The Hysteric's Discourse.1

Gérard Wajcman

Let us talk about hysteria, a field of investigation almost without limitations: throughout history there are writers telling us about hysteria, from the miraculous healing at the temple of Asclepios to the treatment of anorexia in a modern hospital; from the witch and her dealings with the devil to the high society lady and her fainting spills. Over time any concept of hysteria has been outdated by hysteria itself. For some, its diffuse, multiple patterns sprawl over the entire field of pathology. Facing both the practical difficulty of providing treatment for so ubiquitous a disorder and the theoretical problem of forcing it under one category, others, like Charcot, chose to reduce the multiple to one and to declare hysteria a single indivisible entity.

There doesn't seem to be anything medicine has not said about hysteria: it is multiple, it is one, it is nothing; it is an entity, a malfunction, an illusion; it is true and deceptive; organic or perhaps mental; it exists, it does not exist. Before proposing yet another spurious theory on the subject, we must in the existing theories locate the prolific nature of hysteria, its propensity to play in every key; this can be done with little risk of error. The very inconsistency of the disorder has lead many to think of it as a figment of the imagination; and yet, the profusion of literature devoted to it involves the entire range of medical knowledge.

We intended to talk about hysteria and now hysteria makes us talk; we sought a particular medical entry and found libraries of medical knowledge. Out of all objects of medical study, hysteria is the one to which the greatest number of papers have been devoted; it is even the subject of the oldest known medical text.2

And yet hysteria has remained a question. Even today medical writings, when referring to hysteria, bestow on it an air of mystery. This is not simply because hysteria has remained unexplained; other unexplained diseases are entirely unmysterious. Rather, the history of research on hysteria shows that every author who ventured into this domain inherited from his predecessors the mystery in its entirety. None of the extant theories appear to be connected to, or inspired by, those which preceded it. Thus, the task of accounting for hysteria resembles the work of Sisyphus.3 In fact, with hysteria always presenting the same question, the authors have sought explanations rather than a true answer. Each appears to have contributed a particular solution while leaving the question unchanged for his follower. Theories arose one after the other, one against the other, different from one another, and yet there seems to be no progress in sight.

What goes by the name of hysteria is a set of opposing and even contradictory statements. This set we will call knowledge. The sequence of those statements can be treated as history: they can be arranged in chronological order, their constants can be determined, their patterns and gaps revealed. But, at best, such a history would demonstrate the failure of knowledge to unveil the mystery, as can be seen from certain historicist interpretations.4 Still, this history describes the conditions under which a mystery triggers the production of knowledge. It is not the history of hysteria but the history of medicine, or of hysteria as a body of statements. Some of these statements have been invalidated in time while others have not. Yet each fails to state the whole truth, that is, none can take hold of its object and fully master it.

We'll give the name of hysteric to this object which cannot be mastered by knowledge and therefore remains outside of history, even outside its own. This disjunction (//) can be expressed in the following way: if hysteria is a set of statements about the hysteric, then the hysteric is what eludes those statements, escapes this knowledge.

Moreover, beyond the properly scientific attempt to master an object through knowledge and thus to reduce it to a body of statements, the history of hysteria bears witness to something fundamental in the human condition--being put under pressure to answer a question. The questioning one is the hysteric. Asking a question is so elementary a relation of language that it can be done without words: when the hysteric presents her riddled body to the physician, even though mute, she poses her question.

The hysterical subject questions the physician about the symptom that, unexplainably, riddles her body. She presses him for an answer, impelling him to generate the knowledge needed to cure her.

While knowledge cannot articulate the hysteric, the hysteric ushers the articulation of knowledge.

Intending to talk about hysteria, we found that hysteria made us talk. So far this result had no other support than the body of knowledge produced by physicians over time. But the very history of medical knowledge requires that we examine what it eludes, namely the hysteric's double characteristic of resisting speech and causing it. This ambiguity structures the enunciation of the assertive statements called knowledge.

Behind the history that describes the failure of knowledge to master the object, and beneath the finite body of medical statements produced over time, we will discover the reasons for that failure in the structure from which those statements arise and which determines their production.

It is one of the more puzzling aspects of the history of hysteria that it compels us to interpret its course in terms of a readily discernible structure. History, then, will not serve us as a method but rather as a reservoir of snapshots taken, as it were, of the structure at work. Following Jacques Lacan, we will call this particular structure the "hysteric's discourse." (Perhaps Lacan's notion of discourse in general is inspired by this structure.)

This structure, whose elements are revealed by the history of hysteria, is fundamental first as discourse, and, second, as the hysteric's discourse.


Lacan's concept of discourse is a specific formalization of the basic components of speech and its effects. It accounts for what is at stake when we claim the right to speak. What do we do when we make this claim? First, we assume a place. Before the actual speech act occurs certain stable relations determine its effect, depending on the place from which it is performed. According to Lacan, it is the discourse that gives the speech act its status. Second, we assume language. Speech is addressed to another place in the direction of which it is delivered. Discourse as a signifying articulation establishes the social link that proceeds, from the place of speech as performance, to the place of speech as destination: to speak to an other is to act upon him. Thus discourse institutes power and conditions its exercise.

Lacan's symbolism

agent --> other5

accounts for these elements. It formalizes the places which come into play with every speech act, namely the agent of discourse and the other who is acted upon. This formula also suggests the dimension of power in all actions exercised upon an other. The effect of such actions, the product of discourse, requires the introduction of a third place:
agent --> other --> production
Finally, psychoanalysis necessitates a fourth item to complete this array: the place of "truth." The analytic experience is based on the fact that, at least ordinarily, we do not know what we say: what we intend to say is not the truth of what we say: the agent of speech conveys a meaning unknown to him. Far from being the master of meaning, he acts, in the words of J.A. Miller, as its appointed functionary. Thus, the agent suffers the truth rather than delivering it. His place only seems to be one of acting subject, a semblance brought in by speech as such. He who claims to speak in the name of truth cannot speak it, precisely because he speaks in its name.

Truth, then, is the driving force in the discursive machine, and the four elements that constitute this machine can be set down as follows:
truth --> agent --> other --> production
This sequence may be ordered in yet another way, the one actually proposed by Lacan.6 His arrangement notes a second disjunction, between the places of truth and production. The signifying machine cannot generate the truth that drives it, nor can the effect of speech become the cause of speech. Thus:


There are three terms to occupy four places: signifier, subject and object. These terms are heterogeneous; subject and object must be named, they are determined by the signifier (the subject-object relation is structured by language.)

The spatial configuration of these terms is also their definition. Since the signifier functions only differentially , we have to posit two signifiers rather than one. Suppose a single signifier, S1. It stands alone. Isolated from the chain, it has no meaning, signifies nothing, is semblance. Thus S1 is the signifier in whose name one speaks, the apparent agent: the master-signifier of discourse.

Suppose a second signifier (S2) to go with the first, and the signifying chain has been installed. Because it positions S1, we speak of S2 as the other signifier. S2 represents the capital Other, the 'treasure of signifiers' from which, and with which, one speaks. Moreover, it is a network of inter-dependent signifiers, a battery of knowledge, with knowledge defined as linguistic articulation. S2 is therefore the knowledge put into operation by S1.

At this point we can match the terms with the places, and substitute for
agent --> other
the relation
S1 --> S2.
Lacan's definition of the signifier is that it "represents the subject for another signifier." With respect to the relation S1 --> S2 the subject is symbolized by S. If S1 is the signifier in whose name one speaks, S is the subject represented by S1 for S2. We express this result as


Finally, the discursive machine produces something--the object. It is merely a residue, fallout of the signifying process, a side-benefit of that process. Lacan's symbol for this odd object is petit a and he calls it plus-de-jouir. Now the formula is complete:


Note that in this type of discourse the distribution of terms corresponds exactly to the configuration of places:


Thus, the discourse which borrows its name from the place of the agent, or master, provides the matrix of speech in general. Along with the right to speak, it establishes the 'social link' of speech in the form of mastery. Whatever the message it means to convey, speech acts upon an other and thereby constrains him: the discourse of the master stands for the commanding dimension of language.

By retaining the four places: the agent, the other, truth, production, while rotating the four terms: the master-signifier S1; knowledge S2; the subject S; and the plus-de-jouir or objet petit a, we can construct three other types of discourse, permutations of the initial setting. Each type of discourse takes its name from the term which occurs in the place of the agent.

Revolving the discourse of the master by a quarter turn, we obtain Lacan's formula of the discourse of the University:


In this discourse knowledge holds the place of agent. The purpose is to master jouissance-keep it low. Under the doctoral cap (S2) we find the master (S1), the authoritative text, etc.; at the place of production, the aspiring subject, the graduate (S). He aims at professorship, i.e. knowledge as agent.

Another quarter of a turn, and we arrive at the discourse of the analyst:


The analyst is the objet petit a which provokes the speech of S, the analysand. Analysis supposes that knowledge (S2) occurs at the place of truth. S2 is the knowledge the patient attributes to the analyst, but it is also the unconscious knowledge of the subject S. The product of the analytic discourse is S1, the primal signifier, or cipher, of the subject. The disjunction between production (S1) and truth (S2) refers to the impossibility of controlling unconscious knowledge.

The formula of the fourth discourse follows from the other three:


At first glance, the notion of a discourse of the hysteric seems incongruent. It is evident that mastery and knowledge determine specific social behaviours, and there can be no doubt that psychoanalysis has established a new kind of speech relation. But hysteria does not seem to fit into this catalogue of institutions. The clinical imagery associated with it more readily evokes unsocial behaviour. What then shall we make of Lacan's propositionthat hysteria is a discourse? The contradiction between hysteria as social link and as clinical image vanishes however as soon as we think of it as a structure accounting not just for pathological, but rather for "normal" hysteria. Normal hysteria has no symptoms and is an essential characteristic of the speaking subject. Rather than a particular speech relation, the discourse of the hysteric exhibits the most elementary mode of speech. Drastically put: the speaking subject is hysterical as such.

As formalized by Lacan, the discourse of the hysteric accounts for historic and clinical hysteria; for the position of the speaking subject as such; and even for language patterns that seem far removed from hysteria in the strict sense of the term.

The discourse of the hysteric is fundamental, first, because it discloses the structure of speech in general and, second, because it sheds light on dimensions of human discursive practice that no one would have related to clinical hysteria. History bears witness to both aspects, as we have indicted already. But this remains to be shown in more detail.

The hysteric can be said to institute a discourse when we do not cast out her question, a question that runs irrepressibly through history, despite all attempts to set it aside once and for all. What causes this history? If we can answer this question, we will have established the hysteric as agent of discourse. To put it yet in another way: what makes the hysteric so enticing to have induced all that literature about her?

To answer with Lacan, the hysteric is a chimaera, bringing to mind the myth of the sphinx. With the question she poses to man, the sphinx not only institutes a certain relation of speech, but specifically the discursive relation of agent to other. The question is the hysteric herself; she is the barred subject , whose body is marked by unexplainable symptoms. These symptoms define her discourse as a question addressed to the other. Brandishing her suffering, she acts as the sphinx posing a riddle to man. Having acknowledged her question, he raises to the position of master endowed with limitless power: he is the master of knowledge supposed to have the answer capable of silencing her. For the hysteric's discourse, the relation "agent" --> "other" thus takes the form --> S1.

The riddle of the subject supposes the other (priest, physician, analyst) capable of resolving it. The history of hysteria can be seen as many Oedipuses lined up before the sphinx, each answering her riddle in his way, none conquering Thebes (it was his answer that made Oedipus into Oedipus, says Lacan.)

The riddle, or enigma, is a basic speech-form-a minimal enunciation (énonciation)-which compels the one to whom it is addressed to respond in the form of an statement (énoncé). The hysteric's enunciation is injunctive: "Tell me!"

This mandate to speak is a fundamental aspect of the Demand: only speech is demanded, nothing else. The one who acknowledges this injunction, or mandate to speak, is given the power to satisfy the Demand. This constitutes him as the capital Other. By posing the riddle, the hysteric commands the Other from her position as agent, and yet in so doing entirely surrenders to him whom she empowers to answer: "Tell me! Answer me! Whatever you say I am!" The demand compels speech, solicits an answer. It requests virtually all of speech, all that can be answered, as if all of language carried the mute question: "Who am I?" Asked by the hysteric, this question, essential for her, appears to arise from the structure itself. She identifies with the structure of speech, the synchrony of which is a question-answer:
Tell me ... who I am? --> I am who you say.
The hysteric reveals the subject's symbolic dependence on the Other. She manifests this dependence by keeping up her "symbolic debt" and by inverting the direction of the message (the speaker receives the message from the hearer):


The hysteric demonstrates that all speech proceeds from the place of the Other. The Other is master, letting the as yet inarticulate subject come into being:
I am / who you say < --> I say / who you are.

The hysteric plays it as though she commanded the Other, yet symbolically she is entirely dependent on him whom she begs to make her a subject. She commands and at once surrenders. Her question, "Who am I?' receives the answer "You are who I say."

On the side of the Other the question ends with the gift of speech. But this gift has an essential flaw. By answering the subject's question: "Who am I?" the Other lets the subject come into being; but any given answer, necessarily specific, reduces the subject's quest to a finite object: "Who you are? A saint, a fool, a hospital case..." Calling the subject into being, the hysteric's "Who?" in response receives a what that objectifies her.

Tell me who I am? --> You are what I say.

The division of subject and object, an irrevocable effect of language, provides the treacherous ground for hysteria to perform its manoeuvres.

The hysteric is a speaking riddle, the symptom that elicits speech from the other. Any answer will do as long as there is one at all. The historical abundance of theories on hysteria demonstrates this profusely. They have said anything and everything about hysteria save the truth.

Like history, clinical data contributes its share to describing the structure made manifest by the riddle-the fact that it wants to be answered. The hysteric herself joins the wagon: for her, too, the symptom is a riddle compelling her to provide answers: hence the hysteric's bend for self-diagnosis.

The Demand describes the passage from posing a question (énonciation) to receiving a finite answer (énoncé); the answer interprets the one who asked for it. Most generally speaking, the result of this process is talk. Talk activates the battery of signifiers-a network or set of inter-dependent terms describing the structure of knowledge. Its minimal form is the relation S1 --> S2. The process of signification arises from this structure; meaning results from the interplay of at least two signifiers.

When the hysteric takes command by posing her question, the outcome is knowledge, answering as such. Knowledge in turn answers the question "Who am I?" The history of hysteria bears witness to this. It engenders knowledge, more than enough of it, and not only medical knowledge. Religion's interpretation of hysteria passed from telluric demonry to celestial sanctity. Science first classified it among the organic diseases with either extremely precise or extremely diffuse localizations, then listed it with the mental diseases. But there again it proved cumbersome on account of its somatic characteristics, and finally the hysteric is held in contempt as a malingerer. But if she feigns her illness, she is not ill.

The history of hysteria presents three salient aspects: (1) requesting an answer, hysteria generates knowledge; (2) responding to the symptom, knowledge states what the hysteric is (a witch, a saint, a patient, a subject); (3) no answer settles the hysteric's question; all answers fail to master their object, none can silence the hysteric.

The hysteric's role regarding knowledge is precisely ambiguous. She solicits knowledge by offering herself as its precious object, compelling man [the male] to always generate more. But on the other hand, her solicitation pushes knowledge to its limits, demonstrating that knowledge does not coincide with the truth that it supposedly expresses. Disengaged from the truth, knowledge fails to account for hysteria. And yet the two aspects are linked: the failure of knowledge incessantly fuels the riddle, and hence the production of knowledge.

This leads to a question which takes us beyond the framework of clinical studies. What if the conditions by which the hysteric causes the production of knowledge would coincide with the conditions of the production of knowledge in general? In this case the discourse of the hysteric would be related to the discourse of science. In effect, the discourse of science depends on excluding the subject-an exclusion the hysteric and her ongoing riddle reveal.

History throws light on the structure, but the structure shows the reasons of history. The structure of discourse consists in the hysteric's enunciation: I am what you say." This is the key to the multifaceted nature of hysteria. From a clinical standpoint, this statement could be rejected; but what the clinician may contest remains valid for the historian: hysteria has changed over time.

Often observed, the 'evolution' of hysteria has remained unexplained, because the time in which these changes occur is only the time of discourse. Hysteria's historical guises, its very plasticity, depend on the vicissitudes of this discourse. The hysteric has no history, and yet her discourse is the driving force behind the history which, as the changing appearance of knowledge, produces her as an object.

As the subject who exhibits the symptom as an enigma for knowledge, the hysteric pushes the one to whom she addresses her question to know (pousse-à-savoir): "Look at my body, there you will find the answer to my question." She offers herself to man as a ravishing enigma, as the object of a knowledge that divides her from herself. Characteristic for the hysteric, the subject-object division now stands revealed as a structural one, arising from the essential function of the enigma in the relation of speech.

The symptom as riddle calls for an answer. "Who am I?" The subject of this enunciation remains in the air as long as it has not found articulation by means of a statement. Articulation answers the riddle, that allows any possible answer because it urges nothing but speech itself. But with any particular answer, something drops out of the signifying relation: articulated by means of this answer, the question itself disappears. The subject finds itself constituted by a definite statement, "You are...," and the object of this statement, the question, is dropped as a lost object, as objet petit a. The statement falls necessarily short of the enunciation; in stating something, it does not state the truth.

It should be evident by now that the notion of hysteria as a riddle has more than descriptive value: hysteria is not today's question which might be answered tomorrow. Hysteria is a riddle, and remains a riddle. Nothing truer can be stated of a riddle than: "It is a riddle."

Paradoxically, the only true answer to the question "What is hysteria?" is not answering it. There are two possible positions: (a) answer the question and produce knowledge; or (b) speak the truth but don't answer the question.

Thus, speaking the truth excludes knowledge. True knowledge is possible nevertheless if we let the riddle speak by itself. Freud did precisely that. Taking his position we leave the discourse of the hysteric and assume another one for whose emergence the hysteric was responsible: the discourse of the analyst.

This new discourse arises with the non-response of the analyst to the hysteric's demand. The statement (S1 --> S2), which constitutes the subject (), leaves a residue, objet petit a, the deflated question. Thus, any answer, simply by being an answer, separates the subject who poses the question from the question it poses. The subject becomes the object of the statement,


establishing the disjunction between knowledge and the object of this knowledge,
a // S2
As subject, the hysteric poses the question which causes speech; as object she is what knowledge must, but cannot, articulate.

The discourse of the hysteric bears a definite relation to Lacan's earlier notion of the Demand. That which he previously called the "gap of desire" now appears as objet petit a, or dropout from the signifying relation, inasmuch as the quest for satisfaction necessarily receives an inadequate answer. Regarding the hysteric's desire, we will not here discuss the dialectic unraveled by Freud-desire of an unsatisfied desire-but the place of this desire in the economy of discourse.

This place is determined by the function of teasing knowledge (pousse-à-savoir) we attributed to the hysteric. After all, she tries to seduce the desiring man to learn about the object that causes his desire. This object, which has dropped out of the speech cycle set in motion by the Demand, is the hysteric herself (she is both the object which causes man's desire and the object of this desire.)

The hysteric embodies the division between subject and object in a particular way. As subject she incites desire; but when this desire moves towards the object that causes it, the hysteric cannot condescend to be this object. She incites man to know what causes his desire, inciting him to acknowledge her as the inaccessible object of his desire.

This intrigue of the hysteric is open to everyday observation. Offering her charms, she captivates the man. She provokes his desire, then suddenly disappoints it; she retreats at the very moment hen he risks a response to her advances: being the object of his desire is the position she cannot endure. Her game is to present herself as desirable; but when this offer is taken seriously, she withdraws and will not have been what one thought she was. This tenuous and nonnegotiable position between subject and object is expressed by:


The hysteric's relationship with her therapist adds another facet to this clinical picture. Making the physician a witness to her suffering, she urges him to give a name to her sufferance, commanding him to take action. The physician answers, provides a diagnosis and prescribes a treatment. But the very next day she harshly criticizes him because her illness has not abated; only this time the pain has moved to another part of her body. His diagnosis was wrong, or else the prescription, etc. etc.

Here the clinical data bear witness to another aspect of the structure. The hysteric starts out with her "I am what you say," and ends with her "All of what I am you cannot say," bringing about objet petit a // S2, the disjunction between knowledge and object.

The structure of language as it operates in the discourse of the hysteric looks as follows. S1 -> S2 constitutes the chain of signifiers, i.e. the capital Other, 0. The objet petit a is what is lacking in 0. The Other is always deficient, which the hysteric will not fail to point out to the physician, who embodies the Other, by putting his competence into question.

Here the castrating dimension of the hysteric's game becomes evident. Pushing man towards knowledge (pousse-à-savoir), she also pushes him towards failure (pousse-au-manque): the man involved with her always finds himself stupid (manque-à-savoir). But the erratic quality of the hysteric's discourse derives more from the structure which necessitates hysteria than from the hysteric who asks to be interpreted in terms of the structure.

Hysteria is an elementary effect of language. As an intelligible phenomenon it follows from the structure of the Demand. This structure, in fact, is identical with hysteria. Immersed in language, the subject is hysterical as such. While Freud took hysteria to be the nucleus of all neurotic disorders, Lacan has revealed the speaking subject as fundamentally hysterical: the only subject of psychoanalysis is the barred, unconscious, hysterical subject.

It then appears no longer sufficient to conceive of hysteria as a fact of language among others; it is the fact of language if we admit that whoever speaks is hysterical. We can go further and say that the subject demands to be recognized as a fact of language (see the formula "Tell me who I am --> I am what you say.") The hysteric not only requests that language be used as a means for explaining her, she also insists on being acknowledged as a being of speech. Freud fulfilled this demand, and so did Lacan.

The connection of hysteria and psychoanalysis is structural and not historical: the subject, insofar as it demands to be recognized as an effect of language, lines up with the analyst, whose existence is sustained by the fact that language has effects. This constitutes his knowledge, or rather the knowledge the hysteric attributes to him. The hysteric is not a Subject privileged by and for analysis, and yet psychoanalysis could only emerge with the hysteric as subject. This does not explain why analysis was invented by Freud, but provides the structural reason for its emergence. As we said, there are two possible subjective positions regarding the hysteric: (1) The position of medicine; by playing the hysteric's game, this position produces a body of knowledge from which the question drops out. (2) Freud's position which consists in a non-response to the question, or rather the silent response: "It's a question." This silence is a structural position, and not only an incitement to speak. It is a response, and knowledge is produced; but adequate to the truth, the response does not answer the Demand. The statement "It's a question" stands for a knowledge that functions as truth. (This could be the definition of psychoanalytic interpretation.) As a matter of fact, the analyst's silence might lead to a reverse hysterization, inasmuch as the analyst, by becoming a question himself, commands the subject to produce knowledge about him. As a result, the question includes the knowledge of the question, and this knowledge cannot be articulated.

It is Freud's historical achievement not to have fabricated new knowledge to more adequately or more elegantly account for hysteria. He came upon a knowledge that does not know itself, the unconscious; his break with the past was recognizing a knowledge that speaks by itself.

The hysteric renders unfeasible any enterprise based on the teleological organization of different kinds of knowledge. She banalizes the bits and pieces of knowledge, challenging not so much their content as the place from which they are pronounced. All medical knowledge is the same for her, whether it be Hippocrates' wandering uterus or Charcot's missing lesion. Between the two, centuries of patient and learned efforts, thousands of pages of theses, of analyses, of conclusions.

We suggest that history's judgment on Charcot's studies of hysteria must not be understood as the failure of a particular theory or approach but, on the contrary, as marking a point of no return. Charcot's paradigmatic failure is that of knowledge as knowledge about the hysteric.

What can be seen from her history, then, is not only that the hysteric resists being apprehended as an object of science, but that she cannot serve as such an object because the knowledge she embodies is precisely unknowable. Freud's identification with the hysteric has more than biographical relevance: by putting himself in her place, his knowledge about her was produced like a symptom-a knowledge speaking by itself. Knowledge about the hysteric is the knowledge of the hysteric.

Freud closed the discourse of the hysteric, or rather, opened it up, by establishing as irremediable the disjunction between subject and object. The invention of psychoanalysis proceeded from his position on the hysteric: he kept silent and let the symptom speak.


1.From Le maître et l'hystérique, Paris: Navarin (1982), pp. 11-30.

2.Papyrus Kahoun dated 1900 B.C.

3.Less speculative and more pragmatic, American psychiatry has solved the problem in eliminating the notion of hysteria from its textbooks.

4.Those interpretations describe the history of hysteria as progress from the courts of the Inquisition to the friendly neutrality of science.

5.The arrow indicates the direction of the message as well as the synchronic relation between two places.

6.Le séminaire, Livre XVII: L'envers de la psychanalyse, 1969-1970, Paris: Seuil, 1991; "Radiophonie," in Scilicet 2/3, 1970; Télévision, Paris: Seuil, 1973; English transl. in October 40, 1987.