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Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder

Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder

by Jackie Orr

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Part cultural history, part sociological critique, and part literary performance, Panic Diaries explores the technological and social construction of individual and collective panic. Jackie Orr looks at instances of panic and its “cures” in the twentieth-century United States: from the mass hysteria following the 1938 radio broadcast of H. G


Part cultural history, part sociological critique, and part literary performance, Panic Diaries explores the technological and social construction of individual and collective panic. Jackie Orr looks at instances of panic and its “cures” in the twentieth-century United States: from the mass hysteria following the 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds to an individual woman swallowing a pill to control the “panic disorder” officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. Against a backdrop of Cold War anxieties over atomic attack, Orr highlights the entanglements of knowledge and power in efforts to reconceive panic and its prevention as problems in communication and information feedback. Throughout, she reveals the shifting techniques of power and social engineering underlying the ways that scientific and social scientific discourses—including crowd psychology, Cold War cybernetics, and contemporary psychiatry—have rendered panic an object of technoscientific management.

Orr, who has experienced panic attacks herself, kept a diary of her participation as a research subject in clinical trials for the Upjohn Company’s anti-anxiety drug Xanax. This “panic diary” grounds her study and suggests the complexity of her desire to track the diffusion and regulation of panic in U.S. society. Orr’s historical research, theoretical reflections, and biographical narrative combine in this remarkable and compelling genealogy, which documents the manipulation of panic by the media, the social sciences and psychiatry, the U.S. military and government, and transnational drug companies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Jackie Orr is one of sociology’s most inventive theorists. Here in Panic Diaries she is brilliantly interdisciplinary, joining social theory with rigorous historical research, feminist criticism, and science studies to give us a genealogy of panic from its invention in nineteenth-century social science to its late-twentieth-century medicalization as panic disorder. And more, all of this is cut through with autobiographic experimental writing that makes your heart beat faster—a first-hand experience of panic. A book to read, a book to teach.”—Patricia Ticineto Clough, author of Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Technology

“Packed with original interpretations of historical material, textually innovative, and theoretically brilliant, this book is full of mind-blowing insights for anyone interested in the science and culture of panic.”—Emily Martin, author of The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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A Genealogy of Panic Disorder

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3610-5

Chapter One

History, Memory, Story: Openings

True!-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses-not destroyed-not dulled them.... Hearken! and observe how healthily-how calmly I can tell you the whole story.-EDGAR ALLAN POE

The point is to reconfigure what counts as knowledge. -DONNA HARAWAY


Perhaps it was a clear, cold, blue-sky afternoon when the Iroquois Theater burned. Certainly it was a Wednesday; the archives will tell you that. Sixteen chorus girls stood onstage singing "Pearly Moonlight" while the Queen of the Aerial Ballet and her troupe of eleven dancers, tied to invisible wires and hanging high above the stage, waited for their cue. In the audience, a crowd of nearly two thousand sat watching the matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard. Then a line of flame shot up the muslin curtain. The chorus girls kept on singing, but you could see their eyes go wild.

Nearly six hundred people died in the Iroquois Theater fire one winter afternoon, December 30, 1903. "Panic Balks Escape: Maddened Audience Unable to Reach the Exits," "Panic in the Iroquois Causes Frightful Loss-Women andChildren Trampled in the Wild Rush," read the headlines the next day. The exact cause of the extraordinary loss of life appeared uncertain. Some reported that a short circuit in an electric light sparked the first flame. Others noted the failure of the asbestos curtain to fall, held in place by the wire on which the Queen of the Aerial Ballet, in a spectacular special effect, flew out over the audience.

But the owners of the newly opened Iroquois Theater, a palatial building in downtown Chicago, quickly declared: "The panic, as everybody says, was the chief cause of the large number of deaths." (Whatever the facts of the matter, several stagehands and the chief electrician of the Iroquois were arrested and charged with manslaughter, while fifteen chorus girls were jailed on a $5,000 bond as the sixteenth girl, one Miss Romaine, continued to elude detectives.)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, "panic" often plays a leading role in popular stories of catastrophe and in theoretical stagings of the collective psychology of crowds. Jamming the exits and inflaming fatalities, panic also permits those who preside over industrial-size disasters to account differently for the loss of life-and to render more obscure its financial and legal accounting-by offering a deadly psychological subtext to the malfunctions of increasingly massive, complex technosocial machineries. The Iroquois Theater, built at a cost of over $1 million and designed according to "the most modern plans," boasted two thousand electric lights illuminating its giant interior staircases where corpses piled as much as ten feet high as surging crowds struggled to flee the flames. The panicky flight of the audience, the theater's owners had more than reason to believe, was at least as fatal as the fire itself.

"The panic is the crudest and simplest example of collective mental life," writes William McDougall in 1920. Conceiving of panic as a form of "primitive sympathy" communicated via emotional contagion and collective imitation or mimesis, several late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century social theorists view such instances of contagious communication as the very nature of the "social." "Suggestion" and "emotional contagion" are concepts used to name the elusive force constituting the sociality of the modern collective, as well as the frenzied spread of panic. Emile Durkheim, writing in 1912 with the accumulated confidence of an imperial ethnography, finds the most elementary form of modern social life in the contagious communicative power of the totemic image. Embodying the suggestive, binding power of the very idea of a society, the totem image is uncovered by this founder of modern sociology as an original imprint of a specifically social force. Where does this social force come from? From the energetic traces of effervescent rituals of mimesis and contagious emotion, explains Durkheim, reading the ethnographic stories of nineteenth-century gentlemen and ladies observing the lives of the indigenous Iroquois in the United States. What burns in the Iroquois theaters, suggest the early messengers of a modern social science, may be nothing other than the social itself.

What social is that? Is it communicating right now? Are you listening? Could you stop if you tried? The theater of panic opens out onto the stage of the social. This book is written in the space of that opening.

Making openings is perhaps the task of any effective theory, and any affecting theater (with which theory shares an etymological tie in the Latin thea, the act of seeing). Antonin Artaud, theorist of an experimental "theater of cruelty" in the 1930s, paid relentless attention to the opening "cut or inscription that makes mise-en-scène of the empty stage in the first place," in Patricia Clough's words. This cut or opening tear into the empty stage operates as a kind of "originary technicity," a technique for producing (carving, inscribing) an opening, for framing an origin. Out of the void of possibilities, an incision toward meaning, toward a particular mise-en-scène, is made. Every opening of a story, every gesture toward staging an origin, becomes, then, "a repetition of that which cannot be repeated: the first cut."

Remember as best you can, always, the first cut into this story is repeatedly performed in the dark, in a theater I want to call the social, by something you could call terror.

Once upon a time one April night, a viceroy in eighteenth-century Sardinia has a terrifying dream of the plague infecting himself and the whole tiny island. The next day, he refuses to allow a ship to dock in the harbor, suspecting it carries the deadly contagion. The ship sails on, landing twenty days later in the port of Marseilles, where its arrival coincides with the worst outbreak of the plague in that city's history. Artaud discovers this "astonishing historical fact" in the archives of the tiny town of Cagliari and opens his influential 1938 essay "The Theater and the Plague" by recounting the strange tale. Between the plague and the vice-roy, Artaud observes, "a palpable communication, however subtle, was established." It would be foolish, the theorist argues, to limit our notion of how disease communicates to "contagion by simple contact." More foolish still to fail to create a theater that can become, like the plague that is profoundly its kin, a site of delirious communication, an epidemic of fatal meanings and the physical matter of dreams.

Actor, playwright, schizophrenic, surrealist, essayist, and inmate for nine years in several asylums for the insane, Artaud may seem like an unlikely supplement to the professionalizing ranks of early-twentieth-century theorists of panic and the "suggestible" social. But let me suggest that Artaud's "theater of cruelty" sought to achieve-through the intensity of ritual and the experimental hieroglyphics of embodied forms-something on the same order as the conflagration at the Iroquois Theater. What modern social science tried to make intelligible, Artaud tried to make real: the contagion of gesture, the communicative power of a scream, a mimetic theater of collective seizure and frenzied emotion. Artaud's intent was not to start a panic but to experiment through performance with the features of the social-never far from the alchemy of theater-that collective terror also opens toward. The "mind's capacity for receiving suggestion," which Artaud identifies as one source of theater's transformative power, is precisely the capacity that modern social science locates as one source of the social itself. One method by which the social communicates its self. Are you still listening?


Power does not bear a constant shape nor redound to a single source. It does not follow causal-linear or dialectical-routes; it is not calculable in all of its effects; it does not remain material in substance.-WENDY BROWN Underneath all reason lies delirium.-GILLES DELEUZE

This is a story about panic, and about the techniques developed-in the entangled fields of social science and psychiatry, the U.S. government and the military, the mass media and the transnational drug industry-to make panicked bodies speak, and to manage what they can be heard to say. Stretching across the last century of U.S. history, this is a selective chronicle of the sanctioned communications between a social "disorder" and that which would govern it in the name of a desired order, in the interests of a more effective administration. Survey research, public opinion polls, laboratory experiments, research on mental patients, self-tests in popular magazines, atom bomb tests in the desert, cybernetic models, psychiatric interviews, electric shocks, clinical drug trials, TV talk shows, computerized diagnostics, and genetic research compose one partial, compulsive inventory of the arsenal of techniques aimed at producing potentially useful speech from the tremulous mouth of terror.

This is a story about what panic has been made to say and how such historically specific speech has been produced. "The body is a historical situation," writes Judith Butler. The panicked body's situated history is the embodied, wildly beating heart of this book.

Once upon a time one spring night as I was turning over to sleep I suddenly became terrified that I was about to die. I started trembling, and my heart beat so fast in my chest I was sure it would just stop. The next day at work I panicked again while sitting in front of the computer, then while walking down the sunlit street. My life became a strung-together bunch of attacks of total terror. I didn't know what to do. I went to a doctor. She listened to my heart and decided I was okay and should probably take a vacation. I couldn't afford to take a vacation. I went to a psychiatrist. She listened to me talk and decided I probably had something called "panic disorder." She wrote me a prescription for a drug called Xanax, which I thought was quite nice of her, since I couldn't afford to see a psychiatrist again. After I took the Xanax, the attacks of panic eased. The pill knew how to talk to my terror. That pill communicated with my panic while I remained for some time quite tongue-tied, without story or history for the situation in which my body seized.

Does terror have its own archive? Is panic indexed in the annals of history? Are those of us who symptomatically share heart-racing attacks of floating terror-what "normality," in a stunning dispossession of its own fears, will call our "pathology"-documented in those densely stocked shelves? If, as performer Laurie Anderson writes, "history is stories that we half-remember, and most of them never even get written down," then what kind of panic stories could be written out of the selective textual memories of the archival brain? If the archive is, in Michel Foucault's words, the "law of what can be said," if the archive is an actively present, productive "system of ... enunciability" ensuring that what is spoken today is "born in accordance with specific regularities," then out of such closely governed speech what history of panic could possibly be told?

Certainly not a history that would try to give panic a true voice but, rather, a historicized story of the voices given to panic by a knowledge compelled to make panic truthfully speak. Certainly not a history that would try to contribute to a science of panic but, instead, a story of the historical formation of a science that claims knowledge of panic as one of its significant contributions. The archive, Foucault warns, does not afford the genealogist a confident empirical grasp of real historical objects, or the positivist pleasures of original discovery. What a genealogy "really does," Foucault writes, is "entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would ... order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. Genealogies are therefore not positivistic returns to a more careful or exact form of science. They are precisely anti-sciences." It is not against science in general, its contents or concepts, that genealogy takes aim, but rather against the social power accruing to science at a particular historical moment: "It is really against the effects of a power of discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle."

So this is a story about panic, and also about knowledge and power. Here the social sciences are important not only in informing the methods used to compose such a story but also as players in the story itself, active historical participants in the social theater that they claim as their site of research. Doubling as both a method and an object of my study, sociology is not a simple hero in this story, enabling a sick woman to locate her panicky symptoms in a broader context of social and historical relations. Rather, sociology, social psychology, psychiatry, and psychopharmacology are treated as historically specific social fields where panic is made into an object of knowledge by scientific discourses and disciplined subjects that partially construct the very object they promise to explain and control. Both subjects and objects of knowledge-sociology and its panicky populations, psychiatry and its terrified patients, psycho-pharmacology and its centrally nervous systems-are situated in shifting historical networks of power. What you know and don't know about panic is one of power's networked effects.

Thirty-five years after the Iroquois Theater burns, the social is again set on fire, this time by a 1938 CBS radio drama of The War of the Worlds, starring Martians outfitted with high-tech death rays aimed at thousands of startled inhabitants of the state of New Jersey. Hadley Cantril's now-famous 1940 study of the "panic broadcast" is sponsored by the Rocke-feller Foundation and the Federal Radio Education Committee; Cantril's empirical measure of "suggestibility" is made possible by new techniques of survey research incubated in the belly of the radio broadcast industry. Power operates the channels of transmission for what you hear and don't hear when terror talks.

In 1980, three decades after the U.S. government opens a new National Institute of Mental Health and declares the management of mental disease a public health priority, "panic disorder" emerges as a new psychiatric diagnosis. Defined by floating attacks of terror that occur without any apparent cause, panic disorder is estimated to afflict millions of people in the United States. In 1982 a drug called Xanax, manufactured by the Upjohn Company, appears on the market, quickly becoming a best-selling treatment for panic attacks and anxiety. Even when the panicky body is your own, the experience of such a dis-ease never falls entirely outside the storied histories of power's play, of power's insistent production of panic knowledge.

"Biopower" is the name Michel Foucault gives to the coupling of the power of the modern state with the planned administration of the life, health, and diseases of individuals and entire populations. Foucault's earliest intimations of biopower can be found in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), where he narrates the convergence of social and medical space architectured by the late-eighteenth-century French state, partly in response to the political demand to control contagious epidemics, most dramatically the plague. Located simultaneously at multiple levels of social organization-including economic relations, state surveillance strategies, and knowledge practices in medicine and the social sciences-the appearance of biopower for Foucault marks the very "threshold of modernity." For the first time, "methods of power and knowledge assumed responsibility for the life processes and undertook to control and modify them," bringing human health and disease into "the realm of explicit calculations." The result is the historical emergence of a "normalizing" society.


Excerpted from PANIC DIARIES by JACKIE ORR Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Jackie Orr is Associate Professor of Sociology at Syracuse University.

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