Denis Côté’s 2017 film Ta peau si lisse opens on the domestic routines of bodybuilders. One man (bald, bearded, tanned) spreads moisturizer on his thighs, calves, and pectoral muscles before putting on jeans and selecting from an array of nearly identical, bright-colored T-shirts and running shoes. Another man (younger, paler, and sporting a buzzcut) weighs, then microwaves, portions of ground beef and white rice. In the next scene, he lifts weights in a basement.
Characters that suffer from some form of real or imagined mental disorder populate early twentieth-century Japanese literature. Many Japanese authors from this historical moment likewise publicly discussed their experiences with psychological ailments or their fear that they might be close to one such pathological experience.
This short essay examines how, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, a range of British publications inflected by the diagnostic logic of psychoanalysis helped to facilitate a cultural processing of the widespread use of the military death penalty. Freudian thought, transmitted by the work of the famous shell-shock doctor W. H. R. Rivers, influenced the representations of the military death penalty in an impressive array of popular texts from various genres, including A. P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle (1919), the Labour MP Ernest Thurtle’s testimony pamphlet Shootings at Dawn (1920), and A. D. Gristwood’s novella The Coward (1927).
After the publication of the well-known sole issue of the Harlem Renaissance journal, FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (1926), W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to the journal’s cofounder Richard Bruce Nugent and asked, “Why don’t you write more about Negroes?” In response, Nugent quipped, “I write about myself, and I’m a Negro, aren’t I?” (Wirth, “FIRE!! In Retrospect,” n. p.) (figs. 1 & 2). Du Bois’s question to the openly queer and artistically experimental Nugent exemplifies 1920s debates about Black American racial representation that occurred between older and younger Black artists, many of them centered in Harlem.
Wonder Woman controls crowds, stops traffic, and makes all your wishes come true. This is not a description of the comic-book heroine invented by William Moulton Marston in 1941 but of Elsie Lincoln Benedict (1885–1970), who earned the “Wonder Woman” moniker for her self-help secrets and life-changing lectures (fig. 1). Instead of evil supervillains, she battled naysaying and bad habits. Instead of ensnaring the weak with a lasso of truth, she entranced audiences with her unmatched public speaking prowess. Her X-ray vision could diagnose a person with a single glance.
Literary modernism developed alongside the emergence of a new set of diagnostic categories designed to describe degrees of supposedly subnormal intelligence. Guided by the emergent discipline of psychometry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, terms that had signaled developmental delay and physical frailty in the early nineteenth century, such as idiocy and imbecility, began to signal degrees of deviation from cognitive norms.
The diagnostic stance assumes a certain status in the examined object. The doctor is not called to diagnose good health, only the nature of sickness. Insofar as literary critics adopt a diagnostic method of their own, they too begin with an often unstated assumption of literary “pathology”; implicitly, the text is understood to be problematic, whether aesthetically, morally, or ideologically. Diagnostic critics, for all the nuance of their professional judgments, begin their work assuming that something is wrong.
The era of modernism was also the moment when psychiatry became modern—at least this is the story that psychiatry has often told about itself. With the development of new nosological taxonomies, severe forms of mental illness were identified, described, and organized into distinct categories such as manic depression and dementia praecox (later schizophrenia) by psychiatrists Emil Kraepelin and Eugen Bleuler.
Questions of scientific testing, symptomatology, medical solutions, and epidemiological modeling have been front-page news this past year. But our diagnostic moment began long before the COVID-19 pandemic: from 23andme’s mail-in genetic analysis to WebMD’s online medical symptom checkers; from wearable fitness trackers that get smaller and sleeker with each new model to books and web series that promise inner joy through a simplified material existence; from a resurgence in theories of genetic determinism born of “scoring” individual genomes to the advent of a professional field dedicated to “diagnosing organizational culture.”