The history of hysteria
One of the more intriguingly-named course offerings at SAIC is a class called “The Wandering Uterus,” taught by Terri Kapsalis. The Social Science course explores women’s health issues and the medical and social perception of the body from ancient Greece to the present day. F Newsmagazine sat down with Kapsalis to find out just what the class is about.
The name of the course may cause some confusion for students browsing the catalog as they register for classes, but Kapsalis explains the significance: “[The concept of] hysteria started around 2000 BC. At that time in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece the main understanding of hysteria was that it was caused by a wandering uterus that would move around the body and cause illness. The words hysterectomy and hysteria are both derived from hystera, which is the Greek word for uterus. It’s what was blamed for a lot of different female ailments.”
For the first three weeks, students explore the concept of hysteria, and the lack of adequate care given to female patients under the guise of this diagnosis, but the wandering uterus is only setting the stage for a semester-long survey of gender in the context of healthcare. “It sets the ground for a way of thinking about different aspects of healthcare and gender. It even intersects transgender issues, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual healthcare,” Kapsalis says. “We talk about issues of race and socioeconomics, poverty. We also talk about the politics and history of birth control.”
She also believes that the subject of health can be an important part of an artistic practice. “I bring it back to art, why artists need to think about healthcare as a creative practice as something that is made and remade and therefore something that can be made and performed in many different ways. So I think it’s really interesting to talk about and discuss healthcare in the context of art.” Kapsalis has, in the past, invited guest artists to speak about their work. Last spring, SAIC professor Christa Donner spoke to students about her work, which deals with issues of reproductive health and the intersections of gender and medicine.
What impact does Kapsalis hope the class will have on her students, and their practice as artists? “I hope they get a better understanding of bodies and culture, and how bodies get made through culture. And that obviously impacts how they might think about their art-making as well.”
She strives to leave students with a different understanding of the world around them by the end of the semester: “It’s about understanding the politics of what you’re doing and what you’re doing when you make, what you’re saying when you make and how that relates to the culture that you’re living in. So hopefully it brings attention to some of the unquestioned assumptions that we may have about the world and about gender and about illness.”