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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

The three components of Freud’s theory of action in psychoanalytic practice I have outlined relate in different ways to the progress of the treatment, although they also stand in a meaningful relation to each other. If the analysand’s bungled actions clear the way for the exploration of the unconscious, and thus somehow abide by the rule of the treatment, acting out is a means of escaping the treatment process, in view of maintaining a psychic status quo. If a bungled action, like any other formation of the unconscious, is open to interpretation, despite the fact that the analysand will probably try to avoid its being interpreted, the unconscious solution of acting out does not react to analytic interpretation, however explicitly it may be directed at the analyst. Insofar as the transference is contaminated by the acting out of unconscious psychic conflicts, the analyst thus needs to avoid interpreting the transference, opting instead for a position which gives the analysand sufficient time and space for working-through. Abreaction is the expected effect of this general strategy. Unlike bungled actions and acting out, which affect the course of the treatment, it constitutes a major factor pertaining to the end of analysis.


As I mentioned above, Lacan’s theory of action is both more sophisticated than Freud’s and more attuned to the analyst’s clinical involvement with (and responsibility for) the various actions performed by the analysand. In this section of my paper, I shall concentrate on those elements of Lacan’s theory that are most closely related to Freud’s elaborations, whereas in the fourth section, I will zoom in on conceptual developments that, whilst still constructed on Freudian foundations, extend the theoretical boundaries and clinical applicability of his ideas. Throughout these parts of my text, I shall attempt to resituate Lacan’s views on action within the hierarchical schema of interpretation, transference handling and the position of the analyst, which I explained at the beginning of this paper.

The most Freudian concept within Lacan’s theory of action is no doubt that of the acte manqué (literally, the failed act), which appears at regular intervals throughout his works as the translation of Freud’s notion of Fehlleistung. Like Freud, Lacan emphasized that failed acts can be categorized as formations of the unconscious, alongside dreams, jokes, and neurotic symptoms. The failed act is therefore a compromise formation, over-determined and rooted in a repressed psychic conflict. However, much more than Freud, Lacan underscored that ‘failed act’ is a misnomer when viewed from the angle of the unconscious itself. As he put it in his seminal ‘Rome Discourse’: ‘In the case of the psychopathology of everyday life . . . it is clear that every bungled action [acte manqué] is a successful, even ‘well phrased’, discourse’ (Lacan 2006a[1953]: 222; see also Lacan 1967-68: session of 6 December 1967; 1996[1966]: 4; 2001[1967]: 339; 2006b[1955]: 341; 2007[1969-70]: 58). As a successful discourse, the failed act is also firmly embedded within the structure of language, even when the act takes place as a deed instead of a word. Lacan even went so far as to employ the linguistic analyses which Freud had undertaken on innumerable examples of bungled actions in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Freud 1901b) as supporting his thesis that the unconscious is structured like a language. The term ‘failed act’ can therefore be considered a misnomer not only from the perspective of the unconscious, but also insofar as the act is always determined by the structure of language (Lacan 2013[1953]: 16; 1967-68: session of 10 January 1968). The act, here, is never a pure, trans- or supra-symbolic event, but a formation whose mechanisms are crucially dependent upon linguistic, rhetorical processes and which cannot be conflated with simple ‘human behaviour’. As Lacan phrased it in 1967: ‘No surprise, then, that the act, inasmuch as it exists only in being signifier, is shown to be suitable for supporting the unconscious. That, in this way, it is the failed act which proves to be successful is but its corollary, and the only strange thing is that this needed to be discovered for the status of the act to be eventually distinguished firmly from that of doing [celui du faire]’ (Lacan 2001[1967]: 356).