Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity

Anna Katharina Schaffner, “Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity,” Journal of Medical Humanities 37, no 3 (2016): 327-341.

Argues that “exhaustion,” typically paired with other, varying symptoms, has factored into medical discourse in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and has functioned as a medicalized critique of technological advancement. Looks at works by George Cheyne, George Beard, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, Alain Ehrenberg and Jonathan Crary.

On Beard and American Nervousness —
Sets backdrop by discussing the idea of nervous energy as finite
“The causes of neurasthenia were firmly attributed to the external world, to technological and social changes that drained the limited energy reserves of modern men and women. The modern environment, particularly the urban environment, was thought to generate too many stimuli such that the senses were incessantly assaulted by noise, sights, speed and information. Beard feared that the sensitive nervous systems of the modern subject would be unable to cope with this sensory overload.” (331)
Discusses the fact that the disease was held to be particularly prevalent in the upper-classes and argues that Beard constructed neurasthenia to more of “a badge of honor than a disease.”
“In his account, neurasthenia is construed as a marker of evolutionary refinement and social and intellectual status, a condition signalling sensitivity, industriousness and sophistication,” as well as a sign of American-ness (adding a patriotic dimension). (332)
“As a wound inflicted by modernity, exhaustion could be borne as proudly as a battle scar.” (333)

New line of argument for thesis; people came to the springs to escape the city, which was understood as overly stimulating and unhealthful. Discourse at the springs had to emphasize the opposite; relaxing, slow-moving, natural, a-scientific. Prove by finding language of neurasthenia in testimonials.
Doctor’s role? Playing into neurasthenic discourse as well, also providing testimonials asserting the springs’ efficacy in nervous illnesses (and by extension dyspepsia). Are doctors talking about this in local publications? If not, this speaks to the clout vernacular audiences had in establishing medical meanings at the springs.


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