When Acts Speak Louder Than Words: On Lacan’s Theory of Action in Psychoanalytic Practice
In Freud’s theory, three separate instances of action can be discerned, all of which constitute specific, clinically relevant manifestations on the side of the patient. The first type of action concerns the so-called parapraxes (Fehlleistungen), which Freud classified as formations of the unconscious, alongside dreams, jokes and hysterical/obsessional symptoms. In the broadest sense, these parapraxes or ‘bungled actions’ run the whole gamut of expressions of the unconscious Freud discussed in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b): from slips of the tongue and the forgetting of names to the ‘accidental’ misplacing of objects and the mistaken reactions vis-à-vis other people. In a narrower sense, they encapsulate those acts that fail to be accomplished, either because the subject engages in a different act, or because the act stops short of its realization. For example, instead of ordering a taxi driver to take me from the airport to the house where I live with my wife, I may ‘involuntarily’ give him my lover’s address, and only realize my ‘mistake’ when I am actually standing in front of her door. Or, because I know how difficult it is for a taxi driver to drop me off exactly in front of the house where I live with my wife, and because I am keen to save some money, I may ask him to stop nearby, only to discover after I have paid him that I am still miles away from my actual destination. If acts remain unsuccessful, here, in terms of their conscious intention, it is exactly because the unconscious interferes successfully with their fulfilment. The more an act fails, the more successful the unconscious. This is why, in Seminar XI, Lacan averred that ‘there is cause only in something that doesn’t work’ (il n’y a de cause que de ce qui cloche) (Lacan 1994: 22).
Without going so far as to call these bungled actions royal roads to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind, a privilege which remains reserved for the dream, Freud treated Fehlleistungen as valuable objects of analysis whose emergence gives the analyst an opportunity for unearthing, through the analysand’s associations, the latter’s repressed wishes and fears. The analyst cannot elicit these bungled actions and is not responsible for their occurrence, yet when they appear he or she ought to take advantage of them to reveal latent materials in the analysand’s unconscious. And even when bungled actions operate beyond the realm of speech, Freud analysed them as meaningful productions, thus showing, as Lacan put it in Television, ‘that it is about nothing other than a deciphering of pure signifying di-mention [dit-mension]’ (Lacan 1990: 9).
A completely different picture unfolds with regard to agieren (acting out), which represents the second instance of action Freud distinguished in his theory of the psychoanalytic treatment. Like so many other technical issues of psychoanalytic practice, Freud discovered the problematic function of agieren in his case study of Dora (Freud 1905e). Expressing his surprise at the problematic nature of the young woman’s transference, and in particular her unconscious determination to take revenge on him, as if he were an avatar of Mr K, Freud contended that his patient had been acting out a substantial portion of her memories and fantasies, instead of putting them into words (Freud 1905e: 119). Only a decade later, in his technical papers, did he theorize the patient’s recourse to acting out as an unconscious attempt at escaping the goals of the treatment (Freud 1914g: 150). Whilst the analyst invites patients to acknowledge the sources of their suffering, to restore them to their proper psychic value through prolonged mental labour, and to resituate them within the confines of their life history, the patient may prefer not to accept this invitation and engage in the acting out of psychic conflicts. Yet Freud did not simply blame his patients, or their neurosis for this unfortunate turn of events; he claimed that something in the nature of the unconscious itself forces patients to avoid remembering the repressed representations and to act them out vis-à-vis the analyst (Freud 1912b: 108). Acting out thus originates in an unconscious resistance to remembering, and it uses the transference as a playground for exercising its power over the analytic process. From 1914 onwards, Freud defined acting out more rigorously as the unconscious repetition of a repressed conflict within the transference, of which the patient remains unaware and which stifles the analytically beneficial operation of remembering (Freud 1914g: 151). The classic example is that of the patient who never mentions, much less admits her eroticized aggression towards her father, but who continuously challenges her male analyst in a teasing, pseudo-hostile way.