‘A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo’ reviewed by Professor Karol Kovalovich Weaver

‘A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo’ by Nancy Rose Hunt (Duke University Press, 2016).

978-0-8223-5965-4_prNancy Rose Hunt’s A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo looks at the history of security, biopolitics, and therapeutic insurgency in twentieth-century Belgian Congo, a colony epitomised by the book’s title, ‘a nervous state’. She incorporates a variety of theoretical perspectives to flesh out the dynamic between these three elements and their ties to the nervous state. Hunt grapples with the history of violence and trauma associated with Belgian Congo, urging her readers to consider the implications and afterlives of both. Hunt’s narrative is largely chronological — moving the reader from the early twentieth century to its second half (the period when Belgium controlled the colony). However, her organisational design and writing style are short, rapid-fire, disjointed, and dancing; these qualities simultaneously enhance and detract from her work, pushing the boundaries of medical history.

A Nervous State shows Belgian Congo to be a nervous place – energetic and moving – but also a location where people grew lethargic, unnerved, and worried. Hunt studies the history of police and biomedical measures that Belgian authorities undertook to deal with subversive movements, people, bodies, and ideas; what she describes as ‘therapeutic insurgency’. For example, in chapter two, Hunt tells the story of Maria N’koi, a healer of nervous conditions and infertility among women, and the efforts by those in power to lessen her authority by means of arrest, isolation, and imprisonment. Hunt writes, ‘A striking therapeutic insurgency deeply shook this Kiri and Bokatola border zone just after conscription began’ (p. 92). Hunt examines N’koi to show the nervousness of the colonial state in the midst of international and territorial unrest during World War I. Chapter four, titled ‘Shock Talk and Flywhisks,’ is an especially good analysis of the interchange between security, biopolitics, and vernacular medicine. Hunt investigates Likili, a healing movement whose key symbol was the “flywhisk,” a device meant to sweep away old charms, whites, and white colonial medicine. Likili targeted biomedicine for destruction: ‘Likili used flywhisks to sweep out intrusive doctors, at a time when biomedicine meant more research, more dread-filled, hypothetical thinking, not pharmaceuticals or care’ (p. 163). Belgian state authorities grew nervous over the danger posed by Likili, which Hunt describes as ‘using dance, song, and medicines to purge the toxic, mend, and reproduce worlds’ (p. 164). The multi-layered analysis that Hunt undertakes is rich with meaning.

The author also incorporates a variety of theoretical perspectives to research Belgian Congo’s nervous state. These include Georges Balandier’s focus on the pathological, Georges Canguilhem’s idea of the “shrunken milieu,” and the notion of human plasticity. Balandier’s sense of the colonial as pathological informs Hunt’s analysis of the bodily and spiritual ills that Belgian Congo produced, the crises that existed, and the security and biopolitical experiments conducted to right the state. Hunt applies the concept of the shrunken milieu and plasticity to consider how catastrophe was experienced, endured, and dealt with. Hunt utilizes these theories to signal that her work diverges from the historical and scholarly tendency to fixate on the tragic and traumatic elements of Congo’s past. She acknowledges the afterlives of violence and trauma, but also directs the reader’s attention towards ‘traces of motion, plasticity, exuberance, and debate’ (p. 18).

Hunt’s storytelling is chronological, tracing history from the early twentieth century to its second half and ending with a coda about the twenty-first century. Despite this traditional narrative structure, Hunt’s organizational scheme and prose are unconventional. She organizes each chapter of the book in brief sections that analyze security, biopolitical, and vernacular topics. Her sentence structure is short and choppy and the author often dances at the edge of analysis. In some cases, her incorporation of theory and its relationship to her subjects are not clearly or fully explained and analyzed. It’s not apparent if these characteristics are intentional. They surely result in a rattled reading experience, much like the point of her book—the history of the experiences of men and women who lived in nervous and nerve-wracking states. Her theoretical incorporation and writing style relate more closely to literary disciplines; not only does Hunt contest the conventional histories of Belgian Congo, but also asks her reader to reconsider how history itself is written and formulated. Thus, scholars who specialize in medical humanities, a discipline which depends upon a multi- and interdisciplinary perspective, will welcome Hunt’s book both for its content and for her approach to her subject.

Reviewed by Karol Kovalovich Weaver, a Professor at Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, PA). Karol specializes in the history of medical caregiving. She is the author of Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue (University of Illinois Press, 2006) and Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000 (Penn State Press, 2011). She is at work on her third book project, Powerful Grief: American Women and the Politics of Death. Kovalovich Weaver is 

Correspondence to Professor Karol Kovalovich Waver.

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