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Bodies, Hysteria, Pain Staging the Invisible petra kuppers Disability can stand in interesting relations to medical science and performances of identity. This essay deals with signifying bodies, invisible impairments, and the historical stagings of meanings. It begins with theatrical discourses and historical practices surrounding hysteria, and charts resonances with two contemporary performance projects by people with invisible, “inner” impairments: Traces, an installation–performance project by people with mental health issues, and Fight, a project involving a performer with a pain-related impairment. Whatever the internal effects of their speci‹c conditions, all of the performers in these projects are aware of the social reading of their conditions. All have experienced discrimination and, sometimes, violence. They are aware that exposing themselves, making their differences visible, can be a dangerous choice with harsh consequences. At the same time, some are also aware of the fascination and the desire to know that accrues to differences between people. Whether visibly impaired (as I am when I am using my wheelchair) or in a problematic relationship to visibility (with mental health and pain issues), disabled people are often asked to describe their experiences, and to open up their personal histories to both the medical gaze and public curiosity. Given these complexities surrounding disclosure and curiosity, how can we approach performance, value our experiences, and place our perform147 ing bodies in the public sphere? How can we move between the staring eyes, the abstraction of the brain scan, and the dangerous shores of “normalization ,” the elision of difference? The trajectory of the performance projects discussed here is from knowing and ‹xing to unknowability and generative uncertainty. One of the answers we have found in our projects is the extension of performance to multimedia environments, which allow us to manipulate and work with presence in interesting ways. By structuring the visibility machine of performance , we intervene in the violations of the “medical stare” at different bodies. In order to grasp the multiplicity and manipulation of meaning in the performances that will be discussed, I use the signifying concept of a technology of meaning. With it, the essay points to the historical manufacture of meaning and its stage apparatuses, the realist devices and visibility machinery of both medical discourse and political performance. In the multimedia performances engaged in by the medical practitioner Charcot, the aim was to ‹x a speci‹c symptomatology, to make it visible and categorizable . In contrast, the two disability arts installations discussed in this essay undo these certainties, using multimedia performances as ways of breaking through the ‹xing of difference. Visible Minds Jean Martin Charcot (1825–1893) investigated and stage-managed hysteria from the 1870s onward in the Parisian Salpêtrière. Hysteria had been a named condition with a broad symptomatic catalog since roughly 1900 B.C. Medical writing generally emphasized the physical manifestations of the hysterical seizure: suffocation, vomiting, palpitations, convulsions, fainting, the voiding of large quantities of urine, and speech disturbances. (Beizer 1994, 4) The late nineteenth century saw culturally important struggles over the bodies of people, still predominantly women, diagnosed with the condition . At stake was the liberation of the neurological apparatus from the gynecological one: the mind from the body. Charcot was an in›uential ‹gure in this ‹ght. Charcot sought to construct a coherent, nosological narrative that would impose an order on what presented itself as utterly grotesque body and voice 148 Bodies in Commotion articulations, in it systematization would subject to the laws of a regulated pathology an evasive, psychosomatic illness and the resilient unruliness of the patient’s exhibiting it. (Bronfen 1998, 181) His popular shows and photographs contributed to the romantic status of the hysteric in both realist and surrealist literature in turn-of-the century France and elsewhere. To the surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon, hysteria was “the greatest discovery of the late-nineteenth century,” a poetic liberation (Beizer 1994, 2). A raft of literature discusses the political impact of using women’s physical paralysis as a metaphor for narrative liberation and refusal of discourse.1 But it is in another aspect of the entry of the hysteric woman into the cultural limelight that this essay takes an interest: the staging of visible evidence of difference. An elaborate machinery was at work to bring the neurological, internal working of the hysteric condition into visibility, and to mark it on the body it “possessed.” This machinery articulated in interesting ways issues of agency, visibility, and knowledge. Charcot’s greatest achievement was to both take...


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