The material sensuousness of a hysteric’s performance

I will be presenting a performative paper at the Sensuous Object conference on the 29th September 2011 at Medical Museion, Copenhagen. For my object, I have chosen a restraining belt. What is even better is that I will be allowed to use it. The pervert in me cannot wait, the hysteric is a little more scared but still up for it. Here is my abstract. Check for updates nearer the time, as it is going to be a distinct and very interesting event.

Hysteria is an outdated diagnosis for a neurotic condition where the patient manifests psychic traumas in the body. In the nineteenth century, Dr Jean-Martin Charcot established the Salpetrière, a hospital in Paris dedicated to the treatment of hysterics – then mainly women. This is also where Sigmund Freud trained and discovered a passion for neurology, leading him to develop psychoanalysis. Charcot left a legacy of medical practices involving photographs and drawings to support his clinicaoanatomic method, and the objects he produced demonstrate the performativity involved in hysteria, and its research. As with any performance, objects, and their sensuousness, are important props.

The first accounts of hysteria relate a ‘wandering womb’, and fits, swooning and violent convulsions are some of the common symptoms reported. Restraining belts were often used in hospitals to keep patients safe. But how much was the contact of the leather – and sometimes the chains – a stimulant for the contractions in the body? How much did this limp object, only coming alive when in touch with the patient’s body enable the hysteric to ask her question – known as Che Vuoi?, what do you want from me?

Hysteria and seduction are inextricably linked. The hysteric is a performer, displaying some of the scopophilic characteristics of the pervert in their pleasure derived from being looked at. The alienist Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault worked with kleptomaniac women, interns in psychiatric units because of the sensuous reactions they had to fabrics such as velvet, silk or velour. The materiality of the object, as with the leather belt, was the conduit to the manifestation of their symptoms. What happens when the belt is not used is evident in a scene of Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film ‘Possession’ which I will show and discuss. Through it, I will also explore the positions of the hysteric and the pervert in relation to objects, seduction and being seen.