Invention of hysteria: Charcot and the photographic iconography of the Salpetriere

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Georges Didi-Huberman
MIT Press
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Cambridge, MA

Demonstrates the way in which the concept of hysteria was created out of the visual representations created by Charcot.

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HIST.D53 2003
ISBN 0262042150
Includes bibliographical references and index. --- Review, October 2004: Considered a foundational text in cultural studies since 1981, this book has recently been translated from French into English much to the delight of those eagerly awaiting its arrival. Through the analysis of infamous photographs taken by Charcot at the Salpetriere hospital for insane and incurable women during the late nineteenth century, Didi-Huberman draws parallels between the then newly emerging fields of psychology and psychoanalysis and the "hysterical" women in Charcot's photographs. Through historical exploration and the analysis of photographs, Didi-Huberman illustrates how the concept of hysteria was created out of the visual representations created by Charcot. He discovers that these photos are not objective representations, but were achieved through patient coercion. Patients were forced to perform their hysteria on command and these performances have come to represent what psychology thinks of as hysterical. This work has significant resonances in the field of women's health today, both in the construction of mental illness in women and in women's over representation in mental illness. This complex and compelling read points to the impact that historical ideas of medicine and illness still have on contemporary medicine.