Lacanian Review Online: To Act

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do

(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #45
8th April


The Elephants in the Room
Alan Rowan


The coronavirus pandemic requires, indeed insists that we act in new ways, ranging from social distancing to self-isolation, in essence, and as far as possible, to restrict and confine our “acts” to the private world of our homes. We are all coming to terms with these profound restrictions on our freedom and in this context I am reminded of a saying by Sartre “freedom is what you do with what’s being done to you”, and then also, of Freud’s and Lacan’s formulations concerning what essentially is an “act” – as undertaken by a subject.

This possibility, that we can be “free to act”, is for Lacan due to the difference between what determines us, makes us the type of subject we are, via “signifiers” that represent us as a subject for another signifier (e.g. I am … social/a loner, kind/harsh, an artist/entrepreneur etc.) and our proper name (a pure naming function). In other words, a name designates (as with Kripke’s “rigid designator”), but excludes properties or qualities, meaning that whatever identifications/list of attributes “inhabit” a particular subject there is always beyond that an “I” or “me”, which Lacan enabled us to see is present precisely as an irreducible “lack of being”, resourcing one can say, desire. In a sense, this goes back to Freud, who showed that the core of our being, at the level of unconscious desire, can never be mastered, or annulled, but only directed, and here Lacan emphasised, this occurs through meaning/language. This point is a deep one, in that even our “fundamental fantasy” is made up of meaning, a scene, constantly unfolding under changing circumstances, that structures and organises our singular way of being in the world. Despite its importance, in the later Lacan this “meaning making” is given a different emphasis, in fact downplayed, and famously so in the statement  “Everyone is mad, that is, delusional” (1979/2013) which pushes psychoanalysis beyond the Symbolic (the world of semblants) and towards the Real of the sinthome, in other words, to recognising the “enjoying substance” that, beyond the fantasy, is the irreducible of each subject. Here one can add, if lack now pertains to the Symbolic, this irreducible “excess” is of-the-body, a mode of jouissance – of which there can be a “knowing how to deal with” (i.e. what analysis aims at), in the sense of a handling of it, one that, one can say, enables (rather than disables) the subject.

In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) Freud in fact pointed to a range of “acts”, ways in which a subject might seek to alleviate the unavoidable suffering that comes with life, seeking thereby some measure of satisfaction. For example, through sublimatory activities involving art or science, or less successfully via the Illusions of religion, or by directly affecting the body (e.g. with intoxicating substances). A key point here is that if we are invariably subjected to and exist within a field of overdetermined causes (i.e. our unconscious, our history, a particular symbolic world etc.) these may push, but do not necessitate, that the subject act in a particular way – rather some form of subjective choice or assent is involved. Most significantly, even when we feel inwardly compelled to act in a particular way, we can at times refuse to.

In The Psychoanalytic Act Lacan writes: “We posit the psychoanalytic act as consisting in the fact of supporting transference” a path that leads to “the dis-being of the subject supposed to know” (January 17th, 1968). This implies a separation from knowledge, the illusion of mastery, a beyond of the advent of the subject at the locus of the Other, whereby one encounters instead “lack/object a” as the essential kernel of one’s being. (Or, from the perspective of the late Lacan, to encounter the Real of the sinthome unstuffed with the signifiers of the Other). From this and other comments Lacan makes on the “act” within this seminar, we can conclude, that one essential characteristic of a “true act” is that it entails a form of “saying no” to the signifiers of the Other that “inhabit’ one. In the last session of this seminar Lacan makes a relevant comment on “free speech” showing how we cannot here assume that this form of saying implies an act for: “In the land of liberty, one can say everything, because this has no consequences” (June 19th, 1968). A year later, during his Impromptu at Vincennes, Lacan also pointed to the inherent paradox of revolutionary aspirations saying: “What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one” (p. 127). What we can say here, is that where there is self-righteousness, vindication and certainty one is not in the field of the “act”, but rather caught-up in one’s identifications – and the act entails, on the contrary, a break with one’s symbolic coordinates.

Returning now to the tragedy of our global pandemic and to the notion, expressed by many, that something fundamental must change as a result (e.g. in how we take care of ourselves/humanity as a whole and our planet) we can perhaps see that one important aspect of any change is going to concern whether or not such change amounts to an “act” in the sense outlined above. If we are to be faithful to the “act” it seems we must, individually and collectively, find a way to distance our “way of living” from a dominant capitalist and neo-liberal ideology and the addictive consumerism that goes with it, not by way of seeking to transcend it (e.g. by imagining some form of “kinder capitalism”) but by an insistence on refusing it, alongside a sustained encounter with the “unknown”, as in, we do not know but must find a way to make our “lack” – the encounter with the impossible real – count. To put this in different terms, we might ask, what would a world be like where the real would have a priority similar to that of the symbolic, where the symbolic world of sense and value is challenged to confront an ethics based on the drive, modes of enjoyment that essentially matter? No doubt, this can, in some sense, sound utopian, even as to seek to act in this way is profoundly anti-utopian, insisting as it does on the inherent limits to sense and meaning, their semblant quality fully emphasised.

What seems almost certain is that on recovering from this pandemic there will be a period of struggle, competing narratives will emerge, some of which will seek to restore the symbolic coordinates as before, while other will not. Perhaps our challenge then, as psychoanalysts, is to find a way to contribute to this coming struggle. For example, we already know, that one elephant in the room is climate change, something that will bring more slow and gradual change, but the effects of which, promise to dwarf the pain and suffering caused by our current pandemic crisis.




Freud, S. (1930). Civilisation and its Discontents. SE XXI. The Hogarth Press
Lacan, J. (1967-68). The Psychoanalytic Act. Book XV. Unpublished.

Lacan, J. (1969). “Impromtu at Vincennes”. In Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Community. W.C. Norton & Company
Lacan, J. (1979/2013). “There are Four Discourses”. In Culture/Clinic, Issue 1.

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