The Epistemic Lives of Pictures and Visualisations
Framing the Hysterical Body – A comparative analysis of a historical and a contemporary approach to imaging functional leg paralysis
During its several millennia long history, hysteria has consistently represented an essentially unresolvable medical mystery.1 It is characterised by a panoply of heterogeneous symptoms, including but not limited to paralyses, anaesthesia, tremors, contractures, seizures, disturbances of vision, loss of speech and memory, and pain. In most cases, a single patient displays a variety of symptoms, which can either occur simultaneously, or in a temporal succession. No undisputed organic cause has ever been established for any of the registered symptoms. For this reason, over the centuries, hysteria’s existence has been repeatedly called into question, either by accusing medical authorities of inventing it as a diagnostic entity, or patients of simulating their symptoms.
Those medical practitioners who viewed hysteria as a genuine illness endeavoured to establish its origin. The earliest etiological theories, which gave hysteria its name, postulated the cause of the disease in the uterus, thus declaring it a purely female disorder.2 Subsequent approaches, which started appearing in the seventeenth century, gradually shifted the etiological focus to other anatomical systems – such as the nerves, or specific cortical structures – or to purely psychological mechanisms.3 The latter were understood either in terms of patients’ hereditary emotional make-up, or as subconscious reactions to traumatic experiences and internal conflicts. Significantly, these approaches, which did not attribute the origin of the disorder to the female reproductive organ, opened up the possibility for diagnosing and treating hysteria in male patients. ← 97 | 98 →
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