Pathographies: sensation, susceptibility, and desire in Nineteenth-Century America
“Pathographies” (in progress) reads an understudied archive of hospital captivity narratives to understand the proliferation of diagnostic categories in the nineteenth century aiming to account for strange affective experiences. I develop pathographia as a critical term to describe a medico-literary practice that ratifies, at the intersection of life writing and asylum narrative, the symptomatological subject as an author of neurological reality. Toward this end, my book moves from sensation (aesthesis) to susceptibility (sthenia) to desire (orexis), theorizing the narrativity of affective life beyond popular nineteenth-century cognitive models of sense, perception, and volition. Indeed, the alternative taxonomies my book suggests de-pathologize incongruous cognitive processes and disarticulate them from the mandate for classically cohesive thought, engendering a new sensorium, and with it, newly legible narratives of previously unaccounted perceptive experience.
Building on recent scholarship in the medical humanities that uncovers the therapeutic possibilities of life narrative, I demonstrate how literary narratives of the nineteenth century mobilized contemporaneous diagnoses, including mania, hysteria, neurasthenia, and anorexia, to unsettle empiricist and anti-feminist notions of cognition. Canonical literary and clinical texts tended to depict rational awakening and civic sensibility as a capacity of sensorial differentiation that was available almost exclusively to white men. Reading pathographies, however, alongside psychological treatises of physicians from Benjamin Rush to William James, reveals a feminized sphere of letters that unfastened medicine from American patriarchy. Just as significantly, I argue, these patient-authored narratives challenged emergent sciences of the mind, proffering alternative and civically inclusive cognitive epistemologies.