Book Review: A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo

A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo. Nancy Rose Hunt, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 353 pp.

Nancy Rose Hunt’s dense and stimulating book continues her exploration of interpretive challenges posed by Congolese forest worlds to medically and anthropologically minded historians. Hunt here focuses on southern Equateur in the Belgian Congo from the 1900s to the 1950s, from the wake of King Leopold’s Free State, with its red rubber atrocities, to the advanced postwar family health services of workers’ camps and experimental villages in Belgium’s model colony. She pushes back against reductive explanatory trajectories of violence, aftermath, and resilience, with their “catastrophe logic” (p. 13), instead evoking a shifting host of voices and images, actors and movements, and institutions and experiences across a colonial milieu managed by a nervous state.

Along the way, Hunt tests, distills, and infuses concepts from selected key literatures in medical anthropology, critical theory, and African history, each deeply cited in her substantial and concise notes. The book is thus a packed treasure-house for scholars of these topics, especially those with interests in equatorial African and Congolese studies. It deploys ideas from a number of continental social theorists, including Nietzsche, Benjamin, and Canguilhem; draws inspiration from work by influential critical medical anthropologists; shares insights from a who’s who of Africanist anthropologists and historians; and integrates stories, analyses, images, and statistics of many kinds from colonial archives and from Hunt’s own field study and collaborative work in contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo.

Medical anthropologists will find questions of interest explored at every turn. In the Introduction, Hunt writes that she began the project looking to combine South Asianist, state-focused, and Foucauldian approaches to medicine and empire, on the one hand, with lively Africanist vernacular and subaltern interpretations of healing and harming, on the other. Through Conrad, Weber, and Fanon, among others, she came to “nervousness” as a guiding concept for an expanded medical history that aims to sense energies, moods, and modes of presence in colonial life.

Uncomfortable with a restrictive framing of trauma and social suffering, Hunt calls for “techniques of nearness” (p. 5) to recognize and articulate often-surprising powers of life in their latitude and play. This follows her 2008 proposal in Cultural Anthropology foregrounding a fragile acoustic register in Congolese colonial history—beyond the visual—through a diverse archive of words and sounds. In A Nervous State, she also aims to shift inquiry toward “valences, manners, tempers, appearances, pursuits, and style” (p. 15) and to focus on the fluidity of urbanity more than than on conditions of modernity.

In the Introduction, Hunt also lays out a historiographical charter: to “flag persistent figurations” (p. 4) and to recognize repetitions and differences across diverse fields of personal and social action, in order to track relationships across three domains—biopolitical, securitizing, and vernacular. Her synopses of archival traces seek to convey “how persons … acted, wrote, and made up the state, enacting its deeds, applying its regulations” (p. 9). At the same time, she examines reverie and distraction in many distinctly Congolese imaginative spaces, from remote fishing camp refuges to the dancing bars of Coquilhatville.

In the six main chapters that follow the Introduction, Hunt links movements and moods across six decades. Many middle figures emerge to mediate the terrain between the colony’s governors general and its villager farmers: Congolese chiefs, clerks, nurses, healers, and musicians, on one hand; Belgian missionaries, territorial agents, physicians, singers, and novelists, on the other. In a chapter dedicated to Maria N’koi (Marie of the Leopards), for example, we see this healer’s 1915 spirit-inspired insurrection carrying memories of Leopoldian state violence in the previous generation into her challenges to colonial and chiefly management of the burgeoning copal trade.

From the 1930s, with infertility in the region a major scientific concern, missionary campaigns against depopulation and extinction paralleled further local cults of prophecy, healing, and revitalization, including Yebola and Likili. These latter sought to bring fertility through ritual washings and seclusions, songs, and prophecies, and, at times, to sweep out Western medicine as it intruded into personal lives and village affairs. Hunt shows how these cults, increasingly understood as security threats by the state, spread alongside more politicized movements of Kimbanguist and Kitawalist resistance imported from elsewhere in the colony. By the 1950s in Equateur, new colonial projects of the Befale infertility clinic, the Songo model agricultural village, and the Ekafera prison complex stood alongside workers’ camps that had displaced the earlier freedoms of copal gathering. Together these showed the heightened presence of a developmentalist and experimental state, even as the day of decolonization approached.

In reading Hunt’s narrative in these chapters, with its wide-open pluralism of sources and topics and its at-times opaque immediacy, I feel at times as if I am living alongside her as historian in media res—almost as if I’m looking over her shoulder in the archives as she talks me through materials just beyond my vision. Then, in chapter and book conclusions, Hunt revisits and distills her own accounts, tries and refines interpretive ideas, weaves and reweaves connections among events, and articulates and reimagines movements across domains. In the final chapter especially, Field Coda and Other Endings, a valuable complement to the Introduction, Hunt reviews in condensed form emergent themes of the book, at times infusing them with recent field experience, and reflects on what has been learned.

The book furthers ideas and complements approaches developed in Hunt’s earlier award-winning A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo (1999). In this, she examined childbearing and obstetrics in conjunction with mission domesticity to forge “a history of Congolese meaning-making” (1999, 10) and of the creolization and transcoding involved in changing body practice. In A Nervous State, it seems that Hunt has expanded her potential scope of reference to almost every documented political, medical, cultural, and economic development in southern Equateur during the time considered. As she explores forms of contention, mobility, and distraction evolving on all sides during the period, we sense the continuing impact of the violence that arrived in the 1890s as it ramifies in the lives and choices of individuals as well in imaginations of the region and its histories.

Overall, although the well-chosen illustrations include many striking photographs, drawings, maps, and inscriptions, the book as a whole may be perhaps too esoteric and regionally focused for all but dedicated undergraduates with interests in African history and medical anthropology. It might benefit from an expanded table of contents which could give more of a guide to the logic of exposition and topics addressed.

The book’s synthetic range, historical detail, and conceptual density, however, make it highly appropriate for graduate work, and essential in equatorial African studies. Hunt’s complex and unresolved accounts bring to life now-gone spaces, persons, movements, and institutions in a unique vision informed by decades of archival and field study. Her creative but well-tempered methods give us new ways to understand therapeutic insurgency, somatization, securitization, reproductive disruption, and the “duration and reproduction [of violence] across generations” (p. 2), among many other topics. All these attributes—and others that I lack space to note here—make the book an exemplary venture in medical anthropology and a truly rich set of resources for those of us engaging such questions in our own thought and research.

 

References Cited

Hunt, N. R. 1999. A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo. Durham: Duke University Press.

_____________. 2008. “An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition. Cultural Anthropology 23:220–253.

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