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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

For example, with regard to the aforementioned principles of psychoanalytic practice, Lacan argued in Seminar XI that transference is the enactment (mise-en-acte) of the sexual reality of the unconscious (Lacan 1994[1964]: 146). When broaching the issue of the analyst’s position in the fourth section of ‘The Direction of the Treatment,’ he placed his argument under the heading of a question whose wording was everything but gratuitous: ‘How to Act with One’s Being’ (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 512). Lacan did not hesitate to describe the analyst’s influence on the course of the treatment as a type of ‘action’, whose precise nature needs to be understood, and whose concrete effects need to be envisaged if the entire enterprise is to proceed along appropriate ethical pathways. Indeed, an ethics of psychoanalysis, Lacan suggested in Seminar VII, must require analysts to formulate a judgement on the nature of their action (Lacan 1992 [1959-60]: 337). Conversely, Lacan regularly demonstrated how spurious interpretations and an erroneous handling of the transference can lead to clinically disruptive actions on the side of the analysand, ranging from an elaborately staged ‘acting out’ to a sudden ‘passage to the act’ (passage-à-l’acte). I shall return to the latter two notions in subsequent parts of my text, yet it is already worth pointing out at this stage that, towards the late 1960s, Lacan also expanded the semantic sphere of the term ‘passage to the act,’ so that it no longer referred exclusively to a certain disruptive pathological manifestation, but also encompassed the training effect of a psychoanalytic treatment, that is to say the patient’s transition from the position of analysand to that of the analyst.

‘Action’ thus features prominently in Lacan’s works at various theoretical levels—from the most basic level of considerations on psychoanalytic technique to the most complex level of the formulation of an ethics for psychoanalysis—and especially in those instances when interpretation, transference, and the analytic position, or the analyst’s discourse (Lacan 2007[1969-70]: 35), are at stake. Reconsidering the fundamental principles of the psychoanalytic treatment from the perspective of ‘action’ is therefore not at all contrary to Lacan’s theoretical inspiration, but strictly in accordance with the lines he himself set out from the 1950s until the end of his career. In sum, Lacan’s oeuvre contains a well-developed theory of action that merits at least as much attention as his theory of the signifier’s incidence in the unconscious, if not more, given the fact that in this theory of action a special place is also reserved for the object a, which Lacan adduced as his only true invention, and his single most original contribution to psychoanalysis (Lacan 1966-67: session of 16 November 1966; 1973-74: session of 9 April 1974; 1981a[1972]: 11; 2006e[1968-69]: 45; Porge 2005: 191-202).


If many of Lacan’s concepts can be traced back to one or the other aspect of Freud’s works, it is less straightforward to find the Freudian bedrock supporting Lacan’s theory of action. Not only does Freud seem to be much less convinced than Lacan of the value of the notion of action for deploying a coherent and comprehensive account of psychoanalytic practice, his general outlook on action is also much less advanced and sophisticated than Lacan’s. Not only does Lacan seem to be much more reassured than Freud of the potential benefits of action for the course of the treatment, his conceptualisation of action is also much more concerned with the analyst’s line of conduct than Freud’s. Hence, whereas Freud regards action more as a unitary, generally counter-productive phenomenon on the side of the analysand, Lacan employs a multi-layered concept of action, incorporating positive as well as negative connotations, and reflecting psychic mechanisms in the analyst as well as in the analysand.