Books Features

A few postscripts on A Nervous State, with much gratitude

Some book reviews examine wholes. Others zero in on a strand or term that helps push immediate work forward. Both kinds may invigorate, and I am very grateful to Todd Meyers, everyone at Somatosphere, and these fine scholars for this spectrum of deep critical readings and reactions to A Nervous State. Its multidimensional strands are not easily skimmed. Some knots seem refractory or minutiae tough to discern, but I did not write the book for readers seeking a quick, easy read. It may require a kind of patience many no longer muster in these times of quick raiding across screens and sites.

A Nervous State rewrites Congo at the turn of the 20th century while it sidesteps iconic photographs, reimports Conrad, and jettisons catastrophe narratives. It also suggests how historians may reckon with complexity. Trauma or social catastrophe would have been easy and predictable for this violated, hyperscripted location in imperial history. Instead, the book veers into the unexpected: pleasure and latitude following stark, grisly violence.

These five reviews suggest A Nervous State disperses singular lines. I am grateful to Jessica Robins-Ruszkowski for her subtle reading of the ways kinship bleeds into political matters within the book. It also shows Congolese figuring their colonial masters with kin and antikin idioms, and using ancestral imaging to reckon with the “birth” of healing charms. And these technologies, critical to the book’s many therapeutic insurgencies, spread along fictive lines of descent.

The reflections of three Congolese specialists offer a sense of where historical ethnographies are heading in this field: not merely to music, enclaves, and environmental NGOs, but theoretically, in time, and in relation to pressing politics and futures. Joseph Trapido, whose wonderful Breaking Rocks: Music, Ideology and Economic Collapse, from Paris to Kinshasa will be out in January, takes a long materialist view with vocabulary from some of central Africa’s enduring best: economic anthropology. Lys Alcanya-Stevens moves beautifully among ecologies, the senses, anger, and Equateur’s environmental NGOs. And, Joshua Walker offers a fascinating discussion of entwined security logics producing enclaves in the past and present.

Flight and freedom

A Nervous State reads not for agency and resilience, and it avoids brittle images of spectacular violence. Instead, it tracks motion and plasticity in a violated, “shrunken milieu.” Rather than a narrative of ruin or dire subfertility, I offer one of flight. Mass rape in the 1900s chafed long after with troubling nightmares about incestuous violence and spirit rape. Congolese strategies involved furtive, secondary homes; music, dance, ironic laughter, healing spectacles, and reverie; underground communication networks; and terror tactics, wielding charms that unnerved. Feisty independent women emerged alongside many practices of freedom: refuge zones, dance, urbanity, and therapies. Lys Alcanya-Stevens and Joseph Trapido beautifully underline the prominence of nganda spaces and urbane bars.

The lexical & Congolese studies

The biopolitical has become a predictable, tired category in much academic prose. My reading of a knotted colonial double–health system plus security apparatus—opposes narrowly conceived governmentalities and colonial numeracy. The double entendres to nervousness and nervous states interweave political and intimate dimensions. Joshua Walker wonders about the same nervous epidemiological lexicon used in diagnosing security risks in his region of Congo. Such repetitions in colonial framing and idioms across Congo’s immense terrain fascinate, and they are worthy of canny research. Most Belgian officials probably spoke and thought with the same words, while their language was surely mediated by Congo’s diverse regional economies. Colonial speech deserves attention as poetics, and such lexical analysis originated with Johannes Fabian (whose “poetics of lexical borrowing” also fostered my A Colonial Lexicon).

Congolese studies has long been an astonishingly inventive field with scholars unafraid of theory, ingeniously mining the visual and the textual, attending to wealth and composition, as well as European and métis presences, structures, chaos, imaginations, labor, words, and dreams. It is arguable that Congo is Africa’s richest, most innovative historiography. Interwoven with anthropology, it emerged in 1950s Belgian Congo and went on to pioneer orality, immediate history, forms of historical ethnography, and the use of visuality and paintings. The diversity of methods, archives, and theoretical orientations challenges newcomers with an extraordinarily rich literature, from Mary Douglas to Luc de Heusch, Johannes Fabian, and Filip De Boeck, or Jan Vansina to Benoît Verhaegen, Jean-Luc Vellut, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Yoka Lye, Johan Lagae, and Amandine Lauro. These two lines were never separate, and the list can and does go on.

Scholars of Congo and other colonial terrains have much to learn from this library and its methods. Perhaps more will grapple with the nervous, the paranoid, and bleeding diagnostic and securitizing vocabularies, too. 

The subjective and a slender footnote

Foucault’s comment about history imprinting itself on bodies remains important. Yet histories need more than bodies. They need minds, senses, persons, and practices, too. In intercutting bits of stories, A Nervous State enables moods. Disparate subjective experiences surface, too. The book is often about observational and sensory capacity: who perceived what, when, and via what senses or nerves. Congolese middle figures of dance halls and VD inspections nervously feared losing prestige and honor. Most Europeans were nervous some of the time, though unevenly so. Some of my strongest characters are white men who wrote—Dhanis, Casement, Jadot, Schwers, and Graham Greene. Congolese women are less sketched in as individuals; even Maria N’koi is more figuration than a self. Yet inner, psychic lives are suggested strongly through women’s songs and their “neurasthenic” therapeutic forms. Most Congolese seem to have known self-possession, rage, and flight more than nervousness. Yet fraught women alternated, like trembling trees, between agitation and calm within regional templates of healing.

This same human spectrum is what my many archives delivered. One message may be about mining deeply and bending to what archives offer up. More than one reader has pointed to my slender footnote suggesting historians would do well to stop ranking the value of evidence by racial provenance. This proclivity has flattened histories of colonial Africa, keeping them from engaging with and illuminating European texts, characters, fantasies, and nightmares. My book also suggests that I have little interest in theory hailing only from some intellectual concoction or another of a “Global South,” as if Mbembe should count and Benjamin, Balandier, Fabian, or Quayson not. Theory moves and contaminates and should be made to move and contaminate, and I am pleased to be part of motion that challenges policing — and disturbs.

Form and the how

My writing attends to form, and the how of writing has a politics to it. Helen Tilley suggested the book reads like a museum display, though mine is hardly still. It meanders while telling of metamorphosing phenomena at several levels. Working against easy binaries, it turns up blind spots, collects, and curates. I rummaged through a multi-sited, multi-produced set of archives and brought into being what some scholars now call “an archive,” “their archive,” a freshly assembled set of sources (or bibliography). Benjamin’s “techniques of nearness” and assemblage inspired. These traces are necessarily uneven, while the voids are important evidence in their own right. The method is hermeneutic and diagnostic, while the writing involves parsing, evoking, figuring, juxtaposing, and what I call “suturing.”[i] Patterns came from working with what I found or had on hand, letting accounts, legends, and repetitions emerge from “my archive” of many dimensions and locations. In the end, emplotment worked through ordering, disordering, authorial voice, foreshadowing, and a sense of futurity. The arrangement of stories–some diminutive, others a chapter long—worked to shift away from dehumanization and horror, toward wonder, insurgency, freedom, and sense-making.

Limits of textuality and the senses

I imagined multiple kinds of readers for this book: those laboring in Congolese studies, more widely in the field of colonial studies, or more theoretically in relation to historical theory and temporalities. The mode of presentation aims to open fresh thinking about possibility in historical writing. Still, the challenges of composition remain unresolved. As the very generous and profound words of Richard Keller with Emer Lucey suggest, the book’s historical, methodological and historiographical tensions achieve a “productive uncertainty.” In Cape Town, Ross Truscott brilliantly suggested that the book’s central problem—“violence and its reproduction” (a problem glossed as a nervous state)—is condensed not in the photographic slice on the back cover (exposing a mutilated medical worker in the 1920s), but in the same photograph pictured on the cover: a depiction of nervously held and decomposing objects including a book in Congolese hands. This image speaks to “the limits of textuality,” the difficulties of writing about violence and its reproduction.[ii] The opening chapter tackles this challenge directly, reading for the senses and assembling an “acoustic register.”

Lys Alcanya-Stevens strikingly interprets my attention to the senses and sensations as a form of “scholary synaesthesia.” A Nervous State does mix in modalities of perception, attending to one sense while kindling or disregarding another, achieving much through coloration and subverting images with sound. Dispositions and social moods matter as do depths, surfaces, and interruptions. I would only say that my point is not to let all fold into the affective and the sensory. Ideas and analysis coexisted with the visceral, and the rationalities to vernacular healing are exposed. I am not fond of the new term, “affective history,” finding this new branding reductive, ablative. Rather, may that impossible Annaliste aspiration, a “total history,” still inspire.

Writing and theory become inseparable in A Nervous State. The attention to form and the senses buttresses the strong work in critique and explanation: the book is about practices of freedom and flight in a colonial situation, and these practices resulted from infringement, violation, and harm. They took on shapes in healing, insurgency, and pleasure-seeking, while igniting, fueling, and inflaming nervousness among many a colonial master and two successive nervous colonial states, first King Leopold’s and the Belgian Congo.

But please beware: the book’s many strands build density in an almost phantasmagoric, kaleidoscopic manner whose effects may overwhelm those impatient, hurried multi-taskers of the 21st century.


Nancy Rose Hunt is Professor of History & African Studies at the University of Florida.




[i] Nancy Rose Hunt, Suturing New Medical Histories of Africa (Berlin and Zürich: LIT Verlag, 2013).

[ii] Ross Trusscott, “Discussion of A Nervous State,” unpublished book launch manuscript, Clarke’s Bookshop, Cape Town, 16 September 2016. I am deeply grateful to Ross, Patricia Hayes, Premesh Lalu, UWC’s Centre for Humanities, and Clarke’s for this splendid event, as well as many others who helped organize, prepared comments for, or posed critical questions at several other exceptional critical occasions in 2016: notably, Mike McGovern and Brandi Hughes in Ann Arbor; Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall, Eric Worby, and Joshua Walker at WISER; Sean Hanretta and David Schoenbrun at Northwestern; and Florence Bernault, Andy Ivaska, Juan Obarrio, and Abena Osseo-Asare at the African Studies meetings in DC. All made invaluable remarks that assisted in this rethinking here.