Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria is a fascinating historiography of the intersection of medicine, photography, and empiricism during Jean-Martin Charcot’s tenure as director of Paris’ Salpêtrière Hospital in the late nineteenth century. Charcot’s positivist-driven ideals sought to define and taxonomize hysteria as a purely nosological entity located strictly in the body of the subject and apparent to close physiological examination. Didi-Huberman shows Charcot obsessed myriad methods for documenting hysteria, including sketches, charts, casts, models, and most importantly, photography, which enabled the development of new regimes of knowledge about the body.
Didi-Huberman provides a wealth of documents revealing the nineteenth century obsession with photography as a tool of objectivity. Charcot validated his own conclusions by citing the unimpeachable authority of the photograph: “ It would be truly fantastic if I could create ailments as my whim or fancy dictate. But, truth to tell, in this I am nothing more than a photographer; I inscribe what I see” (Didi-Huberman, 29). In a similar mindset Albert Londe, head photographer at the Salpêtrière declared that “the photographic plate is the scientist’s true retina” By revealing the imbrication of science and media, Didi-Huberman reveals media’s implication in shaping and coloring knowledge it is often purported to transparently reveal. Charcot’s medical photography, meant to provide unmediated access to hysteria’s symptoms, came to define what counts as “symptom.” Under Charcot taxonomies of illness take the form of all that can be observed and documented, providing suggestive instantiation of Foucault’s claims that knowledge is limited that which is archivable. This can also be considered in light of Derrida’s statement “there’s nothing outside the text.” During the Salpêtrière’s preoccupation with photography, observation and understanding was limited to what could be textualized. Media theory, in light of this, can be seen as the study of how reality is constituted in by changing technologies and techniques of textualization.
Echoes of Charcot’s work also resound throughout Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as in reference to the cinematic surgeon that penetrates the body. Charcot’s patients, like the subjects of Muybridge’s or Marey’s motion studies, correspond to Benjamin’s famous objects pried from their shell. However Charcot’s ultimate realization that many of the hysterics’ symptoms were performed in an attempt to please him provided a rebuke already anticipated by Charcot’s (brief) former student Freud, who chose to seek truth and illness beyond or beneath “mere” appearances.