Tensions of Empire Redux?

This is a book that is brimming with tensions: historiographical, epistemological, sensorial, emotional. It is alive with them, both in the material that Nancy Rose Hunt uncovers and in her manner of relaying her subject to the reader. While most will likely seize on the nervousness Hunt exposes at the heart of the Belgian colonial project—an endeavor never as sure as its pretenses, never as confident as its conduct—we focus instead on the ways in which the book exposes the tensions of the historian’s craft, the inherent violence, nervousness, and reverie that yields the productive uncertainty of a brilliant historical narrative.

Like A Colonial Lexicon before it, A Nervous State signals the imaginative capacities of the possible. Within the “shrunken milieu,” per Georges Canguilhem, of Equateur, Congo, Hunt finds latitude, expression, and motion in Congolese life constrained by the violence, sorrow, and harm, ongoing and remembered, of the colonial project. Nowhere does Hunt claim to give us the or even a full story of the Belgian Congo; instead, she seeks the aleatory, offering many histories that draw us into a vortex of tensions. There are the emotional tensions, when acts or memories of violence are punctuated by nervous laughter, an “acoustic register” that belies the iconography that characterizes so many historical and contemporary Congos. There are the tensions of practice, as administrators and policies move between brutal repression and making live: the penal colony just 50 miles from a fertility clinic, forced labor and coerced medical treatment, the disciplinary practice of a rehabilitative punishment adjacent to an effort to reanimate a population in decline. And there is a historiographical tension as Hunt zooms in and out of micro- and macro-histories that exploit multiple archives to vacillate between horror and nearly comic incompetence as hallmarks of Belgian colonial administration.

But these tensions cannot exist without one another. Although Hunt speaks of “the nervous state” with its mobile security apparatus on the one hand and a “biopolitical face” of a mission civilisatrice on the other, she also makes clear that “these two thrusts disclose a modernist, paranoid colonial state” (168). A biopolitics in practice is never as seamless and confident as one might pretend, so it is not by coincidence that the normative capacities of a biopolitics of population coexist with shadow states of exception that suspend normality and extend official sovereignties in ever-changing ways. The colonial context merely exacerbates this tension as public “order” collides with “therapeutic insurgencies.” These two modes of colonial presence – the nervous and the biopolitical – intersect and interweave as processes of securitizing and medicalizing provoke and react against vernacular therapeutics, motion, and creativity.

This could be a book about colonial biopower. It has all the necessary ingredients: a penal colony, a fertility clinic, administrative obsessions with both individual discipline and the ordering of population. But it doesn’t recapitulate David Arnold, Megan Vaughan, or (in its depictions of resistance) Luise White so much as it builds on their work and drives it toward new imaginings.[1] It is less a history of colonial medical power than it is a historiographical intervention on the possible frames of colonial and anticolonial violence, one that dares not to romanticize the colonized even as it eviscerates the logics of colonial rule. Memory files—collected in the 1950s but detailing the period of the Free State—depict paroxysms of violence. Their sheer multiplicity creates a frenzied state, a repetition of accounts that evolves into reverie, becoming a compulsive violence in the form of a sort of colonial death drive, an entropic fantasy where Conrad meets Bataille.[2] Hunt interrogates reverie as an engagement between memory and past possible futures. The acts of wandering, daydreaming, distraction, dancing, song, and fanfare evoke the embodiment and experience of the rich interior life of the Congolese. But administrative bungling also populates the narrative, chiefly through the narrative of Maria N’Koi, or Maria the Leopard, a healer and architect of therapeutic insurrection, and her elusive capacities of disruption.

These tensions inherent in the productive violence of colonial power—a violence that makes as it destroys—are of course not unique to Congo. Every imperial project expresses its nervousness in outbursts of frenzied violence and anxieties about pacification: the Sepoy mutiny and its repression, the atrocities at My Lai, and the hécatombe of Sétif are key examples. But this history is one more evocative of Rushdie than of Adam Hochschild or Alastair Horne, one in which the savagery of Amritsar might sit alongside a poor little pith-helmeted Orwell struggling to inhabit the role of the Great White Hunter as he raises his rifle to appease a demanding and restive Burmese crowd. In stark contrast to the pornographic atrocities of King Leopold’s Ghost, violence here often punctuates the pathetic impotence of Belgian rule and the banalities of colonial administration. Here the dysfunctions of the colonial state are embodied in the dysfunctions of its practitioners: in their alcoholism, their murderous tendencies, their unruly sexuality, their disordered bookkeeping.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper’s Tensions of Empire became required reading for historians of colonialism. The book’s essays, by figures such as Luise White, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Homi Bhabha, explore the uncertainties of colonial expansion and in particular the ambivalences of bourgeois political culture in a world of empire. But for all its importance, the volume left aside the raw violence of colonial rule and resistance. A Nervous State makes no such omission, with such violence both figure and ground in the project, serving both as an implicit backdrop for the actions, reactions, and interactions of Belgians and Congolese, as well as the very focus of the project. And yet while violence is the force that shrinks the Equateurien milieu, the book cannot be shrunk to a representation of pure violence: for Hunt, colonial fear and horror produce reverie alongside pleasure, sorrow, insurgency, and healing.

[1] For example, David Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Megan Vaughan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); and Luise White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[2] See Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992); Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997).


Richard C. Keller is Professor of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is also Associate Dean in the International Division. He is the author of Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (Chicago, 2015) and Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (Chicago, 2007), and is the editor, with Warwick Anderson and Deborah Jenson, of Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties (Duke, 2011).
Emer Lucey is a graduate student in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests are in disability history, history of the body, and global medicine and public health. Her current work looks at the history of childhood developmental disabilities, examining the construction of disability from medical and parent perspectives.

2 Responses to Tensions of Empire Redux?

  1. Pingback: Book Forum –– Nancy Rose Hunt’s A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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