The Buffoonery Syndrome

Now and then I come across bits of theory that help me enormously to understand my own behavior and practices.

Here’s something from “A Fool’s Discourse” by Mady Schutzman in The Ends of Performance eds. Phelan & Lane, NYU Press 1998.

After a century of neurasthenia, fainting, and “the vapors,” it is widely known that the predominant “new” female malady in the late nineteenth century was hysteria. But perhaps less well known is that Jean Martin Charcot, the French neurologist who degined hysteria and charted its “phases” in photographic tableaux, named the second phase of hysteria “the phase of clownism,” or the buffoonery syndrome. It was characterized by a seried of protracted movements and grand gestures that closely resemble the gestures of heightened exhilaration displayed n today’s popular fashion advertising. A woman so delighted by her hose is literally lifted off her feet into an impossible posture of glee; another dons her polka dots and blows her tuba in the streets in tribute to her newfound soft drink. Irrepressible joy an d ecstatic uprisings erupt constantly over new fragrances. Women perform sheer energy, broadcasting the infinite potential to be preposterous and making a bizarre and yet enticing show of the violation of the female image. In corporeal expletives and exclamations, the hysteric (of both medical science and contemporary advertising) embodies the gender disorders of the social body and simultaneously screams her distress. Her excessive visual presence both disguises and disclaims her assigned absence within the social sphere. Put yet another way, in her overstated assumption of the mask of femininity, she indicts the very power politics that her body economy suffers. She plays the clown.

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