Act, Passage to the (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
A particular kind of action defined by its disruptive and even criminal character. Whether the aggression characterizing such an act is directed at the self or at others, it is generally considered psychopathological. In "passage to the act" it is the idea of "passage" that is important, for it refers to the relationship between the act and the supposed mental process that prepares for and facilitates it.
The French term passageà l'acte was borrowed by psychoanalysis from psychiatry and criminology. It is important that this notion not be confused with that of acting-out/acting-in, which should be limited to the framework of the treatment and the dynamics of the transference. More generally speaking, passage to the act, like inhibited action and procrastination, raises the issue of the connection between thought and action. Freud emphasized on several occasions how one could be substituted for the other. In obsessions, for instance, thought replaced action by virtue of a kind of regression (1909d); in the case of primitive peoples, by contrast, the act seemed to replace thought in a way consonant with Goethe's dictum, "In the beginning was the deed" (1912-13a, p. 161).
It was not in a philosophical context that the notion of passage to the act was developed, however, but rather in connection with the often unpredictable character of certain antisocial and violent acts. What the word "passage" denoted was the sudden lurch from a fantasied act to a real act, a shift that would normally be inhibited by defense mechanisms.
Jacques Lacan drew attention to the way anxiety was resolved by a passage to the act (1962-63). For many authors, passage to the act is the effect of a pre-oedipal mode of psychic functioning dominated by primary processes, by an inability to tolerate frustration, respect reality-testing, or curb a tendency to impulsiveness. In this view a weak ego may be responsible for a propensity to pass to the act; but a grandiose ego, eager to exert omnipotent control over its surroundings, can also be the culprit. The "act" here is more like a motor discharge than an action intended to transform reality, which requires the subject to delay the discharge by means of a thought-process permitting the psychic apparatus to endure tension so long as release is thus deferred (Freud, 1911b).
Passage to the act concerns the relationship between the act and its mentalization; it could indeed be regarded as a near-total exclusion of any mental process from the act. Any understanding of such an act, which is not assumed but rather presented by the agent as passively experienced, must depend on an effort of decipherment (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1987; Balier, 1988). For this reason passage to the act has been likened to somatization, since both are characterized by a lack of psychic working-out, even by alexithymia.
Alternatively, it might be argued that passage to the act does not rely on an absence of mentalization, but rather on a kind of "telescoping" (Aulagnier, 1975/2001) of fantasy and reality. In this perspective, far from being the consequence of a failure of mentalization, the passage to the act results from an overflowing of the fantasy world into reality because an element of reality has impinged on the fantasy scenario and opened a breach enabling the act to externalize it.
It is hard, therefore, to reduce the notion of passage to the act to a simple causality. Instead, instances of passage to the act should be defined in terms of the particular individual involved, and their specific psychodynamic features examined case by case. Thus schizophrenic and paranoid homicidal passages to the act present considerable differences, even if both embody an inadequate attempt to dissipate unbearable anxiety. A paranoid passage to the act is liable to occur when the persecuting object is lost sight of and the persecutory system is destabilized (Zagury, 1990). The passage to the act in borderline conditions depends rather on a lack of identifications (Bergeret, 2002), while such acts in adolescents may be fostered by the emergence of destabilizing instinctual impulses conducive to either excess or asceticism.
If one resists the temptation to simplify the notion, it appears that passage to the act may have a large variety of etiologies. Meanwhile, the notion clearly belongs to a very broad philosophical discussion of the relationship between thought and action.
SOPHIE DE MIJOLLA-MELLOR
See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Acting out/acting in; Criminology and psychoanalysis; Thought.
Aulagnier, Piera. (1975). The violence of interpretation: From statement to pictogram. East Sussex, Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge. (Original work published 1975)
Balier, Claude. (1988). Psychanalyse des comportements violents. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Bergeret, Jean. (2002). Le passageà l'acte de l'état limit-e.In Frédéric Millaud (Ed.), Le passage à l'acte: aspects cliniques et psychodynamiques (pp. 111-117). Paris, Masson.
Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1987). L'acting out: quelques réflexions sur la carence d'élaboration psychique. Revue française de psychanalyse, 51,4.
Freud, Sigmund. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.
. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
Lacan, Jacques. (2004). Le séminaire, Livre X: L'angoisse, 1962-1963. Paris: Seuil.
Millaud, Frédéric (Ed.). (2002). Le Passageà l'acte: aspects cliniques et psychodynamiques. Paris: Masson.