When broaching the issue of the analyst’s response to acting out in Seminar X, Lacan reviewed three options suggested by Phyllis Greenacre, in an influential paper entitled ‘General Problems of Acting Out’ (Greenacre 1950): interpretation, prohibition and the strengthening of the ego. The slightest acquaintance with Lacan’s work from the early 1950s suffices to realize that he was unable to accept the third option. To Lacan, strengthening the analysand’s ego is a clinical evil against which analysts need to guard themselves at all cost, since it fosters the analysand’s identification with the analyst (Rowan 2000: 98). Yet the other two options might not make much sense either. As I pointed out earlier, Freud had already arrived at the conclusion that acting out does not resolve itself through analytic interpretation. Lacan reformulated this principle by saying that interpretation ‘is not destined to have much effect, if only for the fact that acting out is made for that’ (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 126). The flipside of this statement might be that, when it comes to dealing with bungled actions, the analyst’s interpretations are destined to be effective, precisely because as formations of the unconscious they are not made for it. As to prohibition, instead of being a solution to the problem of acting out, it is likely to precipitate, perpetuate or exacerbate it, because an interdiction may very well contribute to further impediment and increased turmoil. Prohibition may even contribute to the acting out becoming unbearable in itself, as a result of which the analysand may resort to more radical types of action, or may be faced with an ‘eternalisation of the neurosis’ (Quackelbeen 1988: 373). As far as I am aware, the only alternative Lacan considered, although without much elaboration, is for the acting out (and the transference that supports it) to be analysed (Lacan 1967-68: session of 29 November 1967), that is to say for it to be curbed back onto a verbalisation of the patient’s unconscious desire and subjective truth, which requires the analyst to adopt the position of semblance of the object a (Lacan 2007[1969-70]: 106-107), so that the patient be given the space and time to become both the narrator and the author of his or her desire. Another option might be for the analyst whose patients engage in acting out to analyse the pitfalls of his or her approach in a process of clinical supervision (Verhaeghe 1993: 59). In terms of Kris’s case-study, Lacan argued that the analyst should have allowed his patient to avow his desire (to plagiarize), whilst simultaneously leading him to acknowledge that the object of this desire is simply ‘nothing’ (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 502). This crucial difference is captured in the distance that separates Kris’ psycho-educational intervention ‘You do not steal’ from a distinctly more analytic interpretation such as ‘You steal nothing’ (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 502; Fink 2004, 58-59).


Thus far, one cell in the conceptual matrix of anxiety has been left vacant. In this cell Lacan wrote the term passage-à-l’acte (passage to the act), by which he pushed his theory of action even further away from its Freudian homestead. Lacan’s concept of passage-à-l’acte has no equivalent in Freud’s discourse nor, for that matter, in any other psychoanalytic paradigm. The word itself does feature prominently in French criminological and forensic-psychiatric texts (Merle & Vitu 1997; Castel 2011: 986- 992), as a technical term for various psychopathological manifestations that are all characterized by sudden, uncontrollable outbursts of affective energy—generally in the form of violence or aggression directed either against oneself or against another person—and until 1963 Lacan employed the term passage-à-l’acte exclusively in this, its ordinary psychiatric understanding (Lacan 1931; 1949; Lacan & Cénac 2006[1950]: 109). ((In the paper by Lacan and Cénac, Fink has translated the term passage à l’acte as acting out. )) To complicate matters further, the notion passage-à-l’acte is commonly used within French psychoanalytic circles as a translation for acting out which, as I mentioned previously, is itself a rendering of Freud’s agieren. This is why Laplanche and Pontalis, in their authoritative and widely consulted Language of Psychoanalysis, did not devote a separate entry to passage-à-l’acte, neither in the English version nor in the original French, and restricted themselves to a discussion of acting out (Laplanche & Pontalis 1967: 6-8; 1973[1967]: 4-6). Lacan’s decision, in Seminar X, to reserve a special place for passage-à-l’acte in his conceptual matrix of anxiety, separate from acting out and with a novel meaning, thus challenged reigning criminological and psychiatric as well as established psychoanalytic vocabularies. For, on the one hand, he endorsed the value of a known forensic-psychiatric concept for psychoanalysis, without accepting its conflation with acting out, whereas on the other hand he refused to take on board the meaning with which psychiatrists had traditionally equipped and utilized this concept.