The Act and Its Vicissitudes

What is an act in the strict Lacanian sense of the term? Recall C.S. Lewis’ description of his religious choice from his [amazon asin=0156870118&text=Surprised by Joy]—what makes it so irresistibly delicious is the author’s matter-of-fact “English” skeptical style, far from the usual pathetic narratives of the mystical rapture. C.S. Lewis’ description of the act thus deftly avoids any ecstatic pathos in the usual style of Saint Theresa, any multiple-orgasmic penetrations by angels or God: it is not that, in the divine mystical experience, we step out (in ex-stasis) of our normal experience of reality: it is this “normal” experience which is “ex-static” (Heidegger), in which we are thrown outside into entities, and the mystical experience signal the withdrawal from this ecstasy. Lewis thus refers to the experience as the “odd thing;” he mentions its common location—”I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus”—the qualifications like “in a sense,” “what now appears,” “or, if you like,” “you could argue that… but I am more inclined to think…,” “perhaps,” “I rather disliked the feeling”):

“The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, ‘I am what I do.’ Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.1

In a way, everything is here: the decision is purely formal, ultimately a decision to decide, without a clear awareness of WHAT the subject decides about; it is non-psychological act, unemotional, with no motives, desires or fears; it is incalculable, not the outcome of strategic argumentation; it is a totally free act, although one couldn’t do it otherwise. It is only AFTERWARDS that this pure act is “subjectivized,” translated into a (rather unpleasant) psychological experience.

In this precise sense, an act proper is also the very opposite of the violent passage a l’acte. What is a passage a l’acte? Perhaps, its ultimate cinematic expression is found in Paul Schrader’s and Martin Scorcese’s [amazon asin=B007681WRY&text=Taxi Driver], in the final outburst of Travis (Robert de Niro) against the pimps who control the young girl he wants to save (Jodie Foster). Crucial is the implicit suicidal dimension of this passage à l’acte: when Travis prepares for his attack he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending “You talkin’ to me?” In a textbook illustration of Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage,” aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one’s own mirror-image. This suicidal dimension reemerges at the end of the slaughter scene when Travis, heavily wounded and leaning at the wall, mimics with the fore-finger of his right hand a gun aimed at his blood-stained forehead and mockingly triggers it, as if saying “The true aim of my outburst was myself.” The paradox of Travis is that he perceives HIMSELF as part of the degenerate dirt of the city life he wants to eradicate, so that, as Brecht put it apropos of revolutionary violence in his [amazon asin=041337310X&text=The Measure Taken], he wants to be the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean.

[amazon asin=B007681WRY&text=Taxi Driver], Andrew Davis’ [amazon asin=B003D12ESE&text=The Fugitive] provided a less ambiguous version of the violent passage a l’acte serving as a lure, a vehicle of ideological displacement. Towards the film’s end, the innocent-persecuted doctor (Harrison Ford) confronts at a large medical convention his colleague (Jerome Kraabe), accusing him that he falsified medical data on behalf of a large pharmaceutical company. At this precise point, when one would expect that the shift would focus on the company—the corporate capital—as the true culprit, Kraabe interrupts his talk, invites Ford to step aside, and then, outside the convention hall, they engage in a passionate violent fight, beating each other till their faces are red from blood. The scene is telltale in its openly ridiculous character, as if, in order to get out of the ideological mess of playing with anti-capitalism, one should do a move which renders directly palpable the cracks in the narrative. Another aspect here is the transformation of the bad guy (Kraabe) into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity (which accompanies the dazzling spectacle of the fight) should replace the anonymous non-psychological drive of the capital: the much more appropriate gesture would have been to present the corrupted colleague as a psychologically sincere and privately honest doctor who, because of the financial difficulties of the hospital in which he works, was lured into swallowing the bait of the pharmaceutical company.

[Extract. Appeared in The Symptom, Issue 6, Spring 2005.]


  1. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Fontana Books, 1977, p. 174-5.