Hysteria – Perversion – Subversion. Some Remarks from a Queer Perspective

Esther Hutfless

Hysteria and perversion are two of the most controversial psychoanalytic concepts. On the one hand, feminist and post-modern thinkers have interpreted hysteria and perversion as subversive forces undermining the hegemonial, heteronormative and patriarchal order. On the other hand, the same thinkers have reminded us that both concepts – perversion and hysteria – function as discursive strategies within power relations and produce and control specific subjects.

In the following I would like to address the following questions: In which way are hysteria and perversion linked? Are psychoneuroses the negative of perversions, as claimed by Freud? How can we understand perversion and hysteria from a queer perspective? How should we deal with concepts that have such a long history in the service of repression? What happened to the various feminist and queer attempts of adopting, resignifying and deconstructing the concepts of perversion and hysteria?

Freud’s own use of different concepts of perversion complicates any further discussion of these issues. In his case study of Dora Freud writes: “All psychoneurotics are persons with strongly marked perverse tendencies, which have been repressed in the course of their development and have become unconscious. […] Psychoneuroses are, so to speak, the negative of perversions.”[1] In this statement Freud offers a structural explanation of perversion concerning the status of the subject. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, however, – when Freud is speaking about the sexual use of lips and perversion as part of sexuality in general – he is focusing on perverse acts. In that these so called “perverse acts” are part of every human sexuality they are not opposed to the position of the hysteric or neurotic and, furthermore, include the deconstruction of perversion as pathology, which can be interpreted as a process of queering. Freud can be read as progressive thinker in this respect.

Nonetheless I would like to focus on the “structural” explanation of perversion in following the question of psychoneurosis as negative of perversions. A simplified reception of this Freudian concept of perversion led to the assumption that perversion could be read as subversive political strategy, because it exceeds all norms and laws without any conflicts that lead to repression.

In the following I would like to discuss why interpreting perversion as subversive is questionable. According to Slavoj Žižek, hysteria is much more subversive than perversion. With reference to Lacan, Žižek points out that an understanding of perversions as the other side of neuroses would lead to the erasure of the key concept of psychoanalysis – the unconscious.[2]

At first glance it seems obvious, that perverts openly realize and practice what hysterics repress. While the pervert brings to light practices and secret fantasies of the predominant discourse, the hysteric questions exactly those practices and secret fantasies. Žižek concludes that the discourse of the perverts sustains the predominant discourse, while the hysterics – questioning whether those secret fantasies are really the repressed secrets of a subject/society – are truly radical. In short: The pervert believes that he or she knows the truth of the secret fantasies and the hysteric remains questioning this very truth.
This is why Žižek can claim that living our perverse fantasies disconnects us from our unconscious. The “pervert precludes the Unconscious”[3] because he is sure to know the truth of what brings jouissance. The hysteric is the one who doubts, who repeatedly questions her relation to the other and thus challenges the dominant discourse.

This line of argument is supported by Freud himself who claimed that only hysteria and psychosis – but not perversion – offer a way to the unconscious.[4] Thus Žižek can state that the acting out in perversion is darkening the unconscious.
This controversy over hysteria and perversion is crucial for the feminist discourse and thus relevant for my own position. Both, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray (just to name two widely influential feminist thinkers) attributed the particular subversive potential of the unconscious to hysteria.

The hysteric was and is considered as the heroine of feminist protest, as Rachel Bowlby puts it, against a “psychoanalysis which was doing no more than reconfirming the prevailing sexual norms”[5]. The hysteric in Luce Irigaray’s understanding finds a way to speak where patriarchy has silenced her and therefore saves woman’s “sexuality from total repression and destruction”[6]. Hysteria for Hélène Cixous represents the “woman in all her force”, it is an “element that disturbs”[7]. Discussing the case of Dora, Cixous writes: “Dora seemed to me to be the one who resisted the system, the one who cannot stand that the family and society are founded on the body of women, on bodies despised, rejected, bodies that are humiliating once they have been used.”[8]
Bringing the excluded, the rejected, the feminine, the black, the dark, the unconscious of a society, back into discourse, into the symbolic order has been one of the most prevalent feminist goals.
What are the consequences of these feminist attempts at adopting and resignifiying hysteria? It seems that the psychoanalytic discourse as well as the symbolic order in general are quite resistant to those strategies. Psychoanalysis – as well as the symbolic order at large –still tend to pathologize the feminine as hysteric and the lesbian as pervert.

For British analyst Anne Worthington, following Lacan, the questions regarding the hysteric are questions about sex. Am I a man or a woman? What is a woman? What kind of man am I? Am I straight, or gay, or bisexual or queer?[9] Worthington asks: If psychoanalysis was the answer to hysteria during the last turn of the century, isn’t then Queer Theory the answer to questions of hysteria in our times? I found this thesis very interesting and would like to take it up in order to rethink and reformulate it into a slightly different direction.
I would like to suggest that the subversive elements in the discourse about the hysteric, the mimetic, the fluid, and all these notions which – following Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous – challenge the dominant expectations concerning femininity, masculinity, identity, and sexuality, found their way into Queer Theory.

In the feminist discourses of the 70s the hysteric was the figure of the burlesque, the liar. The hysteric radically questions the status of woman as object, and reclaims herself as the true subject of femininity and, so to speak, of “her illness”. The hysteric is thus an artificial character. She performs, as Christina von Braun puts it, fantasies of femininity.
A similar figure can be found in queer Drag-Performances. As Judith Butler puts it: “To claim that all gender is like drag, or is drag, is to suggest that ‘imitation’ is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarisms, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations.“[10]
The unconscious as subversive moment, although it contains the signifiers of the symbolic order, “precludes the possibility of a categorical or unproblematic identity”.[11]

For Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous woman – and this is part of the discourse about the hysteric – is the one still to come, the one who does not yet exist, not even beyond the order of patriarchy, the one who can never be defined and whose identity remains fluid. Queer Theory, too, criticizes identities and identity politics, it argues for a transgression of identities, or for thinking identities without an essence. Similar to Irigaray’s and Cixous’ notion of the woman to come, David Halperin writes about queer: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative … [Queer] describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance.“[12]

[1] Freud, Sigmund: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. p. 50.
[2] Žižek, Slavoj: The ticklish Subject. p. 247.
[3] Ebd. p. 248.
[4] Ebd. p. 247.
[5] Bowlby, Rachel: Still crazy after all these years. In: Brennan, Teresa: Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Routledge. New York 1989, p. 45.
[6] Luce Irigaray: Speculum of the other Women. Cornell University Press. New York 1985, p. 72.
[7] Cixous, Hélène; Clément, Cathrine: The Untainable. In: Idem.: The Newly born Woman. University of Minnesota Press 1986, p. 254 ff.
[8] Ebd. p. 154.
[9] Vgl. Worthington, Anne: Beyond Queer? In: Hysteria Today. Karnac, London 2016, p. 41.
[10] Butler, Judith: Bodies that Matter. Routledge, New York 1993, p. 125.
[11] Watson, Eve: Queering Psychoanalysis/Psychoanalysing Queer. In: Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 7, 2009, p. 123.
[12] David M. Halperin: Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1995, p. 62.