The Act

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French: acte
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Jacques Lacan


An "act" is not mere "behavior" -- such as that of all animals -- but a uniquely human act, "since to our knowledge there is no other act but the human one."[1]

Ethics of Psychoanalysis

The "act" is an ethical concept insofar as the subject can be held responsible for it.

The psychoanalytic concept of responsibility 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." They are "bungled" only from the point of view of the conscious intention, since they are successful in expressing an unconscious desire.[2]


In psychoanalytic treatment the subject is faced with the ethical duty of assuming responsibility even for the unconscious desires expressed in his actions.

He must recognize even apparently accidental actions as true acts which express an intention, albeit unconscious, and assume this intention as his own.

Neither "acting out" or 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 enjoin the analyst to assume responsibility for his or her acts (i.e. 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.[3]


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."[4]

The act 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.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

The Act (also referred to as an ethical Act or authentic Act) is a foundational concept in Žižek’s philosophy and serves as the key to understanding the political and ethical dimensions of his thought. Th e term first appears in The Sublime Object of Ideology, where Žižek distinguishes pragmatic-political acts from the more formal “act before act”, by which the subject “structures his perception of the world in advance in a way that opens the space for his intervention”, and which allows him retroactively to posit the very presuppositions of his activity (SO: 247). It is this Hegelian concept of “positing the presuppositions” that Žižek revisits throughout his oeuvre, combining it with Lacanian psychoanalysis and the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling to conceive of the Act within a formal structure of paradox. “An act accomplishes what, within the given symbolic universe, appears to be ‘impossible’, yet it changes its conditions so that it creates retroactively the conditions of its own possibility” (CHU: 121). An Act short-circuits the realms of contingency and necessity, immanence and transcendence, politics and ethics and cause and effect, for it is made without strategic calculations or consideration of outcomes; it opens a moment when absolute freedom coincides with an unconditional necessity, a moment when the subject is suspended between its being and meaning.

Throughout his work Žižek offers countless examples from film, literature, religion, psychoanalysis and politics to illustrate the Act as this formal opening that changes (retroactively) the reality from which it arose. Antigone’s refusal to bury her brother without a proper funeral retroactively provided an opening to posit the Good outside the limits of Creon’s law; the Christian God sacrificed his only son on the cross, which opened the space for belief; Lacan’s dissolution of his own École freudienne de Paris in 1979 served to clear the path for a new beginning; Howard Roark, the self-made architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, destroyed one of his own buildings in an act of freedom that illuminated how we are all bound by the symbolic order; Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved killed her own children to free them from a life of slavery; Keyser Soze’s (Kevin Spacey) Act of killing his family in the film The Usual Suspects set him free from the hold of his pursuers and free to pursue them, just as Mel Gibson’s character in the film Ransom did when he turned the tables on his son’s kidnappers. All of these Acts entail a logic of “striking at oneself”, of sacrificing what one treasures most in order to go beyond the limits of the Law, to act without the guarantee of an Other. Thus, the authentic Act is to be distinguished from both the hysterical “acting out”, staged for an Other, and the psychotic passsage à l‘acte, an act of meaningless destruction that suspends the Other.

Because an Act is grounded only in itself, it appears as mad or even monstrous according to the norms of the socio-symbolic order; but once enacted it serves to reconfigure what is taken as mad, ethical and even real. Thus: 
act is therefore not “abyssal” in the sense of an irrational gesture that eludes all rational criteria; it can and should be judged by universal rational criteria, the point is only that it changes (re-creates) the very criteria by which it should be judged … it does more than intervene in reality in the sense of “having actual consequences” – it redefines what counts as reality. (T?: 171–2)
But an Act does even more than change what counts as reality, because it further exposes how reality itself is not totally ontologically complete. Th at is, at its most fundamental, an Act reveals a deadlock or inconsistency at the core of the socio-symbolic order; it exposes how reality is split from within. Or, in Žižek’s words, “an act disturbs the symbolic field into which it intervenes not out of nowhere, but precisely from the standpoint of this inherent impossibility, stumbling block, which is its hidden, disavowed structuring principle” (CHU: 125). Žižek offers te example of Tito, who in 1948 declared Yugoslavia a non-aligned state and thus accomplished “the impossible”, for his Act revealed a crack in the Stalinist world communist movement by another communist (E!: 46). Similarly, Lenin’s contingent Act of revolution in Russia in 1917 opened the space (retroactively) to mobilize the working class to form a new majority under communism and exposed the exploitation of the previous Tsarist rule (LC: 311).

An authentic Act follows the paradoxical logic of Hegel’s “negation of negation” and Lacan’s formula of feminine sexuation; that is, an Act does not pose itself against a master-signifier or work in opposition to a symbolic order because it exists totally within it, yet once decided, it reveals how this order is not-all, incomplete; it opens up the void for which the Symbolic stands in. In order to illustrate the Act as a feminine gesture, Žižek refers to Sophocles’ Antigone and offers two ways to conceive of her refusal to Creon to bury her brother without a proper funeral. Th e first reading follows Lacan’s position in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, which sees Antigone’s Act as authentic because she redefines the Good itself outside of Creon’s Law. Žižek’s alternative reading, however, locates Antigone’s Act from within the logic of masculine ethics, for when she lists the things she is sacrificing (a future life with a husband and children of her own) she does not totally identify with her Cause, but, instead, presents herself as the exception; she invokes the Thing for which her sacrifice is made, her future family; and thus becomes a sublime figure that draws our pity (FA: 154). Žižek contrasts Antigone to two other women in literature who, instead of sacrificing their Cause for something, sacrifice their Cause in the name of nothing: Medea of Greek tragedy and her contemporary counterpart, Sethe in Toni Morison’s Beloved. Both of these figures commit an authentic Act when they murder their children, the former to destroy her husband Jason’s precious Thing, and the latter to save her children from slavery (FA: 153).

In Indivisible Remainder and Abyss of Freedom Žižek reads this feminine logic of the not-all through Schelling’s materialist philosophy (as found in his three Weltalter drafts) to consider the primordial Act of beginning. Drawing from Schelling’s metaphysics of “contraction and expansion”, “form and ground” and “the rotary motion of the drives”, Žižek posits that the Act and the master-signifier are logically interconnected: while the Act serves to break through a limit, deadlock or crack in the Symbolic, simultaneously the symbolic order unfolds only to “normalize” the Act. Th us the Act and the master-signifier are not two distinct phenomena, but rather two sides of the same entity. Th ere is, according to Žižek, no first primordial Act that serves as a temporal beginning; rather, there is an ongoing cycle of the master-signifier and the Act in logical, as distinct from causal, sequence (IR: 155–61). The rotary motion of the drives opens onto desire; the movement from the Real to the Symbolic occurs in a series of doublings and re-markings. Again, the Act serves to reveal how the symbolic order is already split from within, and this radicalizes the Other, reconfiguring its founding coordinates.

In his treatment of the Act Žižek eventually follows Lacan’s move away from Antigone’s ethics towards the more silent but no less traumatic Act illustrated by Paul Claudel’s character Sygne de Coûfontaine in The Hostage. Whereas Antigone maintained her desire and accepted her Fate by way of protesting against an external prohibition (Creon’s Law), Sygne’s Act of taking the bullet meant for her despised husband was rather an Act done according to “the innermost freedom of her being” (LN: 81). Th at is, hers is not a tragically sublime Act done for the sake of a higher Cause, but rather a non-response, which short-circuits the dimensions of form and content, meaning and being. When her husband asks his dying wife why she saved him, Sygne does not reply, but rather her body responds with a tic, a grimace, which signals not a sign of love, but rather the refusal of an explanation. Sygne’s “No”, according to Žižek, “is not a ‘No’ to a particular content … but a ‘No as such’, the form-of-No which is in itself the whole content, behind which there is nothing”. Synge’s tic is thus “ex-timate”, in the Lacanian sense, for it embodies a little piece of the Real, “the excremental remainder of a disgusting ‘pathological’ tic that sticks out of the symbolic form” (PV: 83).

It is this “No” that Žižek proposes as the kind of political Act that is needed today when capitalism assumes every transgression, becoming a system that no longer excludes its excess but posits it as its driving force; a system that is covered over by our collective fetishistic disavowal. Žižek here takes up Badiou’s notion of subtraction, which, like Hegel’s Aufhebung, posits a withdrawal from being immersed in a situation in such a way “that the withdrawal renders visible the ‘minimal difference’ sustaining the situation’s multiplicity, and thereby causes its disintegration” (FT: 129). A political Act today would be not a new movement proposing a “positive” agenda for change, but rather an interruption of the present symbolic order. And it is here where we note the primary diff erence between Žižek’s Act and Badiou’s Event. Žižek writes in The Ticklish Subject:
Lacan insists on the primacy of the (negative) act over the (positive) establishment of a “new harmony” via the intervention of some new Master-Signifier, while for Badiou, the different facets of negativity (ethical catastrophes) are reduced to so many versions of the “betrayal” of (or infidelity to, or denial of) the positive Truth-Event. (TS: 159)
For Žižek, as for Lacan, it is the death-drive that is at work in the authentic Act, and so for both thinkers the Act is a purely negative category; it offers a way for the subject to break out of the limits of Being; it opens the gap of negativity, of a void prior to its being filled in (TS: 160). Such an Act is presented by Žižek in The Parallax View in the example of Hermann Melville’s character Bartleby in Bartleby the Scrivener, a subject who interrupts the present political movement with his incessant and ambiguous retort “I would prefer not to.” His “No” affirms a non-predicate and does not oppose or transgress against an Other, but rather opens up a space outside of the dominant hegemonic order and its negation. What this more silent Act does, according to Žižek, is open the space of the gap of the minimal difference “between the set of social regulations and the void of their absence”. In other words, Bartleby’s gesture (his Act of saying “No”) “is what remains of the supplement to the Law when its place is emptied of all its obscene superego content” (PV: 382).

In his later works (In Defense of Lost Causes, Living in the End Times and Less Than Nothing), Žižek combines Hegel’s “positing the presuppositions” together with Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s conception of “enlightened catastrophism” (LN: 982) to propose how an Act would present us with the (im)possibility of retroactively changing the past (of our future). His logic is as follows: our situation (our physical survival, for example) is doomed; we are already lost, and the only way to save ourselves is to act as if the apocalypse has already happened. That is, to get beyond our fetishistic disavowal and the madness of global capitalism requires that we re-orient ourselves not to death, but to the death-drive (requiring us to use the Real to reconfigure our symbolic order). By positing that the worst has happened, we would be free to (retroactively) create the conditions for a new order, to choose a path not taken, a prior cause given up as lost. We repeat not the same event in another variation, but rather bring into being (through repetition, in the sense of repeating the cycle of abyssal Act and master-signifier) something new. Every ethical edifice, as Žižek argues, is grounded in an abyssal Act, and it is psychoanalysis that “confronts us with the zero-level of politics, a pre-political ‘transcendental’ condition of the possibility of politics”, which is the gap that opens the space for the political Act (LN: 963). Real change must coincide with our acceptance that there is no Other; and with this formal opening, actual freedom could erupt from an authentic political Act that would in turn change the very field of possibility itself. What Žižek’s theorizing of the Act offers us is a way to conceive of the impossible as possible, to see that reality is incomplete and split from within, that there is another world to construct, even if we cannot grasp it in our present moment. 

See Also

  1. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 50
  2. Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. SE VI. 1901.
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XV. L'acte psychanalytique, 1967-68. Unpublished.
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Télévision, Paris: Seuil, 1973. Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. Joan Copjec, trans. Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, New York: Norton, 1990]. p.66-7