Irritability and agitation are two key contemporary phenomena that are working their mischief in a variety of settings. Yet these terms are highly variable and elastic if you think of the broad spectrum involved, spanning blatant injustice that can legitimately be denounced, and reflexive rejection of any external perception, which is viewed as an imposition. The world as we no longer like it has become an infinite source of friction. Although the friction, or indeed attrition, has long since been transplanted into the perceiving subject, there is a tendency to identify other people as the causes of that sense of being worn out.
The Russian war of aggression launched in February has dramatically exacerbated this state of affairs. There is little doubt as to which party is the aggressor and which is subjected to the aggression. However, it would be hard to envisage a broader spectrum of effects arising from this indisputable violation of international law: from warmongering that stokes the catastrophe to reflective approaches pondering “how can we get out of this situation?” and even pacifist zeal that risks losing sight of war’s devastating realities. And, in many places, impassioned radical reactions harshly condemning those with opposing views. A truly “hysterical” scenario, to pick up on this issue’s leitmotif.
Hysterical phenomena never cease to astound us, in large part because everyone can observe them in themselves. It is usually a case of overreacting (to something or other) that seems to stem from the depths of subjective and collective emotional states. Even simply grasping this complex structure in rational terms is tricky and raises a number of questions: is it possible to draw on “the hysterical” meaningfully as a category to analyse contemporary society and the individuals that compose it? How might a redefinition of the term look? And what forms of expression around agitation and vexation have emerged particularly prominently in the cultural field recently?
These questions are explored in the Hysteria thematic issue, produced in cooperation with the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach (Offenbach University of Art and Design, Department of Sociology and Media Theory). It attempts to look beyond the manifold manifestations of agitation and indignation, of irritation and excitation – and to identify rules underlying this unfettered phenomenological proliferation on the basis of individual studies.
On the one hand, in terms of what could be called the vantage point of empirical symptom analysis, this calls for an inventory of modern and post-modern disorders. From a medical perspective, these are usually summarised today in the light of broader concepts, such as conversion disorder, dissociation disorder or histrionic personality disorder. On the other hand, from a societal perspective, it is crucial to question ascriptions like “society of agitation”, “moral panic” or myriad neologisms beginning with “hyper”. What kind of illuminating links can be established between these individual symptoms and the field of social disorders? Is it possible to find images of such connections that relate analytically to the media hysterias unfolding ever more rapidly today? Can artistic primal scenes or working through hysteria serve as productive remedies in this context?
The pieces in this issue attempt to address all these questions in depth. In his introductory text, Marc Ries explains the criteria that can be used to distinguish between various manifestations of the hysterical in relation to contemporary culture. While, on the one hand, this is about the diagnosis of a far-reaching “disease of civilisation”, on the other hand, it is also important to take account of an ironic-subversive use of the hysterical, as exemplified in the music videos discussed here. Pop cultural phenomena, however, are only one arena of a much more diverse set of symptoms that has begun to take hold of society as a whole in all its ramifications and stratifications.
The war and its consequences form a further focus of the analysis of hysteria envisaged here. Christine Würmell examines current forms of protest and notes a transition from once spectacular, public stagings to a proliferation of silent selfie protest, which nevertheless has pronounced excitation potential. With an eye to the situation on the ground (in Ukraine), there is no way to determine entirely whether protest selfies are an effective means to direct against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent. Artist Nikita Kadan gives a first-hand account of his experiences immediately after the outbreak of war and different tiers of bearing witness; in dialogue with Noit Banai, he explores the extent to which the war can be viewed as a “performance” of nationalist hysteria.
For some time now, artist Stine Marie Jacobsen has been engaging with various forms of violence, as she explains in conversation with Annie Kurz in the light of her interview series Direct Approach. It aims to decode horror in all its possible facets, always bearing in mind the individual backgrounds of those sharing information. The approach adopted by Forensic Architecture is dedicated more to in-depth fact-finding than to decoding meaning. Maria Sitte explores the subliminal dimension of indignation and accusation, drawing on a current work by the group.
Finally, Julia Hainz takes as her starting point a famous historical painting that shows Jean-Martin Charcot presenting his interpretation of hysteria, using it to seek out contemporary equivalents as well as decisive deviations from this depiction. The problem of how to counteract the still commonplace “feminisation” of everything hysterical is also addressed by Karina Nimmerfall in her fiction about female and/or artistic resilience. Along with the other contributions to this edition, her piece reveals that an immense diversity of manifestations – and thus perhaps also potential for criticism – is inherent in the numerous contemporary varieties of excitation and being beside oneself.