Back to contents
Number 12: Summer 2016

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

Dany Nobus

However, within the context of his discussion of working-through at the end of ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,’ Freud re-introduced a third conceptual component of his theory of action in psychoanalytic practice. From a theoretical point of view, Freud argued that the effect of working-through is comparable to the patient’s abreaction (Abreagieren) of the affective quantum that has been impounded under the influence of repression. This notion of abreaction has a long history in the Freudian canon, dating back to Freud’s collaboration with Josef Breuer during the mid 1880s, and rising to conceptual status with their development of the hypno-cathartic method for the treatment of hysteria. The term appeared for the first time in published form in Breuer and Freud’s ‘Preliminary Communication’ (Breuer & Freud 1893a), which later featured as the introduction to the Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud 1895d: 1-17). In this short contribution, the authors attempted to explain why memories of a traumatic event may persist in a patient’s mind with great intensity and for a prolonged period of time, facilitating the emergence of hysterical symptoms, without the patient being aware of them. Breuer and Freud postulated that these memories retain their strength, thus withstanding the normal fading off of mental representations over the course of time, because the affective, energetic value with which they are endowed has never been sufficiently discharged. Hence, when proposing a therapeutic strategy for tackling the endless repetition of these memories, Breuer and Freud suggested an abreaction of the entrapped affective quantum, alongside the psychic integration of the traumatic memories into a broader framework of ideas, through associative labour (Breuer & Freud 1895d: 8-9). However, this abreaction does not necessarily involve the patient’s performing certain deeds: ‘[L]anguage serves as a substitute for action; by its help, an affect can be “abreacted” almost as effectively’ (Breuer & Freud 1895d: 8).

When, in 1914, Freud equated the effect of working-through to the process of abreaction, which he had conceptualised with Breuer before the discovery of psychoanalysis, he in a sense admitted that for all the changes his therapeutic method had undergone since the 1890s, the envisioned goal of the treatment remained the same: ruling out, if not restricting the repetition of traumatic memories by neutralizing their affective charge. More than during the 1890s, however, Freud acknowledged the circuitousness of the path that leads up to this abreaction, and the analyst’s impotence to direct or accelerate the analysand’s journey in any way. At the same time, Freud implied that interpretation is not indicated as an analytic tool for countering the incidence of repetition and acting out, as they take hold of the transference. The analyst’s naming of the analysand’s resistance entails no more than a preparation for the true work of analysis, which consists in the analysand’s working-through of the psychic entropy that is inherent in the unconscious.