A History of Psychiatry in Objects

by Bettina Alavi and Ralph Höger

ngd- How things help control and oppress….

The seminar enquired to which extent objects both contribute to and constitute 20th- and 21st-century understandings of psychiatry: how are the boundaries drawn between healthy/unhealthy, normal/not normal, socially acceptable/inacceptable? Our underlying assumption was that social ideas and orders are inscribed into psychiatric objects and that the psychiatric objects themselves in turn influence the emergence of social orders.

The nurses’ keys tell us about power relations, regulating how people were locked in and out of the institution. At the same time, the keys highlight the fluidity of the boundary between “inside” and “outside” the institution. The keys made both temporary openings and unplanned, forced imprisonments possible. The power of the keys thus invested care staff with significant authority. Accordingly, staff needed to be very careful with these power-bestowing objects.
A woman’s medical file from the National Socialist period reveals performative agency. The acts of writing performed in these records led to momentous decisions in a later court case. The diagnosis set down in the medical file became the main grounds for the woman’s forced sterilisation.

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