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Hysteria, Foucault, and Feminism: Resistance in Psychiatric Power and Phallogocentric Discourse

By: Ilgin Yildiz

Hysteria as a disease has over 4000 years of history. Freud invented psychoanalysis on the basis of his work with female hysterics like ‘Dora’ (Ida Bauer). In 1952, with the elimination of the word ‘hysteria’ as a separate clinical entity from the first edition of DSM-I, it left the psychiatric nomenclature (Gherovici, 2014, p. 47). As an event, hysteria has come to be perceived within socio-political parameters, its history manifesting an interesting shift in power relations between doctor and patient, master and hysteric, as well as male and female. Thus, one sees remarkable convergences between Foucault’s exploration of hysteria as a ground-breaking event and feminist interpretations of it. The resistance of the hysteric, as well as the hysterical engagement has been an influential theme in feminist thought.


The first description of hysteria is found in the Kahun Papyrus (1900 BC) which attributes the disease to the movement of the uterus within the female body (Rapetti and Carta, 2012, p. 110). Plato, in Timaeus, wrote that the uterus is sad when it does not “join with the male and does not give rise to a new birth, and Aristotle and Hippocrates were of the same opinion” (ibid.). He also described the womb as an animal: “voracious, predatory, appetitive, unstable, forever reducing the female into a frail and unstable creature” (Scull, 2009, p. 13). The term ‘hysteria’ was first adopted by Hippocrates in 5th century, who also believed that its cause was the wandering uterus (hysteron): “the womb is the origin of all diseases,” (ibid.) he wrote, and the cure for these women was to get married and have sex regularly. Hysteria was cured with herbs, sex or sexual abstinence. Hysterical women were subjected to exorcisms, and misogyny erupted in the witch trials. The social pressure on women increased in the Victorian Age as women were expected to maintain purity and morality – the number of hysterical women during this period increased dramatically, and they received various treatments: among them “bleeding, by lancet, cupping, or leeches” (p. 64). W. Tyler Smith treated the “erotic and nervous symptoms” of “nervous, menopausal women … by a course of injections of ice water into the rectum, introduction of ice into the vagina, and leeching of the labia and cervix” (ibid.). Baker Brown believed that the cause of female hysteria was masturbation and treated the disease “‘by removing the cause of excitement,’ the woman’s clitoris” (p. 78) and American surgeon Battey practiced ‘normal ovaritomy’ to trigger artificial menopause (p. 88).

A turning point in the history of hysteria was the work of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpêtrière, an asylum for women. Charcot “made hysteria a spectacle and a circus” (p. 104).

that regularly featured scantily clad women disporting themselves in unmistakably erotic cataleptic poses, or writhing and moaning in ways that mimicked orgasms on a public stage, before an understandably rapt audience … The photographs of these occasions, captured in carefully staged arrangements before the supposedly objective lens of the camera and thus transmuted into indelible visual representations for a vastly greater virtual audience, have survived for later generations to inspect, and have become the iconic images of a disorder seen as at once sexual and feminine (ibid.).

Among the patients of Salpêtrière was 15-year-old Augustine, Charcot’s famous hysteric, who was admitted “for paralysis of sensation in her right arm, preceded by pains in her lower right abdomen” (p. 120). She was “stripped and displayed … photographed incessantly in diaphanous and revealing hospital gowns for the multi-volume Catalogue of images that constituted the Iconographie and the Nouvelle Iconographie of the Salpêtrière” (p. 122).

With Freud, there was another turning point in the conception and treatment of hysteria. “Freud reverses the paradigm: hysteria is a disorder caused by a lack of libidinal evolution … and the failure of conception is the result not the cause of the disease” (Rapetti and Carta, 2012, p. 115). Hysteria, for the Freudians, was “the quintessential psychodynamic disorder … Enlightenment finally triumphs with the advent of Sigmund Freud” (Scull, 2009, p. 10). In psychoanalytic treatment, the method of free association was utilised in order to access the unconscious and traverse the blockages of repression. In 1890s, “Freud’s work on ‘hysterical females’ revealed that sexual exploitation, or ‘seduction’, was at the heart of hysteria … After 1897, Freud abandoned the seduction theory and instead focused on the effects of repressed erotic infantile wishes and fantasies…” (Borg, 2019, p. 18).

Lacan, in his “Presentation on Transference” (1952, his return to Freud), insisted on the significance of transference in psychoanalysis and explored hysteria as a discourse producing a social bond – thus Lacan contributed greatly to the understanding of hysteria on the basis of power relations between the doctor and the patient.

Lacan was also aware … that medical training was the least helpful in preparing an analyst to deal with the deceiving, non-empirical nature of transference. It was precisely unanalyzed transference love that ‘impregnated’ Anna O. and terrified her doctor Joseph Breuer; Breuer ‘resisted’ the sexual reality of the unconscious revealed by Anna’s imaginary pregnancy and parturition and abruptly terminated her treatment. Not wanting to know anything about it, he hastily declared her ‘cured’ and ran away from the powerful force of transference (Gherovici, 2014, p. 48).

One of Lacan’s four discourses is ‘the discourse of the hysteric’, which is inherently a social event, “a social bond in which any subject may be inscribed … The dominant position is occupied by the divided subject” and “Psychoanalytic treatment involves ‘the structural introduction of the discourse of the hystericby means of artificial conditions’ … the analyst ‘hystericises’ the patient’s discourse” (Nosubject, 2019). For Lacan, the discourse of the hysteric is also “the essence of the speaking being” and “the hysteric’s desire is the other’s desire” (Gherovici, 2014, p. 58). This ‘other’ is the big Other – which later Lacan stated does not exist. Thus, “one could say that in fact the hysteric invents the other” (ibid.). To the other, the hysteric asks: “What am I?” and identifies with the given answer: “‘Whatever you say I’ll be’ (a witch, a saint, a hysteric, a pithiatic simulator, a martyr)” (ibid.). Hysteric’s insistent questioning is never settled, no answer is sufficient. The object of this questioning, “contained in the statement ‘You are …’ is inevitably dropped as a lost object, as objet petit a” (ibid.).

The hysteric aims at occupying a fundamental role for the Other: the object in the Other’s fantasy … there is a hope of finding an absolute Other to whom one may offer it all. This ‘all for the other’ reveals that the absolute other pursued is none other than … the mythical father proposed by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913). This is a primal father, complete but always dead, whom the hysteric passionately “sustains beyond all contradictions.” Obviously, compared with this Ideal Father, anyone will be deficient … In this sense, we can understand that the hysteric is looking for a perfect Master (ibid.).

The longing for and impossibility of the perfect Master is manifested within the hysteric’s constant questioning. She “sustains contradictions … never exhausting a field, forcing instead an endless progression of knowledge” (ibid. p. 64). This is why Bruce Fink sees science as hysterical (ibid.). Master and hysteric have an inexhaustible, even creative bond – “the hysteric posing a demand that creates some knowledge, and the Master trying to attain absolute knowledge” (ibid.). What the Master produces and enacts in this process is the Cixousian discourse of mastery, from which (the hysterical) female constantly tries to escape.


Foucault’s Psychiatric Power (1973-74), in which he provides a detailed account of hysteria, explores the birth of psychiatry “as part of a larger story about the emergence of disciplinary power and its difference from the power of sovereignty” (Zerilli, 2015). Foucault (2006) explains his approach as: “I will not try to analyze this in terms of the history of hysterics any more than in terms of psychiatric knowledge of hysterics, but rather in terms of battle, confrontation, reciprocal encirclement, of the laying of mirror, of investment and counter-investment, of struggle for control between doctors and hysterics” (p. 308). Thus, the focal point of his analysis is power relations between the doctor and the patient: Fittingly, he uses a ‘pseudo-military vocabulary’ to convey this battle.

Truth, and the relationship to truth, formed the central point in this battle, where hysteria appeared as a singularity which derailed psychiatry and transform it through ‘simulation’: “a new problematic for diagnosis emerging alongside the medical model, becoming itself the model for critique … That event disrupted the rational framework of psychiatry by creating a situation in which truth and illusion, the history of veridictions and the history of simulacra, came to coexist on the same strategic plane” (Iliopoulos, 2017, p. 101-2). For Foucault, simulation is the “cross 19th century psychiatry has to bear” and “the whole history of psychiatry can be said to be permeated by this problem of simulation” (Foucault, 2006, p. 135-6). Hysteria was a “phenomena of struggle … around this new medical apparatus of clinical neurology … Rather than an epidemic, there was a maelstrom, a kind of hysterical vortex within psychiatric power and its disciplinary system” (p. 309). Through simulation as ‘anti-power’, the mad posed a threat to the psychiatric power. The hysteric, with her ‘maneuvers’ and ‘traps’ was the ultimate resistant force in in the power relations within the psychiatric apparatus, and Foucault refers to her as the “militant underside of psychiatric power” (p. 138): “The hysteric has magnificent symptoms, but at the same time she sidesteps the reality of her illness; she goes against the current of the asylum game and, to that extent, we salute the hysterics as the true militants of antipsychiatry” (p. 254).

In psychiatric power, the question of truth is never posed – it acts as ‘the surplus-power of reality’: it maintains that it is already a science and announces that it possesses “at least of all the criteria of truth” (p. 134), and can attach itself “to reality and its power and impose on these demented and disturbed bodies the surplus-power” (ibid.): “I think the reason for this absence of a connection between discourses of truth and psychiatric practice … pertains to this function of the enhanced power of the real, which is the basic function of psychiatric power” (p. 135). It is this claim on truth, the hysteric challenges. It should be stressed that by ‘simulation’, Foucault does not refer to a person pretending to be mad, the sane pretending to be unsane. He refers to the simulation “that madness exercises with regard to itself, the way in which hysteria simulates hysteria, the way in which a true symptom is a certain way of lying and the way in which a false symptom is a way of being truly ill” (ibid.). And this problem was for Foucault the limit of the 19th century psychiatry, as to psychiatry’s appropriation of truth, simulation problematised the lack of the source/possession of truth, manifested the empty core, the non-existent substratum of the truth-claim of psychiatric power. To this, writes Foucault, the mad said:

If you claim to possess the truth once and for all in terms of an already fully constituted knowledge, well, for my part, I will install falsehood in myself. And so, when you handle my symptoms, when you are dealing with what you call illness, you will find yourself caught in a trap, for at the heart of my symptoms there will be this small kernel of night, of falsehood, through which I will confront you with the question of truth. Consequently, I won’t deceive you when your knowledge is limited—that would be pure and simple simulation— but rather, if one day you want really to have a hold on me, you will have to accept the game of truth and falsehood that I offer you (p. 136).

            Thus, the hysteric was the ideal patient as she manifested impeccable symptoms: she obeyed/adopted to the scientific discourse and the medical description impeccably, thereby subverting the conventional process of psychiatric route. “Hysteria was the ‘minimal difference’ … the infinitesimal difference inside the differential system of clinical diagnosis, opening a gap, a void of absolute and irreducible difference between the empirical determination of illness and the transcendental character of insanity” (p. 118). Zerilli (2015) writes that one should not understand hysterical simulation as a rebellious act – the hysteric does not refuse to play the game of psychiatric power: on the contrary, “the hysteric’s simulation owes its destabilizing effects to the demonstration that she is taking the system’s rules very seriously in the very act of provoking it”. Thus, hysterical simulation “is fundamentally corrosive of the game of psychiatric power itself. Corrosive, because it is a response that is not external but internal to the game itself.”

By willingly accepting all clinical attributions, the hysterics showed how madness cannot be approached in its reality without a prior and fundamental investigation of its truth. Madness can only be posed in terms of truth and it is its truth that conditions every effort to grasp its ontology. This is why the effect of hysteria on the production of psychiatric knowledge is not one of intrinsic limitation or epistemological blockage … hysteria led differential knowledge in psychiatry to a deadlock, illustrating the indispensability of absolute diagnosis, of the basic duality between madness and non-madness, which is at the heart of the psychiatric endeavour (Iliopoulos, 2017, p. 119).

Foucault writes that in Salpêtrière, simulation became the hysteric’s “weapon in the struggle with psychiatric power. And with the serious crisis of asylum psychiatry, which broke out at the end of the 19th century, around 1880, the problem of truth really was imposed by the mad on psychiatry” (p. 136):

It is often said that hysteria has disappeared, or that it was the great illness of the nineteenth century. But it was not the great illness of the nineteenth century; it was … a typical asylum syndrome, or a syndrome correlative to asylum power or medical power. But I don’t even like the word syndrome. It was actually the process by which patients tried to evade psychiatric power; it was a phenomenon of struggle, and not a pathological phenomenon. At any rate, that is how I think it should be viewed (p. 137).

For Foucault, with the hysteric defeating psychiatry with the weapon of simulation by imposing on it “the game of truth and lie in the symptom” (p. 138), psychiatry retreated in the form of psychoanalysis. The credit for “the first depsychiatrisation”, for him, should be given not to Freud but simulators: “They are the ones who, with their falsehoods, trapped a psychiatric power which, in order to be the agent of reality, claimed to be the possessor of truth and, within psychiatric practice and cure, refused to pose the question of the truth that madness might contain” (ibid.).

Foucault outlines certain maneuvers between the neurology and the hysteric, one of them being the exhibition of stable symptoms. If hysteria was to be considered as a real illness that could be defined within differential diagnosis, for the doctor to be a real doctor, the hysteric had to exhibit stable symptoms (the ‘stigmata’). The attacks had to be regular and resemble an already known neurological illness, “so that it crosses the line of differential diagnosis, and yet nonetheless sufficiently different for the diagnosis to be made; hence the codification of the hysterical attack (crise) on the model of epilepsy” (p. 310). The hysteric, thus, had the upperhand, the doctor dependent on her, because if she did not provide the doctor her regular, proper symptoms, then “the doctor could no longer be a neurologist in relation to her; he would be consigned to the status of psychiatrist and to the obligation of making an absolute diagnosis and answering the inescapable question: ‘Are you or are you not mad?’” (p. 311). Due to what the hysteric offers him, the stability of symptoms, the psychiatrist remains a neurologist. Foucault points out that hysterics benefit from this power relation, since this way they escape “all suspicion of simulation, since she is the basis on which the simulation of others can be denounced” (p. 316). And

it is once again thanks to the hysteric that the doctor will be able to ensure his power; if he escapes the simulator’s trap it is because he has the hysteric who makes possible the double, organic/dynamic/simulation, differential diagnosis. And consequently, the hysteric has the upper hand over the doctor a second time, since by obeying the instructions he gives her under hypnosis, she gets to be the authority of verification, as it were, the authority adjudicating truth between illness and lie. The second triumph of the hysteric. You understand that here too the hysterics do not hesitate to reconstitute, on demand, the coxalgia and anesthesia, etcetera that they are asked for under hypnosis (ibid.).

Charcot eventually became convinced that to be sure about the authenticity of the hysteria, to make sure that the patient was really a hysteric, it was crucial to find the trauma, the glue that makes everything “a well and truly morbid whole” (p. 318). They had to recount their childhood, their innermost experiences. Again, the hysteric played the game perfectly, as her ‘counter-maneuver’ was to recount her sexual life. However, the aspect of sexuality was not a desired or reliable element within the system of differential diagnosis, “in demonstrating that hysteria was a genuine illness” (p. 321). “If one did not want its status as illness to be challenged, then it had to be entirely shorn of that disqualifying element which was as harmful as simulation, namely lubricity or sexuality” (ibid.), which Charcot could not prevent. The hysteric responded:

You want to find the cause of my symptoms, the cause that will enable you to pathologize them and enable you to function as a doctor; you want this trauma, well, you will get all my life … So this sexuality is not an indecipherable remainder but the hysteric’s victory cry, the last maneuver by which they finally get the better of the neurologists and silence them: If you want symptoms too, something functional; if you want to make your hypnosis natural and each of your injunctions to cause the kind of symptoms you can take as natural; if you want to use me to denounce the simulators, well then, you really will have to hear what I want to say and see what I want to do! (p. 322).

At the end of this battle, the sexual body -personified in the hysteric- was born: “It is the hysteric who imposes this new personage on neurologists and doctors, which is no longer the pathological-anatomical body … the disciplinary body of psychiatry, or the neurological body … but the sexual body” (ibid.). Foucault states that two attitudes were possible here: Babinski’s attitude, “a retrospective devaluation of hysteria, which, since it has these connotations, will no longer be an illness” or the second attitude, the attempt to “circumvent the maneuver of hysterical encirclement” and giving medical meaning to the new body – “this new investment will be the medical, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic take-over of sexuality” (ibid.). Of course, the second attitude was adopted, and with the sexual body, a new medicine was born:

By breaking down the door of the asylum, by ceasing to be mad so as to become patients, by finally getting through to a true doctor, that is to say, the neurologist, and by providing him with genuine functional symptoms, the hysterics, to their greater pleasure, but doubtless to our greater misfortune, gave rise to a medicine of sexuality (ibid.).


Foucault’s genealogy has been a fundamental resource for feminism: as Jana Sawicki (1991) writes, “To the question whether a Foucauldian feminism is a contradiction in terms, a Foucauldian feminist might reply; ‘No, not a contradiction but a continual contestation.’ Any self-critical and historically inflected feminism will find Foucauldian genealogy indispensable” (p. 66). Although Foucault’s analyses have been influential to feminist theories, the gender-neutral nature of his work, his neglect of the techniques of gender, and his “problematic indifference to sexual difference” (Butler, 1999, p. xxxi)  have been criticised: The neutrality and distance of his language was seen as contributing masculine biased philosophies, and it was argued that “this distance enables him to perceive the discourse as neutral when from a feminist position we might argue that the label is itself a function of sexual privilege. As MacKinnon has argued, ‘Reification is not just an illusion to the reified; it is also their reality’” (Gilman, 1993, p. 140-1).

But, as Stuart Elden (2016) points out, Psychiatric Power is an exception, as Foucault explores hysteria and psychiatric power in relation to the female body and to the birth of the dispositif of sexuality. It is important to see that Foucault does not treat the hysteric as a ‘feminist symbol’ – the hysteric is a psychiatric patient of the 19th century European asylum, as Zerilli (2015) states, “most likely female and working class, and therefore also most vulnerable to the invasive and often reckless forms of medical treatment.”

A criticism that Showalter (in Gilman, 1993) directs at Foucault is that in Psychiatric Power, he does not offer the perspective of the hysteric:

Despite his interest in forms of discursive power, Foucault too does not consider hysteria from the point of view of the patient … Foucault’s highly schematic and abstract account of discursive power ignores both context and agency; it neither explains why patients manifested symptoms of distress nor explains why physicians were so eager to focus on these complaints in women and to see them as threats to the family and the state (p. 304).

However, Foucault’s interest is the hysteric’s role in the dispositif of psychiatric power – through ‘pseudo-military vocabulary’, he analyses the event of hysteria -hysterical simulation- as a front in a battle between the patients and psychiatric power, the resulting chasm within psychiatry, and the birth of sexual body. He cannot ‘pick a side’ in this battle: “If Foucault were to speak in the name of the patients, he would not have foregrounded the singularity of hysteria, but would have reduced it to a vague episode in the history of the patients’ struggle for liberation” (Iliopoulos, 2017, p. 123). If he was to explore the event of hysteria through the eyes of the psychiatric power, “he would have reduced the event of hysteria to a mere epistemological blind spot, an error to be eliminated” (ibid.). And this was what psychiatric power later did; it ‘de-eventalised’ it, turned it into ‘a non-event.’ And in Foucault’s analysis, it is also important to see that hysteria is not treated as a revolution, “the mentally ill were not liberated” because of it. Foucault sees the hysterics as changing identities due to it, leaving the asylum and “acquiring a medical status” (ibid.).

Although hysteria is not a ‘revolution’, it is commonly interpreted as a source of resistance in feminist thought. The colonisation and ‘medicalisation of women’s lives’, in the 19th century gave way to more ‘female diseases’ “that connote deviation from some ideal biological standard” (King, 2004, p. 31) These women were “diagnosed as frigid, hysterical or neurasthenic with mental disorders put down to ‘disturbances’ in the womb” (ibid.), as the female body was being disciplined medico-culturally. Irigaray (1987, p. 72) writes that hysterical miming was women’s “effort to save her sexuality from total repression and destruction”; where “her sexual instincts have been castrated, her sexual feelings, representatives, and representations forbidden” (p. 59), she had two choices: “censoring her instincts completely-which would lead to death – or treating them as, converting them into, hysteria” (p. 72). Then, hysteria was, in a sense, a crisis of expression, a crisis of language:

The problem of ‘speaking (as) woman’ is precisely that of finding a possible continuity between that gestural expression or that speech of desire -which at present can only be identified in the form of symptoms and pathology- and a language, including a verbal language. There again, one may raise the question whether psychoanalysis has not superimposed on the hysterical symptom a code, a system of interpretation(s) which fails to correspond to the desire fixed in somatizations and in silence. In other words, does psychoanalysis offer any ‘cure’ to hysterics beyond a surfeit of suggestions intended to adapt them, if only a little better, to masculine society? (Irigaray, 1985, p. 137).

Hysteria’s psychoanalytic treatment did not differ from the previous treatments, in the sense that it remained within the same paradigm, as a patriarchal apparatus: It sought to ‘heal’ women by telling them to marry and have babies, as a way of “regaining the ‘lost’ phallus” (Devereux, 2014, p. 25). In the praxis of psychoanalysis, “women are always constituted as the negated obverse of men—the castrated other left behind in the man’s completion of the Oedipal process” (ibid.).

There is phallocentrism. History has never produced or recorded anything else –which does not mean that this form is destinal or natural … men and women are caught up in a web of age-old cultural determinations that are almost unanalyzable in their complexity. One can no more speak of ‘woman’ than of ‘man’ without being trapped within an ideological theater where the proliferation of representations, images, reflections, myths, identifications, transform, deform, constantly change everyone’s Imaginary and invalidate in advance any conceptualization (Cixous and Clément, 1988, p. 83).

The traditional family was a fundamental aspect of a larger project in the late 19th century, the effort “to establish industrial capitalism as the normal and natural structure of nations: it is evident in the rise of eugenics as a discourse of ‘race’ preservation and regeneration that mobilizes a rhetoric glorifying women as breeders” (Devereux, 2014, p. 25). This is the empire of the Selfsame that Cixous wrote about:

The same masters dominate history from the beginning, inscribing on it the marks of their appropriating economy: history, as a story of phallocentrism, hasn’t moved except to repeat itself. “With a difference,” as Joyce says. Always the same, with other clothes. Nor has Freud (who is, moreover, the heir of Hegel and Nietzsche) made anything up. All the great theorists of destiny or of human history have reproduced the most commonplace logic of desire, the one that keeps the movement toward the other staged in a patriarchal production, under Man’s law. History, history of phallocentrism, history of propriation: a single history. History of an identity: that of man’s becoming recognized by the other (son or woman), reminding him that, as Hegel says, death is his master (Cixous and Clément, 1988, p. 79).

How does the hysteric resist? How does this “feminized object in the androcentric theatrical spaces of psychiatric authority … possibly figure the very gravedigger of such authority and indeed psychiatry as a knowledge/power relation?” (Zerilli, 2015). Her resistance is precisely through expression – subverting the power relation by insistently asking “Who am I?” to the Master and simultaneously doubling her identity as the hysteric by exhibiting her given subjectivity, and thereby paralysing the master, forcing him to produce new knowledge: she finds “a blind spot in a certain technology of power, namely, disciplinary power … and, in so doing, exposes its necessary if denied condition: the subject’s freedom or the capacity to act otherwise” (ibid.).

the ‘victory cry’ over psychiatric power comes in the form of the mostly female psychiatric patient in the theatrical space and throes of hysterical simulation. It is hysterical simulation, not panopticism, that captures the features of disciplinary power that go beyond its impersonal quality to its tactical character … that figure such power as a game in which the possibility for resistance is realized (ibid.).

Hysterical simulation, by introducing the performative aspect, transforms the meaning and outcome of the rules, and creates the possibility for resistance. Although, Zerilli is not convinced that this is the best way to understand resistance, as both the hysteric’s refusal to avow and hysterical simulation as ‘a hyper form of avowal’ do not transform power:

For that I think we need to look at how subjects break with the knowledge/power games in which their freedom is both presupposed and denied by founding new ones. It would be the difference … between the women who may well have developed hysterical symptoms out of protest against their confinement in the 19th century patriarchal family, but who remained for the most part caught in the technologies of power that included the psychiatric hospital and its patriarchal structure, and the women who expressed their form of protest through the development of new forms of association, including the forms that made up first wave feminism (ibid.).

One sees a similar vein in Showalter (and also in Clément), when she refers to ‘Anna O.’ (Bertha Pappenheim) as a ‘successful’ hysteric, as Anna O. later became a writer, social worker and feminist leader. Showalter, writing against feminist ‘hysterical engagement’, believes that hysterics “should be classed not with feminist heroines, but with deviants and marginals who actually reinforce the social structure by their preordained place on the margin. Indeed, their roles are … ultimately conservative” (quoted in Devereux, 2014, p. 36). For Showalter, these women have to embrace another feminist practice to make a change. “Showalter suggests that feminism, when it ‘romanticiz[es] and appropriat[es]’ hysteria … and when it represents itself as ‘a kind of articulate hysteria’ … dooms itself to failure” (ibid.). Although Showalter is justified in emphasising the ‘threat’ of romanticising hysteric ‘feminist icons’ such as Augustine or Dora, and demanding ‘action’ within a feminist practice, it seems as if she misses the significance ‘discursive’ fight, the ‘linguistic’ resistance. And as Devereux points out, Showalter’s “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender” is

itself hysterically engaged, precisely in its insistence that it is not: in its ‘strange’ refusal to acknowledge its own ‘anger,’ so evident throughout the essay, it presents, that is, a kind of belle indifférence, one of the symptoms attached to hysteria’s diagnosis from the earliest days of Freud and Breuer’s Studies … Showalter’s writing against ‘hysterical engagement’ thus compellingly … affirms both the conditions in which feminist theory and criticism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and the profound and intimate relationship of hysteria and feminism. Feminist writing on hysteria, that is, is at some level always comprehensible as a kind of ‘hysterical engagement’ and is always itself symptomatic of the conditions to which feminism responds (ibid.).

There is a proximity and a conversation between the hysteric’s ‘language’ and the texts of l’écriture feminine, as they “work to historicize and problematize hysteria while also mobilizing hysteria’s somatic symptomology in their writing, the writers themselves ‘act[ing],’ as Elizabeth Grosz has suggested of Irigaray, ‘as the hysteric’ … This language in the feminine is this feminism’s signal practice and is explicitly engaged with hysteria” (Devereux, 2014, p. 28). Irigaray (1985) explores the capacity of resistance in hysteric’s language when she questions the ambiguous pathology of hysteria as it harbours another, concealed power: “there is always, in hysteria, both a reserve power and a paralyzed power” (p. 138). The power of the hysteric is repressed “by virtue of the subordination of feminine desire to phallocratism; a power constrained to silence and mimicry, owing to the submission of the ‘perceptible,’ of ‘matter,’ to the intelligible and its discourse … And in hysteria there is … the possibility of another mode of ‘production,’ notably gestural and lingual” (ibid.).

Cixous’s writing, in Newly Born Woman -contra Clément- manifests her ‘hysterical engagement’. This is “a critical practice that does not only historicize hysteria and understand it to be the pathologizing of femininity in psychoanalytic discourse, as an apparatus of industrial capitalist patriarchy … but that undertakes to subvert that discourse.” It is also a critical practice that reclaims hysteria “in order to make the point that its invention represents the ground of the problem women confront across all the registers of socially engaged gender as they try … to ‘speak as women’” (Devereux, 2014, p. 29).

This ‘hysterically engaged’ writing practice … undertook to articulate the way women’s writing could exert what Cixous called a ‘force capable of demolishing [the] structures’ of patriarchal institutions. Such writing seeks to ‘demolish,’ through language and in language, the system within which women could in the first place be diagnosed so often and for so long as hysterical when their relationship to themselves as reproductive entities could be seen to have been ruptured—when the womb ‘wandered’ or when women refused ‘normal’ development. Its goal is not to immortalize the figure of the hysteric and the ‘dis-eased’ language of hysteria but, as Cixous suggests, ‘to break the old circuits.’ On these terms, ‘hysterical engagement’ is a process and a methodology … of destabilizing the system within which the meaning of femininity is fixed, by mobilizing a language that separates words and meanings (ibid.).

Foucault (1978) famously wrote, “Where there is power, there is resistance” (p. 95). Hysterical interrogation and hysterical engagement as forms of resistance within and through language continue to be powerful weapons for feminist thought and practice within the current ideological constellation, where the interpretations of ‘truth’ and radical doubt determine the tone of socio-political sphere. Radical questioning is fundamental for the feminist agenda itself – as the diversity of views over the #MeToo movement, TERF issue, etc. manifest, it has to undertake the difficult task of producing ‘new’ language and perspectives.



Borg, K. (2019) Narrating Trauma: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and the Political Ethics of Self-Narration, PhD Thesis, Staffordshire University.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge.

Cixous, H. & Clément, C. (1988) The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing, University of Minnesota Press.

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