When Acts Speak Louder Than Words: On Lacan’s Theory of Action in Psychoanalytic Practice
More provocatively, Lacan also claimed that the fundamental template for the failed act is the sexual act (Lacan 1976: 19). No sexual act between human beings is ever completely successful, at least from the perspective of consciousness, because the unconscious always interferes with its realisation, either by triggering all kinds of involuntary considerations of quality and quantity amongst the partners involved, or by conjuring up, in a more symptomatic way, the spectres of orgasmic and erectile dysfunctions. As early as 1956, in his seminar on object-relations, Lacan pointed out, in this respect, that the scandal provoked by Freud’s work resides less in its emphasis on sexuality, and has more to do with his thesis, formulated towards the end of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud 1905d: 235-243) that every relationship with the sexual object is marred by an essential, intrinsic difficulty (Lacan 1994[1956-57]: 59). Indeed, for Freud human sexuality, whatever form it may take, is always inherently problematic. This is what Lacan eventually tried to convey with his well-known formula ‘there is no sexual relation,’ (il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel) (Lacan 2007[1969-70]: 116), which could be rephrased as ‘there is only ever a bungled sexual act’.
At a different level, Lacan also reconsidered the clinical issue of acting out, both within and outside the psychoanalytic treatment. Here, he moved from an orthodox Freudian outlook, which aligns acting out with repetition and transference (Lacan 1988[1953-54]: 246), to a more original viewpoint, extracting acting out from the field of symptoms and taking account of the analyst’s ineluctable contribution to its emergence. This theoretical transition occurred primarily in line with Lacan’s critical analysis of a case-study by the ego-psychologist Ernst Kris (1975), which is generally referenced in the Lacanian psychoanalytic literature as the case of the Fresh Brains Man (Leader 1997: 52).
The case concerns a young academic who, among other things, feels hampered in the pursuit of his scientific career, because each time he is about to embark on a new project he claims to discover that he is merely plagiarizing other people’s work. Plagued by his unconscious compulsion to plagiarize, the young man fears that he is doomed to spend his days amongst the lowest ranks of his profession, if he is not to lose his job altogether when charged with professional misconduct. One day, after another attempt at publishing the results of a research project, he finds to his horror a book in the library that contains ideas very similar to those he is about to release. Although the book was known to him, he had no idea that he had simply been pilfering its contents when preparing his own work for publication, and so he became a plagiarizer in spite of himself. At this point, Kris decides to obtain the details of the book from which his patient had allegedly plagiarized, and after ‘a process of extended scrutiny’ (Kris 1975: 244), which does not necessarily imply that he went on to read the book himself (Leader 1997: 54), he arrives at the conclusion that plagiarism is not at stake, and that his analysand has read his own ideas into the work of the fellow researcher. Kris proceeds to disclose to his patient what he has found out, thus reassuring him that his fear of plagiarising is unwarranted. He then goes on to interpret the young man’s inhibitions in his work as being rooted in an unresolved oedipal conflict with his father. After a lengthy silence, the patient responds that for some time now he has adopted the habit of checking out some nearby restaurants when leaving the session, with a view of finding a place that serves his preferred meal: fresh brains (Kris 1975: 244-245). In Lacan’s analysis of this peculiar sequence of events, to which he returned on a regular basis (Lacan 1988[1953-54]: 59-61; 2006c: 328-332; 1993[1955-56]: 79-80; 2006d: 500-502; 2014[1962-63]: 124-125; 1966-67: session of 8 March 1967), although with alternative readings and not without occasionally distorting Kris’s own account (Baños Orellana 1999), the patient’s act of eating (or seeking out) fresh brains, which seems as incomprehensible to him as the very act of plagiarizing, constitutes an acting out, in which something is being shown to the analyst (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 124).