In Lacan’s Seminar X, passage-à-l’acte concerns those events through which subjects transport themselves beyond the boundaries of the symbolic universe that has hitherto presided over their social and mental existence. Or, as Miller put it, passage-à-l’acte ‘signals that one is leaving the ambiguities of reason, of speech and language in favour of the act . . . [I]n the act the subject escapes from . . . the ambiguities of speech as well as every dialectics of recognition’ (Miller 1988: 53). In allocating passage-à-l’acte a place between embarrassment and anxiety on the axis of movement, and at the end of a line running from emotion to the symptom on the axis of difficulty, Lacan tried to demonstrate how passage-à-l’acte may also function as a psychic safety valve against anxiety, and is conditioned by the simultaneous occurrence of supreme embarrassment and intense emotion (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 100-130).

In the opening session of his seminar, Lacan defined ‘embarrassment’ (embarras) as the experience of no longer knowing what to do with oneself, of desperately looking for something behind which to shield oneself (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 11). If ‘impediment’ refers to the narcissistic blow of losing face, embarrassment is clearly much worse, because it concerns ‘losing everything’, being exposed in the naked reality of one’s (lack of ) being. If ‘impediment’ leaves subjects trapped in one place, it always remains possible for them to exercise their function elsewhere. Embarrassment, however, entails a much more radical confrontation with the failure that lives at the heart of human subjectivity. This is probably why Lacan put embarrassment at the extreme end of the axis of difficulty, beyond impediment and inhibition. Taking advantage of etymology, he also indicated how embarrassment conjures up ‘the experience of the bar’ (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 11)—not the experience of having had too much to drink, which may be terribly embarrassing in its own right, but the experience of being exceedingly struck, barred by the law of the signifier, which does not represent the subject for what it is, but merely for another signifier. If turmoil stems from too little signifier, embarrassment thus derives from too much signifier, that is to say from the superabundant infiltration of the symbolic law (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 77). Hence, from a Lacanian perspective, embarrassment is always by definition an embarrassment of riches, notably the riches of the signifier. As far as ‘emotion’ is concerned, Lacan steered away from the panoply of meanings that have been accorded to the term in the history of philosophy and psychology, in order to promote the (etymologically precise) dimension of being pushed outside movement (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 11-12). Or, in Cormac Gallagher’s words, it ‘is the experience of being knocked out of the motion that is geared towards a particular goal, which is . . . a way of inhibiting appropriate movement: ex-movere, emotion’ (Gallagher 1996: 14). Emotion is about being moved to such an extent that it becomes difficult to move; something is so moving that one is arrested in one’s movements.

To illustrate the incidence of passage-à-l’acte, Lacan collected two examples from Freud’s clinical cases, one from his case-study of Dora (Freud 1905e[1901]) and one from the case of the young homosexual woman (Freud 1920a). In the Dora case, he recognized an instance of passage-à-l’acte in the young girl’s slap on Mr K’s face after he has told her that his wife means nothing to him (Freud 1905e[1901]: 98; Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 115). In Freud’s case of the young homosexual woman, Lacan defined as a passage-à-l’acte the girl’s sudden jump into the depth of a railway cutting after she had ‘accidentally’ bumped into her father, when walking on the street with her ‘society lady’ (Freud 1920a: 148; Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 122). The combination of these two examples makes it clear that for Lacan passage-à-l’acte does not necessarily require an unexpected explosion of extreme violence, and should not be restricted to suicidal acts. As a matter of fact, the only thing these two examples have in common—and this is exactly why Lacan called them passage-à-l’acte—is that they both constitute a desperate attempt to end a scene that has become unbearable. In slapping Mr K, Dora tried to finish the complicated intrigue she had set up between herself, her father, Mr K and Mrs K. Likewise, the young homosexual girl’s suicidal act is literally an attempt at disappearing from the scene and leaving behind the circumstances and the people she has been involved with. It is worth noting, here, that Lacan typified the amorous adventures of both Dora and the young homosexual woman as typical examples of acting out (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 122-123). Hence, if acting out involves ‘making a scene’ on the stage of the world, because one feels unrecognized in one’s desire, passage-à-l’acte epitomizes a reaction against this very scene becoming unbearable in its own right—a reaction which not only facilitates the dismantling of the scene on the scene, but also the dissolution of the stage of the world in itself.