Marina Grzinic (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Fri, 6 Dec 96 01:03 MET

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nettime: Hysteria: Physical Presence and Juridical Absence & AIDS

Hysteria: Physical Presence and Juridical Absence & AIDS 

by Marina Grzinic, Ljubljana

In the following essay I will examine the terms "presence" and its 
counterpart "absence" from two perspectives1. First, from a historical 
perspective, as historical constructions, situated within the framework of 
contemporary discourses, practices, and uses. My question is how this binary 
pair (which has played one of the central roles in post-structuralist 
theory) is to be conceived today and to what an extent it differs from that 
of nineteenth century? I will approach these binary terms within the 
discursive spaces and representational systems of the nineteenth and 
twentieth century  in order to better grasp the roll they play, the 
assumptions they have fostered, and the belief systems they have confirmed. 
Second, I will approach the duality of presence and absence semiotically, as 
part of a larger system of visual and representational communication, as 
both a conduit and an agent of ideologies, as a sign system which contains a 
contingency of visual and signifying codes which in turn determine reception 
and instrumentality. To grasp the politics of representation of 
presence/absence I will relocate it within the discursive spaces and 
representational systems of two illnesses: hysteria and AIDS, each of these 
illnesses representing the illness par excellence of a specific century 
(nineteenth the former and twentieth century the latter). These illnesses 
are, as I intend to show, not only in relation to the duality of presence 
and absence, but moreover through specific ways of their representational 
politics they function as a part of a larger visual-communication and social 
system. Two other important implications are present in my decision as to 
why hysteria and AIDS were chosen. First, I chose hysteria, because of the 
linkage of this illness to women - hysteria embodied the mainstream male 
image of a woman2, while AIDS is overtly connected to another discrimination 
mainstream image, to that of homosexuals. Both illnesses are used to 
describe fantasmatic and marginalized correspondences, acknowledging also 
specific historical conditions. Second, because of my interest to analyze 
the binary terms of presence/absence in connection with the way in which 
these terms correspond with a specific representational strategy, one 
representing the human body (i.e. representations of historically, gender 
and class-determined bodies). Hysteria, the illness of incongruence of image 
and thought, was recognized as illness only through making visible the 
woman's hysterical body. AIDS, the illness par excellence of our times, 
because of specific representational techniques practiced in the media for 
the general public, coincides with new media technologies, virtual 
environments and/or cyberspace. All of them appear to be insisting on and 
fostering the erasure of the body. My thesis is that the mass media 
techniques of representations of AIDS are fostering the absence of the 
"real" ill body, similarly to the way contemporaneity is fostering the 
disembodiment of the subject within new media technologies. Never, or 
rarely, it is  possible to see film documentaries of persons ill with, or 
dying of AIDS. This process has gone so far today, that one of the 
theoretical options of investigation of the politics of representation of 
our present is to find ways to put the body back into the picture.3

In the last part of this essay I will try to synthesize different interplays 
between presence/absence and hysteria/AIDS by using the semiotic square, a 
technique of discursive analysis, developed by A. J. Greimas. The semiotic 
square was designed to disclose the implications inherent to such binary 
relationships, thus helping to make explicit the "hidden" meanings which 
"stabilize" and generate significance.

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 Gˇricault, 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 
Gˇricault'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 
Gˇricault fused the categories of privilege and social void, society and 
asylum, physical presence and juridical absence.4

Martin 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, Gˇricault'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 

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 

II. AIDS: Physical Absence and Juridical Presence

The persons afflicted with AIDS show horrible visual signs of bodily 
deterioration: the disintegration of the skin, sarcomas, blindness and the 
degeneration of the body as a whole.  Jarman has incorporated into the film 
his personal blindness, the consequences of him dying of AIDS, depicting  
this with the blue canvas; the zero degree of representation. Jarman moved 
from the disintegration of film structure to that of the viewer's sight. The 
institution of the subject ill with AIDS within the visible is carried out 
by the absence of a "truly ill body". Moreover Derek Jarman not only refused 
to reiterate the conventional pieties surrounding representations of a HIV 
positive person, but brought to light, paraphrasing Sally Stein, the hidden 
agendas inscribed in the particular mode of representation of our culture 
and times.17 In the film Blue this is carried out less by the aid of the 
medium used - the film, than with the strategically incorporated logic of 
the visualization of new media and of the regime of visibility carried out 
by new media technologies. 

In the film Blue, Jarman successfully conveys the complexities underpinning 
information systems and various subject positions with the way in which 
meaning and identities are constructed and endlessly re-negotiated.With the 
instauration of blindness in the film as the zero degree of representation, 
Jarman subverts some of the basic parameters of the new paradigm of 
visuality produced by the new technology and the position of the eyewitness 
within it. Today all methods of proving a statement depend on technological 
instruments and tools, and the constitution of scientific "truth" is, to a 
profound degree, mediated by technology. 18 Pragmatic acceptance of axioms 
and specific methods of proof have entered a variety of sciences. Scientific 
statements have to be effectuated and are thus  decisively mediated by 
technology. Pragmatic performativity is the postmodern sense of truth.19 
Lyotard  emphasizes repeatedly the increase of scientific knowledge through 
its mediation with technology. The whole process of seeing through is in its 
mediation through technology.20

Let me clarify  this process "of seeing through its mediation through 
technology" by returning for a moment to photography - summarizing its inner 
principle by relying on Paul Virilio, despite the fact that he was not 
referring to photography: "Everything I see is in principle within my reach, 
at least within reach of my sight, marked on the map of the ' can'."21 
Photography enables the encoding of a topographical memory by establishing a 
dialectical loop between seeing and mapping. As Virilio claims, it is 
possible to  speak of generations of vision and even of visual heredity from 
one generation to the next. But,  following Virilio22 the perception 
developed by new media and technologies (which is called the "logistics of 
perception"), destroyed these earlier modes of representation preserved in 
the  "I can" of seeing. The logistics of perception inaugurates the 
production of a vision machine and though the possibility of achieving 
sightless vision, whereby the video camera or virtual technology would be 
controlled by a computer. Today  new media apparatuses (from virtual reality 
to cyberspace) confer upon us a whole range of visual prosthetics which 
confront us with an ever changing positioning of the subject with his/her 
body along with the systematic "production" of blindness, of the absence of 
certainty (of the naked human eye) within the visibility of our world. As 
Virilio would say, the bulk of what I see is no longer within my reach. We 
have to ask ourselves: What does one see when one's eyes, depending on such 
instruments, are reduced to a state of rigid and practically invariable 
structural immobility? However, this is only one side of the paradigm of the 
new media technology. On the other side, in the twentieth century, the 
sciences are increasingly permeated with technology. "Technological 
instruments and apparatuses hold a central role within scientific research 
processes. These technological tools, however, cost huge amounts of money. 
Consequently, the state and political institutions function as important and 
decisive mediators in the accomplishment of scientific knowledge. The 
process of knowledge is increasingly judged in terms of input (quantity) and 
output (quality). Science is linked to the system of political power".23

The blindness of the naked human eye is thus paradoxically reinforced by the 
growing tendency of using increasingly sophisticated electronic technologies 
not only in science but also in the leading ideological and repressive state 
apparatuses, particularly within the legal system and the police sector. 
Virilio is speaking of hyper-realist representational models within the 
police and the legal systems, to the extent that human witnesses are losing 
their credibility: the human eye no longer remains an eyewitness. On the one 
side of the paradigm of new media technology we are witnessing the 
systematic production of blindness, and on the other, the frightening 
hyper-realism of a system of total visibility which is particularly 
reinforced in legal and police procedures. The  tendency of the leading 
scopic regime of the new media technologies is to produce blindness while, 
simultaneously, develops a whole range of techniques to produce the