Notes on Material Cultures of Psychiatry

Book Review by George Tudorie
Material Cultures of Psychiatry, edited by Monika Ankele and Benoît Majerus, transcript, 2020, 416pp.

Meditative excavations of lost worlds are not the exclusive territory of phantasy, of imagining in disguise one’s own world buried, waiting for a speaker for the dead. Sometimes the sediment one contemplates is real enough, and not an echo of an unfathomable past, but just barely silenced, deceivingly familiar. Historians and other students of human affairs will recognize perhaps this predicament of having to provide a negative to Paul Celan’s Psalm: someone to knead us again out of earth and clay, someone to incant out dust. One tries, at least – to let that dust speak.

A history of psychiatry told primarily in terms of material traces can be seen in this light. This is what I will suggest, in any case, for the volume I am discussing in the following. Based on a 2018 conference, from which it borrows its title, and available in open access, Material Cultures of Psychiatry (2020), edited by Monika Ankele and Benoît Majerus, is an important contribution to a relatively recent thread in the humanistic studies of mental institutions and their patients – what one might call a ‘material turn’. Given the conference format, the contributions cover a wide spectrum of subjects, methods, and genres, but they share a focus on the objects that constituted the world of psychiatric patients. The objects themselves range from the miniscule and fragile (e.g. bread amulets and thread patterns), to built structures (e.g. corridors and sheds), and the approach extends from materiality proper (wood and bone, seagrass and canvas) to the sensorial aura of objects (not only touch, but light and sound).

I will make no attempt to do justice here to all the contributions in the volume. What I do discuss below is a selection that reflects, in my view at least, what the book does at its best, and also its thematic diversity. Let me begin with what unsurprisingly constitutes the bulk of the book (most of its first four parts) – more or less typical scholarly chapters. While quite diverse in terms of both subject matter and quality, these chapters share an epistemology influenced by the work of Bruno Latour (an understandable but also problematic choice), and to a lesser extent by classics such as Goffman and Foucault. Other works by the editors also have echoes in the volume – e.g. Majerus’s study on the “social life” of objects in mental hospitals (2011), or Ankele’s studies on objects in the space of psychiatric wards as “scenographic” displays (e.g. 2019).

A notable chapter in the first part of the book is the study on the use of confinement sheds in 19th century rural France by Anatole Le Bras. The cabanon was not only the site of animal-like experiences for those confined, but also the focus of both legitimate outrage, and of moral grandstanding. Alienists, journalists, and metropolitan elites in general agreed that treating the mad in this manner was proof of the backward ways of peasants – and, tellingly, of colonized peoples.

Brutal experiences did not necessitate the hardness of wood or brick. For example, in a chapter in the second part of the book, Ankele portraits two female patients who left puzzling traces in textiles in the context of the practice of seclusion. It is only by careful contextualization that the historian can hope to illuminate an action such as the fashioning of a life-size doll overnight from a canvas blanket, as if to counter the bareness of an isolation cell. The chapter – and it is not the only one – does gradually assemble an interpretive framework, complementing the foregrounding of objects created by patients with more traditional archive research.

Other substantial chapters deal, for example, with the introduction and use of devices for treatment (the electroconvulsive machine), or as extensions of social life (TVs). Technology and science entered psychiatric hospitals also in the form of practices, as documented by Maia Woolner in the fourth part of the book in a chapter on the adoption of natural scientific-looking diagrams in the recording and mapping of the course of illness. That a certain “aesthetic” of representation was fitting the self-image of doctors is a subtle observation that could also have some bite if applied to the current medical landscape.

The reader may try to inhabit the perspective of anonymous patients watching TV shows in mid-20th century British hospitals (Louise Hide’s chapter in part two), but can also follow the psychiatric careers of cultural heroes – the composers Robert Schumann and Paul Abraham are the characters of Stefan Wulf’s chapter in part three. In the latter case, the focal object is the piano, cast as medico-musical instrument, and witness to the downfall of the two giants, but also to therapeutic speculations and efforts by psychiatrists to present their trade to the public as enlightened and successful.

To the research I exemplified above, the volume adds sections in hybrid genres, for instance a chapter on corridors by Kirsi Heimonen and Sari Kuuva which mixes artistic views and archive study. One can be liberal in terms of locating windows into the experience of patients, but such reflections, charitably seen, are not about adjudicating knowledge claims. This is even clearer in the case of the art works and pedagogical projects included in the volume (the latter in its fifth and final part).

Is then what was previously silence transcended with a renewed attention to the objects that survived long gone psychiatric patients? Properly illuminated, such things certainly lose their banality and start to play the role of aide-mémoires; they amplify hums that perhaps our culture would prefer to gloss over: senseless suffering, pretention, injustice. What matters even more, I think, is that these traces stand in the way of relegating the past, and its inhabitants, to the abstract and unreal.


Works Cited

Ankele, M. (2019). Sich aufführen. Rauminterventionen und Wissenspraktiken in der Psychiatrie um 1900. În Aufführen–Aufzeichnen–Anordnen (pp. 71–89). Springer.

Ankele, M., & Majerus, B. (2020). Material Cultures of Psychiatry. transcript Verlag.

Majerus, B. (2011). La baignoire, le lit et la porte. La vie sociale des objets de la psychiatrie. Genèses, 1, 95–119.


George Tudorie’s background is in the philosophy of psychology, and the philosophy of mind and action. He teaches at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, Romania, and his first book, Marginality in Philosophy and Psychology, will be published this May by Bloomsbury.

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