Alexej von Jawlensky, Portrait of a Girl

The Case of Dora: Freud, Hysteria, and Feminist Theory

Instructor: Paige Sweet
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Ida Bauer, memorialized by Sigmund Freud as “Dora” in his “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” is a striking figure—both at the origin of psychoanalysis and for feminist theorists. For Freud, Dora represented a “failure,” of his therapeutic method as much as his analytic observations. He proved not only unable to alleviate her “hysterical symptoms”—a nervous cough, loss of voice, and depression; but he also failed to account for her attraction to her father’s mistress. The case would haunt Freud in the years following his first fragments of an analysis, likely influencing how he went on to revise his thinking about transference, sexuality, and unconscious dynamics. Toward the end of the twentieth century, as Freud and psychoanalysis underwent a re-appraisal by feminists, Dora became, alternately, a hero in “silent revolt” against patriarchal norms of femininity (Hélène Cixous), an evocative albeit ineffective model for feminist politics (Catherine Clement), an index of psychoanalysis’s inability to theorize the feminine (Jacqueline Rose), an opportunity to rewrite the relationship between sexual politics and psychoanalytic theory (Toril Moi), and a “distinctly queer figurehead” (Heather Findlay), among other things. Dora has also been a muse for creative re-imaginings, including a play by Cixous (Portrait de Dora), a novel by Lidia Yuknavitc (Dora: A Headcase), and a short film by Kate Novack (Hysterical Girl), to name but a few. How, and why, has Dora become and remained such a rich and provocative figure for both psychoanalytic and feminist inquiry? What can her particular case teach us about both the role of the unconscious and the role of the social in the production of desire?

In this course, we’ll begin by situating Dora, and Freud’s first pass at analyzing her, both historically and epistemically within the fin-de-siècle bourgeois Viennese context and the emerging knowledge system of psychoanalysis respectively. We’ll then turn to key feminist texts that have attempted to analyze Freud’s oversights and omissions and to think with and beyond Dora in order to offer alternate modes of interpreting bodily symptoms that defy the logic of language. Some of the questions we’ll pursue include: In what ways do psychoanalysis and (feminist) politics overlap, inform, or diverge from one another? How have feminist thinkers resignified “hysteria” to evoke a different set of meanings than Freud did, and what are the implications of these meanings for queer theory, the body, perversion, or subjectivity generally? What new perspectives on sex and gender might yet be gleaned from the case of Dora? How do shifting frameworks alter the questions we ask of Dora, as well as the answers we seek about the entanglements of sexuality, language, the body, and the social-political world? 

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
March 10 — March 31, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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