Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Seeing and Reading Historical Images of Insanity

In early January 2010, writes Simon Cross, I will be attending the annual Media Communication and Cultural Studies (MeCCSA) conference to be held this year at the London School of Economics. The annual get together of our subject association is an important opportunity to introduce new research ideas.

For this reason, I will use the MeCCSA conference to introduce an analytic strategy for reading historical images of madness that enables us to see that while forms and figures of madness change there are threads of continuity. My main argument is that we can only understand continuity in the visual image of madness in relation to change. I want to use this argument to show that how continuities and changes are read into historical images of madness depend on three interconnecting factors. They are: media technologies, cultural forms, and historical consciousness.

In the nineteenth century, these factors interconnected in visually significant ways when the development of photography and a changing pictorial aesthetic of madness fused with new theories of mental disorder. Through close analysis of three exemplary, historical forms of representations of madness, i.e. clinical photographs, lithograph engravings, and portraiture in oils, I want to show how they produce certain constructions of madness, with different truth-claims and forms of visual rhetoric being involved, each with attendant consequences for certain historically-based epistemological positions.

Those of you interested in pursuing these ideas more closely might be interested to read my forthcoming book, Mediating Madness: Mental Distress and Cultural Representation, to be published Palgrave Macmillan on 1 March 2010.

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