Collapse – The Political Dimension of the „passage à l’acte“

Esther Hutfless

A collapse is a fall, a downfall, a breakdown, a failure. Lacan has these multi-layered meanings of the term “collaps” in mind, when he writes about the passage to the act (1) as radical act, as political act. This article will retrace Lacan’s notion of the act. It will explore the act’s intertwining with the gift but will also, at the same time, break with Lacan’s interpretation of the gift, which – in his view – remains that what she has not. Contrary to Lacan, the present text will read the act in terms of the impossibility of a certain symbolical order.
According to Lacan, an act indicates an action but also something that has been in the making. Not a creation ex nihilo constitutes the act but the passage as transition, crossing, transfer, passing to. The Lacanian act is an incident, a fulfillment without intention, though with consequences that can never be foreseen. (Depelsenaire 2001, p. 82) The true act can be comprehended only retrospectively.
Jacques Lacan’s definition of the act brings the subject to its limit and this limit is death. The only act that succeeds without failure, the only act that eliminates the unforeseeable is suicide ­– the only successful and fully executed act. (Depelsenaire 2001, p. 84)
In Seminar X on Anxiety the passage to the act marks the subjects’ radical renunciation of the symbolic order, based on the confrontation with the real: in leaping off and falling into the deep void the big Other is radically rejected. Lacan describes this radical rejection in his re-reading of Freud’s Psychogenesis of a Case of Female Homosexuality.
I would like to follow this re-reading, but depart from Lacan in his interpretation of the intention constituting this act. Freud as well as Lacan are evoking an intention – the jump, the leap is situated between lack and death. And I am furthermore parting from Lacan with respect to his interpretation of the gift which – in his account – is always connected to the absence of the phallus and the wish of owning it.
Nevertheless, Lacan’s description of the passage à l’acte as negation of the law of the father seems fruitful for a further analysis of acts of resistance from a feminist point of few.
Let’s start with Freud and the eighteen year old, beautiful and bright, daughter of a highly respected family. Her infatuation with an older woman, regarded as a coquette, clearly displeased her parents, especially her father. Thus, he threatened her with marriage to evoke her “natural instincts”. Once, when the young woman was strolling down the street with her beloved, she encountered her father who addressed her with an angry, grim glance. (Freud 1920)
In her biography the woman later reports how afraid she was of her draconic father and mentions the anxiety she felt when coming home after this unpleasant incident. Noticing the young woman’s fear and her avoidance of the father’s gaze, the beloved older woman, Baroness Puttkamer, suggests to end their dates and promenades. This made the young woman confess her love to the baroness, claiming that she would want to be with her day and night despite all societal consequences – if it were not for her father. But Baroness Puttkamer did not give in and remained firm in her rejection. Thus the young woman rushed off and flung herself over a railing on to a Vienna city railway line. (Freud 1920) After her recovery her father brought her to Freud, hoping that he would be able to return her to the norms.
Freud interprets this suicide attempt in two ways: as an act of self-punishment (Selbstbestrafung) and as a wish-fulfilling act (Wunscherfüllung). Understood as self-punishment, the wish to kill oneself is joined with the wish to kill an object – perhaps the attempt to kill the father in revenge or the mother in jealousy. The wish-fulfillment is, according to Freud: “the attainment of the same wish the disappointment of which had driven her into homosexuality – namely, the wish to have a child by her father, for now she ‘fell’ (kommt nieder) through her father’s fault.” (Freud 1920, p. 138)
Freud makes use of the double meaning of the German term “Niederkommen” which in one sense literally means the “coming down”, the fall, but also refers to the act of giving birth. The suicide-attempt is thus seen as the logical consequence of an oedipal drama which manifests itself in the desire for the penis or its substitute – bearing a child from the father.
According to Freud, the young woman had gone through the Oedipus complex in an unremarkable way – she had never displayed any neurotic behavior nor had she suffered from hysterical symptoms. (Freud 1920, p. 132) Nevertheless, after having been exposed to her brother’s genitals, she developed a severe form of penis envy, (Freud, 1920 p. 145) and at the age of thirteen an excessive fondness for a young boy – a fondness which Freud interprets as the wish to be a mother. After this phase the young woman directed her attention to mature but juvenile looking women. The change in her object choice, the transition from a libidinal orientation towards motherhood to a homosexual desire coincides with her mother’s pregnancy. As Freud points out, the adored older woman functions as substitute for her mother, at the same time she also bears a resemblance to her older brother. For that reason the beloved combines the young woman’s ideal of femininity as well as masculinity – homosexual and heterosexual desire seem to be united. Freud explains the transference of love from her mother to the elderly woman in terms of a revival of the Oedipus complex during puberty. The girl realizes her wish to bear a child, a male one – Freud presumes –, a child from the father and at the same time his double. Unfortunately, though, the baby was conceived by her mother and thus – feeling betrayed by her father – the young woman turned away from men altogether. (Freud 1920, p. 134)
“After her disappointment, therefore, the girl had rejected entirely her wish for a child, the love of man, and femininity altogether. Evidently at this point the possible developments were very manifold; what actually happened was the most extreme possible. She changed into a man, and took her mother in place of her father as her love-object.“ (Freud 1920, p. 136)
Her fathers’ turning-away strengthens her in her lesbian desire – hurt from her father she uses homosexuality to displease him. (Freud 1920, p. 134) Jacques Lacan seems to agree with Freud’s view that the provocative affair with a woman of questionable social standing is addressed to someone – to the father, to her father. Lacan writes: “C’est là que la fille se balance, niederkommt, se laisse tomber” – she comes down, she lets herself fall. (Lacan 2004, p. 130) Lacan describes the coming-down as act, which connects the Freudian parturition with the subject’s sudden reference to a, to the lost object, the real, which cannot be fully erased by the law of the father. (Fink 2006, p. 47)
The young woman, castrated (she does not own the symbolic phallus) and disappointed by her biological father (she has not conceived his child) replaces the position of the lack with the certainty of the phallus: „[…] ceci que la loi est bel et bien le désir du père, qu’on en est sûr, qu’il y a une loi du père, un phallus absolu, Φ.“(Lacan 2004, p. 131)
She gives what she has not. She renders herself a lover, a “serving knight.” In loving she follows the male type, Freud writes, she prefers loving to being loved – she presents herself as the one who sacrifices what she lacks, the phallus. She gives the phallus to demonstrate that she really owns him. (Freud 1920, p. 137)
According to Lacan, the passage à l’acte includes an identification with a, and in the young homosexual’s case a is the phallus. (Lacan 2004, p. 132 f.)
As soon as the father enters the scene, she herself becomes the phallus, she identifies with her brother who is to be born, who comes down. (2) (Lacan 2003, p. 122)
The passage to the act indicates the impossibility of giving the phallus while being the phallus. In Lacan’s interpretation – the equation of a with the phallus – giving what one has not corresponds to the impossibility of love. The young woman jumps down und “breaks” – at the point where everything is breaking down, where the economy of the phallus collapses. She jumps down in response to having been refused the phallus. (Lacan 2003, p. 172) And she jumps down, according to Lacan, because access to the symbolic order for women is possible only through the gift of the phallus. (Lacan 2003, p. 165) What is left for her without the phallus is death.
She is giving that which she does not have which means she loves through her lack. And that which she does not have is what she loves in the older woman – the phallus is assumed in the other. But, as Lacan points out, she – the young woman – is the phallus instead of having the phallus. Therefore, she depends on the gift; not only on the gift of the phallic object but also on the love of the one who really has the phallus – the father. (Lacan 2003, p. 116) In her object a, the wish for her father’s love and the gift of the phallic object are intertwined. But the gift is bound to circulate around this very object since it is instituted through the law – the law of the father. The gift one can make can always only be the gift one had received. (Lacan 2003, p. 164) Therefore, following Lacan, it seems that she has nothing to give.
Her jump down is the response to her father’s refusal to give her the phallus as well as to the impossibility to love a woman – a love that tries to restore the phallus of the father. In jumping, she falls out of the order, out of the economy of the phallus. (Lacan 2003, p. 172) As Lacan points out, in her attempt to commit suicide, the homosexual reveals that her misguided desire is the result of an exaggerated love for her father. (Lacan 2003, p. 173) In that Lacan assigns primary status to the Phallus, every desire is bound to a phallic economy. Rejecting feminist criticism, he describes – here following Lévi-Strauss – political power as androcentric. (Lacan 2003, p. 226) I agree with this but I also would like to pursue some of Lacan’s contradictions.
According to Lacan, the passage à l’acte realizes a moment that is not symbolically structured: the object a, the real. (Lacan 2003, p. 97) He declares the object a to be the phallus. At the same time he describes this object as abject and the abject may have numerous meanings and contents. But whatever those may be, judged from the perspective of the symbolic order, the abject necessarily remains unsymbolizable and indefinable. Even though Lacan wants to understand the phallus as symbolic, it is also a blank position within the symbolic order that is projected onto and thus linked with the localizable, specific organ. (Lacan, 2008, p. 304) Despite all claims to the contrary, Lacan draws a connection between the phallus, the description of the symbolic order as androcentric, and the absolute determination of the female (as well as the male) being through the penis/phallus – starting with the unavoidable separation from the mother and the necessity to accept the phallus as first signifier in the process of becoming a subject.
For Lacan, the gift is that which does not exist, but which nevertheless has to circulate. It is a gift, that is part of the order, a gift, that one needs to receive to gain access to the symbolic order; a gift, that keeps the order alive; a gift, that is always the phallus. And only in its absence is the gift pure presence, only in its absence can it stabilize the order, the only framework within which we exist as subjects. (Lacan 2003, p. 215)
The Lacanian gift only exists after the implementation of the law, it is always enmeshed into a relationship of exchange. The gift is pour rien (for nothing) and rien pour rien (something for something). And it is in particular the gift for nothing, the gratuitous  gift, which is the gift of love. (Lacan 2003, p. 165)
Of love? How is the woman, the lesbian, able to love if love allows her only one object choice and desire is always centered on the phallus (either as a desire for a child from the father or as the desire of a woman suffering from a masculinity-complex)? As Freud explains, she has three options: she is able to receive the phallus, to become the phallus, or to become a man.
I would now like to resume the thread of love, of desire, and of the gift, to suggest another interpretation of what might happen in the passage to the act. In which way is it possible to think the conjunction of love, gift and desire without focusing on the phallus? What is love and desire? What is loved, desired in the other? And what will subsequently constitute the gift or what will be given?
In the case of the young homosexual we can assume that she loves and desires the female body. As Dora – the homosexual hysteric, to whom Freud as well presumes the desire for a child from the father – speaks about the “charming white body” of Mrs. K., (Cf. Freud 2007) the young woman speaks about the slim, tall, elegant figure of the older woman she adores, she mentions her wonderful way to walk, her deep-set eyes, her exceptional, sensual mouth. (Rieder 2003, p. 23) Thus, she is not desiring the phallus; if anything, she desires the female body, the one of the other woman as well as her own. It is the desire for something that is not yet symbolized, that lacks adequate representation – according to Irigaray, a desire for the excluded feminine.
In The Practice of Love Teresa de Lauretis argues in a similar way. She does not write about the phallus, neither the female nor the lesbian one. Against the hierarchical duality of having and being, she develops her notion of the significant fetish – understood as a plurality multiplying the signifiers. There is no having or being, no split in subjects and others who – due to their lack – are forced to take the object-position.
What is desired by the lesbian is the female body in its entirety, as well as its parts and specific attributes. And this body is interwoven with phantasmatic scenarios which attract desire.
The body, or the body-imago, understood as fetish is a sign quite different from the phallus (de Lauretis, 1994, p. 228) – mobile, without splitting, something, that unifies the subject and the object of desire.
The fetish signifies the lost object that lies beyond or outside the symbolic order, an object, but not the object par excellence. Even though the phallus too is a fetish, not every fetish, not every lost object, is the phallus. Phantasmatic objects are numerous.
While the establishing of the fetish in Freudian psychoanalysis depends on the awareness of the lack of the mother, the lesbian fetish described by de Lauretis is the female body. A female body-imago arises where the subject is threatened by a narcissistic wound similar to the castration-threat of the male subject. The lesbian object of desire is the phantasmatic image of a body, which – although abjected by castration and the intervention of the patriarchal order – is re-invoked and rebuild as fetish.
The lesbian fetish as alternative concept competes with the threatening loss of the maternal body, the loss of the female body, the loss of any kind of positive relation to woman as subject. The fetish shifts this desire for a female body to another female subject. (de Lauretis 1994, p. 231) However, the phantasmatic object of desire is not the mother; rather, it is bound to the own body-imago which is constantly threatened in its existence by the patriarchal discourse. (de Lauretis 1994, p. 228)
According to Antke Engel, a fetish is a sign or object of desire which recovers the lost female body symbolically by staging a female body-imago that can be narcissisticly and libidinously invested. (Engel 2002, p. 173) Hence the fetish takes up the trace symbolically. As Luce Irigaray put it, the excluded female does not yet exist, it is to be created. Thus, the fetish can be viewed as the attempt to find a form of signification for the inexistent female. This relates the fetish to the passage à l’acte which is described by André Michels as act that expresses what never can be said, an act that establishes something impossible. (Michels 2001, p. 13)
Again I would like to turn to the question of the gift and the question of love: What is being given in love? Two subjects who retrieve their lost object together, who in love refuse the threat of the non-existence of woman and who – through their desire for each other – insist on a female desire that is not focused on the phallic object. Two subjects, who do not fit into the dichotomy of an active lover and a passive beloved. Two subjects who resist the phallic economy of exchange.
The true gift is what is beyond every economy, Derrida writes. The true gift disrupts the economy and it confuses the law. (Derrida 1993, p. 16 f.) The gift interrupts the system and ruptures the symbol. The true gift is located between inside and outside, it is a residue but it is not the absolute outside of the symbolic. The gift is always in danger to become part of the economic cycle, it always remains a coming, that can fail, a coming bound to the impossibility but also necessity of daring to give the gift.
Giving means being aware that it will always remain questionable whether the gift will occur or not. The gift is the unforeseeable event yet, at the same time, it is no accident. (Derrida 1993, p. 161) The gift does not come from reason and it has no cause. Therefore Derrida talks about the impossibility of the gift (Cf. Derrida 1993, p. 17; p. 200) – an impossibility that nevertheless has to be ventured.
What is this a, that emerges and that leads to the jump? What is given in love? The gift and the impossibility of the gift, love and the threat of love (and the gift) are interwoven in one act. To be more precise: they cause the passage, the transition that leads to the act as refusal of the symbolic order.
Something is given and nothing is refunded. In love there is no gift in return. No-thing is returned, there is the pure gift of one subject to another – no law, no exchange are determining the gift as gift. The gift is a singularity that can never be balanced. Thus, in the instant of giving, the gift disrupts the exchange and the phallic economy.
The gift is beyond the phallus, just like desire or love are beyond the phallus. We can speak of two breaks or ruptures: the gift and desire are breaking with the law of the phallus. The gift breaks with it in that is not aiming at a reward – desire breaks with it in that is not aiming at the phallus.
There is the father coming, representing the symbolic order, the law which refers to the phallus. The father’s presence threatens the scene, the real, a, appears. In Lacan the real in this particular case is the phallus. At the same time the real in general is described as trauma. (Lacan XI 1996, p. 61) τραύμα is the wound, a cut and hurt tissue. It is open, it emerges, it occurs together with her father’s appearance. The gaping wound marks the position where the law crosses the bodies, the subjects, it appears where the female bodies are cut through and separated from each other, where the threat to loose the female body becomes real and the imaginary fetish fails. The fear of the father merges with the rejection through the lover. Something breaks, everything breaks down.
According to Jacques-Alain Miller, the act forces a path, a passe out of a dead end street. What cannot be said, what cannot be thought, finds another way to make itself heard. “At the core of every act there is a No that is raised against the other.” (Miller 1994, p. 10; transl. by the author) Every act implies the existence of the other.
Passage à l’acte – transition and act. The “intention” is inscribed into the act but the act itself does not follow any order, there is no law. Yet, as André Michels states, nothing is accidental in the passage à l’acte, the conditions have to be prepared – be they conscious or unconscious. (Michels 2001, p. 14) The significance of the act as the surfacing of an impossible speech is bound to the abject and is located between the expression of existence and the repression of the subject.
Jacques Lacan compares the passage to a jump out of the window. The window marks the meaning of the act as the limits of the subject; the window is the boundary of the symbolic and in leaping down – in passing this threshold – the subject returns to the place of abjection. It is the place where a emerges, where rejections are taking place, where desire and law are joined. (Lacan 2004, p. 130)
In my interpretation, the act is a transition, it is that which undoes the abjection in the moment of leaping down – a moment that shifts and changes the subject forever. After the act the subject will not be the same as before.
According to Luce Irigaray and Theresa de Lauretis, the return to the place of abjection would be the return to the first abjection of the female body. The phantasmatic reproduction of this body – as we find it in the love of the young woman for her older lover – is to assure the young woman her own status as a subject, and it helps her to avert being turned into an object, being the phallus and being castrated.
The leap down can be read as refusal of becoming an object under the father’s gaze. The real appears, the anxiety of desubjectivation. In the case of the young woman the anxiety is intensified through her lover’s rejection. She leaps down running the risk of killing herself as subject to finally preserve herself as desiring subject. Where language fails, speech is transformed into an act.
For Jacques Lacan Antigone can bee seen as paradigmatic for the radical ethical act that refuses the law – the law of Creon. She appears as auto-nomos – self-law. Going through this act, Antigone represents pure desire, that pushes her to her limits; desire, that lets her risk death. (Lacan VII 1996, p. 388)
However, the act is not necessarily suicide. I would like to think the act in a broader sense: acts are what subjects continuously perform, they are small and big transgressions and can be described in terms of a passage from the unspeakable to the areas of the visible and tangible. According to Slavoj Žižek, it is a symbolic death or rather a passage through the symbolic death that leads to a reformulation of the whole symbolic field. A symbolic death as the exclusion of a subject from the socio-symbolic field is always bound to the suspension of the big other, of the symbolic order. (Žižek 2000, p. 262)
The act risks symbolic death, because the act is the suicide of the subject as object. (Depelsenaire 2001, p. 86) Maybe Freud is right when describing suicide as the wish to kill an object – not the external object which he suggests, but the object one is in danger to become. (Freud 1920, p. 138)
The collapse – the desire for the female body, the gift that is already a break or refusal as reaction to the threat of the law – finds its most radical form in the passage à l’act. The act as collapse marks a desire to be, like Antigone – to be what one is.
“Do not compromise your desire!” – Lacan’s maxim, according to Žižek. And he adds: „it exhorts you to dare.“ (Žižek 2000, p. 392) The act adheres desire. And desire is a venture, like the gift.


(1) Lacan differentiates the passage à l’acte from the Freudian notion of Agieren, which is described in Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through. While Agieren is bound to foreclosure and directed to the other, the passage à l’acte marks a break, it is the radical inscription of the abjected into the real.
(2) Lacan shifts the term Niederkommen from the one who gives birth to the one who is born. Instead of the Freudian analogy between as those who are falling down.

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