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  • Hysteria Manifest:Cultural Lives of a Great Disorder
  • Derritt Mason (bio) and Ela Przybylo (bio)

Hysterical time

“Hysteria,” writes Cecily Devereux in this issue’s opening essay, “is back” (41). Indeed, the past five years alone have provided us with peculiarly frequent cultural manifestations of hysteria, the great disorder1: a pathology famously “invented” in late nineteenth century Paris by Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital (Didi-Huberman), the amorphous illness that became, through Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895), “the embryonic moment of psychoanalysis” (Bowlby xvi). Recently, hysteria has surfaced onscreen in films including Alice Wino-cour’s Augustine (2012), David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), and Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria (2011); onstage in Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 Pulitzer-nominated [End Page 1] In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and a 2013 London revival of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, first produced in 1993 (Spencer); in the widespread media coverage of a late 2012 outbreak of mass conversion disorder among female high school students in Le Roy, New York (Dominus); and in an Amazon-produced television series inspired by the Le Roy case—Hysteria (2014)—which premiered, auspiciously, as the editors were compiling this issue.2 What appears to be a sudden cultural reinvestment in hysteria coupled with a puzzling instance of corporeal materializations invites the broad, provocative question, as posed by Devereux in her essay: “What does it mean when hysteria erupts into cultural space” (21)?

Recognizing that we cannot wholly pin down a concept that circulates in defiant resistance to definition, this issue understands hysteria as a diagnostic trope assigned to a series of symptoms—performed, manifested, and/or expressed at the level of the body—and functioning in every case as an index of cultural norms that hysteria always exceeds and sometimes resists. Today, hysteria commonly circulates with reference to collective and individual social performances of excessive behaviour, and although it has been by and large disarticulated from gender and medical discourse hysteria remains haunted by its history and etymology.3 In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), hysteria is housed as “Conversion Disorder (Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder),” which encompasses symptoms including weakness or paralysis, abnormal movement, swallowing symptoms, speech symptoms, attacks or seizures, anesthesia or sensory loss, special sensory symptoms, and mixed symptoms. The dsm estimates that persistent conversion symptoms [End Page 2] occur in two to five people per one hundred thousand per year and that conversion disorder is two to three times more common amongst women. Interestingly, hysteria has had a tenacious if not consistently named presence in the dsm’s history; four of the five dsm editions use the language of “conversion” to depict hysteria (dsm I in 1952, dsm III in 1980, dsm IV in 1994, dsm IV-tr in 2000, dsm V in 2013) with the exception to this pattern being the dsm II (1968) which uses the language of “hysterical neurosis.”

“It is as though we have never quite done with hysteria,” Rachel Bowlby points out in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria; “it is always, repeatedly, necessary to return to it, to see what it lacked or promised, to try to understand what is going on in its own apparently unprompted return in the present time” (xviii). In 2012, inspired by our shared experience two years prior in Cecily Devereux’s graduate seminar, “Hysteria: Cultural Texts” at the University of Alberta, we—the editors—found ourselves intrigued and perplexed by what seemed to be a renewed fascination with hysteria on behalf of our popular imaginary. We sought to perform the task Bowlby describes: to probe, through the lens of hysteria’s contemporary materializations, the cultural desires and anxieties that the great disorder’s returns and resurfacings seem to index. In our call for papers, we declared that the issue “aims to read hysteria’s present—its current representations, manifestations, embodiments, deployments, and iterations—while drawing on its diverse genealogies and violent, tangled past”; we aspired to “challenge hysteria’s grand histories and unearth its minor ones, defy myths of hysteria’s origins, teleology...


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