course -- people will see the Bond girls as ‘proper women’, perhaps.

Recent work opens up the creative possibilities of such fantastic identifications, though (see Cowie, for example). It occupies a place in a general attempt by feminists to get past the gloomy diagnosis (associated with Lacan) that language and the symbolic order in general must be patriarchal: feminists looked to the pre-linguistic stage of psychic development (before the ‘mirror phase’ to be precise) as a source of non-patriarchal meaning-formation. Drawing upon these infantile abilities, including the ability to identify immediately (pre-linguistically or ‘figurally’) with objects and to fantasise, people can playfully identify with film characters, live through and experiment with their new identities, and learn about and develop their own desires as a result.

To cite an example of my own, I used to identify with Bond in a pretty straightforward way when I was younger, and imagine myself undertaking dangerous missions in exotic locations. Yet that identification could also help me in a kind of recurrent meditation about manliness, duty and patriotism that engaged my thoughts whenever I contemplated a career in the armed services -- could I actually kill someone? Could I imagine circumstances in which I would fail to do my duty on the grounds of conscience? Did I care enough about ‘Britain’ to want to represent it? Could I cope with the kind of cynicism that Bond displayed -- and so on. I won’t bore you with the answers to these banalities, of course, but I must say I found Harry Palmer more of a role model in the end.  

Textual and Extra-textual Sources

This is earlier material, classically based on the work of Barthes (Barthes 1977 -- beautifully discussed in Harris 1996). We already know a good deal about pleasures delivered by the texts themselves, such as narrative pleasures, when the text builds suspense and then resolves it, or offers us some puzzling events and then explains them, or when different perspectives are resolved and ordered: there is a link here with the pleasures of realism as in the famed MacCabe analysis (in Bennett et al. 1981). As MacCabe argued, such narrative pleasures can deliver the viewer to ideology, and this is argued in Bennett (Open University 1982) specifically for the Bond movies too, of course. At the end of the day, the tensions offered by foreign agents, US wealth and power, and uppity women are resolved in an ideologically comforting way as Bond triumphs over them all. This sort of rather obedient pleasure, gained from following a skilfully-told story, is what Barthes has called plaisir

In my case, these predictable pleasures are maximised by the familiar placing of the Bond movie on British TV at holiday time. The whole weekend assumes a comforting normality, and the familiar and predictable Bond formulas play their part in a kind of holiday from intellectualism and stern critique which steals over me.

We have already seen something of the implications of Barthes ‘new semiology’ though, where the emphasis shifts to the ways in which texts open instead of closing meaning (via playful citations of other texts, deliberate ambiguity and so on). We also know about the new power granted to the audience in this work, actually to constitute the meanings of the text. It is clear that another source of pleasure is on offer to the (skilled?) reader -- an awareness of signification itself, the glorious moments of meaning-construction, or the moments when one glimpses whole arrays of hidden meanings implied in the sign. Barthes describes this ecstatic pleasure as jouissance, a word which has connotations in French of ‘achieving orgasm’: more prosaic accounts sometimes talk of moments like the ‘joyous loss of self’.

The processes of signification in the text induce this sort of pleasure, though, not the ‘creative individual’ beloved by literary commentators. However, it is clear that Barthes himself rejoices like this quite a lot as he tussles with texts to make them yield readings and meanings, and a similar exuberance can be found in the writings of people like Eco (or even Baudrillard) . Whether mere mortals, who are not professors of semiotics can achieve this kind of pleasurable insight is another matter, of course.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes even I can achieve something like this kind of pleasure. In my case it works by reading some theory first. In the right circumstances (e.g. not having too much work to do, not having to think of summarising it all in a lecture), theory can have a pleasantly ‘heady’ effect on me -- I can see new possibilities, I can follow complex arguments, I can delight in the (usually French) pursuit of implications into quite new areas. Gaining some sort of shock of recognition while watching a Bond and catching myself at, say, constituting the text from a reading formation, or enjoying an intertextual moment, or glimpsing those serried ranks of paradigmatic meanings, or pursuing a floating signifier, can deliver a kind of intellectual pleasure. It is impossible to enjoy intellectual pleasures in England without feeling guilty immediately afterwards, however: if this is orgasmic, it is also masturbatory?


Barthes R (1977) Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana/Collins
Bennett T and Woollacott J (1987) Bond and Beyond: the political career of a popular hero, London: Macmillan Education.
Bennett T, Boyd-Bowman S, Mercer C and Woollacott J (eds) (1981) Popular Television and Film, London: BFI Publications.
Cook P (1985) The Cinema Book, London: BFI Publications.
Cowie E (1997) Representing the Woman: cinema and psychoanalysis, London: the Macmillan Press Ltd.
Harris D (1996) A Society of Signs?, London: Routledge.
Open University (1982) Popular Culture (U203), Milton Keynes: Open University Press.