Andrea Fraser is an artist whose provocative performance and video work centers on social and institutional critique.
Act, action, and acting all stem from the Latin verb agere, “to do,” and take on different meanings in various fields, with their most specific and specialized meaning having developed in the context of the dramatic arts. In the visual arts, act and its derivatives have risen to prominence periodically, such as in action painting, Actionism, and the embrace of the term action by artists associated with Fluxus and happenings to describe works and events. More recently, action is increasingly associated with activism. In contrast to the implication of crafted simulation and fictional characterization in the dramatic arts, the usage of these terms in the visual arts tends to evoke a striving for direct expression unmediated by specialized artistic craft, object, and frame or for a direct impact in what is sometimes referred to as the “real world,” as distinguished from the “art world.” The opposition between artistically mediated and unmediated “doing” underlying these contrasting usages can be seen as central to many recent debates in the fields of contemporary art and performance.
Various derivatives of act have also taken on specific meanings in the field of psychoanalysis, in some ways developing through similar oppositions, including those of realized versus symbolized, framed versus unframed, and original versus reproduced “doing.” In his central statement on psychoanalytic technique, Freud introduced the concept of transference as follows: “We may say that the patient remembers nothing of what is forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. The patient reproduces it not as a memory but as an action.” The aim of psychoanalysis was not to occasion these repetitions but to enable a remembering and working-through of the forces that drove them. It is these repetitions, however, that allow the analyst to treat illness “as a present-day force” (aktuelle Macht) by “conjuring up a piece of real life” in the therapeutic situation and thus making it available for analysis. With successful treatment, the patient’s wish “to discharge in action is disposed of through the work of remembering.” Freud warns of the struggle to “keep in the psychical sphere” all the impulses a patient “would like to direct into the motor sphere” and, in particular, of the danger of “actions outside the transference.”1 Analysis should work to confine such transference repetitions to the realm of thought and corral them toward speech—and thus toward memory, symbolization, recognition, and integration. It was in this realm of speech that the action specific to psychoanalysis was conceived. Other kinds of actions on the part of patient or analyst were considered antithetical to this therapeutic action (as James Strachey called it) and eventually labeled “acting out,” with all its implications of adolescent delinquency and a developmentally challenged need to communicate through actions rather than words.
However, the opposition between saying and doing, remembering and repeating, never really held up. Kleinian and object-relations perspectives reframed transference phenomena to include not only the repetition of primary love relationships stressed by classical analysts but also the full range of object relations that constitute our internal worlds and many of our external relationships. Various analysts began questioning the opposition between speech and action, recognizing (in parallel to but not apparently informed by theories of performativity) that “words do not restrain or substitute for action; they are action.”2 By the 1990s the term enactment took hold to describe more broadly the phenomena that Freud’s theory of transference first brought into focus: “the process of actualization of unconscious wishes”3 and, even more broadly, the ways in which internal or intrapsychic impulses and structures are manifested externally, in relationship to other people and things. With the “relational turn” in psychoanalysis, “enactment” was also linked to a growing recognition of the intersubjective dimension of those relationships. Interpersonalists argued that “the interaction of the therapist and patient always enacts the problem under inquiry.”4 While transference was classically understood as a “false connection” to “unreal objects” existing only in the patient’s mind, enactment is most often used clinically to describe “actualizations” of unconscious impulses or fantasies in which both patient and analyst participate, whether as a matter of coercion, collusion, or empathic connection.5
The concept of enactment has become increasingly central to my work and thinking about art, performance, and pedagogy. While most analysts use the term to describe clinical phenomena only, enactment in the very broadest sense may encompass the psychically invested, motivated, and structured aspect of all activity. Informed by object relations and intersubjective perspectives, enactment recognizes the constant interplay between internal and external, subjective and objective, psychic and social structures. Thus the focus on psychic structures does not preclude or exclude the social but rather enables an analysis of how the social is internalized, affectively invested, and coproduced in relationships that are inseparably psychological and social. It moves beyond the familiar antinomies of mediated and unmediated action, framing what is psychically and socially real in fiction and fantasy, what is directly realized in displacement, what is actualized in symbolization, and what may be distanced and repressed in direct action.
Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis II)” (1914), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 12, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth, 1958), 150–54. In German, Akt, Aktion, and the verb agieren all stem from the Latin agere, as in English, whereas the terms used for acting in the dramatic arts derive mostly from spielen, to play. ↩
Jay Greenberg, “Psychoanalytic Words and Psychoanalytic Acts—a Brief History,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 32, no. 2 (1996): 201. ↩
Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis (New York: Hogarth, 1973), 455. This phrase appears under the entry for transference; the book predates the emergence of enactment. ↩
Edgar A. Levenson, “Beyond Countertransference: Aspects of the Analyst’s Desire,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 30, no. 4 (1994): 703. ↩
An overview of early debates on enactment can be found in Steven J. Ellman and Michael Moskowitz, eds., Enactment: Toward a New Approach to the Therapeutic Relationship (London: Jason Aronson, 1998). ↩