Invention of Hysteria

Invention of Hysteria

Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière

By Georges Didi-Huberman

Translated by Alisa Hartz

The first English-language publication of a classic French book on the relationship between the development of photography and of the medical category of hysteria.





The first English-language publication of a classic French book on the relationship between the development of photography and of the medical category of hysteria.

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.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262042154 392 pp. | 7 in x 10 in 107 illus.


$44.95 T ISBN: 9780262541800 392 pp. | 7 in x 10 in 107 illus.


Alisa Hartz.


  • This poetic account of the relationship between photography and madness will interest any student of art or mental health.

    Publishers Weekly Forecasts

  • ...a significant examination of an often blurred landscape between pain and performance.

    Allan Graubard

    Leonardo Reviews


  • Didi-Huberman composes an absolutely fascinating story about the emergence of modern subjectivity from the netherworld and darkrooms of nineteenth-century medicine. This gorgeously written and provocative landmark study is indispensable for anyone interested in questions of gender, the history of science, photography, and medicine: in short, in how we see ourselves as who we are.

    Ulrich Baer

    Department of German, New York University, author of Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma

  • Georges Didi-Huberman's Invention of Hysteria is an almost legendary text, so influential has it been on cultural criticism, and this even before its very welcome translation into English. Writing in a style that is at once literary and philosophical, Didi-Huberman brilliantly demonstrates how a study of hysteria in the nineteenth century continues to have profound relevance for anyone interested in questions of culture and its embodimentthat is, questions concerning the workings of power. The author's erudite combination of visual and textual research and provocative analysis has produced a book that will be equally crucial to scholars of medicine, feminism, psychoanalysis, literature, photography, art history, the body, or postmodern theory, to name only a few of the fields it touches on. But it's also simply a great read, an artful rendition of history that reminds us of the extent to which the 'weird science' of the nineteenth century still haunts our thinking to this day.

    Geoffrey Batchen

    Professor of Art History, City University of New York Graduate Center

  • The invention and dissemination of photography, it has often been noted, contributed to what has been called the modern 'frenzy of the visible.' In this remarkable study of Charcot's clinic Salp'tri're and its iconography of madness, Georges Didi-Huberman demonstrates that it led as well to the heightened visibility of frenzy. The camera, he brilliantly shows, documentedor, better put, solicited the theatricalized spectacle of hysterical symptoms suffered by women at the dawn of the psychoanalytic age.

    Martin Jay

    Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

  • Van Gogh and hysteria? Proust and catalepsy! Sigmund Freud and theater? Charcot's influence is suddenly registering everywhere, not only in studies of fin-de-siècle medicine and psychology, but also in aesthetics, philosophy, and photographic history. Charcot figures in reexaminations of the 'new psychologies' of the 1890s, the birth of Freudian psychology, male and female hysteria, the designs of art nouveau lamp posts, art manifestos of the Symbolists, the novels of Huysmans and Proust, the landscapes of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and the history of flash photography. No wonder. The images of his patients at the infamous Salpêtrière hospital in Paris strike a thoroughly contemporary and postmodern chord, one that is brilliantly brought to life in this remarkable book by Georges Didi-Huberman.

    Robert Sobieszek

    Curator of Photography, Los Angeles County Museum of Art