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The Act

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act (acte)
Lacan draws a distinction between mere 'behaviour', which all animals engage in, and 'acts', which are symbolic and which can only be ascribed to human subjects (S11, 50). A fundamental quality of an act is that the actor can be held responsible for it; the concept of the act is thus an ethical concept (see ETHICS).
However, the psychoanalytic concept of responsibility is very different from the legal concept. This is because the concept of responsibility is linked with the whole question of intentionality, which is complicated in psychoanalysis by the discovery that, in addition to his conscious plans, the subject also has unconscious intentions. Hence someone may well commit an act which he claims was unintentional, but which analysis reveals to be the expression of an unconscious desire. Freud called these acts 'parapraxes', or 'bungled actions' (Fr. acte manquÈ); they are 'bungled', however, only from the point of view of the conscious intention, since they are successful in expressing an unconscious desire (see Freud, 1901b). Whereas in law, a subject cannot be found guilty of murder (for example) unless it can be proved that the act was intentional, in psychoanalytic treatment the subject is faced with the ethical duty of assuming responsibility even for the unconscious desires expressed in his actions (see BEAUTIFUL SOUL). He must recognise even apparently accidental actions as true acts which express an intention, albeit unconscious, and assume this intention as his own. Neither ACTING OUT DOr a PASSAGE TO THE ACT are true acts, since the subject does not assume responsibility for his desire in these actions.
The ethics of psychoanalysis also enjoin the analyst to assume responsibility for his acts, i.e. his interventions in the treatment. The analyst must be guided in these interventions by an appropriate desire, which Lacan calls the desire of the analyst. An intervention can only be called a true psychoanalytic act when it succeeds in expressing the desire of the analyst - that is, when it helps the analysand to move towards the end of analysis. Lacan dedicates a year of his seminar to discussing further the nature of the psychoanalytic act (Lacan, 1967-8).
A bungled action is, as has been stated, successful from the point of view of the unconscious. Nevertheless, this success is only partial because the unconscious desire is expressed in a distorted form. It follows that, when it is fully and consciously assumed, 'suicide is the only completely successful act' (Lacan, 1973a: 66-7), since it then expresses completely an intention which is both conscious and unconscious, the conscious assumption of the unconscious death drive (on the other hand, a sudden impulsive suicide attempt is not a true act, but probably a passage to the act). The death drive is thus closely connected with the ethical domain in Lacan's thought (see the example of Empedocles, E, 104, and Lacan's discussion of Antigone in S7, ch. 21).
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