Forgotten Filiations (Book Review)

Author:  Zafiropoulos, Marcos 
Publisher:  Karnac Books, 2010
Reviewed By:  Winn, Martin, January 2011, pp. 242

Lacan and Levi-Strauss or the Return to Freud by Marcos Zafiropoulos (translated by John Holland) examines the interplay of the theoretical developments of Levi-Strauss in anthropology and of Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis in the fruitful years from 1951-1957. This was the period immediately following Claude Levi-Strauss' articulation of structural anthropology, a development that produced not only a revolution in his own discipline, but also had similar consequences and implications for many fields. In particular his friend and contemporary Jacques Lacan, who was one of Levi-Strauss' most incisive interlocutors, quickly grasped the significance of structuralism for psychoanalysis.

Lacan had for some time been utilizing anthropology in his theoretical work, placing himself, according to Zafiropoulos, in line with Derkheim the "father of French Anthropology." In the upheaval caused by Levi-Strauss' use of structural linguistics to completely rethink anthropology, Lacan quickly saw the implications for his own approach to psychoanalysis.

From the beginning of his trajectory as a psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had a significant impact on the European psychoanalytic community. Among his initial theoretical contributions, his development of the mirror stage in its relation to the formation of the "I" thoroughly de-centered the place of the ego, showing its dependence on an image taken from the exterior. His reading of Hegel informed his concept of unconscious desire as the desire of the Other, which proposed an equally alienated position of the subject in relation to what constituted the formation of the human psyche. Both of these theoretical positions postulated the human subject as constituted in relation to a void or a lack, rather than around some "essence" or core.

These early theoretical advances had major implications not only for the conceptualization but also for the practice of psychoanalysis, as well as for its teaching and transmission and would ultimately put Lacan on a collision course with the proponents of post-Freudian psychoanalysis.

At the end of WWII, the French psychoanalytic society that had lain essentially dormant throughout the war reemerged. The SPP (Societe Psychanalytic de Paris), under the guidance of Dr. Sacha Nacht, was attempting to establish a training institute that would be recognized by the IPA. The leadership of the IPA was now concentrated in the APA, in New York in particular, due to the number of European psychoanalysts who had been forced by WWII to emigrate. The APA was heavily influenced by Anglo-American ideologues and had transformed Freud's organization into a bureaucratic establishment reserved for medical doctors. Ego psychology was the conceptual fruit of this group that had wrestled control of the IPA away from Freud (1959). Ego psychology abandoned major—particularly earlier—portions of Freud's teaching as outdated, and was busy shifting the focus of psychoanalysis from the analysis of unconscious desire to the analysis of the defenses of the ego.

As Lacan saw it, The APA, dominated by these refugees who had had to flee for their lives, chose a path of forgetting, of embracing the willful ignorance of history that still today underpins the American ideals of industry, efficiency, practicality, progress and profit.

As far as Lacan was concerned the dominance of ego psychology was a serious deviation from Freud's teaching that threatened the integrity and the very existence of psychoanalysis. Focusing on the ego and its defenses with the aim of developing a "healthy" ego obscured the true object of analytic practice: the subject of the unconscious. Instead it lead to total confusion, sterility and the abandonment of the essential truths that Freud had discovered.

In order to counter the theoretical deviations espoused by the ego psychologists, around 1951 Lacan had begun a "Return to Freud", the most significant undertaking in the history of psychoanalysis since it's invention by Freud himself. By returning to Freud's seminal texts Lacan sought to reassert the truth of Freud's discoveries and to realign psychoanalysis with the aims of its founder.

As an important member of the SPP Lacan was thus articulating a position counter to Dr. Nacht's, who wished to curry favor with the IPA in order to win approval for a training institute. The ensuing conflict lead to complaints against Lacan's teachings and practice and ultimately, since Lacan had a significant following, to a serious schism within the SPP.

In the face of opposition and rejection by the IPA, the discovery of structural linguistics is a kind of a "eureka" moment which confirmed Lacan in his Return to Freud. Indeed, in July 1953 he wrote to his former analyst, Rudolph Lowenstein, about the turmoil surrounding the schism: "I have been able to survive [these nightmarish months] only by virtue of continuing, through all the frightful emotions these months have afforded me, my seminars of supervision and reading, without having missed them a single time or, I believe, having allowed their inspiration or quality to wane. Quite to the contrary, this year has been particularly fruitful and I believe I have brought genuine progress to the theory and techniques specific to obsessional neurosis." (Lacan, 1990)

The first important step for Lacan was Levi-Strauss' grasp of Saussure's structural linguistics and Levi-Strauss' reversal of Saussure's relation of signifier to signified. Levi-Strauss saw that it was the signifier, not the signified that had primacy: "[S]ymbols are more real than what they symbolize, the signifier precedes and determines the signified. We will encounter this problem again in connection with mana."(Levi-Strauss, 1987)

Lacan realized that Freud, without the benefit of structuralism and the development of the conceptual framework of the relation of signifier to signified, was nevertheless attempting to articulate the laws of the signifier as it structured the unconscious. Without the concept of the signifier, trying to formulate his theory with outmoded scientific tools often obscured Freud's efforts. This led his disciples to misread or to jettison whatever was difficult, conflicting or obscure as confused, wrong or obsolete.

Equipped with his understanding of structural linguistics, Lacan set out to show how the concept of the signifier was already in play in Freud's theoretical writings. Lacan was able to demonstrate that the implications of Freud's texts were quite different from those drawn by the subsequent generation of psychoanalysts and also revealed to what degree ego psychology had deviated from the path of psychoanalysis.

Lacan argued in his first seminars that Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious documented the effects of the signifier as it determined the signified. Lacan showed that the formations of the unconscious depend upon the independence of the signifier from the signified, and that Freud hewed closely to a mapping of these signifiers. The analysis of Freud's forgetting of the name "Signorelli" being a prime example.

To the first step, Lacan adds: "The second step [...] we owe to his [Claude Levi-Strauss'] developments on the mytheme, which I take as an extension of the emphasis of the signifier to the notion of the myth. (Zafiropoulos, 2010, p.167)

In "The Structural Study of Myths" Levi-Strauss showed that myths conformed to a basic formula — a mytheme —with a necessary, non-arbitrary structure. The formula can be deduced if myths are examined from the perspective of structural linguistics and the laws of language. Myths function to "provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction." (1974, p.229)

In this paper Levi-Strauss applies the mytheme to the Oedipus complex, stating: "This formula becomes highly significant when we recall that Freud considered that two traumas (and not one, as is so commonly said) are necessary to generate the individual myth in which a neurosis consists." (1974, p.228)

For Lacan the significance of Levi-Strauss' formula is paramount: "Claude Levi-Strauss shows us that symbolic structure dominates perceptible relations…what makes a structure possible are reasons internal to the signifier. What makes a certain form of exchange conceivable or inconceivable are reasons that are specifically arithmetical; I don't think that he would back away from this term." (2010, p.167)

Lacan, having grasped the significance of Levi-Strauss' mytheme, "...tried almost immediately, and I dare say with complete success, to apply this grid to the symptom in obsessional neurosis and to Freud's admirable analysis of the Rat Man; this was in a lecture entitled precisely The Neurotic's Individual Myth.'" (2010, p.168)

"Myth is what gives a discursive formula to something that can't be transmitted in the definition of the truth, since the definition of the truth can only rely on itself and it is only in as much as speech progresses that it is constituted." (Lacan, 1953)

Lacan utilizes his understanding of Levi-Strauss' mytheme to makes a significant critique of the way that the Oedipus Complex is presented in the contemporary analytic doctrine. He argues that the structure of the Oedipal complex is really quite different from what is traditionally taught. In addition to "the incestuously desired mother, the interdiction of the father, the barrier, and around, the more or less luxuriant proliferation of symptoms", Lacan introduces a significant fourth element: death.

Equally significant for the development of Lacan's thinking is the way in which he critiques Levi-Strauss. It is evident that Lacan grasped the implications of Levi-Strauss' concepts in a way that surpassed Levi-Strauss to the same degree that Levi-Strauss surpassed Saussure. "…Claude Levi-Strauss, commenting on Mauss' work, no doubt wished to see in mana the effect of a zero symbol. But it seems that what we are dealing with in our case is rather the signifier of the lack of this zero symbol." (Lacan, 2006, p.695)

Zero symbols, a concept that Levi-Strauss refers to in Structural Anthropology are social institutions: "which one might characterize by a zero value. These institutions have no intrinsic property other than that of establishing the necessary preconditions for the existence of the social system to which they belong; their presence—in itself devoid of significance—enable the social system to exist as a whole." Adding: "This is the way in which I defined the concept of mana some time ago." (1974, p.159)

Lacan, however, is articulating a position that is a radical extension of that of Levi-Strauss, who posited the totem as a kind of zero point that inaugurates culture through an identification of the group with the signifier of the dead father. Lacan on the other hand says that the Name-of-the-Father is no such thing, but functions as "the signifier of the lack of this zero symbol." This is an important distinction, and has significant implications that are quite different from those that Levi-Strauss draws. What Lacan indicates is that the unconscious subject does not find a stable identity in relation to the Other. The primary trauma that founds the unconscious is the discovery precisely that the Other is castrated, that the Other is lacking. The Name-of-the-Father, while founding the subject, founds him in relation to the very signifier of the lack of the zero point. As Lacan notes, in the "Neurotic's Individual Myth":

The assumption of the function of the father supposes a simple symbolic relation, where the symbolic fully covers over the real. It would be necessary that the father would not only be the name-of-the-father, but also that he represent in his plentitude the symbolic value crystallized in his function. But it is clear that the full overlapping of the symbolic and the real is absolutely ungraspable. At least in a structure like our own, the father is always to some degree, a father discordant in relation to his function, an impoverished father, a humiliated father, as Mr. Claudel says. (1953, p.10)

Lacan's continued work on articulating the consequences of the lack of a zero point will lead to, among other things, what he has called his only true invention in the field of psychoanalysis, the objet petit a.

Lacan's critique of Levi-Strauss brings us to another aspect of Zafiropolous' argument, an aspect that is according to him actually the main motivation for writing the book.

Dr. Zafiropoulos' contention is that subsequent generations of Lacanian psychoanalysts have ignored, or even "repressed" the significance of Levi-Strauss's contribution to the history of psychoanalysis. His book is an attempt to counter this "repression" and to do so he admirably documents the significant impact for Lacan of his encounter with Levi-Strauss' seminal texts.

While the evidence of the influence is quite conclusive, the contention that the debt is repressed is less convincing. As Dr. Zafiropoulos himself notes, there are numerous acknowledgements of Levi-Strauss by Lacan in his remarks and writings. Elizabeth Roudinesco, in her biography of Lacan (Roudinesco, 1997), dedicates an entire chapter to the encounter of Lacan with the writings of Levi-Strauss.

Dr. Zafiropolous however, complains that Lacan's Return to Freud is only attributed to his encounter with Hegel and Saussure. Dr. Zafiropolous laments the insufficient recognition for the influence of the social sciences on psychoanalysis, charging that among the "best readers of Lacan, this presence [of Lacan's use of French ethnology, especially of Levi-Strauss] seems to have been ruined by the shadow of philosophers and linguists." (2010, p.196) He sees this as stemming from neglect of the fact that, in his view, both Freud and Lacan treated psychoanalysis precisely as a social science. (Zafiropoulos, 2010)

This is a provocative assumption, and not one to be uncritically accepted. Psychoanalysis' status as a science is a question that Lacan addressed throughout the entire span of his teachings. The dilemma of the scientific status of psychoanalysis is that while modern science aims at eliding the subject of science from the equation, this "objective" position is one that psychoanalysis neither can, nor should, aspire to. The object of psychoanalysis is precisely the subject. Lacan proposed different conclusions at different times. For example he attempted to clarify psychoanalysis' scientific status by referring the structure of the unconscious to the scientific field of structural linguistics in order to show that there is "something qualify-able under this term [of the unconscious] that is assuredly accessible in a completely objective manner." (Lacan, 1981, p.7) The success of this effort is something that he will later question. In 1975, in a talk he gave at Yale University, Lacan remarked that: "…like everyone I was naïve—I imagined that linguistics was a science. It had that ambition. It tried to act as if it was a science." (Lacan, 1976, p.19) and he adds: "In any case what we expect in the course of an analysis is an effort to get out of all that [distinction between knowledge and belief] for a path that has neither to do with knowledge nor with belief—to get out in saying what is really in [one's] spirit." (1976, p.12)

Lacan here seems to be saying something akin to what he had said twenty-five years earlier. "The Neurotic's Individual Myth" opens by stating of psychoanalysis that among the sciences it has a truly particular position. Lacan notes that there are those who contend that psychoanalysis is not really a science, but only an art. This is an error, he says, if one means by "art" a technique, an operational method, a set of recipes. It is not an error, however, if one uses the word "art" in the "sense that one used it in the Middle Ages when one spoke of the liberal arts—you know the series that went from astronomy to dialectics, through mathematics, geometry, music and grammar." Lacan reminds us that what distinguishes the medieval liberal arts from the subsequent sciences is that they maintain in the foreground "a fundamental relation to the measure of man. Well! Psychoanalysis is actually the only discipline that could be comparable to these liberal arts, in that it preserves this relation to the measure of man to himself—an internal relation, closed upon itself, inexhaustible, cyclical, that is ultimately carried by the usage of speech." (1953, p.1)

What Lacan points out is that psychoanalysis is singular and particular, and that is the difficulty in establishing its scientific status. At some level it undermines the very concept of scientific status.

It is also interesting to note that in his attempts to clarify the scientific status of psychoanalysis, Lacan refers to linguistics, not anthropology. Here is perhaps a more viable explanation for the apparent lack of acknowledgement for Levi-Strauss. Not that Lacan is forgetting his debt to Levi-Strauss in referring to linguistics (after all, he often credits Levi-Strauss), but rather the significance of Lacan's dialog with Levi-Strauss is that it introduced him to linguistics and the structure of language. Zafiropolous wishes to see a filiation from Levi-Strauss to Lacan. If there is a question of filiation, it is that of Levi-Strauss and Lacan in relation to Saussure. Their exchange was on the basis of their shared debt to Saussure.

Thus if subsequent generations refer to Saussure as the source for Lacan's encounter with the signifier, they are not incorrect. However, Zafiropoulos' documentation of that encounter via a dialog with Levi-Strauss is quite valuable and shouldn't be underestimated. As Zafiropoulos' book admirably demonstrates, this was a particularly fruitful exchange for Lacan, one that spurred him on in his conceptual elaborations.

What is sad to note is that Levi-Strauss appears to have taken little from his side of the encounter. When Zafiropolous showed the manuscript for his book to Levi-Strauss, Levi-Strauss was taken aback. The number of times he is cited by Lacan surprised and apparently pleased him, but ultimately he was not particularly interested. He told the author that he and Merleau-Ponty, another compatriot of Lacan's, had confided to each other that they had never bothered to read Lacan, they considered the effort too great. (Roudinesco, 1997). After reading Zafiropolous' manuscript Levi-Strauss returned it with the remark that due to the number of quotations of Lacan he had now read more of Lacan than he had ever read before, but that "Lacan remains hermetic" for him. (2010, p.viii)


See Freud's argument for lay analysis (Freud, "The Question of Lay Analysis," Vol. XX, Standard Edition, The Hogarth Press, London, 1959) for a clear picture of Freud's opinion of the APA and its practice of excluding non-medical practitioners.


Freud, S. (1959) "The Question of Lay Analysis," Vol. XX, Standard Edition, The Hogarth Press, London,.

Lacan, J. (2006) Ecrits, New York: Norton.

------. (1990),"A Letter to Lowenstein", Television/A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, New York: Norton, 1990.

------. (1981). The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York: Norton

------. (1953). Le Mythe individuel du névrosé,, p.1, (Author's translation)

------. (1976) Scilicet 6/7. Paris: Editions du Seuil

Levi-Strauss, C. (1987) Introduction to the Works of Marcel Mauss. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

------. Structural Anthropology, NY: Basic Books, 1974.

Roudinesco, E. (1997). Jacques Lacan (B. Bray, Trans.) New York: Columbia University Press

Zafiropoulos, M. (2010). Lacan and Levi-Strauss or the return to Freud (1951-1957). ( J.Holland, Trans.) London: Karnac


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