Lacan’s most detailed reflection upon the psychic mechanism underpinning acting out appeared in his Seminar X, which examined the topic of anxiety (Lacan 2014[1962-63]). In the course of this seminar, Lacan constructed a conceptual matrix with nine cells, along the two orthogonal axes of ‘difficulty’ and ‘movement’, whereby he distributed the three terms of Freud’s 1926 paper ‘Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety’ (1926d[1925]) across the diagonal, in such a way that inhibition and anxiety operate at opposite ends of the clinical spectrum, the former coinciding with minimal difficulty and minimal movement, the latter maximizing both criteria.

At the start of his seminar, Lacan took great care in filling out all the other cells of the matrix, choosing terms whose psychoanalytic import was not always clear, save two, which he kept open until the seminar was well underway. Eventually, he put the term acting out in the free cell between turmoil (émoi) and anxiety on the axis of difficulty, and at the end of the column comprising impediment and the symptom on the axis of movement (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 13, 77). How are we supposed to read the position of acting out within this schema? What does it mean for acting out to be located between turmoil and anxiety, and for it to terminate a line that runs from impediment to the symptom?

As is so often the case with Lacan’s graphical representations, the meaning of the individual terms is easier to grasp than their interrelations. It seems to me that the specific location of acting out in the above matrix serves to indicate how the phenomenon stems from the synergetic operation of two conditions, notably impediment and turmoil, and functions as a psychic barrier against the eruption of anxiety. Lacan glossed ‘impediment’ (empêchement) as ‘to be ensnared’ (être pris au piège, literally ‘to be caught in a trap’), whereby the capture in question is purportedly conditioned by the subject’s narcissism (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 10). ‘Turmoil’ (émoi), on the other hand, he explained as ‘trouble’ and ‘the fall of might’ (chute de puissance) (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 13), which occurs owing to a lack of available signifiers, a ‘too little’ (trop peu) share of symbolic elements (Lacan 2014[1962-63]: 77).

In view of the aforementioned case-study by Kris, to which Lacan returned in Seminar X, these two coordinates of acting out are relatively easy to elucidate. Kris’s patient must have felt simultaneously struck in his narcissism and radically disempowered as a result of the analyst’s interventions, that is to say owing to the analyst’s replacing his analytic position with that of a psycho-educator. When confronted with his analyst’s discovery, the young man must have felt he had totally lost face, whilst at the same time being highly moved and incapable of redressing the balance, for want of words (signifiers). Yet instead of entering a state of anxiety, he has recourse to an acting out, which occurs as much in the very act of his having looked for and eaten fresh brains as in the ‘confessional’ retelling of the event in response to his analyst’s interpretation, through which he manages to retain his composure, whilst demonstrating how the Other (in this case the analyst) has made a crucial mistake.