PRINT April 1994


ACCORDING TO DONALD Kuspit’s owner’s manual to acting out in the arts, it’s possible to control the on/off switch to acting out’s motor or mechanism, the “splitting” Freud first tested in his essay on fetishism. Splitting psychs out loss or separation through split-level transmissions (now you see it and now you don’t) that “oscillate” (this is how Freud put it) “between neurosis and psychosis.” This splitting image of how, then, the trauma of loss “goes” (what’s absent is both identified and not seen) is what’s along for the drive in acting out, which since World War II has been the overriding label that gets stuck on this mobilization of or access to the shifting border zone between neurosis and psychosis. Acting out splits the trauma scene, divides and conquers, at least for the time being, the immediate evacuation effects of the first strike of loss, and thus skips the downbeat of psychotic shutdown. By keeping the split open, acting out gets around the fixed-front war on repression and its consequence in psychotic cases: the withdrawal of all libido from the outside world (which is thus destroyed) back into the ego, which overloads, short-circuits, disconnects. Acting out’s bypass operation around repression puts it up there with sublimation on a direct line to that different way some still call art. Acting out, however, goes where no sublimation has gone before, into the borderline zone between neurosis and psychosis.

The study of “object relations” (both a focus in psychoanalytic theory and a specific school of analysis) is where splitting and acting out were assigned the terms of their transferential cure: the acting-out patient, who has a low threshold of tolerance for ambivalence, sets his relations in the concrete by splitting and bouncing apart his “objects” into “good” and “bad.” In the everyday life of the child we can observe little one, once the tantrum subsides, announce that the bad child is gone now and the good one is back. Acting out rides out this split in every moment of reception, including that of the concept’s own itinerary or history (acting out always catches on). Only around World War II did the study of object relations employ the term acting out in a sense compatible with, for example, Kuspit’s art appreciation of delinquency and deviance. But this World War II application was never in sync with Freud’s use of the term “acting out” (Agieren), which he referred exclusively to the analytic setting where repetition and remembering must face off in the transference. That’s why, in 1967, Anna Freud convened the international psychoanalytic conference around the topic of acting out, calling for clarification of a concept that by then “covered” its distance from her father’s use of the term. The all-out attempt at the 1967 conference to address or redress the “diffuse expansionism” of the term, as the disconnection between Freud’s sense of acting out as local to the transference and those applied psychosocial meanings that are still with us, had never left the transference contest between remembering and acting out or repetition, a contest that pervades the concept’s history.

Only by getting stuck in a groove on the war record of psychoanalysis could pop analysis advance the actors-out of delinquency and deviance as the true veterans of the 20th century’s psychological war efforts. This latest resort of the psy-fi colonization of the outer space of “psychosis” for treatability or adjustment (for the survival of the species) was first brought to us by Freud’s close encounter with war neurosis during World War I. Freud’s introduction to “Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses” made possible the consolidation of the preliminary findings on narcissism or ego libido. Thus from World War I onward (soldiers!), the severer “narcissistic neuroses” or psychoses shift from the allegorical to the functional, from limit concept to borderline case. It doesn’t really matter whether psychoanalysis in fact presented a cure-all for the war neuroses: in theory, a new-found no-man’s-land or borderline had opened up between neurosis and psychosis for advances or occupations by analytic therapy.

When the German military-psychological complex decided in 1918 that psychoanalysis was to be the treatment of choice for war neurosis, and even planned construction of analytic institutes and clinics near the front lines to that end, it was of course already too late; but it wasn’t too late for psychoanalysis to score PR-wise on all sides of the peace that everyone was out to win. The myth of the healed war neurotic was to be the greatest success story of the analytic model, which thus gained admission into every department or discipline of psychological interventionism. But only the German military, psychological, and military-psychological establishments stayed with the analysis-inspired research into war neurosis: its cure and inoculative prevention on one’s own side and its infliction across enemy lines through psychological warfare. When World War II started up, Allied military psychologists suddenly saw themselves as way behind their German colleagues, with whom they had to catch up. In Britain, advances were made under the pressure of total air war. World War I had for the first time provided large-scale uniform or uniformed populations for study under the new laboratory conditions of total war. In World War II it was the new research resource of children and adolescents evacuated out from under the shadow of total air war that enabled the analytic exploration of human subjects in a wider range of developmental stages. These children and adolescents were granted analytic or therapeutic supervision right from the start because it was assumed that the shocks to the target areas they inhabited struck them the same way the hard shell of front-line combat affected symptomatizing soldiers. But then it was discovered that trauma #1 for the children was the separation from their mothers, which evacuation had brought about. That’s how the British object-relations school of psychoanalysis (Wilfred R. Bion, W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, and D. W. Winnicott, among the other followers of Melanie Klein), which was developing under this air pressure, came to realize what Freud had already stressed for World War I neurotics: separation anxiety cuts down the dotted line along which even the presenting problem of war neurosis first tears into childhood trauma. The object-relations analysts switched at this time and for these cases from individual therapy to group therapy, which is where the modern concept of acting out was first coming up for air war. In the zones of evacuation where the fit of juvenile delinquency with group-therapeutic “management” was first recognized, Winnicott saw through acting out as the repeater attempt to get back at the present and get back to a past prior to the trauma of deprivation and loss, which is thus the delinquent’s disowned but perpetual present tense and tension. This condition called for the kind of intervention (based on Klein’s one-on-one approach, but now shifted to the group level) that works regression real close to the borderline at which the analyst is stationed and granted access to the psychosis. It’s the nonstop interpretation of the transference, right down to the mega-narcissistic demand that the transference ultimately address the analyst alone, that feels the analysand’s no’s and keeps him to the grind of acting out. Acts reenter verbalization, and their force as acts again hangs on the words or rewordings. The patient’s whole poisoned world, reduced for the sake of understanding to the rebound of the bouncing bad object, gets vacuum-packed into the analysis. But this is too nerdy by half for the actor-out who splits the object scene. While the analyst is thus relocating the split ends of acting out to a new settlement within the therapeutic relationship, the acting-out patient is out there trying to get the analyst stuck on the metabolism of his punitive relations. Who’s acting out now? The concept of projective identification, which lays the blame, say, for the analyst’s loss of patience and patients on the self-fulfilling prophecies brought to session by the analysand, thus fulfills a need to give acting-out’s share in the breaking of a contract—the one the analyst cosigns with his countertransference—a one-way determination.

In 1946, Fairbairn (with Winnicott’s silent partnership) initiated the object-relations move to make this package deal of analytic innovations available to perverts at the same group rate. His first postwar application of the lab work with traumatized soldiers followed the bouncing bond of comradeship from the breakdown of defenses to sexual offense. Fairbairn is able to relieve the inconsistency he’s having with his opening analogy between the psychoneurotic soldier and the sexual offender by confining his comparison shopping to the lapsed memberships of the groups to which they belonged. Fairbairn’s proposition: “The establishment of special communities for offenders—settlements with a group life of their own, in which offenders can participate, and which is psychologically controlled with a view to its gradual approximation to the life of the community at large.”1 Missing the war experience with neurotic soldiers, Fairbairn takes better aim with the civilian population of perverts: “the establishment of such settlements would have the advantage of providing a unique field for the scientific study of social relationships and the factors which determine the nature of a group.”2 This object-relations-school selection of perverts for the first postwar support groups and, thus, for group-therapeutic assessments of group psychology coincides with the introduction of “acting out,” that idiomatic phase or phrase of pop psychology or adolescence that is still with us. It’s a time-release caption to the advance originally held by psychotherapists (including psychoanalysts) in Nazi Germany, who were real eager to apply the success story of Freud’s encounter with war neurotics to a total victory through analysis: the all-out eradication-through-healing of the homosexual position or disposition (which ever since World War I marked the spot of the coming out of war neurosis under fire and the acting out of primal submissions through betrayal, desertion, even espionage). Nazi therapy culture thus faced sexual perversion head on within defense contexts of inoculation. The promotion of homoeroticism, for example, right on the face of Nazi culture was part of this all-out effort to inoculate the race (a race that had to be won against all odd men out) and grant it immunity from the other fact of life. After World War II, the pop-psychological concepts and conditions of acting out, homosocial double bind, homosexual panic, and latent homosexuality were among the inoculative measures taken in against the breakdowns, ultimately, of war neurosis. War-neurotic soldiers and civilians provided the research resource for the progress later made in the readjustment of psychotic and perverted civilians. These drop-outs from the group effort had to be not so much cured (since there is something about psychosis and perversion that remains compatible after all with war preparedness, mass membership, and merger with the machine) as readjusted, rewired, made user-friendly. “Acting out” follows the logic of inoculation that is the wartime legacy of keeping up near-miss relations with internal enemies. This logic of controlling or control-releasing acting out is paranoid alright: it sees the other’s unconscious with total clarity—can recognize, for example, the remote-controlled acting-out currents that spark the selection of artist-mascots for mutual mass identification—but cannot see its own unconscious participation in this natural selection. This controlling of the other is simply the effect of being able for the time being to “not see” or “Nazi” the continuity that is there, for example between the two it takes to act out. That’s why Freud was right: acting out refers to dynamics internal to the analytic session. When it comes to acting out, then, the work on transference must lead to the work of mourning, and the timer of all the patient’s other mournings must be set to the termination of the session in the here and now. It’s time.

Laurence A. Rickels is a professor of German and film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author most recently of The Case of California (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). A frequent contributor to Artforum, he is completing a study of psychotherapy in the Third Reich.



1. W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, “The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Sexual Offenders,” pp. 289–96, in Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, London/Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1952, p. 295.

2. Ibid.