When Acts Speak Louder Than Words: On Lacan’s Theory of Action in Psychoanalytic Practice
Freud remained truthful to this basic opposition between, on the one hand, acting out and repetition and, on the other hand, the clinically beneficial process of remembering, until the end of his life, even rekindling the antagonism in his book on Moses, in order to explain why the Jewish people came to regard Moses as a great father-figure (Freud 1939a[1937-39]: 89), with the caveat that after the publication of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920g) he conceptualized repetition as a compulsion whose power resides in the engine of the death drive. Acting out is therefore of a completely different order than the Fehlleistung. Whereas the latter provides the analyst with a welcome opportunity for advancing the analysis, the former works against the obtaining of analytic results. If both the bungled action and acting out are rooted in the workings of the unconscious, the former epitomizes its bright, Apollonian, cooperative face and the latter its dark, Dionysian, recalcitrant side. No matter how disruptive the bungled action may be for the analysand, much like the other formations of the unconscious it facilitates the work of analysis. By contrast, acting out undermines the work of analysis, no matter how comfortable the analysand may feel about its occurrence.
Considering its indebtedness to repetition and the death drive, it does not come as a surprise, then, that acting out presented Freud with serious technical and theoretical concerns. If analysts are unable to cancel out the interference of acting out, which would presumably involve the annihilation of the death drive, the compulsion to repeat and the transference, how are they supposed to handle the clinical vicissitudes of acting out in view of the advancement of the treatment? How can they halt, deplete or curb the incidence of repetition and resuscitate remembering? How can they transform the unconscious from an enemy into an ally? In ‘The Dynamics of Transference’ Freud did not hesitate to describe the whole situation as a struggle (Kampf) between the analyst and the patient, a war between the factions of the intellect and those controlled by the drive (Freud 1912b: 108). Eight years later, in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ he posited that the patient’s repetition of the neurotic conflict in the transference forces the analyst ‘to speak severely to them and treat them coldly’ (den Arzt zu harten Worten und kühlen Benehmen gegen sie zu nötigen) (Freud 1920g: 21). In light of all this, one wonders what Freud had in mind when he suggested in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, his last contribution to psychoanalytic technique, that only the patient’s acting out outside the transference ranks as a highly unfavourable phenomenon, acting out within the transference bringing about a situation that remains beneficial for the pursuit of psychoanalytic goals (Freud 1940a: 177).
The only proper solution Freud ever suggested in response to the issue of acting out and repetition is the analysand’s working-through (Durcharbeitung). To the best of my knowledge, this term appears on no more than three separate occasions in Freud’s entire published oeuvre (Breuer & Freud 1895d: 291; Freud 1914g: 155; Freud 1926d: 160), which has prompted some historians of psychoanalysis to argue that the notion and the process have no conceptual status in Freud’s theory (see, for instance, Roudinesco & Plon 1997). In addition, Freud offered only very minimal glosses on the nature and function of working-through, which is all the more remarkable given the fact that he regarded it as the most important aspect of psychoanalytic labour. Indeed, working-through purportedly brings about the greatest transformation of the patient’s state of mind, guaranteeing psychoanalytic effects beyond those obtained through the power of suggestion (Freud 1914g: 155), and breaking the infernal resistance of the Id, which expresses itself through the compulsion to repeat (Freud 1926d: 160). Freud’s formulations on how exactly we need to understand this mechanism of working-through are restricted to the patient’s mandatory immersion in the radius of psychic resistance, in order to discover the drive on which this resistance is feeding itself. Working-through requires the most intensive of labours and its operation can be neither anticipated nor accelerated. One must allow the ill person all the time he or she needs (Man muß dem Kranken die Zeit lassen), and the psychoanalyst can only wait (Freud 1914g: 155). If working-through constitutes a mental test for the analyst’s patients, it is thus simultaneously a test of endurance (Geduldprobe) for the analyst’s patience (Freud 1914g: 155).