Is this gesture of intentionally and brutally dropping the spectral aura of the traditional femme fatale not another version of the act of une vraie femme? Is not the object which is to her partner “more than himself,” the treasure around which his life turns, the femme fatale herself? By brutally destroying the spectral aura of “feminine mystery,” by acting as a cold manipulating subject interested only in raw sex, reducing her partner to a partial object, the appendix to – and the bearer of – his penis, does she not also violently destroy what is “for him more than himself”? The enigma of this new femme fatale is that although, in contrast to the classic femme fatale, she is totally transparent, openly assuming the role of a calculating bitch, the perfect embodiment of what Baudrillard called the “transparency of Evil,” her enigma persists. Here we encounter the paradox already discerned by Hegel – sometimes, total self-exposure and self-transparency, i.e. the awareness that there is no hidden content, makes the subject even more enigmatic. Sometimes, being totally outspoken is the most effective and cunning way of deceiving the Other. For that reason, the neo-noir femme fatale continues to exert her irresistible seductive power on her poor partner. Her strategy is the one of deceiving him by openly telling the truth. The male partner is unable to accept this, and so, he desperately clings to the conviction that, behind the cold manipulative surface, there must be a heart of gold to be saved, a person of warm human feeling, and that her cold manipulative approach is just a kind of defensive strategy. So, in the vein of Freud’s well-known Jewish joke “Why are you telling me that you are going to Lemberg, when you are actually going to Lemberg?” the basic implicit reproach of the sucker-partner to the new femme fatale could be formulated as “Why do you act if you are just a cold manipulative bitch, when you are really just a cold manipulative bitch?”
This allows us further to specify the Lacanian notion of an authentic act. Act is to be opposed to mere activity. Activity relies on some fantasmatic support, while the authentic act involves disturbing – “traversing” – the fantasy. In this precise sense, act is for Lacan on the side of the object qua real as opposed to signifier – to “speech act.” We can only perform speech acts insofar as we have accepted the fundamental alienation in the symbolic order and the fantasmatic support necessary for the functioning of this order, while the act as real is an event which occurs ex nihilo, without any fantasmatic support. As such, act as object is also to be opposed to the subject, at least in the standard Lacanian sense of the “alienated” divided subject. The correlate to the act is a divided subject, but not in the sense that because of that division act is always failed or displaced. On the contrary, act as traumatic tuche is that which divides the subject who cannot ever subjectivize this act, assume it as “his own,” posit himself as its author-agent. The authentic act that I accomplish is always by definition a foreign body, an intruder which simultaneously attracts/fascinates and also repels me, so that, if and when I come too close to it, this leads to my aphanisis, self-erasure. If there is a subject to the act, it is not the subject of subjectivization, of integrating the act into the universe of symbolic integration and recognition, of assuming the act as “my own,” but rather it is an uncanny “acephalous” subject through which the act takes place as that which is “in him more than himself.” Act thus designates the level at which the fundamental divisions and displacements usually associated with the “Lacanian subject” are momentarily suspended. In the act, the subject, as Lacan puts it, posits itself as its own cause and is no longer determined by the decentered object-cause. Thus if we subtract from it its scenic imagery, its fascination with the divine majesty, and reduce it to the essential, Kant’s well-known description of how a direct insight into the noumenal God as the Thing in itself would deprive us of our freedom and turn us into lifeless puppets paradoxically fits perfectly the description of the ethical act. This act is precisely something which unexpectedly “just occurs.” It is an occurrence which most surprises its agent itself. The paradox is that in an authentic act, the highest freedom coincides with the utmost passivity, with a reduction to a lifeless automaton who just blindly performs its gestures. The problematic of act thus compels us to accept the radical shift of perspective involved in the modern notion of finitude. What is so difficult to accept is not the fact that the true act – in which noumenal and phenomenal dimensions coincide – is forever out of our reach. The true trauma resides in the opposite awareness that there are acts, that they do occur and that we have to come to terms with them.
This shift is homologous to that implied in the Kierkegaardian notion of “sickness unto death.” The “sickness unto death” proper, its despair, opposes the standard despair of the individual who is split between the certainty that death is the end, that there is no beyond of eternal life and the equal certainty that death is not the last thing, that there is another life with its promise of redemption and eternal bliss. The “sickness unto death” rather involves the opposite paradox of the subject who knows that death is not the end, that he has an immortal soul, but cannot face the exorbitant demands of this fact – the necessity to abandon vain aesthetic pleasures and to work for his salvation – and so, desperately wants to believe that death is the end, that there is no divine unconditional demand exerting its pressure upon him. The standard religious je sais bien, mais quand meme is inverted here. It is not that “I know very well that I am a mere mortal living being, but I nonetheless desperately want to believe that there is redemption in eternal life.” It is rather that “I know very well that I have an eternal soul responsible to God’s unconditional commandments, but I desperately want to believe that there is nothing beyond death, I want to be relieved of the unbearable pressure of divine injunction.” In other words, in contrast to the individual caught in the standard skeptical despair – i.e., the individual who knows he will die but cannot accept it and hopes for eternal life – we have here, in the case of “sickness unto death,” the individual who desperately wants to die, to disappear forever, but knows that he cannot do it, that he is condemned to eternal life. The predicament of the individual “sick unto death” is the same as that of the Wagnerian heroes, from the Flying Dutchman to Amfortas in Parsifal, who desperately strive for death, for the final annihilation and self-obliteration which would relieve them of the hell of their “undead” existence.
In the criticism of Kant implicit in this notion of the act, Lacan is thus close to Hegel who also claimed that the unity of the noumenal and the phenomenal adjourned ad infinitum in Kant is precisely what takes place every time an authentic act is accomplished. Kant’s mistake was to presuppose that there is an act only insofar as it is adequately “subjectivized,” that is, accomplished with a pure will, a will free of any “pathological” motivations. And, since one can never be sure that what I did was effectively motivated by the moral Law as its sole motive, the moral act turns into something which effectively never happens, but can only be posited as the final point of an infinite asymptotic approach of the purification of the soul. For this reason, Kant, in order to guarantee the ultimate possibility of the act, had to propose his postulate of the immortality of the soul, which, as it can be shown, effectively amounts to its very opposite, the Sadean fantasy of the immortality of the body. Only in such a way can one hope that, after endless approximation, one will reach the point of being able to accomplish a true moral act. The point of Lacan’s criticism is thus that an authentic act does not presuppose its agent, the way Kant assumes with misleading self-evidence, “at the level of the act” with his will purified of all pathological motivations. It is inevitable, then, that the agent is not “at the level of its act,” for he is himself unpleasantly surprised by the “crazy thing he just did” and is unable fully to come to terms with what he did. This, incidentally, is the usual structure of heroic acts – somebody who, for a long time, led an opportunistic life of maneuvering and compromises, all of a sudden, inexplicably even to himself, resolves to stand firmly, cost what it may. Thus the paradox of the act resides in the fact that although it is not “intentional” in the usual sense of the term, it is nonetheless accepted as something for which its agent is fully responsible – “I cannot do otherwise, yet I am nonetheless fully free in doing it.”
[Extract from UMBR(a), 1998 (pdf available here).]