This is what the Lacanian notion of the psychoanalytic act is about – the act as a gesture which, by definition, touches the dimension of some impossible Real. This notion of the act must be conceived of against the background of the distinction between the mere endeavour to ‘solve a variety of partial problems’ within a given field and the more radical gesture of subverting the very structuring principle of this field. An act does not simply occur within the given horizon of what appears to be ‘possible’ – it redefines the very contours of what is possible (an act accomplishes what, within the given symbolic universe, appears to be ‘impossible’, yet it changes its conditions so that it creates retroactively the conditions of its own possibility). So when we are reproached by an opponent for doing something unacceptable, an act occurs when we no longer defend ourselves by accepting the underlying premiss that we hitherto shared with the opponent; in contrast, we fully accept the reproach, changing the very terrain that made it unacceptable – an act occurs when our answer to the reproach is ‘Yes, that it is precisely what I am doing!’
In film, a modest, not quite appropriate recent example would be Kevin Kline’s blurting out ‘I’m gay’ instead of ‘Yes!’ during the wedding ceremony in In and Out: openly admitting the truth that he is gay, and thus surprising not only us, the spectators, but even himself. In a series of recent (commercial) films, we find the same surprising radical gesture. In Speed, when the hero (Keanu Reeves) is confronting the terrorist blackmailer partner who holds his partner at gunpoint, he shoots not the blackmailer, but his own partner in the leg—this apparently senseless act momentarily shocks the blackmailer, who lets go of the hostage an runs away…. In Ransom, when the media tycoon (Mel Gibson) goes on television to answer the kidnappers request for two million dollars as a ransom for his son, he surprises everyone by saying that he will offer two million dollars to anyone who will give him any information about the kidnappers, and announces that he will pursue them to the end, with all his resources, if they do not release his son immediately. This radical gesture stuns not only the kidnappers – immediately after accomplishing it, Gibson himself almost breaks down, aware of the risk he is courting…. And finally, the supreme case: when, in the flashback scene from The Usual Suspects, the mysterious Keyser Soeze (Kevin Space) returns home and finds his wife and small daughter held at gunpoint by the members of a rival mob, he resorts to the radical gesture of shooting his wife and daughter themselves dead – this act enables him mercilessly to pursue members of the rival gang, their families, parents, friends, killing them all….
What these three gestures have in common is that, in a situation of the forced choice, the subject makes the ‘crazy’, impossible choice of, in a way, striking at himself, at what is most precious to himself. This act, far from amounting to a case of impotent aggressivity turned on oneself, rather changes the co-ordinates of the situation in which the subject finds himself: by cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check, the subject gains the space of free action. Is not such a radical gesture of ‘striking at oneself’ constitutive of subjectivity as such? Did not Lacan himself accomplish a similar act of ‘shooting at himself’ when, in 1979, he dissolved the École freudienne de Paris, his agalma, his own organization, the very space of his collective life? Yet he was well aware that only such a ‘self-destructive’ act could clear the terrain for a new beginning.
In the domain of politics proper, most of today’s Left succumbs to ideological blackmail by the Right in accepting its basic premisses (‘the era of the welfare state, with its unlimited spending, is over’, etc.) – ultimately, this is what the celebrated ‘Third Way’ of today’s social democracy is about. In such conditions, an authentic act would be to counter the Rightist agitation apropos of some ‘radical’ measure (‘You want the impossible; this will lead to catastrophe, to more state intervention…’) not by defending ourselves by saying that this is not what we mean, that we are no longer the old Socialists, that the proposed measures will not increase the state budget, that they will even render state expenditure more ‘effective’ and give a boost to investment, and so on and so forth, but by resounding ‘Yes, that is precisely what we want’. Although Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-) Left succumbing to Rightist ideological blackmail, his healthcare reform programme would none the less amount to a kind of act, at least in today’s conditions, since it would be based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration – in a way, it would ‘do the impossible’. No wonder, then, that it failed: its failure – perhaps the only significant, albeit negative, event of Clinton’s presidency – bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice’. That is to say: although the great majority of so-called ‘ordinary people’ were not properly acquainted with the reform programme, the medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defence lobby!) succeeded in imposing on the public the fundamental idea that with universal healthcare, free choice (in matters concerning medicine) would be somehow threatened – against this purely fictional reference to ‘free choice’, any enumeration of ‘hard facts’ (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffectual.
As for the subject’s (agent’s) identity: in an authentic act, I do not simply express/actualize my inner nature – rather, I redefine myself, the very core of my identity. To evoke [Judith] Butler’s often-repeated example of a subject who as a deep homosexual ‘passionate attachment’, yet is unable to openly acknowledge it, to make it part of his symbolic identity in an authentic sexual act, the subject would have to change the way he relates to his homosexual ‘passionate attachment’ – not only in the sense of ‘coming out’, of fully identifying himself as gay. An act does not only shift the limit that divides our identity into the acknowledged and the disavowed part more in the direction of the disavowed part, it does not make us accept as ‘possible’ our innermost disavowed ‘impossible’ fantasies: it transforms the very coordinates of the disavowed phantasmic foundation of our being. An act does not merely redraw the contours of our public symbolic identity, it also transforms the spectral dimension that sustains this identity, the undead ghosts that haunt the living subject, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted ‘between the lines’, through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic texture of his or her identity.
Now I can also answer the obvious counter-argument to this Lacanian notion of the act: if we define an act solely by the fact that is sudden emergence surprises/transforms its agent itself and, simultaneously, that it retroactively changes its conditions of (im)possibility, is not Nazism, then, an act par excellence? Did Hitler not ‘do the impossible’, changing the entire field of what was considered ‘acceptable’ in the liberal democratic universe? Did not a respectable middle-class petit bourgeois who, as a guard in a concentration camp, tortured Jews, also accomplish what was considered impossible, in his previous ‘decent’ existence and acknowledge his ‘passionate attachment’ to sadistic torture? It is here that the notion of ‘traversing the fantasy’, and – on a different level – of transforming the constellation that generates social symptoms becomes crucial. An authentic act disturbs the underlying fantasy, attacking it from the point of ‘social symptom’ (let us recall that Lacan attributed the invention of the notion of symptom to Marx!). The so-called ‘Nazi revolution’, with its disavowal/displacement of the fundamental social antagonism (‘class struggle’ that divides the social edifice from within) – with its projection/externalization of the cause of social antagonisms into the figure of the Jew, and the consequent reassertion of the corporatist notion of society as an organic Whole – clearly avoids confrontation with social antagonism: the ‘Nazi revolution’ is the exemplary case of a pseudo-change, of a frenetic activity in the course of which many things did change – ‘something was going on all the time’ – so that, precisely, something – that which really matters – would not change; so that things would fundamentally ‘remain the same’.
In short, an authentic act is not simply external with regard to the hegemonic symbolic field disturbed by it: an act is an act only with regard to some symbolic field, as an intervention into it. That is to say: a symbolic field is always and by definition in itself ‘decentered’, structured around a central void/impossibility (a personal life-narrative, say, is a bricolage of ultimately failed attempts to come to terms with some trauma; a social edifice is an ultimately failed attempt to displace/obfuscate its constitutive antagonism); and an act disturbs the symbolic field into which it intervenes not out of nowhere, but precisely from the standpoint of this inherent impossibility, stumbling block, which is its hidden, disavowed structuring principle. In contrast to this authentic act which intervenes in the constitutive void, point of failure – or what Alain Badiou has called the ‘symptomal torsion’ of a given constellation – the inauthentic act legitimizes itself through reference to the point of substantial fullness of a given constellation (on the political terrain: Race, True Religion, Nation…); it aims precisely at obliterating the last traces of the ‘symptomal torsion’ which disturbs the balance of that constellation.
One palpable political consequence of this notion of the act that has to intervene at the ‘symptomal torsion’ of the structure (and also a proof that our position does not involve ‘economic essentialism’) is that in each concrete constellation, there is one touchy nodal point of contention which decides where one ‘truly stands’. For example, in the recent struggle of the so-called ‘democratic opposition’ in Serbia against the Milosevic’s anti-Albanian nationalist agenda, even accusing him of making compromises with the West and ‘betraying’ Serb national interests in Kosovo. In the course of the student demonstrations against Milosevic’s Socialist Party falsification of the election results in the winter of 1996, the Western media which closely followed events, and praised the revived democratic spirit in Serbia, rarely mentioned the fact that one of the demonstrators’ regular slogans against the special police was ‘Instead of kicking us, go to Kosovo and kick out the Albanians!’. So – and this is my point – it is theoretically as well as politically wrong to claim that, in today’s Serbia, ‘anti-Albanian nationalism’ is simply one among the ‘floating signifiers’ that can be appropriated either by Milosevic’s power bloc or by the opposition: the moment one endorses it, no matter how much one ‘reinscribes it into the democratic chain of equivalences’, one already accepts the terrain as defined by Milosevic, one – as it were – is already ‘playing his game’. In today’s Serbia, the absolute sine qua non of an authentic political act would thus be to reject absolutely the ideologico-political topos of the Albanian threat in Kosovo.
Psychoanalysis is aware of a whole series of ‘false acts’: psychotic-paranoiac violent passage à l’acte, hysterical acting out, obsessional self-hindering, perverse self-instrumentalization – all these acts are not simply wrong according to some external standards, they are immanently wrong, since they can be properly grasped only as reactions to some disavowed trauma that they displace, repress, and so on. What we are tempted to say is that the Nazi anti-Semitic was ‘false’ in the same way: all the shattering impact of this large-scale frenetic activity was fundamentally ‘misdirected’, it was kind of gigantic passage à l’acte betraying an inability to confront the real kernel of the trauma (the social antagonism). So what we are claiming is that anti-Semitic violence, say, is not only ‘factually wrong’ (Jews are ‘not really like that’, exploiting us and organizing a universal plot) and/or ‘morally wrong’ (unacceptable in terms of elementary standards of decency, etc.), but also ‘untrue’ in the sense of an inauthenticity which is simultaneously epistemological and ethical, just as an obsessional who reacts to his disavowed sexual fixations by engaging in compulsive defence rituals acts in an inauthentic way. Lacan claimed that even if the patient’s wife is really sleeping around with other men, the patient’s jealousy is still to be treated as a pathological condition; in a homologous way, even if rich Jews ‘really’ exploited German workers, seduced their daughters, dominated the popular press, and so on, anti-Semitism is still emphatically ‘untrue’, pathological ideological condition – why? What makes it pathological is the disavowed subjective libidinal investment in the figure of the Jew – the way social antagonism is displaced-obliterated by being ‘projected’ into the figure of the Jew.
So – back to the obvious counter-argument to the Lacanian notion of the act: this second feature (for a gesture to count as an act, it must ‘traverse the fantasy’) is not simply a further, additional criterion, to be added to the first (‘doing the impossible’, retroactively rewriting its own conditions): if this second criterion is not fulfilled, the first is not really met either – that is to say, we are no actually ‘doing the impossible’, traversing the fantasy towards the Real.
cite pp. 121-127