In medicine, pathology is the study of disease processes. Pathologists identify cancer cells, and pathologists determine cause of death. It’s a very important specialty. But the pathological turn can also be misused to impose normative standards, leading to artificial bifurcations in the assessment of lived experience.
This type of phenomenon would be like the extreme version of Berlant’s intimate publics, except rhetorically positioned as positivist research. But the pathological turn is not necessarily “evil” or ill-intentioned. For example, Freud’s work would have been the attempt to pathologize hysteria, with the ultimate aim of treating the symptoms – symptoms of what today we would recognize as PTSD. However, Freud began to doubt the narratives of his patients – he was unable to accept the possibility that sexual abuse and incest were so prevalent among the well-to-do families of his clients (see Judith Herman; _________).
The result was that, rather than pathologizing the phenomenon of sexual assault, he pathologized the inner workings of the female brain. And I don’t mean this in a positive way – I mean it in a positivist way. He could not observe fathers raping their daughters – he couldn’t even verify that such events had actually taken place. And because of the mimetic concerns identified by Leys, he couldn’t entirely trust the efficacy of hypnosis as a means of revealing the veracity of expressed narratives. So, like the the researchers described by Herman (the ones who pathologized the victim of domestic abuse because they couldn’t get her husband to open up and talk), Freud pathologized the victim (i.e. he pathologized the survivor) rather than addressing the underlying cause of trauma: fathers who were sexually abusing their daughters, a patriarchal society that turned a blind eye to these behaviors, and the daily prison of gendered social roles that imprisoned the women of that era.
Although Berlant applies her cruel optimism to contemporary perceptions of marriage, it was likely far, far worse for many women of that time. I am imagining the mothers, the ones who were supposed to enjoy the “happiest day” (was it called the happiest day back then?), and then later they find that their husbands are leaving the marital bed to molest the child. And if you were a mother, you couldn’t dare let that get out. There would have been no real possibility for divorce – even if there had been, the world was dangerously small. People didn’t simply up and move back then as they do now. So there would have been an intense shame surrounding any act of incest – the kind of shame that would have enforced the secrecy, loneliness, and isolation that would have still further exacerbated the PTSD symptoms then described as hysteria.