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Jonathan W. Marshall: The neurological theatre of hysterioepilepsy

My presentation surveys some of the work from my recent monograph Performing Neurology: The Dramaturgy of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (Palgrave: 2016) which examines the work of influential French neurolopathologisy Charcot (1825-93). Charcot and his colleagues faced a challenge when they examined a disease they called “hysterioepilepsy.”

They argued that what was elsewhere called “hysteria” was not so much a psychological condition, but a neurophysiological one. Its characteristic symptoms were prolonged seizures and disorderly movements, similar to related conditions such as epilepsy, chorea or Tourette’s syndrome. Latent within the body, Charcot theorised that the hysteria was precipitated by trauma and violence, by a highly emotional or physically intense experience. As a deferred performance of violence, of an assault or disorder of the body, hysterioepilepsy was particularly difficult to describe. Its chaos, its resistance to any form of patterning, was its most striking feature. And yet order existed.

Charcot’s former intern Charles Richet claimed of Charcot’s patients that: “Upon hearing the vociferations, the screams of these demoniacs, upon seeing their furious contortions, it seems that only chance steers this frightful drama. [But] In reality … all of this disorder proceeds with the mathematical precision of a well-wound clock.” Despite this confidence, the choreography of hysterioepilepsy remained difficult to adequately describe, and Charcot’s diagnostic paradigm was widely contested.

In my paper I will lay out the nature of this illness as described by Charcot, and propose hysteria might be considered as a kind of traumatic non-emergence. Trauma and illness are defined by their resistance to order and rational language. They are their very opposite. The body of the traumatised victim cannot speak. Rather it quakes, it spasms, and it defies full accounting. A careful examination of Charcot’s descriptions can offer us a kind of a choreographic shorthand for bodies which reflect these forms as spasmodic resistance. Caught in a place between full emergence (an easy to describe set of movements and symptoms) and invisibility (movements and actions so erratic as to be impossible to recognise), hysteriform movements have appeared at several points in history, and they represent those moments where violence smashes cultures and bodies to produce corporeal chaos.

Date Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Time 5:00pm - 6:00pm
Audience Public
Event Category Humanities
Event Type Lecture
Public Lecture
LocationMoot Court, Richardson Building

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