The Semblant and the Act

Rado Riha
Institute of Philosophy, Research center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts

Volume 9, 2016

My departure point will be the problem of the indiscernibility between thinking and acting. How are we to understand this syntagm? When or, better, under what conditions, can we talk about the indiscernibility of thought and act? In my attempt to address this question, I will draw on two theorists who have decisively marked contemporary thought, Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou. Let me note in passing that I will leave aside the thorny question of their convergences and divergences. I will rather proceed by assuming that both of these thinkers, even before we tackle the thorny question of their theoretical compatibility or incompatibility, teach us something about the act and its connection to thought.


In what follows, I propose to address the issue of the indiscernibility of thought and act in two steps: first, the indiscernibility of thought and act, I will argue, can only be assumed on the condition that a third instance is added to the initial couple: thought and act, namely the instance of the real, whether we call it the Thing or the object a. I will therefore argue that the problem of the act in its indiscernibility from thought can only be theorized in terms of the conceptual articulation of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, such as has been elaborated in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It should be noted, however, that the problem of the connection of thought and act should not be confused with the relationship between theory and practice insofar as the latter relationship only becomes operative and, hence, intelligible, against the background of the articulation of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.

The fact that psychoanalysis clearly prioritizes the problematic of the act does not mean, as Lacan himself maintains in his seminar L’acte psychoanalytique, that psychoanalysis rejects all reference to practice.[1] The pertinence of Lacan’s remark must, however, be conceptually circumscribed. Thus, when Lacan asks in his seminar on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis “What is a praxis?” he provides us with the following answer: “I doubt whether this term may be regarded as inappropriate to psycho-analysis. It is the broadest term to designate a concerted human action, whatever it may be, which places man in a position to treat the real by the symbolic. The fact that in doing so he encounters the imaginary to a greater or lesser degree is only of secondary importance here” (Lacan 1994, 6).

If this restriction is necessary, this is because human action can be anything whatsoever, indeed, it can be “whatever”: it can be the Gospel’s Word, Goethe’s Act or Marx’s work, it can be either theoretical or practical, but it can also be the conjunction of the two. Crucial here, however, is that for Lacan, human action is inscribed in the symbolic and dependent on the effects produced through the relationship of the symbolic with the imaginary and the real. Hence, from a Lacanian perspective the problem of the act is less the problem of praxis as such than a problem of the articulation between the symbolic and the real. For that reason, an act is not to be conceived of as a passage from theory to practice, it should rather be seen as a means of overstepping the limits of the symbolic towards the real. An act is, from the outset, correlated with the real, more precisely, with the real as a “thing of thought”, that is to say, with that which, while remaining irreducible to thought, makes it possible for thought to establish itself as thought.

Before explaining my starting assumptions in more detail, I will return briefly to the famous Lacanian triad of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real. These are, as is well known, three fundamental categories or principles of classification, indeed, three classes in which objects of the same nature can be arranged.

From a strictly Lacanian perspective, we could say that with these three categories we have all we can have, as they are all we can have at our disposal. It is only by means of this triad that there can be for us something like a world. This is because the world is nothing but the presence of some symbolic structure that constitutes and, at the same time, regulates our reality. On the other hand, however, our world is given to us or, rather, we live and experience it, through representation, an eminently imaginary category. This explains why, for Lacan, our reality is nothing but a montage of the symbolic structure and imaginary representation. To maintain this means that something lacks this reality, indeed, something that, for this reality to be possible at all, necessarily falls out: namely the real. (Put differently, we have the symbolic order of knowledge, the imaginary order of meaning and the real order of jouissance.) There is, then, nothing else, nothing that would be left outside, or that could escape these three principles of classification.

We can understand this if we remember that the triad of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real constitutes, according to Lacan, a knot. The symbolic structure that holds together reality and, ultimately, governs it, is always already organized around something that drops out of it. The condition of the possibility for the emergence of reality is the exclusion of the real, which, in turn, becomes impossible. Put simply, without this excluded instance, there would be no symbolically organized world. Hence, from the very beginning we are dealing with the One that divides into Two; an impossible Two, to be sure, insofar as the symbolic is supplemented by something that is heterogeneous to it, yet that accompanies it like an invisible shadow: its internal exteriority or the real. To the dyad of the symbolic and the real, the imaginary is added as the Third, a sort of a visible shadow. This addition has a very specific function. The imaginary is not only the way in which we live, experience the symbolically ordered reality, as I mentioned before. The imaginary is also a specific manner in which the dropout of the real from the symbolic is staged, literally, as a mis-en-scène. For the dropping out of the real could be either negated or repressed. Yet this paradoxical internal externality or extimacy of the real appears to be crucial. In short, One is one only to the extent that it divides into Two, but for this to be possible at all, there must be a third instance. The symbolic is always already articulated with the real. Indeed, without the real, there is no symbolic. The symbolic then is not possible without the real, but neither is it possible with the real. This is why a third instance that stands in the place of this real necessarily intervenes, namely, the imaginary. The symbolic and the imaginary go hand in hand but only insofar as they stand vis-à-vis the real, only insofar as there is something like a real, more precisely, the real as the presence of its absence. It is precisely at this point that we encounter the problem of semblance.

Before I turn to the question of semblance, I would like to illustrate briefly what I mean by the indiscernibility of thinking and acting. There is perhaps no better illustration for the indiscernibility of thinking and acting than Robespierre’s famous question: ‘Citizens, would you want a revolution without a revolution?’ [2] It is precisely this tying together of the revolution and desire, or, more precisely, this desire for the revolution that is implied in Robespierre’s question, which proves that what is put to work in a revolution is truly a revolution. Or, put differently, it is the desire for the revolution which signals that we are dealing here with a truly revolutionary revolution: a moment of a radical interruption, a radically contingent political action that has the power to transform the regime of possibility and visibility of a given situation by bringing out that which is the non-representable, invisible, in short, the impossible of that situation, the abyss of an absence.

The desire evoked in Robespierre’s question, far from being a psychological category, is, rather, inseparable from the revolution. Indeed, it could only be understood as a strictly political category. It is a desire for the revolution in a twofold sense: on the one hand, it provides the revolution with its genuinely revolutionary character; on the other, it is itself, as desire, determined by the revolution. In effect, a true revolution implies at the same time a revolution in the modes of desiring, a revolutionizing of desire itself.

In what, then, consists such a revolution in desiring, a revolution of desire? I would say that it consists in the fact that a desire for the revolution can only be set in motion if it is itself desired. Only those who desire their desire for the revolution are capable of effectuating the revolution with a revolution. In a word, Robespierre’s demand that a revolution must be desired with a revolution can be understood, at least this is how I try to read it, as a demand that we desire desire itself. Thus Robespierre’s question: “Do you want revolution without a true revolution?” could be understood as the question “Do you desire a desire without a true desire?” Or, again: Do you truly want what you desire? Here I draw on Lacan’s injunction, according to which the subject “is called to be reborn – as desire’s object a – in order to know if he wants what he desires?” (“Remarks” 2006, 571-2).

A true revolutionary is not simply someone who thinks and declares, be it so passionately, that he wants the revolution. Indeed, we should be suspicious of such a revolutionary as his desire is simply psychological rather than a strictly revolutionary category. For he may well desire a revolution today only to throw it out tomorrow for something equally passionately desired; say, a good job in the state apparatus. A genuine revolutionary is therefore only one who desires not simply a revolution, but desires in addition, so to speak, his desire for the revolution. This also explains why it is difficult to make such a revolutionary deviate from the revolutionary path. In brief, for a true revolution desire is not enough, it is not enough to desire a revolution. Rather, the one who works for the revolutionary cause must, in addition, desire his desire for the revolution.

At this point, I would like to introduce a few propositions, leaving their more elaborate justification for another time. To summarise my previous point I would say that the operation of wanting one’s desire is an operation of the de-psychologization of desire. A de-psychologized desire is not a desire cleansed of all affect. On the contrary, such a desire is rather a conjunction, a union of thought and affect, or, rather, it is a thought insofar as it is affected, affected precisely by the “thing of thought” as its object-cause. More exactly, it is a thought that thinks its affection by the real, this being, of course, its object-cause. This also explains why the thought of such an affection is inseparable from the act. The operation of wanting desire, a desire for the revolution, is in itself an act that renders visible the real object-cause that affects thought or, and this amounts to the same, reveals the desire for revolution.

But this also explains why a desire for revolution cannot be separated from a desire to see revolution. In itself, the desire for revolution is the answer to the question: how can a revolution be seen? Precisely as a revolution, that is, as a moment of radical interruption, what therein evokes the abyss of absence? For my part the answer can only be the following: the revolution can be seen if, and only if, when looking at it, we also want to see. That is to say, in the very process of looking we participate in it with our desire to see. Robespierre’s question can, then, be reformulated as follows for those who do not see any possibility whatsoever for revolution today: “Citizens, would you want to see revolution without the desire to see?”

The desire to see, in its elementary form, manifests itself as a desire to see something there where, at first sight, there is nothing to be seen. It is a desire to see the nothing as something. But this precisely is a fundamental characteristic of the revolutionary politics of emancipation, as this is a politics that sees something, the possibility of a radical change in a given situation, there where the situation renders it impossible to see anything, more precisely, to see nothing but the possibilities given by the situation itself.

Yet revolutionary politics implies the desire to see in two, inseparable meanings: firstly, it is a desire to see the possibility of a new state of the situation precisely in the place of a given situation; and secondly, it is a desire to make visible in this new state of the situation that which is not and can never be seen, to render present in the emergence of the new that which is not and can never be materially present. A true revolution, a revolution with a revolution, is a revolution that we see in both of these two senses. But we can see it in such a way because we want to see. Another way of putting this would be to state that what is at stake in the desire to see is the process of subjectivation: it is by wanting one’s desire, one’s desire for the revolution, that one becomes a subject. It is a process in which, in an always singular fashion, the appearance of the real is the cause of desire: the revolution is made possible.

To see the revolution or to see the revolution with a revolution is thus nothing other than to see politics as a process of political subjectivation which in turn means: to see how, in the field of politics, where usually there is nothing to see but agents and statist apparatuses, there appears, there emerges, a subject, or to be even more precise, we appear as a subject. Only in its revolutionary mode is politics an act of (political) subjectivation; only in this mode can a human animal appear, in the realm of politics, as a subject. In a word, we are dealing here with a subject that appears as a product of a desire to see. We could then say with Badiou that the subject is nothing but subjectivation.

The first step can now be summarized as follows: the desire for revolution is an operation of wanting a desire that mobilizes thought, for the thought of revolution is an operation in which the real is included; in short, the thought of revolution is an operation with the real, insofar as it aims at the construction of a minimal difference between the real and itself (thought being but a place in which this minimal difference is constructed). Drawing on both Badiou and Lacan, I propose to call the act of the construction of the minimal difference between the real and itself a subtractive act, and the constructed minimal difference itself a semblant. What the subtractive act brings out is the inseparability of thought and the real: there is no thought without the real. But at the same time this inseparability between thought and the real must be acknowledged as being itself something produced.


Before elaborating in more detail the thesis of the inseparability of thought and the real, I would like to add some explanations concerning the notion of the semblant. What could be the purpose of the introduction of the fourth category, that of semblance? As is well known, it is after having introduced his triad of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real that Lacan, in his later teaching, invented the category of the semblant in order to explore the possibility of a discourse that would not be a discourse of the semblant but of the real, only to arrive at the conclusion that everything that proceeds from discourse necessarily turns into a semblant.

Although close to the notion of appearance and appearing, the semblant is not a new name for the imaginary. On the contrary. The introduction of the semblant is used here to reveal an unexpected equivalence between the symbolic and the imaginary; an equivalence, that is, vis-à-vis the real. The symbolic and the imaginary, as one man, as it were, confront the real. The semblant from such a perspective is not to be confused with appearance for yet another reason; namely, reality itself is nothing but a more or less consistent network of semblants.

Traditionally, philosophy operates with binary oppositions such as appearance/reality, being/appearance etc. Psychoanalysis, in contrast, replaces and at the same time transforms these metaphysical oppositions through the opposition semblant/real, an opposition that was rendered possible with the emergence of modern scientific discourse. Instead of separating, the Lacanian couple brings together the semblant and the real in a sort of “disjunctive conjunction”. The semblant and the real are thus connected in the alternation of appearance and disappearance. Indeed, for the real to appear it is necessary that the existing arrangement of semblants vacillate. The crucial point here, of course, is that it is the semblant—a peculiar kind of semblant, that is—that provokes the vacillation of the dominant semblants and, thereby, the very vacillation of reality, since semblants constitute the fabric, the material, of which reality is made.

As is well known, Lacan finds a perfect illustration for such a destructive semblant of semblants in the legend borrowed from the Old Testament (more precisely, from the 5th chapter of the Book of Daniel). According to this legend, it is as a consequence of the appearance of the inscription on the palace wall of the words mené, mené, tekél, uparsin—an inscription that at first appears to be unreadable and incomprehensible—that Belshazzar’s Kingdom is destroyed. This inscription, according to Lacan, is a signifier, that is to say, nothing but a semblant, yet a semblant in relation to which all the other semblants of royal power appear to be mere semblance; a make-believe that, once revealed as such, loses its power. It is a semblant that, by destroying, ruining the structure and arrangement of the sovereign power’s semblants, creates an empty space, thereby creating a place for the appearance of the real. Put differently, in shattering the reality of the existing kingdom it makes it possible for its transformation into something new.

The semblant, then, is the answer to the question: how to include in reality the excluded real? That is to say, to include it precisely as excluded. Put another way, we could also say: how to make its exclusion visible? We can see here why the theme of the semblant is of interest for psychoanalysis: it is through semblants that psychoanalysis tries to accede to the real. For what is at stake in psychoanalysis is not simply the question “what is the semblant?” but, rather, “how does it work?” I will argue that it works in two different ways: if the semblant is an agency of reality, if our reality is made of nothing but semblants, the semblant also represents a point of what Alain Badiou designated as an “active nihilism” (2007 64), that is to say, as a moment of the derealization of the world, of the shattering of all objective reality. The semblant introduces in this world something that is not of this world. The semblant, in this sense, represents the DaSein, the “being-there” of the real. Or again: the semblant is nothing but a minimal difference between the real and itself.

Underlining the fictional foundation of psychoanalysis, Lacan provides the following answer to our question in his “Discours à l’École freudienne de Paris”, when he states that psychoanalysis  “is a discipline which produces itself only through the semblant. The latter in it is denuded to the point that it unsettles the semblants which support religion, magic, piety, all that which conceals the economy of jouissance” (Lacan 2001, 281). In the Seminar XVIII, in contrast, Lacan declares that the formulation “of a discourse that would not be of the semblant” implies that “discourse is of the semblant” (2006 19). Based on this formulation, and fully aware of the risk that such a construction presents, I propose the following answer to Lacan’s question: “What is going on there where there would be no semblant?” The only discourse that would not be that of the semblant would be one that knows that it is a discourse of the semblant. And a discourse that knows that it is semblance could be designated as a discourse of the bare semblant. A bare, naked semblant is thus a semblant that knows that it is nothing but a semblant. This knowledge operates through a series of specific subjective protocols and operations which make it possible that at the point of the derealization of reality, caused by the semblant, appears something real.

An example of such a bare semblance could be found, for instance, in Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, evoked by Badiou in The Century. What Badiou calls Brecht’s principle of distancing (48) could be understood as a semblant that de-realizes all other semblants, a semblant that declares to be a mere semblant. We are dealing here with a semblant hostile to semblants, which, as such, works with a view to unmasking other semblants. Distancing is a semblant insofar as it establishes a distance in relation to reality. In so doing, it succeeds in opening a space for the real to emerge. It opens a space for the acknowledgement of the fact that the given that appears to be necessary and hence immutable, unchanging, is always already produced, staged; a mise-en-scène.

In the biblical example the semblant that derealizes reality is, so to speak, in the hands of God. In this sense we could say that the real at stake here is the mark of God’s omnipotence. What happens if we take out God as a support of semblance? What if the real at stake here were the real of emancipatory politics, for instance? Briefly and roughly speaking, I would answer: what this example brings to light is nothing other than the following; the semblant is a matter of the act. In order to elucidate this strange bringing together of semblance and the act, I will turn to Badiou’s The Century.

The touchstone for the subjectivity of the 20th century and a key to an understanding of the century as such, i.e. as an object for philosophy, is what Badiou terms the “passion for the real” (48). The appearance of the real signalling that something is, strictly speaking, inexistent—say, a radically new beginning—is, despite all evidence, inseparable from the semblant. The novelty of some radical breakthroughs in the arts and politics of the 20th century can only be understood from the perspective of the connection of the semblant to the real, which is one of the central themes of Badiou’s The Century. The semblant, then, is not to be purely and simply taken as a semblance; rather, it is linked to the real. Indeed, it is inseparable from it. It is, as Badiou writes, “the true situating principle of the real, that which localizes and renders visible the brutal effects of the real’s contingency” (48). This is precisely what I have meant by saying that the semblant was a kind of a Da-Sein, the being-there of the real.

For there are, according to Badiou, two ways in which the passion for the real can manifest itself and become operative in reality. On one hand, the passion for the real—or what amounts to the same for Badiou, the striving for the new in the here and now—is the rejection of all mediation, of all representation of the real. As such, it is an attempt to force direct access to the real. In this sense, the passion for the real is equated with destruction. In fact, this appears to be the prevailing mode for the manifestation of the passion for the real in the 20th century. On the other hand, and based on the experiences of the century, Badiou seeks to bring out another mode for the effectuation of this passion which he calls “subtraction”. The subtractive protocol of thought, the gesture of bringing out “a minimal, yet absolute difference” (56), a difference between the place and the taking-place in this place, is nothing but the difference between das Ding, the Thing, and itself.

The gist of Badiou’s distinction between the two forms of the passion for the real points to the conclusion, or, at least, following is the conclusion that I have drawn from it: in order to render the real present in its very absence the intervention of an act is necessary. The subtractive gesture could thus be understood as an act of construction of the minimal difference between the real and itself. The act thus appears to be nothing other than the bringing into play of a semblant that separates the real from itself.

Let me introduce some supplementary clarifications concerning the act. For the time being, I can only provide a few elements necessary for any serious attempt at a future theory of the act. One can find these elements in Lacanian psychoanalysis. More specifically, I have located them in three of Lacan’s texts: the first one is “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty” (Lacan 2006, 161-175); the second is his Seminar X on anxiety (2004); and the third can be found in his Seminar dedicated to the psychoanalytical act: L’acte psychoanalytique (1967-1968). The three elements that, in my view, are crucial for any theory of the act worthy of the name are: the act conceived in terms of anticipated certitude; the relationship between act and anxiety; and the third element best summarized by Lacan’s formula: “there is no master of the act”.

The first element for a theory of the act, as I have already said, can be found in Lacan’s “Logical Time” (Écrits 2006 161-75).[3] I am interested in this text because it provides us with an outline of a very special theory of the act since it brings out anticipated certitude as one of the principal characteristics of the act. Briefly and roughly speaking, I would say that such an act emerges precisely at the moment when one has to act, without being able to draw any conclusion whatsoever regarding the way in which one should act in the existing situation on the basis of prior knowledge of given data. Indeed, the given situation does not guarantee that the act be accomplished with any kind of certitude. At stake here is one’s ability to act in such a way that—precisely by means of the act itself —one anticipates its cause, that is to say, a cause that will have become true only after the fact, once the act is accomplished and once the process of its verification has been set in motion. We are dealing here with an act that produces the conditions of its own truth, produces its cause, or, if you wish, produces an  “if x …” upon which the act is grounded and which justifies it as a “then y”.

This anticipatory aspect of the act is not to be confused with blind voluntarism or a chance action. Rather, we are dealing here with an action that presupposes as a condition of its possibility a gap, a hole in the Other. The essential point here is that the act can only be “accomplished in the hole of the Other”.[4] This can be articulated to the act in three different ways: it could be brought to light, ‘actualized’ through the act; the act itself can appear as a response to the hole; or the hole itself is created by the act. This capacity of the act to make use of this hole in the Other is what makes it possible for the act to operate as an agency of a radical change of the situation, thereby turning a possibility into a present actuality.

This leads us to the second constitutive feature of the act. An act does not only mark a radical break with the Other, it also depends on what follows it. In fact, an act is worthy of the name only insofar as it introduces a new sequence, a new series. Actually, an act only exists or, rather, insists through the process of its verification, through the production of its consequences in a reality that the act itself has brought into existence as its ground. Although this may well be already known, I would like to make an additional remark, namely, that the theorisation of the act, such as one can find it in Lacan’s “Logical Time”, is already inscribed within the horizon announced by Marx when he maintained that one can understand one’s situation only on the condition of changing it, or, and this amounts to the same thing, on the condition of producing those properties of the situation that did not exist prior to this production itself.[5]

There is, however, one crucial question that remains open, that is, how to bring together two essential aspects of the act: on one hand, the fact that, without being ex nihilo, the act is founded on a radical interruption, and, consequently, presupposes a certain “savoir faire”, know-how, i.e. a way of handling the hole in the Other. On the other, however, the fact that the act only exists or, better put, insists in what follows, in a sequence or a series of its consequences. I propose to re-cast this open question as follows: how is it possible to preserve, in the very production of the consequences of an act, in the process of the production of a new sequence, the awareness that these consequences are the consequences of the act? Put simply: what is the difference between the act—a radical interruption that brings out the absence within the presence; a cut that, literally, begins with nothing—and a perpetual production of new worlds? The problem that needs to be addressed now is the following: What is lacking in the theorization of the act such as it is developed in  “Logical Time” is precisely an elaboration of the cause: the object-cause of desire, to be precise, the capital piece for the construction of the theory of a Lacanian act. I would argue that this missing piece can be found in Lacan’s notion of anxiety.

I will turn now to the second element of the theory of the act: the relationship between anxiety and the act. In Lacan’s seminar on anxiety there is one point that interests me in particular: Lacan’s insistence that no act is possible if there is no object of desire, no object set to work. This explains why, for Lacan, it is the object rather than the subject that is at the source of the act, organizing it.

In his Seminar X, Lacan brings out anxiety not as a phenomenon difficult to live with, but rather as an instance to be reconstructed as a logically necessary moment on the path of desire. More precisely, he refers to it as a moment logically necessary for the constitution of desire: “The time of anxiety”, says Lacan, “is not absent in the constitution of desire… since desire… constitutes itself once anxiety is traversed” (Lacan 2004, 204-5). The time of anxiety is thus constitutive insofar as it is anxiety that produces the object-cause of desire. Anxiety transforms jouissance into the object-cause of desire. Indeed, anxiety is not without object, as Lacan points out, since we cannot say which object is at stake here. Or, again: “Anxiety, not only is not without an object, it moreover designates probably the most profound object, if I may say so, the ultimate object, the Thing” (Lacan 2004, 252). Paradoxically, if anxiety is beyond any doubt, if it is what does not deceive, this is simply because every object escapes it.

The crucial point for me here is the following: a Lacanian anxiety is an active, even productive anxiety. Jacques-Alain Miller has introduced at this point a key distinction between constituted anxiety (anxiety as an experienced phenomenon) and constitutive anxiety (functioning as an operator) (“Angoisse”). And it is this constitutive anxiety that produces the object-cause of desire. Anxiety as a painful phenomenon only obscures what is at stake in anxiety and imprisons the subject in a vicious circle, thereby inhibiting all his or her action. But, on the other hand, this also means that there is no remedy for anxiety except the emergence of the cause of desire. But in order to be able to make use of this remedy, the intervention of the act is necessary. Generally speaking we believe that all human activity is deployed within the horizon of certainty, or, better, that activity generates certainty. This is why Lacan can state that, from such a perspective, “the reference of certainty is essentially action”. Ultimately, is there a more reliable sign of my assurance regarding something than acting? Lacan inverses this perception by maintaining that: “To act is to wring from anxiety its certainty. To act is to accomplish a transference of anxiety” (Lacan 2004, 92-3).

In this respect we could say that only anxiety is capable of authorizing the act because the act is susceptible to capturing the certainty that is contained in anxiety. The act activates, if I may say so, the productivity of anxiety. The act makes use of anxiety inasmuch as the latter produces the object a as the lost object, as the object constituted from its loss. It is the act that sets to work in the world that nothing of the object—the loss of the object qua object—that is the only true object of anxiety, namely, that object that can only be described by means of negation: anxiety is not without object. To quote Miller: “Anxiety produces the objet petit a, … in its essential paradox, that is to say, it produces it as a lost object […] For there is not first the object and then its loss, but the object a is constituted as such in this very loss” (“Angoisse”). It could then be said that the act makes use of anxiety as a “moment where the nothingness of all the objects of the world is produced as a ‘surplus of’, namely, that surplus object which is in breach of every law of objectivity and which we call petit a” (Miller “Angoisse”). The act is in its essence an operation with the object of desire. This is how we could summarise the principle lesson of Lacan’s seminar on anxiety.

In conclusion, I would like to tackle briefly the third aspect of the act, that is, the fact that “there is no master of the act” as Lacan himself maintains in the seminar on the psychoanalytical act. What singularizes the psychoanalytical act in Lacan’s view is a conjunction of act and doing. It follows that the act is on the side of the analyst: his or her act consists in providing a support for the knowledge supposed, that is, for the subject-supposed-to-know. In so doing, the analyst authorizes through his or her act the analysand’s task while causing, at the same time, the latter’s desire. The work that proceeds from the fundamental rule of free associations, on the other hand, is situated on the side of the analysand. Clearly, this distinction between act and doing is not to be confused with the Hegelian division between the master and the slave. On the contrary, there is no act of which anybody could consider him or herself a master, not in the sense that anybody can master and control the consequences of his or her own act. In psychoanalysis the analyst and the analysand— the first at the beginning and the latter at the end of analysis—acknowledge each other to be caused by the objet petit a, something that strictly speaking is not of this world. Both the analyst and the analysand—one from the outset and the other from the end of analysis, though from the point of view of the act this makes no difference since the beginning of analysis can only be established retroactively anyway—are put to work in the name of that surplus of the real that always supplements the constitution of the subject in the field of the Other, a surplus that precisely turns a speaking being into a subject.

They establish and maintain the analytical situation through a process that verifies, from case to case, whether the consequences of the analytical act are truly tested, or, put another way, whether a knowledge that does not know itself is realized or not. Fully aware of the gap separating the analytical act from other types of acts—artistic, political or scientific—I will nevertheless propose the following analogy: just as analysis is a conjunction of doing and the act, so any true act only exists as an interruption in the situation, as an active nihilism and as the process of the verification of its cause, that is, of drawing the consequences of the act in a given situation. Yet that which renders this conjunction possible— that is to say, the act—is an objectal moment; the moment of the real as the presence of absence. What is at stake in the act is not only its power to make good use of anxiety in order to put to work, in the world, an object produced by anxiety; the object-nothing. At stake in the act is also its capacity to preserve the traces of this object in that which follows the act by producing possibility (opened through the act) as present. In short, the task of the act is to render visible in the production of consequences that which cannot be seen; the very interruption upon which a new sequence is grounded. This is not in the sense that possibility qua present is considered as a direct realization of the real, but, rather, in the sense of making use of the object as an instrument suitable for the task of ensuring, within this world, a permanent presence of something that, just like the inscription on the palace wall in the biblical legend, is part of this world through the very fact that it remains an exception.[6] The aim of a subtractive act is to enact, or, perhaps better, to stage the object-nothing in the world as the minimal difference between the real and itself, that minimal difference that is nothing but a semblance.

I will conclude with a question that remains open for the time being and insufficiently addressed: Would it not be possible to view in Badiou’s attempt to outline a meta-history of eternal truths (for instance, Spartacus’ rebellion and its ulterior resurrections; or China from the year 81BC to Mao) an attempt to preserve in the world that which de-realizes it in such a way that something real might emerge in its place. What is at stake in what Badiou calls “eternal truths” is not the setting up of models or ideals for any present or future emancipatory politics. It would be more appropriate to say that these eternal truths are operative or efficient only in conjunction with that what Badiou refers to as “a real point to which one must cling irrespective of the price to be paid for it” (Badiou 2007, 43). Taken in themselves these truths can be considered as a nothing, yet as a nothing of a special kind because it is effective, operational in a given situation, although its power can be measured only retroactively through its consequences in a concrete situation. In other words, eternal truths only make sense if it is possible to show through the indiscernibility of thought and acting that in this world there are events and acts that, although at the point of their inexistence, can be declared to be eternal.


1. Jacques Lacan, L’acte psychanalytique (1967-1968), unpublished seminar.

2. Robespierre’s question is quoted in Etienne Balibar (2001). In what follows I develop a slightly different interpretation of this question than Balibar. 

3. On this point I wish to draw attention to the excellent essay by Ed Pluth and Dominiek Hoens, “What if the Other is Stupid? Badiou and Lacan on ‘Logical Time’”. In this essay the authors confront Lacan’s and Badiou’s theorization of the act, as implied in the situation described by Lacan in “Logical Time”.

4. See Sumic (81-100). One of the constitutive features of the act consists in the fact that “the act interrupts the relation with the Other. One could say that it constitutes a moment of the subject’s absolute separation from the Other”. From such a perspective, the act presents itself as a “sort of metaphor, in a Lacanian sense, that is to say, as a substitution: there where the signifier lacks, the act comes as a sort of an incarnation of the hole in the Other, an active hole, as it were”.

5. On this point Guy Lardreau’s judicious remark in his book La véracité can serve as a guideline: “The common expression ‘to understand what is going on’ turns out to be perversely naive: nothing precisely is going on except what one does; so instead of ‘understanding’ one should rather sufficiently ‘be blind’, as Milner puts it, for an action that prohibits the properties of the empirical situation, by the very fact of its taking place, become possible and retroactively bring about, as a condition of its own success, the properties which did not exist before” (226). 

6. I refer here to Badiou’s remark in De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? (2007).


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———. De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? Paris, Lignes, 2007.
Balibar, Etienne. “Sed intelligere”. In Désir de révolution. Paris, Lignes, 2001: 11-15.
Lacan, Jacques. L’acte psychanalytique (1967-1968). Unpublished seminar.
———. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. London, Penguin Books, 1994.
———. “Discours à l’École freudienne de Paris”. In Autres écrits. Paris, Seuil, 2001: 261-82.
———. ”Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation: ‘Psychoanalysis and Personality Structure”. In Ecrits. Trans. by Bruce Fink. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006: 571-572.
———. “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty”. In Ecrits. Trans. by Bruce Fink. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006: 161-75.
———. Le séminaire livre X. L’angoisse. Paris, Seuil, 2004.
———. D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant. Paris, Seuil, 2006.
Lardreau, Guy. La véracité. Essai d’une philosophie negative. Paris, Verdier, 1993.
Miller Jacques-Alain. “Angoisse constituée, angoisse constituante”. (accessed 6/17/2016)
Pluth, Ed and Dominiek Hoens. “What if the Other is Stupid? Badiou and Lacan on ‘Logical Time’”. In Peter Hallward, (Ed.). Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. New York, Continuum, 2004: 182-190.
Sumic, Jelica. “The Prisoners of the Inexistent Other”. Filozofski vestnik. (27:1): 81-100.