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Number 12: Summer 2016

When Acts Speak Louder Than Words: On Lacan’s Theory of Action in Psychoanalytic Practice

Dany Nobus

Whereas Freud put acting out on a par with the compulsion to repeat, Lacan thus appeared to attribute its sudden emergence during the course of the psychoanalytic treatment to a technical error of the analyst at the level of interpretation. Nonetheless, in ‘The Direction of the Treatment’ he was keen to emphasize that this explanation does not at all exhaust the aetiology of acting out, and may even obfuscate its real source and origin. Not all scenes, exploits, performances and fits can be reduced to an unfortunate fault of the analyst (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 533). Exploits may already be part of the clinical picture before the start of the treatment, and may even be one of the principal reasons why somebody seeks, or is forced to enter treatment. Just as much as the analyst cannot be held responsible for creating the transference, he or she is not entirely accountable for sowing the seeds of acting out in the mind of the patient. The analyst may contribute to the awakening of acting out or, to use a different metaphor, to its being born during the course of the treatment, but he or she is not involved in its conception, the circumstances of which are determined by the neurotic constellation. More fundamentally, however, it seems to me that the analytic error is less related to the contents of the interpretation per se, but rather to the fact that the interpretation is no longer strictly psychoanalytic, because it ignores the patients’ subjective truth in favour of objective reality, which also implies that the analyst abandons his position for a psycho-educational approach. Drawing on Lacan’s theory of the four discourses (Lacan 2007[1969-70]), one might even say that the analyst has unwittingly exchanged his analytic discourse, where he is held to occupy the position of a semblance of the object a—thus causing and sustaining the analysand’s unconscious desire—for the discourse of the master, where his signifiers command and where the analysand’s object a, as product/loss of the operation, is no longer allowed to enter the symbolic circuits of desire (Lacan 2007[1969- 70]: 108).

From a technical point of view, acting out does confront psychoanalysts with more problems than they have probably bargained for as expert exegetes, or experienced explorers of the unconscious. For unlike the formations of the unconscious, which are not addressed at an Other yet do respond to interpretation, acting out crucially involves the Other, which is exactly why Lacan dubbed it ‘wild transference’ (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 125), yet it does not react to interpretation. A double paradox emerges here. On the one hand, the formations of the unconscious (symptoms, bungled actions) do not appeal to interpretation—Freud himself had already pointed out that the dream ‘does not want to say anything to anyone’, ‘is not a vehicle for communication’ and is therefore not meant to be understood (Freud 1916-17a[1915-17]: 231)—but they are nonetheless being resolved, at least partially, through analytic interpretation. On the other hand, acting out does call for interpretation, if only because it is addressed to an Other, yet analytic interpretation has no effect on it (Morel 1987: 21). Again, Freud was all too aware of this singular inertia, which may explain why he considered the labour-intensive, time-consuming, yet poorly understood process of working-through as the only alternative. As Lacan put it in Seminar X: ‘The question is one of knowing how to take action with regard to acting out’ (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 126).