Passage to the Act

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The term 'passage to the act' (French: passageà l'acte, German: Agieren) (borrowed by psychoanalysis from clinical psychiatry and criminology) refers to a particular kind of action defined by its aggressive and violent character.

While both are last resorts against anxiety, the subject who acts something out still remains in the SCENE, whereas a passage to the act involves an exit from the scene altogether. Acting out is a Symbolic message addressed to the big Other, whereas a passage to the act is a flight from the Other into the dimension of the Real. The passage to the act is thus an exit from the Symbolic network, a dissolution of the social bond. Although the passage to the act does not, according to Lacan, necessarily imply an underlying Psychosis, it does entail a dissolution of the subject; for a moment, the subject becomes a pure object.

The phrase 'passage to the act' comes from French clinical psychiatry, which uses it to designate those impulsive acts, of a violent or criminal nature, which sometimes mark the onset of an acute psychotic episode. Because these acts are attributed to the action of the Psychosis.

The impulsive act marks the point when the subject proceeds from a violent idea or intention to the corresponding act. In "passage to the act" it is the idea of "passage" that is important, for it refers to the relationship between the act and the supposed mental process that prepares for and facilitates it. The passage to the act raises the issue of the connection between thought and action.

Whether the characterizing such an act is directed at the self or at others, it is generally considered psychopathological. It was not in a philosophical context that the notion of passage to the act was developed, however, but rather in connection with the often unpredictable character of certain antisocial and violent acts. What the word "passage" denoted was the sudden lurch from a fantasied act to a real act, a shift that would normally be inhibited by defense mechanisms.

In the 1962-63 seminar, Anxiety (L'angoisse), Jacques Lacan states that anxiety can be resolved through a passage to the act.[1] He asserts a distinction between the passage to the act and acting out. The term acting out is limited to the framework of the treatment and the dynamics of the transference.

The passage to the act is the effect of a pre-oedipal mode of psychic functioning dominated by primary processes, by an inability to tolerate frustration, respect reality-testing, or curb a tendency to impulsiveness. In this view a weak ego may be responsible for a propensity to pass to the act. The "act" here is more like a motor discharge than an action intended to transform reality, which requires the subject to delay the discharge by means of a thought-process permitting the psychic apparatus to endure tension so long as release is thus deferred (Freud, 1911b).

Passage to the act concerns the relationship between the act and its mentalization; it could indeed be regarded as a near-total exclusion of any mental process from the act. Any understanding of such an act, which is not assumed but rather presented by the agent as passively experienced, must depend on an effort of decipherment (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1987; Balier, 1988). For this reason passage to the act has been likened to somatization, since both are characterized by a lack of psychic working-out, even by alexithymia.

Alternatively, it might be argued that passage to the act does not rely on an absence of mentalization, but rather on a kind of "telescoping" (Aulagnier, 1975/2001) of fantasy and reality. In this perspective, far from being the consequence of a failure of mentalization, the passage to the act results from an overflowing of the fantasy world into reality because an element of reality has impinged on the fantasy scenario and opened a breach enabling the act to externalize it.

It is hard, therefore, to reduce the notion of passage to the act to a simple causality. Instead, instances of passage to the act should be defined in terms of the particular individual involved, and their specific psychodynamic features examined case by case. Thus schizophrenic and paranoid homicidal passages to the act present considerable differences, even if both embody an inadequate attempt to dissipate unbearable anxiety. A paranoid passage to the act is liable to occur when the persecuting object is lost sight of and the persecutory system is destabilized (Zagury, 1990). The passage to the act in borderline conditions depends rather on a lack of identifications (Bergeret, 2002), while such acts in adolescents may be fostered by the emergence of destabilizing instinctual impulses conducive to either excess or asceticism.

If one resists the temptation to simplify the notion, it appears that passage to the act may have a large variety of etiologies. Meanwhile, the notion clearly belongs to a very broad philosophical discussion of the relationship between thought and action.

In order to illustrate what he means, Lacan refers to the case of the young homosexual woman treated by Freud.[2] Freud reports that the young Woman was walking in the street with the Woman she loved when she was spotted by her father, who cast an angry glance at her. Immediately afterwards, she rushed off and threw herself over a wall down the side of a cutting onto a railway line. Lacan argues that this suicide attempt was a passage to the act; it was not a message addressed to anyone, since symbolisation had become impossible for the young Woman. Confronted with her father's desire, she was consumed with an uncontrollable anxiety and reacted in an impulsive way by identifying with the object. Thus she fell down (Ger. niederkommt) like the objet petit a, the leftover of signification (Lacan, 1962-3: seminar of 16 January 1963).


  1. 1962-63
  2. Freud, 1920a


See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Acting out/acting in; Criminology and psychoanalysis; Thought. Bibliography

   * Aulagnier, Piera. (1975). The violence of interpretation: From statement to pictogram. East Sussex, Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge. (Original work published 1975)
   * Balier, Claude. (1988). Psychanalyse des comportements violents. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Bergeret, Jean. (2002). Le passageà l'acte de l'état limit-e.In Frédéric Millaud (Ed.), Le passage à l'acte: aspects cliniques et psychodynamiques (pp. 111-117). Paris, Masson.
   * Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1987). L'acting out: quelques réflexions sur la carence d'élaboration psychique. Revue française de psychanalyse, 51,4.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.
   * ——. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
   * ——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (2004). Le séminaire, Livre X: L'angoisse, 1962-1963. Paris: Seuil.
   * Millaud, Frédéric (Ed.). (2002). Le Passageà l'acte: aspects cliniques et psychodynamiques. Paris: Masson.