And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Le passage a l'acte


Amal Hachet, "The Passage à l’acte in Adolescence: A Failed Attempt to Produce a Subject"
Psychoanalysis offers a complex and dynamic conception of the psychical organization, which is linked to desire and the law, in reference to the unconscious. Much more than a reservoir of drives, the unconscious is the discourse of the Other (Lacan, 1957). In this capacity it constitutes a production of society. Whereas the “modern” subject placed at the intersection between the healthcare and legals domain finds him- or herself increasingly cut off from any responsibility, psychoanalytical theory assigns the subject the locus of his or her subjective division by repatriating him within the meaning of his or her act, this “perfect alibi”. [1] Due to this fact, while psychoanalysis de-realizes the crime, it does not for all that de-humanize the criminal (Lacan 1950).


The Freudian conception of crime postulates that the kernel of the criminal act resides in the Oedipus complex (Freud 1931), even if this is not its cause: the Oedipus complex does not kill! Based on a dialectical relationship between the (criminal) act and guilt, this act is seen as the expression of guilt and sometimes as its consequence (Freud, 1916-1917).

From the outset, this cluster of images integrates the (criminal) individual into a social and dynamic dimension, since the reference to the law of the fundamental and cultural prohibition against incest necessitates an identification with the Other.

Based on his re-reading of the oeuvre of Freud, and starting from a phenomenological approach, in particular on the subject of the unconscious and of aggressiveness, Lacan re-inscribed and confirmed once more this “social” dimension of the unconscious in a dialectic conception, and even an inter-subjective conception, which is linked to the act. The act that Lacan highlights is neither an action nor a behavior, but a locus of saying, and at the same time a locus of transgression of a symbolic law. As we go into greater detail, it is essential to recall the Lacanian distinction between the act (acting out) and the passage à l’acte (Lacan, 1963).
-The subject who acts out puts his or her body on the stage under the gaze of the other and asks the other to decipher this behavior; a behavior which is, all in all, fantasmatic.

-On the other hand, the subject of the passage à l’acte escapes, leaving the stage of his or her fantasy. In response to his or her impossibility of sustaining a subjective position faced with the weight of the demand that emanates from this other, the subject tips over into an integral break from the relationship with the other (Canonge & Pedinielli, 2014).
From this perspective, the drive, which is an integral part of human nature, does not suffice in and of itself to produce anything criminal. It is within the alienation from the desire of the other – where “I is an other” due to the fact of a fundamental dependence that binds the subject to his or her neighbor – that aggressiveness finds its point of origin.

Correlative with a mode of narcissistic identification “which determines the formal structure of man’s ego and of the register of entities characteristic of his world,” [2] aggressiveness is a tendency that “manifests itself in an experience that is subjective in its very constitution.” [3] This experience of structural ambivalence in which the self and the other are undifferentiated corresponds to the moment of the formation of the Ego thanks to the narcissistic identification with the other, which is realized during the mirror stage. The infant subject’s “identification with his specular image” represents the “most significant model, as well as the earliest moment, of the fundamentally alienating relationship in which man’s being is dialectically constituted.” [4]

If, as Lacan posits, “the unconscious is the social” [5] in the sense that the organization of our subjectivity would be not only the fact of the Oedipus complex but also the fact of the relation to the Other, the act, just like the symptom, is to be understood as a production of the social dimension, which is inter-subjective.

In his seminar of May 10th 1967 devoted to the logic of the fantasy, Lacan envisaged the Other as a reservoir of material for the act: “it is also the unconscious, that is to say, the symptom without its meaning, deprived of its truth.” [6]

By conferring upon the unconscious a structural dimension that belongs to the order of discourse, Lacan goes beyond the subjective. He integrates it into a collective scene that is linked to social reality, which is structured on the basis of the name of the father: “the unconscious would be the plane from which the individual and the social dimensions meet in so far as one duplicates the other, and so on, in an infinite fashion.” [7]

Neither the crime nor the criminal can, therefore, be conceived beyond their sociological reference (Assoun, 2004). On the basis of this postulate, the subject’s transgressive acts (as a fact of discourse) are to be understood as:
– on the one hand, as an attempt to produce meaning;

– on the other hand, as a modality by which the subject is produced, and even a modality of subjectification, through a repetition compulsion (Birman, 2007), to the extent that each phenomenon that possesses a meaning is the fact of a subject.
Accomplishing this psychical operation necessitates constructive labor in which the act is then examined as, at the same time, a repetition, a staging, and an attempt to give meaning that does not aim at the production of an already constituted meaning, even one that is inscribed in the psyche, but aims rather at producing meaning where previously there was none (Birman, 2007). As in psychosis, where acts “are absolutely deprived of any intentionality – in other words, they are purely automatic, and they leave the subject perplexed, or even radically ejected from his act.” [8] This ejection of the subject outside the coordinates of his or her act, which is structural in psychosis whereas it is fleeting in neurosis, does not cancel out the subject’s responsibility and duty to answer for it. It requires that the legal institution, and then, if this is possible, the analyst, enable the subject, with the specific “symboligenic” tools, to inscribe, little by little, the subject’s passage à l’acte – however bare of meaning it might seem to be at first – into his or her history, and to subjectify it.

There is neither synthesis nor resolution in the passage à l’acte. It is a modality of response that surges up where one was not expecting it. As a language reduced to its most straightforward structure, the passage à l’acte always responds to the Other: “as soon as there is speaking, there is a response.” [9] In other words, the passage à l’acte is an invasion that arises in response to another invasion, an automatic response to that which is dysfunctional in the social bond: the abdication [démission] or challenging [récusation] of important symbolic functions. The subject then takes “the place of the all-powerful primordial father, to the extent that the symbolic father has not been able to maintain this place, nor to keep his promise to be the mediator of the social bonds.” [10] In a correlative fashion, the non-recognition of the symbolic authority encountered in “psychopathic” adolescents is to be referred to a difficulty when it comes to mourning – a mourning triggered by the real father – the ideal father and his all powerfulness (Hoffmann, 2001).

A Clinical Observation

The observation of Eric (Hachet, 2009) allows for an illustration of these considerations. We met Eric for a psychological assessment when he was seventeen years old. He had been held in custody for an attempted homicide that he committed on a homeless person, Mr. D, using a bladed weapon – a kitchen knife with a 5 inch blade. The victim, a man who was fifty years old, was found lying in the street. Having been stopped on the site of the attack, Eric declared that he had acted without reason. On seeing a homeless person who was sleeping under a cover, he took out the knife and stabbed him in the lower belly area. Mr. D was hospitalized immediately, and nearly lost his life.

Eric’s passage à l’acte is all the more disturbing given that the adolescent had never been violent and had no history of run ins with the law. On the contrary, Eric was considered to be a mentally fragile boy due to the fact of his sometimes disruptive attitude at school and his tendency to play truant and wander the streets. Due to this, and due to its paroxysmal character, the homicide attempt perpetrated by Eric cannot be attributed to the ordinary paranoia of the adolescent that characterizes the normal entry into the Oedipus complex of puberty (Marty, 2009). At the level of psychical economy, this detour via the criminal act (Blanchard, 2010) aims more to cancel out of a tension that is experienced as something unsustainable and uncontrollable (Declercq & Maleval, 2012) which drives one to run the alienating risk of being assigned, by the Other, to a permanent position of object (Vodovosoff, 2008).

The state of Eric’s mental health – which was initially declared by the legal medical emergency services (UMJ) at the Hôtel Dieu Hospital to present a danger for others and for himself, and was therefore, from a psychiatric point of view, judged as being with being remanded in custody – led to his placement under observation at the Psychiatric Infirmary close to the Paris Police Headquarters, and then to a compulsory hospitalization on the psychiatric wing of a general hospital in the Paris suburbs. In the course of this hospitalization, Eric confided in his doctor that he had attacked several homeless people under the same conditions, which the investigators were unable to confirm. After two weeks, this measure of compulsory hospitalization was lifted. Eric was allowed to leave the hospital on the grounds that his behavior in the psychiatric wing was appropriate, that the delusional elements had disappeared, and that there was no potential danger. Although he was unable to understand or to explain the reasons behind his gesture, Eric did nevertheless manage to explain during his first appearance before the judges that he had acted through a kind of anger, because he had just been robbed by a homeless person.

Eric’s sometimes agitated behavior in the classroom had led his mother to send him to a psychologist in a Psychological Medical Center, whom he had been seeing on a regular basis. Five days prior to his passage à l’acte, the adolescent had spoken of his desire to achieve some independence from his family, and had then gone roaming the streets immediately after his session. On the evening of the attack, he had wanted to take refuge in the hallway of a building in order to protect himself from the cold. He was then assailed by the watchman, who threw him out with brutality.

This violent encounter between Eric and an individual who is the agent of a concrete authority is thus the context in which the meaning of his passage à l’acte has to be inscribed. Indeed, this man’s intervention, which set out a brutal and non-negotiable limit, did not leave any room for Eric as a subject. For Eric, his gesture is a reproduction of an act of needless violence: “The watchman really laid into me. I did not know why. So, I did the same thing to the homeless man as the watchman did to me. I lost my temper. My intention was to take his knife (?). I stabbed him in the belly, but I was still angry.”

Our hypothesis is that, if the abusive and arbitrary character of the authority of this substitute for the real “father” was destabilizing to such an extent for Eric, it was because the signifier of the Name of the Father was foreclosed in the psyche of this adolescent.

The watchman in the building is a concrete actor of the application of a rule that is articulated with public order and extends it into a private space. Eric was thus chased out by a man who had been invested with an authority. Now, Lacan notes that the:
[…] devastating effects of the paternal figure are found with particular frequency in cases where the father really functions as a legislator or boasts that he does – whether he is, in fact, one of the people who makes the laws or presents himself as a pillar of faith, as a paragon of integrity […] these are all ideals that provide him with all too many opportunities to seem to be at fault, to fall short, and even to be fraudulent – in short, to exclude the Name of the Father from its position in the signifier. [11]
When the watchman of the building physically assailed Eric instead of leading him out in a non-violent manner, he truly and verily proved to be unworthy of his professional role: he committed an abuse of power.

Whether it is inscribed in or foreclosed from the psyche of a subject, the signifier of the Name of the Father is called upon by “a real father”, which is “not at all necessarily by the subject’s own father.” [12] Lacan names this person “One father”. This “One father” has to “situate himself in a tertiary position in any relationship that has as its base the imaginary couple a – a’, that is, ego object or ideal reality.” [13] Here, the violence performed by the watchman of the building shattered the adolescent’s hopes for some form of hospitality. While this One father is truly and verily situated as a third party who possesses a legal power, he used it in an arbitrary manner.

To shore up our analysis, we need to expose a number of elements from Eric’s family history. His parents divorced when he was six years old. Eric’s mother was behind the initiative of this break, which was prompted by her husband’s aberrant behavior: he was violent towards her (the child witnessed numerous “bloody” conjugal arguments), and unfaithful. Furthermore, his father had committed incest with his half-sister when she was aged fourteen. Of foreign origin, Eric’s father then left France for the country of his birth. He later came back from time to time, at irregular intervals, in order to see his children. Eric’s mother describes this father in an entirely negative way. Indeed, she mentions a man who is violent, impulsive, with a walkaway attitude, who does not contribute financially to the upbringing of his children and who manipulates them by displaying a “prestigious” attitude when he is in contact with them. Now, Lacan insists on the fact that the inscription of the Name of the Father does not concern “only […] the way the mother accommodates the father as a person, but also […] the importance she attributes to his speech – in a word, to his authority – in other words, with the place she reserves for the Name of the Father in the promotion of the law.” [14] Eric’s mother truly and verily excludes the father of their son from her discourse as a subject capable of bearing a pacifying law and authority.

Thus, very early on, Eric was placed in a paradoxical and ambiguous bond with the paternal object, whose instability and unpredictable character made it ungraspable as much through its absence as through its presence. In this capacity, Eric’s episodes of absence and roaming the streets (without there being any clear neurological dysfunction) set the stage for and re-actualized (in order to try to elaborate) the ambiguity of the paternal object – which is present through its absence and absent in its presence – in which it was enclosed. Within this context, Eric’s displays of absence from school and roaming the streets did not only constitute a way of identifying with his doubly absent father – really, in his relational landscape, and symbolically, in the discourse of his mother – but also allowed him to escape from an incestuous proximity that was exacerbated by the mother’s rejection of the paternal figure.

Along with the father’s failure to constitute a third party, there is also the fall of the ideal image (Houssier, 2012) that this man tried to develop for his children and which Eric sought desperately to cling to, before being forced – under the dual influence of the radical discourse of his mother and of the insistence of the facts – to accept its inescapable falsity. The fall of the paternal image was equivalent to the pedestal onto which he had mendaciously hauled himself in order to impose upon his children a representation of himself that was faultless.

Eric’s extreme difficulty when it comes to shoring himself up with the paternal image had more recently led him to carry over to religion his need for attachment and to develop rituals of cleanliness, which in all likelihood were defenses against a psychotic collapse. Indeed, Eric had wanted to become a priest, until the day when a teacher (a substitute for the father) insisted that “there is no place for priests in the Bible”, and therefore there is no place for an “ideal father”.

Eric was then placed in a situation of impasse in which giving up on the ideal of the father was equivalent to having to suppress it in reality, since he was unable to do so on the symbolic plane (Houssier, 2010) by means of wishes of parricide. The authoritarian and non-negotiable intervention of the watchman in the building (“You have no business being here” = there is no place for you) made Eric slip into this equivalence of parricide in the guise of an attempt to extract himself from this dead end. On the day of his father’s fiftieth birthday, Eric attacked the image of a “downfallen father” – Mr. D, of no fixed abode – whom he was to stab in the lower torso (was this an attempt at emasculation?). What is surprising is that Mr. D is himself the father of a son in his twenties, whom he had lost the right to see following his divorce from the boy’s mother (which had pushed him into social decline and serious marginality!) In the background, Mr. D’s situation is also the product of a parricidal society that, under the cover of economic liberalism, does not leave any place for the father, who is seen as something interchangeable (Legendre, 1989). If he is not suitable, the father now runs the risk of being deposed from his place of subject and of being relegated to the place of “trash”.

By attacking an unknown marginal figure who is liable to represent an image of the “downfallen father” for Eric, he was attacking the at once pitiful and hated figure of his failing father.

Through his passage à l’acte, and via his identification with the attacker, he also reproduced the authoritarian law of the “real father” who cancels out the place of the other as a “subject”. In effect, in conformity with the example of Eric when he came up against the hostility without concession from the watchman in the building, the victim of the adolescent was an inoffensive and vulnerable person to whom a place in the quality of a social bond had been refused.

Made from a discourse that is attached to desire, the passage à l’acte of this adolescent – a demand for recognition against the backdrop of despair issued by a subject who sees himself as a trash object to be evacuated (Hoffman & al., 2000) – is to be understood as an attempt to produce the subject. This attempt fails to the extent that it is an echo of what forms a symptom in the social dimension: neoliberal arbitrariness, which tends to identify each subject with a trash object. Against this arbitrary and the nonsensical logic of dehumanization, Eric opposes an act that is just as arbitrary and senseless.

In effect, his violence was not directed towards his attacker (the watchman in the building), but his fellow man (the homeless man), an emblematic figure of the downfallen subject (and, as an echo, Eric’s father).


The observation of Eric reminds us that confronting the adolescent’s passage à l’acte with judicial law, the collective embodiment of the symbolic law, is destined as much to defuse the load of violence that is inherent to a passage à l’acte such as this (Morhain, Chouvier, 2008) as to prime its re-inscription in the subject.

[1] Assoun, P.-L. (2004). L’inconscient du crime. La « criminologie freudienne ». Recherches en Psychanalyse, 2, 2, p. 38.

[2] Lacan, J. (2006). Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis (1948). Translated by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg. In Lacan, J., Écrits, The First Complete Edition in English. New York / London: Norton & Co, p. 89.

[3] Ibid., p. 83.

[4] Lacan, J. & Cénac, M. (2006). A Theoretical Introduction to the Functions of Psychoanalysis in Crimonology (1950). Translated by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg. In Lacan, J., Écrits, The First Complete Edition in English. New York / London: Norton & Co, p. 115.

[5] Lacan, J. (2006). The Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” (1957). Translated by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg. In Lacan, J., Écrits, The First Complete Edition in English. New York / London: Norton & Co, p. 6-48.

[6] Lacan, J. (1966-1967). Séminaire XIV, La logique du fantasme. Unpublished text (mimeograph).

[7] Scudéri, C. (2008). Entre social et individuel : l’inconscient lacanien d’après ‘Le séminaire sur la lettre volée’ (1957). In La philosophie au sens large. CNRS - UMR 8163 Université de Lille 3 and Université de Lille 1: text presented in a study group led by Pierre Macherey.

[8] Thibierge, S. (2007). Remarques sur l’abord contemporain des passages à l’acte. In Actes de Colloque International de Médecine, Psychanalyse et Droit “Passages à l’acte”. Poitiers, p. 313-320.

[9] Lacan, J., (1948). Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis, op. cit..

[10] Birman, J. (2007). Généalogie du passage à l’acte. In Actes de Colloque International de Médecine, Psychanalyse et Droit “Passages à l’acte”. Poitiers, p. 344.

[11] Lacan, J. (2006). On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis (1958). Translated by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg. In Lacan, J., Écrits, The First Complete Edition in English. New York / London: Norton & Co, p. 482-483.

[12] Ibid., p. 481.

[13] Ibid., p. 481.

[14] Ibid., p. 482.

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