Probing Pictures: Carol Armstrong on Georges Didi-Huberman.
Two questions had been put to me as I set about reading Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere in translation. (It was published in French twenty-one years ago.) Why did it take so long for Georges Didi-Huberman's book to appear in English? And why had it not been more important to the relatively new discipline of the history of photography in its Anglo-American incarnation? (Or, more positively, what had its importance been?) Rather than answer those "why" questions directly, I thought I would pursue briefly the theme of translation and then look more at length at Invention of Hysteria as a book about photography as much as hysteria, such that its "photographic iconography" portion would be just as important as the headlined part of the title; such that everything said about hysteria and its invention could be translated into a statement about photography and its spread as a medium of documentation, as the modern provider of iconographies.
The issue of translation is in fact twofold. Perhaps texts like Invention of Hysteria should remain in French. Deconstructionist formulations abound in this book which flow with relative fluidity in French but read peculiarly in English. English, with its immense, polyglot vocabulary and stress on the meanings of individual words--the relation between word and thing as much as between word and word--is simply less suited than French to that kind of play. In English, linguistic sophistication gives way to ludic awkwardness, poststructure to a kind of hysteria, even, in which language wanders, contorts itself, grimaces irrationally, sticks its tongue out, and makes itself up. Perhaps such a text cannot even be seen to be about photography in English, according to the dominant Anglo-American sense of the photograph as datum rather than a particular kind of sign, an aesthetic experience rather than a semiotics, the contested object of art history rather than of literary criticism.
Which brings us to another matter of translation: how to translate a book about hysteria into one about photography. For Invention of Hysteria is much more obviously about hysteria than about photography. Its claims about hysteria--that it was an anxious misogynist concoction; that it construed the female subject as a fundamentally pathological subject; that it did violence to the subjects that it created, objectified, and spectacularized; that as such it gave birth to Freud, the discipline of psychoanalysis, the power of the analyst, and the topic of the unconscious, out of the very regime of positivist empiricism and experimentalism that the unconscious subverts and psychoanalysis inverts--are important for the history of psychology, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic criticism, and feminism. It is as such that the book has been influential. At most, Invention of Hysteria shares some of its topical content with later classics of photography criticism such as Allan Sekula's "The Body and the Archive" of 1986. But Invention of Hysteria is not itself such a classic of new photography criticism.
Nevertheless, Invention of Hysteria is about photography, in a roundabout, subterranean way. Its view of the photograph is eminently Barthesian (which is to say Gallic, not Anglophone): the photographic punctum, the future anterior tense of the photograph, the uncanny irruption of the unconscious in the photograph, the stress on the pose, the facies, and the theatricality of photography, the emphasis on the photograph's indexically based power of certification and at the same time its illegibility, even the feminization of the photograph under the sign of the unheimlich--all of these are concepts from Barthes's Camera Lucida (1980), published just two years before Invention of Hysteria. What Invention of Hysteria gives us is the photographic equivalent of Freud's Dora: the "case" of Augustine, the prima donna of the Salpetriere. And the case of Augustine is emblematic, not only of the photogenic nature of hysteria, as Charcot directed it, but also of Didi-Huberman's theory of the hysterical photograph, which extends Barthes's photographic puncture to cover the umbilical ties between the femininity of hysteria and what we might call the hysterium (the dark womb?) of photography.
In Didi-Huberman's analysis the hysterical female body that Charcot produced with the help of Augustine and her fellow female patients at the Hopital de la Salpetriere was a photogenic version of the old conception of the nomadic uterus--the womb that wandered about the body was understood to be the cause of what was considered a specifically female malady--from which the word "hysteria" derives. That hysteria--that origin of hysteria--was invisible; Charcot's hysteria was written on the face and body, where it could be the object of the positivist experiment. Like Duchenne de Boulogne's 1860s experiments with "expressions induced with electricity" (cited in Invention of Hysteria), in which the apparatus of experimentation is often frankly visible in the photographs that render those expressions, the "photographic iconography" of the Salpetriere consists of one experiment after another in the induction of visible states of hysteria for the purposes of being watched and photographed. Sometimes the experimental apparatus is visible in the photographs, sometimes not--as, for example, when tongs were inserted into Augustine and her inmates to pinch, twist, and torture the uterus, thus reproducing the rape that may have been the origin of her trauma.
But whether the apparatus is visible or not, the photograph itself is a fundamental part of the experiment: The camera is the machinery of the experiment; the prostituted body of Augustine, its subject; and the photographs, its results--"photographs induced with hysteria," which in turn had been induced through one method or another. (The bodies of the hysterical women who put themselves on show were often all that was needed for the experiment to take place; their bodies were the equipment of experimentation, both its object and its device, the central feature of the whole contraption. As ever in the world of positive science, pathology was a form of experiment produced in the laboratory of Nature, aided and abetted by human artifice, while the experiment was a form of induced pathology into which there was built considerable indeterminacy as to whether Nature or man had done the most inducing and where the line between them fell. And when positivism began to turn its eye inward, inverting its own project, no pathology was more suited to its purposes than that of the female subject, as the birth of psychoanalysis out of positivism and the later history of the movement prove.)
Photography was conceived out of the very regime of positivist induction and inductive experimentation that concocted Charcot's photogenic hysteria: together they were the spectacularly functional property of that regime. And nothing demonstrates this better than the photographic inferno of the Salpetriere, in which the positivist episteme reached its hellish apogee. But there is more to it than that; in Invention of Hysteria photography is more than a mere "iconography"--more than an archive of documents, more than the vast image bank that it has become, more than a record of a prior event, transparent to and determined by that event. (There is much to suggest, in fact, that the opposite was true--that the photographs helped determine the event, as they almost always do in "documentary" situations.) The chapter titled "Attacks and Exposures" in particular points to the two-way equation between hysteria and photography at work, for it suggests that the "attack" was already a kind of "exposure," while the "exposure" was always a kind of "attack."
The following are some of the descriptors of the hysterical "attack" that may be transferred to the photographic "exposure" and vice versa. Each convulsion of the hysterical body, face, limb, and/or entire frame made a tableau, a kind of living sculpture, in which the subject was simultaneously hypercontracted and cataleptic, ultramobile and immobilized: a photograph before it was photographed, in short. Like the "automatic writing" of the photograph, it was a body under the sway of its soma, a body that caricatured its own automatisms. Like the "little death" of the photographic pose, the hysterical body was the delayed, scandalous yield of trauma and frozen, recurring memory. As the lens frames and crops, so this body isolated its own parts and details by muscular acts of distension and contraction that made it into a series of broken instants and fetishized fragments. It came in and out of focus. It was an imprint, a specter of the past in the present, and a ghostly emission; like an emulsion its effluvia could be stimulated at will. It was a trigger mechanism; indeed it was an interior--a camera--that could be triggered to exteriorize itself in images.
At once passive and active, the hysterical body was controlled by an operator who understood how to force the unconscious to make its appearance. Demonic and demonized, it was inhabited by forces outside itself that possessed it in grimaces and contortions that proved the brute physicality of its spirit. It was a body that exposed itself; it was the object of extreme scopophilia, of scopophilic extremism. It was not beautiful--far from it--but it was a kind of art, at once theatrical and pictorial; indeed, it was the other side of beauty. And it was indexical--the hysterical body was all trace and reflex, cause and effect. These are all things that could be said of the photograph too, though not of beautiful photography, not of canonized photography, and not of main stream "documentary" photography either. More than iconography then, the hysterical photographs of the Salpetriere suggest an alternative ontology of the photograph, an ontology of the bad photograph. (For it is striking that the Salpetriere photographs are all bad photographs: not only ugly and ungainly, but grainy, blurred, over- and underexposed, and badly reproduced, badly controlled in short.)
This bad photography is the photography that, like positivism itself, gives rise to its surrealist alter ego; the "case" of Augustine represents photography's weird sister as much as the "invention of hysteria." But fascinating as it is, this is no more a photography fit to be canonized or mainstreamed than Invention of Hysteria is fit to be Anglicized. Like Camera Lucida, which is much more directly about photography, it addresses the wild-card aspects of the photograph. Invention of Hysteria seeks to show how its early scientific users tried to make a studium out of photography's puncture, a study of its demon and its delirium, in the delirious face and form of the female demoniac. But as Barthes himself put it, this photography is the shipwreck of philosophy, the undoing of all ontology, and certainly it is too eccentric to be of much use to the history of photography per se. It does offer some lessons worth learning again about such putative things as the transparency of the photograph, the a posteriori status of the document, and the disinterestedness of the scientist and the document maker. And assuming that the relations discovered in it between hysteria and photography are more than wordplay, perhaps what it offers that is of some use vis-a-vis photography and the way we write about it is the introduction of fundamental doubts about the enterprise of the history of photography as such, if that history is unable to accommodate the most peculiar aspects of the medium it seeks to historicize and canonize.
At the same time, the legitimate fascination with those particular aspects of the medium deserves to be more directly stated than it is in Invention of Hysteria, and detached from the fashionable surface topicality of hysteria, which in Didi-Huberman's book meets with a queasy-making mixture of moral superiority and the very same prurient enchantment that seems to have infected Charcot and his prepsychoanalytic brethren, and that passes itself on to any like-minded reader of Invention of Hysteria. (I myself fell prey to it.) The hysterium of photography: That is a metaphor, and one worth thinking about. The photogenic hysteria of Augustine: That was a real rape forced upon her weekly for a good long period of time. Perhaps we should not confuse the two, after all.
Carol Armstrong is Doris Stevens Professor in Women's Studies at Princeton University.
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|Title Annotation:||Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2003|
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