The Freud Museum

Events Archive

24 October 2015
9.30am - 5.00pm


Interdisciplinary Conference

Why do symbols have such a powerful influence on human beings?

This question lies at the heart of both psychoanalysis and anthropology. In his seminal paper ‘The Effectiveness of Symbols’, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss compared the healing practices of shamans and psychoanalysts in terms of the structuring effects of symbol and language on the body.

Lévi-Strauss opened up new ways of thinking about the symbolic dimension of human life, offering a subtle reformulation of the Freudian unconscious and putting forward a theory of symbolic function that continues to resonate within both fields.

This conference brings together eminent speakers from the fields of psychoanalysis and anthropology to reflect on Lévi-Strauss’ paper and its influence, and to discuss symbolic effectiveness in their own research and practice.

To download a full timetable please CLICK HERE
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Exclusion, Unsustainability and the Determinations of the Symbolic
Henrietta Moore (social anthropologist and Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity and Chair in Philosophy, Culture and Design at UCL) [Biography]

Symbolic efficacy: From Ritual to Psychoanalysis and Back Again
Boris Wiseman (Associate Professor, Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen)

Symbol and Symbolic Function
Darian Leader (psychoanalyst and author)

Therapeutic Emplotment in the Native American Church
Joseph Calabrese (medical anthropologist, UCL)

Psychosis, Embodiment and the Ineffectiveness of Symbols
Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz (psychoanalyst)


Henrietta Moore - Exclusion, Unsustainability and the Determinations of the Symbolic
This paper discusses the difficulties of adhering to Lévi-Strauss’s view of the symbolic and his account of the effectiveness of symbols. It uses material from Papua New Guinea and China to explore the relationship between desire and ethics as a means of exploring some contemporary problems in articulating the relationship between the psyche and the social.

Boris Wiseman - Symbolic efficacy: From Ritual to Psychoanalysis and Back Again

In this paper I will address the question of the efficacy of symbols by exploring some echoes between ritual and psychoanalytic practices. I will start by examining Lévi-Strauss’s seductive theory of symbolic efficacy and will then turn to a contemporary anthropological revision of that theory by Carlo Severi (Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale) and its psychoanalytic resonances. I will conclude by turning the lens of anthropology onto psychoanalysis and by asking what Amerindian ritual practices may tell us about the talking cure.

Darian Leader - Symbol and Symbolic Function
This talk will explore some common misconceptions about symbolism, and discuss aspects of the formation of symbols and the establishment of the symbolic function.

Joseph Calabrese - Therapeutic Emplotment in the Native American Church
In this talk, I will outline my analysis of the Native American peyote ritual, which involves a dialectic between therapeutic symbolism and the use of the psychedelic peyote cactus within an alternative semiotic-reflexive paradigm of psychopharmacology. I will discuss the design features of the ritual intervention as well as examples of healing experiences, which demonstrate the ways in which therapeutic efficacy is embedded in ritual symbols and cultural mythology, generating healing transformations and enduring insights. 

Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz - Psychosis, Embodiment and the Ineffectiveness of Symbols
In section VII of ‘The Unconscious’, Freud famously discusses how, in psychosis, words are ‘treated like things’, pointing to the radical literality of the psychotic perspective in which the relations of words to ‘the things denoted’ are somewhat obstructed. This points to a triple collapse that is characteristic of this kind of psychic organisation: collapse of the metaphorical dimension, failure of repression and breakdown of the preconscious. What are the consequences of this triple collapse on the ‘symbolic function’ as Levi-Strauss sees it? Is psychosis the site of the ‘ineffectiveness of symbols’? Such are some of the questions that this paper offers to discuss in metapsychological and clinical terms with special emphasis on embodiment and, following the work of Gisela Pankow, the symbolising function of the body image.


Henrietta Moore is the founding Director of the new Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London where she also holds the Chair of Philosophy, Culture and Design. She is an internationally renowned social anthropologist who has written extensively on the interrelation between material and symbolic gender systems, embodiment and subjectivity. She is the author of several books, including The Subject of Anthropology (2007), a cutting-edge analysis of gendered subjectivity and a ground-breaking contribution to the debates between anthropology and psychoanalysis.

Boris Wiseman is Associate Professor at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen. He is the author of several books, including Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2007), and edited The Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss (2009).

Darian Leader is a writer, psychoanalyst, trustee of the Freud Museum and founding member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. He has written numerous books, including Strictly Bipolar (2013), What is Madness? (2011), The New Black (2008) and Freud's Footnotes (2000)

Joseph Calabrese is Reader of Medical Anthropology at University College London. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago, training in anthropology and clinical psychology, with two postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School in Clinical Psychology and Medical Anthropology. He was also the Cannon Fellow in Patient Experience and Health Policy at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He is author of A Different Medicine: Postcolonial Healing in the Native American Church (2013).

Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz is a psychoanalyst and a translator. She is a member of the SITE for Contemporary Psychoanalysis and one of the editors of Sitegeist: A Journal of Psychoanalysis and Philosophy. She is the founder of the Psychosis Therapy Project at Islington Mind. She has translated a number of psychoanalytic works including Dominique Scarfone’s Laplanche: An Introduction (2015).

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