Passage to the act
Origin of the Term
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. As the phrase itself indicates, these acts are supposed to mark the point when the subject proceeds from a violent idea or intention to the corresponding act. Because these acts are attributed to the action of the psychosis, French law absolves the perpetrator of civil responsibility for them.
Passage to the Act and Acting Out
As psychoanalytic ideas gained wider circulation in France in the first half of the twentieth century, it became common for French analysts to use the term passage à l'acte to translate the term Agieren used by Freud: i.e. as a synonym for acting out. However, in his seminar of 1962-3, Lacan establishes a distinction between these terms. 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.
Exit from the Symbolic Order
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 nework, 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.
In order to illustrate what he means, Lacan refers to the case of the young homosexual woman treated by Freud. Freud reports that the young women 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 symbolization 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.
- Chemama, Roland (ed.) (1993) Dictionnaire de la Psychanalyse. Dictionnaire actuel des signifiants, concepts et mathèmes de la psychanalyse, Paris: Larousse. p.41
- Freud, Sigmund. (1920a) "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Female Homosexuality", SE XVIII, 147.
- Lacan, Jacques. (1962-3) Le Séminaire. Livre X. L'angoisse, 1962-63, unpublished. Seminar of 16 January 1963.