Hysterical Neurologists, Clownist Convalescents, and Early Cinema’s Visual Cure

< Program < PANEL NO. 8: Performers and Performance

Unlike cinema, photography was a crucial tool that nineteenth-century neurologists used to research, classify, and exhibit the spectacular symptoms of clinical hysteria. Jean-Martin Charcot notoriously plastered the walls of the Salpêtrière Hospital with snapshots of his star hysterics – Augustine, Blanche, Geneviève – in startling poses (such as epileptic fits or “clownist” contortions) that further illustrated his systematic typology of hysteria’s somatic trajectory. Shortly after Charcot’s death in 1893, two things happened: first, many of his theories were summarily discredited by psychoanalysis, which emphasized the “talking cure” as a salve to unconscious repression over the visual theatrics of hypnosis and epileptic seizures; second, cinema exploded as a popular medium of mass culture that converted modern anxieties into moving images, rather than into clinically pathological symptoms. In other words, early cinema offered a “visual cure” to pandemic hysteria.

In this vein, many film historians have explored the resonance of hysteria and neurasthenia for analyzing the arresting visceral aesthetics of early cinema and mass entertainment culture (Gordon, Kirby, Bean, Williams). Other scholars have emphasized the use value of early filmmaking as a research tool in scientific explorations of human anatomy and the unseen world (Gaycken, Curtis, Cartwright, Aubert). Indeed, clinicians of hysteria dabbled in filmmaking as a research instrument, if not also a form of medical showmanship (e.g., Arthur Van Gehuchten, Camillo Negro, Albert Londe). But moving pictures never caught on like photography within these fields.

In my paper, I will pursue what little remains of hysteria’s early medical film archives, while re-opening formative feminist debates about the politics of hysterical gesture as a medium for social protest. Hysterical symptoms, I argue, were parlayed into popular techniques of moving image representation, but largely bedeviled medical tradesmen and professional clinicians. Why then, I ask, did moving pictures (in contrast to still photography) miss the mark of medical research on hysteria? Meanwhile, hysterical imagery exploded in popular entertainment culture as a visual cure to epidemic neurosis.

Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota)

Maggie Hennefeld is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is author of the award-winning book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia UP, 2018), co-editor of the journal Cultural Critique, and co-editor of two volumes: Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (Duke UP, 2020). She is currently co-curating a DVD/Blu-ray set on “Cinema’s First Nasty Women” and writing a second monograph about the history of women who allegedly died from laughing too hard.