Back to contents
Number 12: Summer 2016

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

Dany Nobus

In Seminar V, Lacan argued that the backdrop against which an acting out takes place can only be understood if the event is not conflated with the category of symptoms, compromise formations, bungled actions, and so on (Lacan 1998[1957-58]: 420). Yet over and above this differentiation between acting out and the formations of the unconscious, which is already evident from Freud’s works, Lacan also urged his audience to maintain a strict distinction between acting out and repetition (the compulsion to repeat), thus rallying for a revision of Freud’s ideas on the subject. Acting out, Lacan indicated in Seminar V, always contains a message addressed to the analyst (Lacan 1998[1957-58]: 421) or, we can assume, at whoever sustains the transference relationship, and it includes a hint that the analyst is ‘barking up the wrong tree’ (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 501). The most general formula of acting out, Lacan declared in Seminar VIII, is that the subject acts in order to demand a more accurate response (une réponse plus juste) from the analyst (Lacan 2015[1960-61]: 336).

‘A more accurate response to what?’, the reader will probably ask. Relying again on Lacan’s reading of Kris’s case-study, the only possible answer is: to the analysand’s desire. According to Lacan, Kris had failed to recognize the young man’s desire, not so much by formulating a so-called intellectualist interpretation along the lines of ‘I know and you are ignorant’, but by unwittingly annihilating it in his attempt to readapt his patient to an external reality. In other words, in telling his patient that he had not plagiarized Kris endeavours to replace what he perceives to be an unwarranted fear with a more truthful state of affairs. Yet in doing so he disregards his analysand’s subjective truth, because it contradicts objective reality, and despite the fact that this subjective truth buttresses an unconscious desire, which is in itself caused by the object Lacan dubbed object a (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 101). In a sense, the problem is not so much that Kris is formulating an inaccurate interpretation—if anything, his intervention is correct from the perspective of objective reality—but that he exchanges his analytic position, which should be geared towards the recognition of the patient’s unconscious desire, in favour of a distinctly non-analytic, proto-educationalist stance, which involves careful ‘reality testing’, and which is focused on getting the patient to accept the objective facts. In the face of Kris’s interventions, the patient reacts with an acting out, which takes the object a qua cause of desire out of the field of language and into the realm of a staged performance, where it is materialized in the form of fresh brains. As such, the acting out presents the analyst with ‘the object on a plate’ (Lacan 1966-67, session of 8 March 1967; Burgoyne 1997: 57), and serves the sole purpose of safeguarding the unconscious desire (in this case, to plagiarize), against its potential destruction at the hands of the analyst. Articulating the unconscious thoughts going through the patient’s head in the moment of his acting out, Lacan rendered them as follows: ‘Everything you [Ernst Kris] say is true, only it leaves the question unscathed. There are still the fresh brains [the object a]. To make a point of it, I’m going to eat some right afterwards so that I can tell you about it in the next session’ (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 124- 125). The acting out itself, as Lacan explained in Seminar V, always has the structure of a performed scenario or a theatrical display. This implies that it is situated on the same level as the fantasy (Lacan 1998[1957-58]: 421), whose function is precisely the maintenance of desire.