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Gilman, S.L. (2009). Obsession: A History by Lennard J. Davis University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008; 290 pp; $27.50. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 90(2):431-434.

(2009). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 90(2):431-434

Obsession: A History by Lennard J. Davis University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008; 290 pp; $27.50

Review by:
Sander L. Gilman

Writing the history of classifications of psychopathologies is an established means of illustrating how categories of illness are constructed over time. Yet there is often a hidden agenda: if, the argument seems to go, we can show how categories of mental disease and/or illness are constructed we can show that they are merely social constructions. the underlying claim is that these psychopathologies exist only in the fluid space of history rather than in the objective experience of individuals. Today there is a strong countermovement: many scholars who are interested in psychopathologies believe that they exist trans-historically because they are genetically transmitted. They argue the exact opposite: that the ever-clearer determination of causality means that the seemingly social construction of diagnostic categories over time is merely the sharpening of our scientific ability to define mental illness. Thus we are left with an impasse, a sort of nature/nurture split among his torians of mental illness: either mental illness is ever newly reinvented and thus a product of historical embeddedness or it is a bright line that increasing knowledge makes clear as the product of a constant genetic (or somatic) cause.

Now part of this dilemma is the seeming ephemeral nature of mental illness: if it is historically determined the symptoms can change over time because of its nature; if it is rooted in the body then symptom clusters reveal the consistency of an illness over time. The model of the former is hysteria, ever shifting given the social demands on this category: new symptoms materialize; new classifications are generated; new medical specialities (from otolaryngology to psychiatry) lay claim to hysteria for specific historical or cultural reasons. The model of the latter is always somatic illnesses, such as pulmonary tuberculosis or pellagra. Once we ‘know’ the cause (infectious agent, vitamin deficiency) all the symptoms sort themselves out and the core disease is revealed.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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