Conversion Disorder: 1

This morning I ran across the somewhat viral story about the dozen or so high school students in Le Roy NY who have recently come down with a set of symptoms resembling Tourette’s: mainly uncontrollable verbal and physical tics.  It’s disturbing to watch, and disturbing to hear how one of the afflicted relates how she has never felt “more controlled” in her life.  Here’s a piece the Today Show ran on it.

So it seems the physicians directly involved in the case have given the diagnosis of “conversion disorder,” the kinder, gentler re-designation of what used to be called “mass hysteria.”  Probably the most famous of these “outbreaks” (at least the one I was familiar with beforehand) was the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962.  There have been some memorable fictional treatments of conversion disorder too: most recently, Bruce McDonald’s pretty fantastic Pontypool, and, of course, some time back, Luis Bunuel’s sublime Exterminating Angel.

Anyway, let’s entertain for a moment the idea that this outbreak “really is” a manifestation of “conversion disorder,” that is, that there is no biological or environmental cause at play (such as PANDAS).  How can we think about this disorder philosophically?

For physicians, conversion disorder is psychosomatic, meaning, I suppose, that its effects are “somatic” but its cause “psychological.”  What, then, does the disorder say about the psyche?  Well, the idea seems to have at least two presuppositions.  Firstly, it presupposes a depth model of the psyche: that is, a division between conscious and unconscious processes that clearly indicates the relative power of the latter and the relative helplessness of the former.  When the psyche is functioning normally, the conscious ego is largely unaware of the unconscious.  The unconscious is like anything that wields great power: its habit is to remain silent and behind the scenes.  But in conversion disorder, the unconscious starts to talk, if only in signs.  And it lets the ego know in no uncertain terms that it can make it dance to whatever tune it wants.

What else does it say about itself?  Well, it also conveys its mimetic character.  As one of the doctors says in one of the clips, conversion disorder is all about “subconscious mimickry.”  This, then, is the second presupposition: conversion disorder is a disorder of the psyche’s mimetic faculty. So I suppose we are to understand that conversion disorder indicates that stress has weakened the psyche’s resistance to its innate compulsion to imitate…

The idea of conversion disorder as a disorder of the mimetic faculty still doesn’t explain much though, does it?  One of the problems I have with it is that it suggests that there is a “patient zero,” a kind of pacer cell that started the propagation in the first place.  And that just makes me wonder what started her tics?  From the information I’ve gathered, the outbreak makes me think it a phenomenon somewhat like the reconstitution of a slime mold from its individual spores.  In short, conversion disorder seems to be an emergent phenomenon that “captures” its victims in a way that demands we think across the difference between succession and simultaneity, and in a way that demands we resist the impulse to look for a patient zero or pacer cell.

It should come as no surprise that I believe we would profit from thinking “conversion disorder” through a kind of “stratoanalysis.”  Let me elaborate on this further. To the Deleuze-and-Guattari mobile!


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