What triggers a passage-à-l’acte, according to Lacan, is the coincidence of embarrassment and emotion, the convergence of too much signifier with what I would call a ‘moment of moving immobility’. How do these factors operate in the two examples Lacan highlighted? For the sake of brevity, and because the dynamics are easier to pinpoint, I shall restrict myself to the case of the young homosexual woman. When the girl runs into her father, who knows yet disapproves of her relationship, he passes them by ‘with an angry glance [mit einem zornigen Blick]’ (Freud 1920a: 148), which she reads as a sign of prohibition. Although she must have calculated, if not to say deliberately increased the risks of meeting her father when going off on a walk with her girlfriend in an area of the city that was on his way home from work, it is difficult to imagine how her being caught in the act by her father could have had any other effect than a profound feeling of embarrassment. Yet when she reveals the man’s identity and his apparent state of mind to her ‘society lady’, the latter insists that they stop seeing each other and so declares the relationship over. Following Lacan, this second message must have induced some strong emotion in the girl, an experience of feeling deeply moved and utterly motionless at the same time. In conjunction with the embarrassment she experiences when being exposed in public to the paternal law, which is her way of reading the father’s angry glance, and as such already a phallic interpretation of the gaze—one of Lacan’s figurations of the object a— the emotion prompts the girl to leave behind both the scene of the acting out and the stage of the world in general, by which she exchanges her divided subjectivity $ (and her place within the symbolic order) for a position as mere object. Put differently, whereas the acting out constitutes a symbolic scene where the object a is served up in its brutal, concrete materiality, in the passage-à-l’acte the subject falls out of the symbolic altogether, and reduces itself to nothingness in its very identification with the object a.

The above examples of passage-à-l’acte are somehow less compelling than those Lacan gathered to illustrate acting out, if only because they concern events that take place before rather than during the course of a psychoanalytic treatment. Nonetheless, it is not inconceivable to apply these examples as paradigmatic cases of passage-à-l’acte within the confines of a clinical process. If the experience of embarrassment, resulting from an excess of signifier, is logically the first moment in the triggering of a passage-à-l’acte—the young homosexual woman would not have gone through her moving immobility had she not caught her father’s angry look— then it is perfectly possible for this experience to be invoked by an analytic intervention. By contrast with acting out, which may be triggered through a technical error at the level of interpretation, yet an error which simultaneously drives the analyst out of the analytic position into the realm of the master’s discourse, I want to propose the hypothesis, here, that passage-à-l’acte is likely to occur within the arena of transference handling. This proposition by no means contradicts the aforementioned idea that passage-à-l’acte happens when an acting out becomes unbearable. Indeed, both Freud and Lacan argued, although each in their own way, that transference cannot be divorced from acting out. To Freud, acting out is inextricably linked to repetition and transference, and in his technical papers he hardly differentiated between transference, repetition and acting out. To Lacan, transference is the enactment (mise-en-acte) of the sexual reality of the unconscious (Lacan 1994[1964]: 146), whereas acting out is a form of wild transference (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 125).

What type of transference handling might be held responsible for the analysand’s ‘decision’ to leave the scene in a passage-à-l’acte? How can psychoanalysts unwittingly induce potentially self-destructive acts of violence in their patients via a particular management of the ‘emotional tie’ (Freud 1916-17a[1915-17]: 431-447)? I am deliberately using Freud’s characterization of the transference, here, because it demonstrates how transference is also intrinsically related to the realm of emotion, which Lacan singled out as the second condition for the emergence of passage-à-l’acte. The answer to these questions, it seems to me, lies buried in Freud’s case-study of Dora, and more specifically in the technical error that made her end the treatment prematurely. Dora’s goodbye to Freud deserves to be called a passage-à-l’acte because it entails a radical departure from the scene—not the scene of the world, but the ‘analytic scene’ of the transference. As Freud acknowledged in his subsequent reflections upon the event, he himself had precipitated Dora’s vanishing act, because he had failed to accept her positive transference onto Mrs K, whilst underestimating the escalation of her negative transference onto him—as an oblique shadow of Mr K— during the course of the treatment (Freud 1905e[1901]: 120, footnote 1). Freud believed he knew something about the nature and outcome of hysteria, and so he could not stop telling Dora about her secret love for Mr K, to the point of encouraging her to consider marriage, satisfying himself with the thought that the more she refused to agree, the more she unconsciously repeated these feelings vis-à-vis him, Sigmund Freud, within the transference. Dora’s passage-à-l’acte, of saying goodbye to Freud ‘very warmly, with the heartiest wishes for the New Year’ (Freud 1905e[1901]: 109), without showing up to her next appointment, is her way of slapping Freud in the face. It is designed to shatter Freud’s trust in the value of his psychoanalytic knowledge, and is indelibly marked by his explicit reliance on this very knowledge during the analytic process. Simply put, what triggered Dora’s passage-à-l’acte is Freud’s intimate conviction that he knew the answer to the problem of hysteria, and his unscrupulous, indefatigable campaign to convince Dora of the validity of this answer. When viewed from this angle, Freud’s strategy of transference handling in the Dora case can easily be associated with Lacan’s formula of embarrassment as an excess of signifier. Freud stripped Dora of her love for Mrs K and imbued her with injunctions and prohibitions, in short with the symbolic law of the father. In light of Lacan’s assertion that transference always involves the analysand’s investment of the analyst with the function of the ‘supposed subject of knowing’ (sujet supposé savoir) (Lacan 1994[1964]: 233), passage-à-l’acte would thus occur when the analyst identifies with this function, and starts to act as a knowing subject. Or, to put it in yet another way, passage-à-l’acte originates in the analyst’s determination to overpower the transference, either by offering a ‘knowledgeable’ interpretation of its mainspring, or by formulating strict rules as to what is acceptable and what is not. Again, in operating in this way, and taking advantage of the transference in order to impose a certain epistemic template onto the analysand’s desire, the analyst leaves his or her position to enter another discourse, yet instead of its being the master’s discourse, it is the discourse of the university that is being adopted, insofar as knowledge comes to occupy the place of agency (Lacan 2007[1969-70]: 54).