Hysteria: Physical Presence and Juridical Absence
& AIDS: Physical Absence and Juridical Presence
[intro] [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [notes]
I. Hysteria: Physical Presence and Juridical Absence
The first part of the title of this essay refers to a formulation which appears in Norman Bryson's study The Logic of the Gaze. There Bryson is interpreting the work of Theodore GÚricault, who, in the beginning of the nineteenth century (1822-23), studied the influence of mental states on the human face and believed that the face accurately revealed the inner character, particularly in dementia and in cases of instant death. He made studies of inmates in hospitals and institutions for the criminally insane, where he himself spent time as a patient. Bryson claimed that if the historic purpose of the portrait genre is to record a precise social position, a particular instance of status in the hierarchy of power, than GÚricault's portraits of insane people, from the first moment, exhibited a contradiction. For Bryson the portrait of the insane is, therefore, an impossible object, a categorical scandal, since the insane are those who have been displaced from any social hierarchy, who cannot be located on a social map, whose portraits thus cannot be painted. Bryson concluded that GÚricault fused the categories of privilege and social void, society and asylum, physical presence and juridical absence.4Martin Charcot's photographs of the hysterical patients taken at Salpetriere hospital (1877-80) had the same purpose.5 Because the underlying pathology of hysteria is invisible, Charcot doubted that hysteria was a disease at all. For him, hysteria was a problem of representation - the incongruence of image and thought, a disease occasioned by a problem of representation. To anchor this mobile disease Charcot enlisted the aid of photography. With photographs of the hysterics Charcot attempted to make visible this disease that could not be acknowledged except through behavior or representations.6 Just as Charcot's photographs, GÚricault's previous studies functioned "as the institution of the subject, in this case of the insane persons, within the visible" 7. This institution of the subject within the visible was done according to a precisely chosen representational mode of the epoch - photography - therefore using modes and techniques that overdetermined visibility in a more general way within the discussed period. The categories of absence and presence are thus in a dual relation to the institution of the subject within the visible. Joan Copjec points out that hysteria, an illness of the imagination, threatened knowledge and in confusing categories of real and unreal illnesses, true perception and false images, made the physician a potential victim of trickery and deception, casting doubt on his senses that were the foundation of his knowledge.8 The issue therefore was not only to discover the relation between representations and hysteria, but to use the most appropriate regime of representation for such a kind of instauration. Photography, then being theorized as both the outcome and in service of positivism - objective, unmediated, actually imprinted by the light rays of the original form - was the ideal representational mode to be used in bringing the disease into a discursive construction.9
But this was happening in the nineteenth century, so what are these processes like today? I will make a parallel between the categories of absence/presence and different systems of representation with regard to AIDS, the illness par excellence of our time, attempting in this way to chart the process of the institution of the subject within the visible. AIDS also presents the problem of homogenous representation and depiction - the incongruence of both the image and the gaze. In the case of AIDS, in opposition to hysteria, the underlying pathology of the illness is horribly visible, and the whole process of representation and visibility is therefore operating differently, trying to erase and/or hide the conspicuous nature of the illness. The "identification" of the spectator with an ill person or with the AIDS disease is transferred to a metonymy, whose purpose is to hide the presence of the "real" ill body. Those persons who are afflicted with AIDS are in general listened to, rather than looked at.
An artistic articulation of the above thesis is the feature film Blue, directed by Derek Jarman in 1993. For 75 minutes a blue screen is shown in front of the spectator. It is the sole image throughout the film, which provides a canvas for the audience, listening to evocative words, music and sounds. There are various ways of displaying the text in the film: inner speech, repetitious preoccupying phrases, or unconscious spoken thoughts.10 But my interest here lies not in a sociological reading or reinterpretation of the text in the film, but in the representational system superimposing, depicting the text in the film, on the blue colored canvas11. In Jarman's film the institution of the subject within the visible is presented by the disembodied voice of an ill person who is deliriously speaking throughout the film, anchoring the disease into the field of discourse. If we make a parallel between this regime and the one depicting hysteria, we can state that AIDS is represented with the physical absence of an actually ill body, but with a strong request through the text in the film for the juridical (judicial) presence, for the legal rights in different segments of society which are crossing or bordering the ill body. Another such an example is a mainstream film about AIDS - Philadelphia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1994). In it Tom Hanks portrays a character who is a pale image of a real AIDS patient. In spite of having on the level of presentation the absence of an "authentically ill body", we nevertheless see on the other hand in this particular film also a clear fight for a juridical presence, for the rights pertaining to juridical proceedings of the persons inflicted with AIDS, especially homosexuals.12 The binary terms of presence-absence in relation to the representation of the body and its social counterpart in the juridical system culminate in two ways simultaneously: through technological interventions and discursive practices. It is possible though, to conceive the relation of a social space in which collision of bodies and reproduction technology (photography, film) takes place within the politics of power as it functions through the juridical system. Such a relation is also that between the invention/discovery of photography and the logic of the photograph's regime of representation and hysteria on the one side, and the invention of new technologies and media and its regimes of representation and AIDS on the other.
The success of photography as a technology for and of image-making in the anchoring of hysteria had to do precisely with its confirmatory aspects. The latter enabled photography to succeed in the rapid expansion and assimilation within the discourses of knowledge and power. This structural congruence of different viewpoints (the eye of the photographer, the eye of the camera, and the spectator's eye), in photography cover a quality of pure, but delusory presence.13 When Abigail Solomon-Godeau is analyzing the mechanisms internal to the media apparatus in question - photography - she claims that the most important among them is the "reality effect". She claims that "a further structuring instance lies in the perspective system of representation built into camera optics in photography's infancy".14 "The world is no longer an 'open and unbound horizon'. Limited by the framing, lined up, put at the proper distance, the world offers itself up as an object endowed with meaning, an intentional object, implied by and implying the action of the 'subject' which sights it."15 We have to accept that there are ideological effects inherent to the photographic apparatus, and that these effects influence relations, scopic commands, and the confirmation or displacement of subject positions.
In conclusion to the first established connection between representation, photography and hysteria, we can state that the fusion of physical presence and juridical absence in the photographs of the hysterics also offers a counter-reading. On the one side, this specific institution of the subject within the visible was possible or was the result of the specific ideological mechanisms of the optical truth intrinsic to the photographic apparatus. On the other side, this same apparatus reinforced the position of juridical absence of the insane person. As Pierre Bourdieu commented, discussing the social uses of photography: "In stamping photography with the patent of realism, society does nothing but confirm itself in the tautological certainty that an image of reality that conforms to its own representation of objectivity is truly objective".16
[intro] [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [notes]