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Welcome to the age of hysteria

In the 1980s hysteria stopped being treated as a medical disorder. Since then, it has become the business model of the neoliberal age

Marc Schuilenburg
16 April 2021, 9.07am
Empty shelves were seen in supermarkets across the UK in March 2020, as fear of COVID-19 led to panic buying
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Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1980, hysteria died. That was the year it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) handbook and ceased to be considered a medical condition. But we need only look around us to see that hysteria has never been more alive – just consider the run on toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or the consumer hysteria every Black Friday, or the overheated discussions taking place on Facebook and Twitter every day.

We all recognise hysteria – the display of over-the-top emotions – when we see it. In fact, no sooner than it left the DSM handbook, hysteria seems to have migrated to every other sphere of our lives. No longer a medical condition, it is our era’s defining sociological phenomenon. What lessons can hysteria teach us about the societies we live in today?

Sociological key to the world

Medical and historical researchers, psychoanalysts and philosophers, religious and gender studies scholars, as well as painters and writers, have all grappled with hysteria and tried to unravel its mysteries. From ancient Egyptian times until deep into the 18th century, hysteria was diagnosed as a convulsive disorder affecting women, caused by a ‘wandering womb’, which was believed to move freely through the body all the way into the head, emitting toxic fumes that led to hysteria.

Sigmund Freud's work popularised the study of hysteria from a psychoanalytic perspective. Ideas like the Oedipus complex – in which hysterical behaviour is caused by a girl’s guilty feelings about her sexual attraction to her father – have become irrelevant. But a theory of Freud’s that still resonates is that hysteria is caused by traumatic events that cannot be put into words and are expressed instead through bodily complaints.

In the 1970s and 80s, feminist thinkers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray turned sexist views of hysteria on their heads, rebranding hysteria as a female system of meaning outside official languages and cultural conventions. They considered hysterical symptoms to be a rebellion against the social and institutional order that restricts women’s freedom.

Although there are countless possible explanations for hysteria, we tend to ignore the sociological link between individual stories and the big picture. Yet hysteria has as much to do with wider political, economic and cultural changes as it does with the individual. Examining the hysteria we are seeing now and how it is being fuelled by societies that not only encourage and enjoy but also abuse and reward it, can tell us something about why people seem increasingly to fall prey to it.

A ‘black plague of degeneration and hysteria’

In 1892, the Austrian physician Max Nordau wrote in his book ‘Entartung’ (degeneration) that the growing number of cases of hysteria were down to exhaustion caused by the rapid development of modern society. He argued that Western society was haunted by a ‘black plague of degeneration and hysteria’.

Nordau described an unhealthy fin-de-siècle (end of an era) feeling marked by the acceleration of technological change. Age-old traditions and stories were being pushed out by new media such as the telephone and the telegraph, which brought together people who had previously been far apart. Daily life was further intensified by the invention of the steam train, the gramophone and film, as well as the spectacular growth of cities, all of which put people in touch with new sounds, images and worldviews.

Everything that had once been small and familiar became large and overwhelming, creating a void of security and belonging, against which the body revolted through hysteria.

Who am I, where do I belong?

We are again seeing a steep decline of a primal sense of security, the social glue of society. Globalisation has cranked the speed of life into a new gear. In many countries, Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism has replaced social democracy since the 1970s, leading to a loss of solidarity and over-individualisation, raising questions such as: who am I, where do I belong, how important is my culture?

At the same time, there is ever less space in our societies for community or communal identity. Corporate chains have replaced social meeting places, ranging from public libraries to corner shops. These ‘palaces for the people’, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls them, reinforce public familiarity in a neighbourhood by allowing people to make connections, help one another, and offer refuge to those who feel excluded or diminished elsewhere.

The more hysterical your post, the more clicks and views you generate

The lack of a sense of belonging – often accompanied by feelings of fear, frustration and anger – is a recurrent factor in outbreaks of hysteria. In that respect, life has arguably returned to how it was in late-19th-century Europe. Not that society is the same as it was at the time of Nordau – too much has changed since then – but there are undoubtedly some very striking similarities.

Twitter goes bankrupt without hysteria

Where hysteria used to be a medical condition, we can now think of it as our era’s business model. It works by playing on these feelings of lack and insecurity. Social media is probably the most obvious case in point. Facebook’s business model is focused on offering a platform to frustration and anger, emotions that are infectious and in combination with uncertainty often lead to extreme reactions. The more hysterical your post, the more clicks and views you generate and the greater the advertising revenue for Facebook. This also goes for other social media including Twitter, which would surely go bankrupt tomorrow without hysteria.

Facebook and Twitter are increasingly viewed as addictive, and with good reason. Research shows that the chemical dopamine, also known as the happy hormone, is released in our brains when we are successful on social media. Getting lots of likes or followers activates the reward circuit of the brain, while uncertainty strikes when we are unfollowed on social media, making us feel empty.

War on everything

The same is true for politics. We might not think of politics as having a ‘business model’ as such, but politicians constantly draw on society’s potential for hysteria, ‘selling’ citizens both the hysteria itself and their solutions to it.

Take the issue of public safety. Citizens are liable to get incredibly worked up about the issue of security and respond with vehemence to what is seen as a non-committal attitude to crime characterising their country. As a consequence, political discussions about public safety tend to end in the unanimous conclusion that more decisiveness is needed to solve all problems for good.

Such policies are spoken of in hysterical terms and with a preference for a macho military vocabulary: ‘war on coronavirus’, ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on terror’. Former President Donald Trump threatened to send in the military to quell the unrest in American cities sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd by police officers on 25 May 2020.

Once the diagnosis of a ‘law and order problem’ has been made, we are flooded by a veritable tsunami of new punitive measures – only for the cycle to be repeated. Any politician suggesting that crime rates in Western countries have fallen spectacularly for years or that it is impossible to create a risk-free society, is accused of ‘looking the other way’.

The experience economy

It’s possible that a void, or a feeling of lack, is inherent to the human condition. Indeed, it’s this sense of lack that has driven human development, bringing us wealth and progress. But the market economy thrives off and magnifies this feeling of a void in our existence that cries out to be filled. Nothing is ever enough: four words that summarise today’s neoliberal economic order.

The experience economy, which is based on the premise that reality is the way people perceive it, expertly deploys advertising and exposure to stimulate consumers’ desires by creating a feeling of need. The launch of every new iPhone sends us running to Apple Stores in a crazed frenzy, even though everyone knows the difference between the old and new versions in no way justifies the expense.

I can’t get no satisfaction,” as a wise man once said. Even if we obtain the thing we desire it will only satisfy us temporarily because no single object, experience or person can fully satisfy the lack that lies at the root of our desire, which is constantly recreated in the consumer economy.

The launch of every new iPhone sends us running to Apple Stores in a crazed frenzy

Getting hysterical about hysteria

When exploited as a business model, hysteria brings misery. But hysteria can also have the power to turn the world upside down, just as the hysterical, uncontrolled laughter of the Joker in Todd Phillips’ film becomes a call to finish off today's rampant neoliberalism after the Joker loses his medication and counselling because of budget cuts.

In the 19th century, women started politicising their bodies to revolt against the suffocating conventions of the Victorian era. While this ‘hysteria’ led to many of its 'sufferers' being institutionalised, it also produced social reforms aimed at giving women the same rights and opportunities as men. The tightly laced corset disappeared, making space for more liberal views on marriage, sexuality and the right to work.

This is not hysteria in its most destructive, sinister form, in which people tear off their clothes and pull out their hair. I am talking about a constructive hysteria which sets things in motion. Constructive hysteria is an engine for change, a way of making a contribution to the world. It acts for the greater good rather than out of self-interest.

House on fire

It seems to me that certain issues should be treated with a little less hysteria, while others could do with some more. No one is raising the alarm over the fact that 14.3 million of the UK's 66.4 million inhabitants live in destitution, including 4.6 million children. Nor does anyone seem too worried about a large part of this group being homeless.

At the same time, eco-barbarism is running rampant. Roughly 1,000,000 of the estimated eight million plant and animal species on Earth are threatened with extinction, in many cases within a time frame ranging from a few years to a couple of decades. As journalist David Wallace-Wells puts it in his bestseller ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, ‘Here, the facts are hysterical.’

While the planet is hurtling towards its demise, the debate about global warming revolves around how much it will cost to go on living the way we are now, and includes painstaking calculations of exactly how much money needs to be spent on measures to preserve the planet as well as our lifestyles. This reduces an ecological issue to a bookkeeping problem, to be resolved by a flight tax here, an energy subsidy there. The real issue, that we need to develop a completely new ecological awareness as well as a new and more inclusive understanding of such matters as 'damage', 'care' and 'responsibility', is not addressed.

You could argue instead that the sheer scale and disastrous effects of both issues should justify a hysterical gesture – one fueled not by profit and power but by the human need for survival and togetherness. Silence and inaction are no longer options. We do, after all, live in a hysterical world – and we know it.


This article is adapted from the new book 'Hysteria: Crime, Media, and Politics' (Routledge 2021)

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