We might begin by asking how it is that ‘acting out’ has come to be given the status of a concept in psychoanalysis? This is a valid question to start with because, if we turn to the Index of Stratchey’s Standard Edition of Freud’s complete work, it might surprise us that we find only two references to acting out listed in the whole of Freud’s work (SE XII p.150-153 and SE XXIII p.89). The term is used much more often nowadays however, even in forms of psychotherapy that are non-psychoanalytic. For his part, Lacan credits Fenichel’s 1945 article, ‘Neurotic Acting Out’, with elevating the term to its conceptual status (Seminar XIV, 22.02.1967.) but, as Rowan argues in his excellent paper on acting out, there are far more references to it in the Standard Edition than there are listed in its Index (SE XXIV).

This article looks at the way that Lacan treats the subject of acting out throughout his Seminar. There is of course a wider debate about the use and meaning of the term amongst the non-Lacanian literature, and the reader is referred to Rowan’s article for its use in Freud’s work, and to Etchegoyen’s comprehensive The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique (p.700-737) for treatments of the issue from other perspectives.

In any case, we can say that there are three points of demarcation from other closely-related concepts that need to be established if acting out is to be thought of as a concept in its own right. Two are singled out by Freud himself: transference and resistance (SE XII, p.151); the third is a concept that originates from French psychiatry, but which Lacan refers to again and again in his work in the context of discussions on acting out: the passage a l’acte.

Acting out is usually looked upon as a bad thing. Very often we hear and read the term ‘acting out’ used to describe difficult or unruly analysands who ‘act badly’ or ‘inappropriately’ whilst undertaking an analysis, though most often outside the analytic session itself (Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, p.155).  In the non-Lacanian literature, especially since the term has now entered general psychological parlance, we find analysts complaining that their analysands ‘act out’. But as Fink contends, they are usually referring to behaviour to which they do not know how to respond to, or which they mistake for an what he calls “an ordinary transference response reflecting the way the analysand tended to deal with a parent, or a negative reaction by the analysand to a certain approach to therapy being adopted by the practitioner” (Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, p.217).

However, some comments that Freud makes in discussing the relationship between this ‘acting out’ and the transference suggest that rather than being a bad sign acting out is a useful vehicle through which material for the analysis can emerge, and it can be an important indicator of the direction of the analytic treatment. In one of his last works, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud writes about how the transference is useful therapeutically because it is a demonstration by the analysand of what could not be remembered: “He acts it before us, as it were, instead of reporting it to us” (SE XXIII, 176).

From a Lacanian perspective therefore, the danger to be avoided is of collapsing the concept of acting out into that of resistance, also an essentially contested concept. But what Freud’s remarks here suggest is that analysts should look for what might be learned from acting out, and the implications for the way that the analysis proceeds.

Definitions of acting out from the non-Lacanian literature

There is a general consensus amongst non-Lacanian writers on a definition of acting out which treats it as a repetition that occurs in place of remembering. Charles Rycroft’s A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines acting out as “a substitute for remembering past events” (p.1.), a phenomenon he believes to be “characteristic of psychopathy and behaviour disorders” (ibid). It is therefore for him “anti-therapeutic” (ibid).

The The Edinburgh International Encyclopaedia of Psychoanalysis also opts for a definition of acting out as a substitute for remembering. It is “A form of repetition in place of remembering” (p.5.) and, in a view similar to Rycroft’s, states that it should be located on the side of resistance insofar as the more resistance increases the more acting out will increase, in the place where something would have been remembered.

Finally, Laplanche and Pontalis’ masterwork, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, describes acting out as arising when the subject “in the grip of his unconscious wishes and phantasies, relives these in the present with a sensation of immediacy which is heightened by his refusal to recognise their source and their repetitive character” (p.4). As justification for definitions that tend towards treating acting out as occurring in the place of remembering, where memory is frustrated, Laplanche and Pontalis note that the German Freud uses – agieren – “is nearly always coupled with erinnern, to remember, the two being contrasting ways of bringing the past into the present” (p.4).

Acting out is a demand for recognition

Right at the start of his Seminar, we find Lacan giving quite a surprising definition of acting out. In Seminar I from the early 1950s, Lacan tells his audience that “One qualifies as acting-out whatever takes place in the treatment” (Seminar I, p.246). With such a wide definition we can note firstly that Lacan sees acting out as not simply limited to the events of the analytic session but encompassing actions outside it during the time of the analysis, even “like getting married for example”! (ibid).

These actions are to be treated as continuous with what is being discussed in the session. They are to be “included in a context of speech” on the grounds that for Lacan “an act is speech” (Seminar I, p.246). Although it could be described as one, it is interesting to note that Lacan does not say here that speech is an act, but that an act is speech. When offering his own definition of acting out, Lacanian psychoanalyst Philippe Julien’s assertion that it is a “deferred verbalisation” is a useful way to think about Lacan’s comment here (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72). Acting out for Julien is “a substitute in acted form for… a lack of recognition through the word” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72).

The conception of acting out as a message directed to the analyst marks a very important difference to the way that non-Lacanian psychoanalysts practice. Rather than seeing acting out as a resistance, Lacan believes that it should be recognised as a message from the analysand to the analyst, an indication that something was being said without being verbalised. “Acting out”, Lacan says, “is always and ever a message…. When it occurs in an analysis, it is always addressed to the analyst” (Seminar V, 11.12.57.).

So we can say that for the Lacan of the 1950s, acting out occurs where there is an appeal or demand for recognition directed to the analyst. Indeed, we might go as far as to say that acting out makes clear what in Lacanian terms is meant by the effect of symbolic castration – an alienation or entrapment in the chain of signifiers: acting out can be seen as an attempted rebellion against this symbolic castration.

Acting out demonstrates the insufficiency of the analyst’s intervention

In Seminar V Lacan makes a passing comment that allows us to situate acting out in the place where there has been a non-recognition of something in the analysis: “… An acting out appears when something has been missed in the analysis… the subject shows that something else should have been realised” (Seminar V, 25.06.58.). A few years later, in Seminar VIII, he restates this idea, describing acting out as “this type of action through which at one or other moment of the treatment… the subject requires a more exact response” (Seminar VIII, 31.05.61.)

So rather than seeing acting out as simply a means of communicating something to the analyst, here we see Lacan move to a conception in which the analysand communicates that something is deficient in the analysis. Julien takes this idea one step further – it does not just point to something deficient, but invites another intervention. Acting out thus marks an opportunity as much as it does a failure. “To one who knows how to listen”, Julien writes, “it [acting out] will be perceived as an appeal that raises the analytic stake, an appeal that aims to put the analyst in position for another intervention” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72). Acting out is not necessarily to be taken as an indication of a failure on the part of the analyst, but a spur to their providing a different sort of intervention.

Acting out is structured like a delusion

In Seminar III, Lacan suggests that acting out is akin to a hastily provided symbolisation, like that found in what are known as the ‘elementary phenomena’ of psychosis. “I treat acting out as equivalent to a hallucinatory phenomenon of the delusional type that occurs when you symbolise prematurely, when you address something in the order of reality and not within the symbolic register”, he says (Seminar III, p.80.) This is interesting because it allows us to think of acting out as being in some way a supplementary action. It supplements precisely what is lacking from the analyst by way of an intervention that responds in another way to what the analysand has communicated through their speech in the session.

In his paper The Invention of Delusion, Jacques-Alain Miller elaborates on this idea, writing that,

“[In] acting out Lacan shows, if one knows how to read him, that a signifier is lacking in the interpretation by the analyst and the fact that what emerges in the conduct of the subject is an act which he/she is not able to understand…. Acting out is equivalent to a hallucinatory phenomenon of the delusional type. He says this clearly and explains that it is produced when analysts impel something at the level of the real and not within the symbolic register; this means that they encounter the same causality in both of the same phenomena” (Jacques Alain Miller, The Invention of Delusion, available here.)

Acting out is to perform something that has been articulated incorrectly

In Seminar X Lacan highlights the performative or demonstrative nature of acting out: “Acting out”, he says, “is essentially something in the behaviour of the subject that shows itself. The demonstrative accent, the orientation towards the Other of every acting out is something that ought to be highlighted” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

Four years later in Seminar XIV Lacan picks up this thread again, first by giving a dictionary-definition of acting out in an attempt to give the term some etymological depth. He says that he is unable to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary – of which he proudly boasts to owning all thirteen volumes – but that in Webster’s he finds a definition that he likes, one which privileges the representational aspect: to act out is to be taken literally, as in to represent a play or a story in action, to act out a scene that one has read:

“You read Racine, you read him badly, of course, I mean that you read him aloud in a detestable fashion. Someone here wants to show you what it is. He acts it. That is what to ‘act out’ is…. It [the term] fits perfectly: I act out something, because this was read, translated, articulated, signified inadequately to me, or incorrectly” (Seminar XIV, 08.03.67.)

Two Lacanian psychoanalysts choose to comment on this passage. First, Bernard Burgoyne:

“[Lacan] takes up the term as Webster describes it in relation to a play – to act out a play is to ‘to represent… in action… as opposed to reading’. Here then there is an allusion to acting against a backcloth of a faulty interpretation: an infantile drama remains within analysis if [not] enough attention is given to what is being said” (Burgoyne, ‘Interpretation’, in The Klein-Lacan Dialogues, p.57. I have inserted the [not] on the assumption it has been left out mistakenly, to keep the meaning of the second half of the sentence consistent with the first.)

Secondly, Philippe Julien’s comments on the passage:

“When a reading goes badly, then one acts out the role for the audience; through mime, one makes the spectators see what has not been read. The acting out becomes a substitute for a failure of reading. We say of someone: ‘He is making a scene!’ because previously there had been a failure to read the event, to integrate it into the symbolic” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72-73).

As we will see, the case Lacan discusses of a patient seen by Ernst Kris demonstrates precisely this: a misreading in the shape of an inexact interpretation, followed by an acting out to represent something through a performance.

The ‘Fresh Brains Man’ – a clinical example of acting out

It is in Seminar III that Lacan begins his discussion of the case of Ernst Kris’s patient who has come to be known as the ‘Fresh Brains Man’. In the course of his analysis this man, an academic, complains about his fear that his own work plagiarises that of others. To this fear are connected associations to his father and grandfather, both academics like him. In one session the man divulges that he has a strange habit: after his analytic session finishes he tries to hunt out in the streets surrounding where his analysis takes place his preferred dish – fresh brains.

Lacan discusses the case of Kris’s patient a number of times right throughout his work. In addition to his comments on the case at multiple points in his Seminar we will look at in this article, there are three separate papers in the Ecrits which address it: the ‘Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s Verneinung‘ (Ecrits 393-99); ‘The Direction of the Treatment and the Principle of its Power’ (Ecrits 598-602); and ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’ (Ecrits 296 and 83). Kris’s original paper that features the case is titled ‘Ego Psychology and Interpretation in Psychoanalytic Therapy’ and can be found in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1951, 20:15-30.

It is in Seminar III that Lacan first describes the strange actions of the Fresh Brains Man as an ‘acting out’ (Seminar III, p.80). For him, the search for fresh brains after the session is testament to Kris’s failure to provide a certain response (although Lacan accepts that the response Kris does provide has a certain effect). As Burgoyne puts it, “An acting out is always a consequence of a lack in interpretation” (Burgoyne, ‘Interpretation’, in The Klein-Lacan Dialogues, p.57.)

Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader also offers some comments. For him, Kris’s mistake is to take his patient’s complaint of plagiarism too literally, hence why Lacan is locating the cause of acting out in Kris’s mistaken appeal to reality (Leader, Promises Lovers Make When It Gets Late, p.54). Leader makes the intriguing observation that Kris does not actually report that he read the works that the patient claimed to plagiarise, even though this is a misunderstanding that Lacan himself makes at a number of points in his Seminar (see, for example, Seminar X, 23.01.63. and Seminar XIV, 08.03.67.)

Despite this error, Lacan’s objection can still tell us something interesting about how not to intervene in a way that might provoke an acting out. When he returns to Kris’s case in Seminar XIV, he criticises the latter’s appeal to “the field of an appreciation of reality”, and for believing that it is “possible to interpret what are called the manifestations of transference, by making the subject sense the way in which repetitions, which are supposed to constitute its essence, are inappropriate, displaced, inadequate, with respect to what had been written, printed in black and white” (Seminar XIV, 08.03.67.) In other words, Lacan is criticising Kris for analysing from what he mistakenly believes is a position of objectivity, for – according to Lacan’s own mistaken belief – reading what the fresh brains man wrote and giving an assessment of whether he believes he was a plagiarist.

Lacan argues that an alertness to the symbolic register would have enabled Kris to better pitch his intervention. The crucial thing about the symbolic with respect to the Fresh Brains Man for Lacan is that in the symbolic there is no property, no ownership. This is why Lacan advises analysts to “always rigorously differentiate the order within which the defence appears” (Seminar III, p.79). What is interesting here is that Lacan’s reading is quite different to the standard Freudian one by which acting out refers neither to reality nor to the symbolic, but to the patient’s past as it relived in the transference.

In surveying the non-Lacanian literature, we find that Lacan’s view is very different from that of other post-Freudian analysts. Rather than viewing acting out as an indication of a failure on the part of the analyst, Edith Jacobson for example puts the responsibility for acting out on the side of the analysand. She writes in 1971 that,

“… In general, patients who deny show a propensity for acting out. To put it reversely: acting out appears to be regularly linked up with a bent for denial. From the therapeutic standpoint we should be aware that our endeavours to make patients relinquish their acting out, in favour of recovery and reconstruction of the past, must be directed essentially against their denial and distortion of reality” (Edith Jacobson, Depression, 1971, p.136).

But is Jacobson not making precisely the mistake that Lacan accuses (rightly or wrongly) Kris of making? Namely, appealing to some unquestioned notion of ‘reality’ in the place of providing an intervention at the level of the symbolic.

The fresh brains as object of desire

Lacan, by contrast, sees the search for fresh brains as a kind of response to Kris’s intervention at the level of reality: what Lacan assumes to be Kris’s checking of the works in question to see if they have been plagiarised. So what does Lacan think the patient is doing in searching for fresh brains?

“You show him that he isn’t a plagiarist anymore. He shows you what is at stake by making you eat fresh brains. He renews his symptom, and at a point that has no more foundation or existence than the one at which he is showed it at the outset. Is there something that he shows? I would go further – I would say that there is nothing at all that he shows, but that something shows itself” (Seminar III, p.80-81.)


Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader comments on the substitution at work in this renewal of the symptom, which helps us understand why Kris’s patient went searching for fresh brains after his session:


“[Whereas at first] the plagiarism was concerned with the devouring of ideas, it is now a question of the devouring of brains. The brains are substituted for the ideas, to keep the basic structure of the symptom intact. But, as Lacan adds, the key to the sequence is to understand that symbols and ideas don’t ever belong to anybody…. What matters now is the distinction between the content of the ideas which are supposedly stolen and the field of ideas itself…. Whereas Kris searches for the stolen object in the meaning of the texts written by others, he fails to see that the plagiarism is in the form of the object itself, the fact that for this man something can only have a value if it belongs to someone else” (Leader, Promises Lovers Make When It Gets Late, p.56).

This is precisely what Lacan says later in his work, when he looks again at the case of the Fresh Brains man in Seminar XIV:

“… What is essential is not that the subject is or is not really a plagiarist, but that his whole desire is to plagiarise. This for the simple reason that it seems to him that it is only possible to formulate something which has a value if he has borrowed it from someone else” (Seminar XIV, 08.03.67.)

So here we see the connection between the plagiarism and the character of his desire. But what is the significance of the fresh brains? Philippe Julien helps us make a start in clarifying this point, writing that “The compulsion to eat brains persists as something foreign, something he has stumbled into from his ‘successful’ plagiarism” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72.) If the acting out is a by-product of the plagiarism then, perhaps the form it takes – the search for fresh brains – should be taken literally: the Fresh Brains man is seeking fresh ideas, fresh interventions from his analyst – a response pitched at the level of his desire rather than one pitched at the level of reality. This would be one quite simple way to interpret the hunt for brains.

However, in Seminar XIV Lacan gives us another way to look at the importance of this ‘oral object’. He repeats his assertion that the search for fresh brains represents an acting out, but adds something new to this reading which he says he was not able to do at the time when he discusses the case in the Ecrits, or in the seminars of the 1950s: “That the oral a-object [object a] is here in a way made present, brought in on a plate – as one might say – by the patient, in relation, in connection with this intervention” (Seminar XIV, 08.03.67.)

The Lacanian analyst Bernard Burgoyne offers some clues as to what this passage might mean:

“Kris is effectively questioning him [the Fresh Brains Man] on the object of his desire. The reply given to Kris in this dialectic presents him with the object on a plate: but given the inability of the interpretative threads to approach this object, an action does it instead. The context that generates an acting out is that of a weakness or insufficiency in the analyst’s interpretation: where something is not being interpreted, not entering the network of the signifying material of the analytical work, a reply is given by means of an action instead of by means of a response” (Burgoyne, ‘Interpretation’, in The Klein-Lacan Dialogues, p.57.)

The fresh brains then are like the key to the lock of the analysand’s desire: they are an object insofar as they have the closest connection to the man’s desire to plagiarise ideas. The fresh brains, we can say, are a metonymic substitute for the ideas that belong to someone else, which is at the route of the fear of being considered a plagiarist.

The fresh brains as oral object are for Julien a message about what is going on in the analysis:

“The appeal [from the fresh brains man to Kris] must be understood in this way: I demand that you refuse what I offer you, because this is not it. Why? So that the brains in your head be even fresher! In other words, the acting out is a demand that the object of the drive as cause of desire be placed within the analytic relation in the locus of the Other, not that it be made present in the guise of brains served up on a platter by a restaurateur” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.72).


It is not the brains in a restaurant that interest the Fresh Brains Man but those being discussed in his analysis – the realm of ideas and the question of who has ownership of them, a question which, given the context of a family history in which he, his father and his grandfather are all academics, is especially pertinent to him. For Julien, the Fresh Brains Man is effectively bringing the object as cause of desire – the object a – into the therapy.


We find that even earlier, in Seminar X, Lacan takes up the case of the Fresh Brains Man to teach his audience “to recognise an acting out and what that means, what I am designating as the small o [object a] or the pound of flesh” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.) This ‘pound of flesh’ that acting out offers is of course a reference to that demanded by Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, so it would seem that Lacan is trying to show here that acting out functions as a kind of payment: where speech or communication fails in some way an acting out comes in its place. Acting out involves a transaction, just as the pound of flesh is extracted as payment in place of another kind of currency. In contrast to the way acting out is presented by Lacan in the fifties, in the sixties Lacan does not put the accent solely on the failure of the analyst’s intervention, or on the lack of recognition of his speech. Instead, by Seminar X he is giving a place to object a: behind every acting out there is this cause of desire, the object a:


“It is not the fact that our intervention… is false which provokes the acting out, it is that where it is brought to bear it leaves room for something which comes from elsewhere. In other words: one must not inconsiderately pester the cause of desire” (Seminar X, 26.06.63.)

Kris’s interventions before or after the acting out are not necessarily analytically unjustified. Rather, they simply leave something else to be said, and this is where the object a is presented, brought in upon a platter, as it were:

“With the fresh brains, the patient simply indicates to Ernst Kris, “Everything you tell me is true, simply that does not touch the question; there remains the fresh brains. In order to show you, I am going to eat some when I leave in order to tell you about it next time”” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

Acting out and the symptom

However Lacan is clear that acting out must be interpreted, even if  the symptom, by contrast, does not itself always call for an interpretation. As we have seen, perhaps this is because acting out can be thought of as the paradigmatic demonstrative act. But if the analyst interprets an acting out as an acting out it is likely to have little effect, precisely for the reason that this is why acting out occurs in the first place: it is a call for an intervention at another level. It is in this respect that Lacan spells out the difference between the symptom and acting out:

“The symptom is not, like acting out, calling for an interpretation. For – it is too often forgotten – what we discover in the symptom, in its essence, is not, I say, a call to the Other, is not that which shows to the Other, that the symptom in its nature is jouissance – do not forget it – a backhanded jouissance, no doubt… [but] the symptom does not need you as acting out does, it is sufficient in itself; it is of the order of what I have taught you to distinguish from desire as being jouissance” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

Acting out is a desire without a motivation

In Seminar V Lacan bemoans the lack of contributions made by other analysts to the subject of acting out. Whilst he compliments Phyllis Greenacre on her “quite remarkable” article ‘General Problems of Acting Out’, he adds that “it shows that up to the present nothing of value has been articulated on the subject” by other analytic writers (Seminar V, 21.05.58.).

As a starting point in remedying this he tells his audience that they should be careful not to subsume acting out “in all sorts of repetition compulsions in their most general forms” (Seminar V, 21.05.58.). Instead, in this Seminar he says that acting out occurs “in the course of an attempt at resolving this problem of demand and desire” (ibid), the relationship between the two. In the case of the Fresh Brains Man for example, the failure of the demand for recognition of something that the analysand is attempting to communicate is manifested at the level of desire. Acting out then is an outlet for the realisation of unconscious desire that comes to the fore in the course of an analysis. But the strange effect of this acting out, even from the point of view of the patient, is to detach desire from any discernible motivation. Quite simply, the analysand does not recognise his acting out as such, does not give it any significance, or does not know the meaning of his actions. Acting out appears completely precipitously:

“Acting out is something which for example always involves a highly signifying element, and precisely in the fact that it is enigmatic. We will never call acting out anything except an act which appears with this character of being especially unmotivated. This does not at all mean that it does not have a cause, but that precisely from a psychological point of view it cannot be given a motive, because it is always a signified act” (Seminar V, 21.05.58.)

The difference between acting out and the passage a l’acte

In Seminar XVIII Lacan addresses the difference between acting out and the concept to which it is most often contrasted: the passage a l’acte, the passage to the act. ‘Passage a l’acte‘ is a term that derives from French psychiatry, as Evans records (An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p.136). Initially it is used to describe the least desirable extreme of all analytic outcomes, “to designate those impulsive acts, of a violent or criminal nature, which sometimes mark the onset of an acute psychotic episode…. When the subject proceeds from a violent idea or intention to the corresponding act” (ibid, p.136).

For Lacan, in an interesting passage in Seminar XVIII, the passage a l’acte is the point at which discourse fails to maintain the semblance, and as such the Real appears behind it. This is in contrast to acting out, which involves elevating the sembalance, putting it front and centre:

“At the limits of discourse, in so far as it strives to make the same semblance hold up, there is from time to time something real, this is what is called the passage a l’acte…. Note that in most cases, the passage a l’acte is carefully avoided. It only happens by accident; and this is also an occasion to illuminate what is involved in what I have long differentiated from the passage a l’acte, namely, acting out, to bring the semblance onto the stage, to put it on the stage, to make an example of it, this is what in this order is called acting out” (Seminar XVIII, 20.01.71.)


We can take now take a look at a clinical example in which an acting out and a passage a l’acte occur in order to elaborate the distinction between them.


Freud’s case of the ‘Female Homosexual’ – a clinical example of the difference between acting out and the passage a l’acte

Although at the start of Seminar X he says little about these two concepts, Lacan situates acting out, as well as the related concept of passage to the act, on the three-by-three matrix that he opens this Seminar with (19.12.62.):

It is only later in Seminar X that Lacan returns to the above matrix when discussing what he describes as the passage a l’acte in the case of Freud’s patient known by the unfortunate moniker of ‘the female homosexual’. She takes a walk with the woman she loves in the neighbourhood where her father works; he sees them and shoots her a menacing glare. It is at this point that she experiences what Lacan describes as a “moment of greatest embarrassment… with the behavioural addition of emotion as disorder of movement”, as per the matrix (Seminar X, 23.01.63.) This emotion, coupled with a disorder of movement, realises what Lacan calls the two conditions for the passage a l’acte which takes the form of the jump onto the railway line. For Lacan, this passage a l’acte reduces the patient to the status of object a:

“What comes at this moment to the subject, is her absolute identification to this a [object a], to which she is reduced. Confrontation with this desire of the father upon which all her behaviour is constructed, with this law which is presentified in the look of the father, it is through this that she feels herself identified and at the same moment, rejected, ejected off the stage” (Seminar X, 16.01.63.).

The desire of the father, in other words, is condensed into the gaze, his scornful glare which precipitates her suicide attempt. Unlike acting out, the passage a l’acte of which this scene is an example is not simply demonstrative. It does not make an appeal to the Other like acting out does.

Commenting on the case, Lacanian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan elaborates the distinction between acting out and the passage to the act:

“You may consider acting out as going into the scene of the imaginary in order to signify something. Thus, it calls for interpretation. But when her father failed to understand anything, and was even furious about her liaison (she saw his disapproval in the way he looked at her), she then made a suicidal act, jumping out of the scene, which was a passage a l’acte. What is characteristic of acting out is going into the scene to signify something. Passage a l’acte is throwing oneself outside the scene” (Moustapha Safouan, Four Lessons of Psychoanalysis, p.27-28.)


Lacan himself uses a similar way of explaining things in his comments on the case in Seminar X. There he refers to a stage rather than a scene. “She topples off the stage”, he says, “this is the very structure as such of the passage a l’acte” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.) This ‘jumping off the stage’ gives to Lacan what he sees as the fundamental distinction between the passage to the act and acting out:

“This direction of escaping from the stage, is what allows us to recognise and, you will see, to distinguish the passage a l’acte with its proper value, from this something quite different which is acting out” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

If the jump from the railway bridge is for Lacan an example of the passage a l’acte, “I would say that the whole adventure with the woman of doubtful reputation, who is raised to the function of supreme object, is an acting-out” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

So we can elaborate the difference between acting out and the passage a l’act as follows: acting out is when an audience member jumps on the stage; the passage to the act is when an actor jumps from the stage into the audience. As Lacan says in the session of 30.01.63.:

“The billygoat [in the Iliad, perhaps?] who jumps onto the stage is what acting out is. And the acting out I am speaking about, namely the inverse movement of what modern theatre aspires to, namely that the actors go down among the audience: it is the spectators who mount the stage and say there what they have to say” (Seminar X, 30.01.63.)

In terms of this acting out, Lacan reading of the case appears to be very much at odds with Freud’s. Lacan draws attention to the fact that Freud believes that the girl’s involvement in the relationship feeds off and is accentuated by its (then) scandalous nature. About Freud’s assertion that the girl is unconsciously seeking a child from her father Lacan simply says that “if you were satisfied with that, you are not very hard to please… this child has nothing to do with a maternal need” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.) This is quite surprising given that the desire for the father child’s is posited by Freud as the source of the mechanism that turns the patient away from men and towards women taken on the model of her mother (SE XVIII, p.157). But for Lacan pregnancy, as he humourlessly describes it here, is “always the rampart of a return to the most profound narcissism”! (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

Lacan takes a further example illustrating the difference between the passage a l’acte and acting out from Freud’s case history of Dora, the teenage ‘hysteric’:

“If Dora’s slap [to Herr K in the scene by the lake] is a passage a l’acte, I would say that all the paradoxical behaviour, that Freud discovers immediately with such perspicacity, of Dora in the the K’s household is an acting out” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.)

The difference between acting out and the transference

Elsewhere in Seminar X Lacan also makes some succinct remarks about the relationship between acting out and the transference: “Acting out”, he tells his audience, “is the beginning of transference. It is wild transference. There is no need for analysis – as you no doubt know – for there to be transference. But transference without analysis is acting out, acting out in analysis is transference” (Seminar X, 23.01.63.) So, at least inside analysis, acting out would appear to be subsumed under the transference according on this definition.

In discussing this relationship between acting out and transference Julien writes that acting out occurs where the transference is not successfully leveraged as a means by which the symptom can be interpreted:

“In the transference during treatment, the return of the repressed is inscribed in the field of the Other while awaiting the right interpretation, that is, decoding…. If the analyst does not allow the analysand to do this, then there is an acting out: a scene played outside the locus of recognition, yet for the analyst” (Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud, p.73).

Acting out and a negative transference seem to would seem to go hand-in-hand on Julien’s interpretation. We can put the negative transference and acting out on one side, and the passage a l’acte on the other; staging a scene on one hand, leaving the scene on the other. As Safouan writes:

“When a signification is not heard in spite of the insistence of the signfier, the outcome is negative transference. When the analysand acts to this deafness by leaving analysis, this is passage a l’acte” (Moustapha Safouan, Four Lessons of Psychoanalysis, p.28.)


Acting out and the presence of the analyst

In a very intriguing passage in Seminar XVI Lacan tells his audience that what is responsible for the analysand acting out is the interpretation of the presence of the analyst:


“… It is important to punctuate that this end that I designate as the capture of the analyst, of the analyst in himself in drilling for [object] a, is precisely what constitutes the uninterpretable. That in a word, in analysis, the uninterpretable, is the presence of the analyst, and that is why to interpret him as has been seen, as has even been printed, is properly to open the door to what is called this place, namely, acting out.” (Seminar XVI, 4th June, 1969.)

What might Lacan mean in this passage? In the same way that earlier in his Seminar Lacan has described acting out as a message directed to the analyst, informing the analyst that perhaps his intervention or interpretation did not quite hit the mark, in this passage he is hinting at the way that the conduct or behaviour of the analyst (or even simply his very presence) generates effects, for good or ill. The analysand’s attempted reading of the analyst’s desire can, he believes, sometimes result in an acting out. This is one of the dangers of psychoanalysis, as much for Lacanians as for practitioners of other orientations. A clinical vignette from the case of a man who enters treatment for alcohol-related problems, which Rik Loose recounts in his The Subject of Addiction, might help us in understanding Lacan’s remarks in the passage above.

A man is admitted to a ‘caring community’ where he undertakes group therapy sessions which are led by a female therapist. On joining the community he is led around by this therapist who shows him artefacts left by previous members. He is told that he should “leave something behind as well” and that if he could do so he would be cured of his ‘alcohol addiction’. In one of the group sessions he receives some comments, ‘feedback’, from another member which annoys him. He is encouraged by the therapist to “express his emotions” and “let himself go” and does so by attacking this other group member.  As Loose relates it, “He grabbed him by the throat and ‘acted out’ his aggression” (Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment, p.275). Rather than chastise him the therapist tells him that this is a sign that he is going to be “cured”. The following day there is another group session, one which is open to include family members and friends. He gets angry again, thinking that the other group members are “only interested in pleasing the therapist” (ibid). There is another outburst – though Loose does not relate what precisely happened – and although this time he apologises to the therapist, rather than embracing it as before and treating it as a sign they are heading towards a good clinical outcome, the therapist orders him to leave the centre. The therapist, Loose recounts, had told him “He had gone too far in letting himself go [sic!] and he had left behind too big a trace. It didn’t last long before he was drinking again” (Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment, p.276).

What comments does Loose himself offer on this case? “The ‘acting out’ of this man during group therapy”, he says, “was an act that took place in response to an institutional suggestion. It was an act committed in relation to an implicit ideal; it represented the desire to fulfil or satisfy a demand which took the form of an expectation” (Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment, p.276). This is perhaps one sense in which we can understand Lacan’s comments in the passage above in which he suggests that the uninterpretable presence of the analyst provokes an acting out.

Indeed, we can also see this case of acting out in the context of Lacan’s earlier remarks in his Seminar during the fifties – that acting out occurs when the analyst only responds to the analysand’s demands rather than their desire. In the same way that Lacan criticises Kris’s alleged attempt to check his patient’s academic work for signs of plagiarism, could the acting out in this case not also be read as an attempt to show that this demand to be relieved of a certain dependency on alcohol was insufficient, that there was something else to say on the subject of his alcoholism? Rather than the therapist in this case encouraging a testimony from the analysand of his relationship to alcohol as an object of desire (in parallel to the fresh brains of Kris’s patient) the frustration of the expression of desire yields to an acting out. The notable feature of the case is the therapist’s failure to intervene in a manner which sufficiently brings out this desire – instead, the first acting out follows a derisory comment by a fellow group member, and the second follows the patient’s encouragement to indulge this acting out as something the therapist requires for the success of the treatment.

In the following passage from the same session in Seminar XVI Lacan is clear that acting out should remain the ‘privilege’ of the analyst him or herself, and that the analyst would be well advised to shut up sometimes and take their steer from the desire that is best revealed in the speech of the analysand:

“If the passage a l’acte is in the rule of analysis what the person who enters into it is asked to avoid, it is precisely to privilege this place of acting out that the analyst just by himself takes and keeps charge of. To keep quiet, to see nothing, to hear nothing, who does not remember that these are the terms in which a wisdom that is not ours indicates the path to those who want the truth? Is there not something strange on condition that one recognises the sense of these commandments to see there an analogy in the position of the analyst? But with this singular fruit that gives it its context. Because he is isolated from it by keeping quiet, the voice that is the kernel of what, by being said, creates speech.” (Seminar XVI, 13.11.68.)


By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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