History of the Human Sciences 32 (1):41-65 (2019)

It is often said that the advent of the Freudian talking cure around 1900 revolutionised the psychiatric setting by giving patients a voice. Less known is that for decades prior to the popularisation of this technique, several researchers had been experimenting with another, written practice aimed at probing the mind. This was particularly the case in France. Alongside neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s spectacular staging of hypnotised bodies, ‘automatic writing’ became widely used in fin-de-siècle clinics and laboratories, with French psychologists regularly asking entranced patients to scribble down words to validate their nascent theories on the divided self. This article traces the emergence of automatic writing in French psychological discourse at the close of the 19th century. By focusing on the early work of Dr Pierre Janet and some of his contemporaries, it re-examines the role played by this practice in what Henri Ellenberger famously called ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’. It also considers the various levels of reconstruction at play in recent historical accounts. What does it mean to give subjects a voice? How does automatic writing differ from the Freudian talking cure as respective expressions of the unspeakable? And how might these questions inform future historical practice?
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DOI 10.1177/0952695119834848
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