A Nervous State

Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo

A Nervous State

Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 41 illustrations Published: January 2016

Author: Nancy Rose Hunt

African Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Sociology > Social Theory

In A Nervous State, Nancy Rose Hunt considers the afterlives of violence and harm in King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Discarding catastrophe as narrative form, she instead brings alive a history of colonial nervousness. This mood suffused medical investigations, security operations, and vernacular healing movements. With a heuristic of two colonial states—one "nervous," one biopolitical—the analysis alternates between medical research into birthrates, gonorrhea, and childlessness and the securitization of subaltern "therapeutic insurgencies." By the time of Belgian Congo’s famed postwar developmentalist schemes, a shining infertility clinic stood near a bleak penal colony, both sited where a notorious Leopoldian rubber company once enabled rape and mutilation. Hunt’s history bursts with layers of perceptibility and song, conveying everyday surfaces and daydreams of subalterns and colonials alike. Congolese endured and evaded forced labor and medical and security screening. Quick-witted, they stirred unease through healing, wonder, memory, and dance. This capacious medical history sheds light on Congolese sexual and musical economies, on practices of distraction, urbanity, and hedonism. Drawing on theoretical concepts from Georges Canguilhem, Georges Balandier, and Gaston Bachelard, Hunt provides a bold new framework for teasing out the complexities of colonial history.


"[N]ot 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." — Karol Kovalovich Weaver, Centre for Medical Humanities

"Hunt demonstrates how her use of interdisciplinary methods—archival, oral historical, literary, and ethnographic—and unconventional materials provides provocative insights into the colonial history of the Congo." — Elisha P. Renne, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The book’s synthetic range, historical detail, and conceptual density...make it highly appropriate for graduate work, and essential in equatorial African studies....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." — David Eaton, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

"Hunt provides multiple, nuanced perspectives on life in colonial Congo. This work offers much for scholars who seek to merge phenomenological and political-economic analysis, and who seek to illuminate the textures of everyday life in ways that escape dominant narratives." — Jessica Robbins-Ruszkowski, Somatosphere

"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." — Richard C. Keller and Emer Lucey, Somatosphere

"A Nervous State is an extraordinary book. Its empirical richness is obvious—the number and variety of different sources that Hunt has drawn upon, and the attention that she has paid to all these sources. Diaries and colonial archives, Lomongo language pamphlets and school essays, photographs, epic poems and dances—all of them receive the same, patient, highly sympathetic, but also questioning, persistent, and often quietly skeptical, scrutiny. Versions of events are presented, and new vistas open up, yet this is also a judicious book where the conclusions never push beyond what the evidence will support." — Joe Trapido, Somatosphere

"Hunt’s reading of the colonial state(s) through southern Equateur . . . provides an invaluable lens through which to understand contemporary Congo." — Joshua Walker, Somatosphere

"Nancy Rose Hunt’s latest book beats, breathes, quivers and unsettles. Her writing brims with the curiosity and rigour that evidently fuels her meticulous tracing of neglected archival materials. Also palpable are the insight and sensitivity that enable her to encapsulate both the changing machinations of a biopolitical state, and the ‘therapeutic insurgencies’ of ordinary Congolese. However, it is Hunt’s attention to sensation and to perception, what one might call her scholarly synaesthesia—her ability to read the archives with an attentive ear, to read ‘dynamics of combat through acoustics of hushed silence and sadistic laughter,' for example—that renders her work so compelling for an anthropologist of Equateur and of the senses." — Lys Alcayna-Stevens, Somatosphere

"The interpretation in this splendid work is a decisive contribution to understanding the jumble of desires, interests, discourses and images in the colonial and post-colonial history of this country, as well as the psychic life of its history." — Roberto Beneduce, Journal of Asian and African Studies

"A Nervous State provides a complex history of Colonial Congo; it is a huge contribution to African Studies and anthropology." — Charles Tshimanga, International Journal of African Historical Studies

"A Nervous State is certainly one of the most elegant books I have seen over the last years and an impressive attempt at entangling, and at discussing entangled, narratives. . . . This book is certainly 'a must' for everyone engaging with the history of communities under colonial rule, especially for Central Africa, but also beyond." — Alexander Keese, Social History

"[A] new, stunning map of Equateur rises from this rich text: a milieu full of shrunken hopes and broken promises, but also pregnant with wondrous possibilities." — Florence Bernault, African Studies Quarterly

"The interpretation in this splendid work is a decisive contribution to understanding the jumble of desires, interests, discourses and images in the colonial and post-colonial history of this country, as well as the psychic life of its history." — Roberto Beneduce, Journal of Asian and African Studies

"A Nervous State is subaltern history that manages to recover the voices of the voiceless.... [Hunt's] emphasis on women’s lives— not only as victims of rape, atrocities, and medical exams, but as healers, insurgents, and subjects of powerful memories—offers an important corrective that reveals the agency and know-how of Congolese.... Hunt shows that the Belgian colonial regime was indeed a medicalized one, nervous in many ways." — Matthew G. Stanard, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"Hunt provides a bricolage of archives, memories, and traces that is more than the sum of its parts. In so doing, she demonstrates in this deeply researched and assiduously analyzed work that the history of colonial Congo is much more than the haunted legacy of its violent inception."
  — Matthew M. Heaton, American Historical Review

"A Nervous State contributes novel advances into historiographies of colonial medicine, colonialism, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hunt’s attunement to the harmful aspects of Congolese therapeutics, and the nervous responses of the colonial state, offers a stimulating way to rethink colonial medical histories and move beyond predictable comparisons of the vernacular and biomedical." — Dylan Atchley Proctor, Journal of Global South Studies

"In contrast to much popular work on the Congo, this book rejects using catastrophe and crisis as the main narratives to order Congolese history. Without denying the violence of Leopold II’s regime and the Belgian colonial state, this study provides a much-needed sense of the diverse narratives of healing, anxiety, and opportunity that emerged in the decades following the end of the brutal reign of concessionary companies in the northwestern province of Equateur.  . . . A Nervous State will take its place among the best works on African social and cultural history for years to come." — Jeremy Rich, Journal of Social History

“Nancy Rose Hunt’s A Nervous State represents a pioneering work in African history, which will surely become a staple in advancing new frontiers for other narratives in the continent’s history.” — Ben Weiss, African Studies Review

"With stunning insight, Nancy Rose Hunt makes a distinguished contribution to African history that goes a long way toward generating a critical understanding of colonial projects, their alignment with forms of early capitalism, and the brutal practices of extraction industries. By braiding these issues with the emergence of new healing cults, Hunt helps us to better understand the complex social process of colonialism. A Nervous State will greatly impact African studies, colonial history, and the anthropology of medicine and violence."  — Veena Das, coeditor of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy

"In this compelling account, Nancy Rose Hunt draws on an astonishing range of archival sources and her own interviews to move the history of the Belgian Congo beyond the externally driven 'catastrophe' narrative to something far more complex. Violence and death are still at the core here, but so are birth and healing and nervous laughter."  — Megan Vaughan


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Price: $28.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nancy Rose Hunt is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and the author of the prizewinning A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Abbreviations  ix

Acknowledgments  xi

Introduction  1

1. Registers of Violence  27

2. Maria N'koi  61

3. Emergency Time  95

4. Shock Talk and Flywhisks  135

5. A Penal Colony, an Infertility Clinic  167

6. Motion  207

Conclusion. Field Coda and Other Endings  237

Notes  255

Bibliography  309

Index  343
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2016 Martin A. Klein Prize (presented by the American Historical Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5965-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5946-3
Publicity material