MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




The process in which large numbers of people suddenly report suffering from the same illness (or “syndrome”) without a corresponding causal event.

The term originates from the work of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) in his clinic at the hospital La Salpêtrière in Paris in the late 1870s. Charcot treated a number of women, mainly middle-class, educated women, who all displayed spectacular symptoms including bizarre facial distortions and raving, which Charcot described as “hysteria.” As a result of his well-attended, exciting lectures, illustrated by attractive and expressive patients, large numbers of women reported suffering from “hysteria.” Nowadays, it is believed that the women were suffering from the extreme mental anguish resulting from the conflict between their own capacities and the absence of any opportunities for the use of those capacities in the European society of their times.

The point is that Charcot provided a socially-legitimated “explanation” of their suffering, and under “treatment” by Charcot, the women “learnt” to display the syndrome he was looking for. The doctor and patient therefore met each others’ needs: the doctor for proof of his theory and the patient for recognition of their suffering. Women suffering from causes which they are unable to name, seeing or hearing about Dr. Charcot’s work, and sympathising with his patients, were either pressured into manifesting the symptoms of hysteria by their family, or acquired the syndrome themselves, as a relief from anxiety. The doctor’s “expert” description of the syndrome is in turn amplified and consolidated by artists and writers, who create fictitious characters suffering from the syndrome, journalists reporting “outbreaks” and so on. As a result, people report to their own doctors that they are suffering from the same syndrome and demand to be diagnosed and treated accordingly.

The term “hysteria” has subsequently come to be used for all those syndromes which spread in the same way, including chronic fatigue syndrome, gulf war syndrome, recovered memory, multiple personality syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction. The categorisation of these epidemics as “hysteria” is controversial for two reasons: (1) it remains to be proved that there is no common causal explanation of the syndrome not relying on empathetic collaboration between doctors and patients; and (2) the implication that the process is fundamentally irrational. For example, no-one can doubt that war veterans suffer from their participation in modern warfare, be it called “shell-shock,” “battle fatigue” or “Gulf War Syndrome.” There is no simple way of determining whether or not veterans of the Gulf War have really been subject to some novel, biochemical stress, or just the normal stress of modern slaughter.

Further, genuine epidemics like RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) resulting from the thoughtless implementation of computers in workplaces, are completely genuine in the medical causes and symptoms constituting the syndrome. This does not contradict the fact that the process of people coming to identify themselves as victims of RSI took place through the same processes. “Experts” in hysteria were employed by big business in the 1980s for the purpose of proving that RSI was a case of “mass hsyteria,” but in fact, there was a perfectly real cause for the epidemic, which had to be corrected by changing work practices and equipment, not by commbatting “mass hsyteria.”

Even further, the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association or the modern women’s liberation movement also had all the hallmarks of hysteria, but it is clear that both social movements were not only rational, but constituted a new insight into longstanding forms of suffering.

Whether or not the process of hysteria is rational depends on how rational is the “expert discourse” validating the diagnosis, the veracity of the “archetypes” around which the syndrome is described, and the extent to which diagnosis actually contributes towards resolution of the suffering, rather than simply as a relief for anxiety or some other kind of displaced suffering. This can only be proved in practice.