Give a Psychiatrist a Camera and…

Photo of Augustine, one of Charcot's patientsThe perennially great blog Mind Hacks has just published a review of a book entitled The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, authored by Georges Didi-Huberman (MIT, 2004). (The French original of the book was published in 1982.)

The review begins:

Invention of Hysteria which is about how the use of photography by the 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot helped shape the our concepts of ‘hysteria‘ – a disorder where psychological disturbances manifest themselves as what seem like neurological symptoms.

On Google Book Search, I found the following publisher’s blurb:

In this classic of French cultural studies, Georges Didi-Huberman traces the intimate and reciprocal relationship between the disciplines of psychiatry and photography in the late nineteenth century. Focusing on the immense photographic output of the Salpetriere hospital, the notorious Parisian asylum for insane and incurable women, Didi-Huberman shows the crucial role played by photography in the invention of the category of hysteria. Under the direction of the medical teacher and clinician Jean-Martin Charcot, the inmates of Salpetriere identified as hysterics were methodically photographed, providing skeptical colleagues with visual proof of hysteria’s specific form. These images, many of which appear in this book, provided the materials for the multivolume album Iconographie photographique de la Salpetriere. As Didi-Huberman shows, these photographs were far from simply objective documentation. The subjects were required to portray their hysterical “type”–they performed their own hysteria. Bribed by the special status they enjoyed in the purgatory of experimentation and threatened with transfer back to the inferno of the incurables, the women patiently posed for the photographs and submitted to presentations of hysterical attacks before the crowds that gathered for Charcot’s “Tuesday Lectures.” Charcot did not stop at voyeuristic observation. Through techniques such as hypnosis, electroshock therapy, and genital manipulation, he instigated the hysterical symptoms in his patients, eventually giving rise to hatred and resistance on their part. Didi-Huberman follows this path from complicity to antipathy in one of Charcot’s favorite “cases,” that of Augustine, whose image crops up again and again in the Iconographie. Augustine’s virtuosic performance of hysteria ultimately became one of self-sacrifice, seen in pictures of ecstasy, crucifixion, and silent cries.

The Google Book Search page for it also has excerpts form the book and reviews by a number of readers.

I was unable to get the MIT Press web page for the book to load. However, one can learn more about it at and

Here is a snippet another (rather long) review of the book published (I think) in Art Forum closer to the time that the translation was first published:

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.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.