Next: hysteria

13 August 2011 | , ,


So, with the clues I have been giving you, through my recents texts, works and my PhD, you probably have figured out that what my current project is about is hysteria.

Forgive me if my writing is inarticulate. This is something that started forming in my head barely three months ago, and I have not done, thought, or written much about it. It does not have words of it own, yet. I am testing the waters here but if there is anything I learned from my PhD is that it is good to do that, as it helps to organise muddled thinking.

Hysteria, well, a hysteric this is something one cannot be, medically speaking. It is an outdated diagnostic category, now translated as post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation or conversion disorder (and these are only some of its many names). Hysteria is the physical manifestation of psychological traumas. The first accounts of hysteria relate a ‘wandering womb’. Swooning, convulsing, contracting, fainting, and aphasia – loss of speech – are some of its common symptoms. It is related to gender roles, to sexuality and, like everything in psychoanalysis, to the Oedipus complex.

What led me to explore hysteria – apart from my own hysteric episode in 2009, for which I was treated – was a re-encounter with a scene of a film. In Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession, Anna (or Helen), played by Isabelle Adjani, has a violent hysteria attack on a tunnel of a Berlin U-Bahn station. She throws herself against the walls and self harms, savagely. What is her body reacting to? What does it know that the rational (conscious) mind does not?



Since the French aliénistes and even before, hysteria has had an air of mystery about it, even trickery. The conflict between mind and body in hysteria, as Zulawki’s film shows, relates to a ‘depraved epistemology’ as Christopher Bollas names it, an understanding of womanhood and a choice of sexual objects.

The viewing of this film showed all my perversions, for the more violent and gruesome it became, the more I enjoyed it (a little like Isabelle Adjani herself). My interest in hysteria is about its history, gender and the performance of a psychological issue. Also its place in the history of psychoanalysis and the link to perversion. PTSD does not have that clear link. Does this diagnosis need to be revived?

So, what next? Well, I have been invited to the Sensuous Objects conference, which will take place at the Medical Museum in Copenhagen in at the end of September. The aim is to speak of hysteria by interacting with the objects in their collection, and link it to seduction. The objects I have chosen will not surprise you: a leather restraining belt and a photographic camera.

Watch this space.

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