- Gut Feminism
- differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
- Duke University Press
- Volume 15, Number 3, Fall 2004
- pp. 66-94
- View Citation
- Additional Information
differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.3 (2004) 66-94
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Elizabeth A. Wilson
Hysteria behaves as though anatomy did not exist or as though it had no knowledge of it.
The stomach and the bowel play puppet games with their own walls and contents, instead of digesting and excreting their contents.
I was hardly eating anything at all. Rice, bits of fish. I perfected the art of the silent puke: no hack, no gag, just bend over and mentally will the food back up.
In 1893 Sigmund Freud published a paper that compared organic and hysterical paralyses. This paper had been written many years earlier following his sabbatical at the Salpêtière under Jean-Martin Charcot. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the paper was not published for seven years; by then Freud had formed a working alliance with Joseph Breuer and they had published a preliminary communication on the treatment of hysteria. The first three sections of the 1893 paper are primarily neurological in orientation; the fourth and final section must have been written at a later date under the influence of his work with Breuer, and it is this section that contains an important conceptual argument about hysteria and anatomy. The 1893 paper incorporates two kinds of Freudian approach to the body—one neurological, one psychological. More specifically, the paper documents Freud's transition from one mode of analysis (neurological) to another (psychological). What was the nature of that conceptual transition? And why does it matter to feminists interested in biology?
Hysterical and organic paralyses, Freud argues, present clinically in quite different forms. While hysterical paralyses are notorious for [End Page 66] their capacity to mimic organic paralyses, in fact they differ from organic conditions in important ways: for example, hysterical paralyses are excessively intense, and they are more precisely delimited in their effects than organic conditions. That is, one would expect a hysterical paralysis to be more thoroughgoing than an organic paralysis, and it would be more strictly demarcated in the body (e.g., just the hand, the thigh, or a shoulder would be affected; whereas organic paralyses tend to implicate adjacent parts of the body). Furthermore, hysterical paralyses disobey fundamental rules that govern organic afflictions. For example, in hysterical paralysis proximal parts of the body, such as the shoulder or the thigh, may be more paralyzed than distal parts, such as the hand or foot. This never occurs in an organic paralysis.
How is it that hysterical paralyses can closely mimic organic paralyses, yet diverge from them in significant ways? More curiously, how is it that hysterical paralyses are able to accomplish biological transformations beyond the reach of the organic body? To solve this clinical puzzle, Freud enacted a conceptual distinction that would be very influential on feminist theories of embodiment: he detached the hysterical body from the anatomical body. Organic paralyses, he asserts, are the result of an underlying biological lesion; more precisely, they are governed by "the facts of anatomy—the construction of the nervous system and the distribution of its vessels" ("Some Points" 166). Charcot had hypothesized that hysterical paralyses are also the result of a lesion (what he called a dynamic or functional lesion), but Freud disputes this homology. There is no anatomical influence in hysteria; rather,
the lesion in hysterical paralyses must be completely independent of the anatomy of the nervous system, since in its paralyses and other manifestations hysteria behaves as though anatomy did not exist or as though it had no knowledge of it.
That is, hysteria appears ignorant of the anatomy of the body. Hysteria is uninterested in the facts of how muscles, ligaments, nerves, organs, and blood vessels are mapped, how they converge or dissociate, how they connect to distal parts of the body, or how they rely on certain signals or pathways in order to function effectively. Rather, hysteria "takes organs in the ordinary, popular sense of the names they bear: the leg is the leg as far up...