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Chloe Green
The University of Melbourne
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Catching Feelings: Mental Illness and Affective Contagion in Women’s Autobiographical Writings

This project examines the interplay between mental illness, life writing and anxieties about affective contagion in contemporary women’s autobiographical works. In considering the role of affect in reading, writing and critiquing life writing, this project explores the impacts of the body on representations of mental illness.

Charcot & Richer, 1887: crucifixion pose of an hysteric 600x300

Women’s autobiographical narratives of mental illness stage a negotiation, in a similar manner to the disorders they take as subject, between mind and body. In this project, which is her doctoral thesis at The University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communications, Green explores how academic criticism positions autobiographical writings of mental illness as an act of confession, and how this positioning limits the writer’s agency in both engaging with life-writing, and for using mental illness as a subject rather than a symptom. Furthermore, this project examines, through the ‘contagious’ transmission of emotion and affect, autobiographical modes of writing mental illness narratives can challenge the logic of embodiment that refers to a lived or ‘real’ body within a text. As such, this project suggests that reading autobiographical works performs an embodied engagement that is more closely aligned with touch and the sensing body than with purely objective sight. The primary texts, including works by Sylvia Plath, Siri Hustvedt, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Browning, Chris Kraus and Leslie Jamison, together signal a shift towards affect within the lived experience of mental illness. In this project Green is exploring how the assemblage between mind, body and autobiographical text forms a fluid, affective model for conceptualising mental illness. In so doing, she will investigate women’s writing of mental illness stages a dialogue at the intersection of mind and body, and in the interplay of affect and emotional embodiment.

Partnerships: This project will be assisted by a residency at the SenseLab at Concordia University, Montreal in mid-2018.

Image: Charcot & Richer, 1887: crucifixion pose of an hysteric.  Courtesy of Wellcome Collections.