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Introduction :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle


“Spasms, convulsions, blackouts, semblances of epilepsy, catalepsies, ecstasies, comas, lethargies, deliria: a thousand forms within a few moments” (Didi-Huberman 115). These symptoms were characteristic of hysteria, the disturbing of the body by a tortured mind. Very common in the 19th century, hysteria was a vague diagnosis that is no longer applied in the modern world. The Salpêtrière hospital, the Paris-based madhouse for women, was a center where physicians tried to treat hysteria, under the watchful eye of Jean-Martin Charcot. Patients and physicians alike were active participants in hysteria as a distressing disease women commonly experienced. The patients were carefully, methodically and sequentially photographed, therefore providing the public with visual examples of the creation of hysteria. Though the public believed them to be organic representations of hysterical women, these photographs were far from objective visual documentation. They performed their own hysteria; they created their own hysterical “type” represented by theatrical positions and pre-meditated poses. In this fin-de-siècle culture, the photographic “evidence” of hysteria, the undeniably frightening postures of these mad women were representations of spectacle; in order to be the spectacle, they had to create it themselves. So ultimately, the asylum served as a mechanism to spread the epidemic of hysteria made public through the practice of photography and the emergence of hysteria as a public spectacle; the patients were willing participants and active creators of their own hysteria and therefore the category of hysteria as a whole.

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