Why Madness? Towards new histories of Africans, racism, suffering, and vivacity

Why Madness? Towards new histories of Africans, racism, suffering, and vivacity
Senior Conference of Nancy Rose Hunt






Thursday January 26, 4-6 pm

📍 Iméra, Maison des Astronomes


I will speak on Thursday 26 Janvier to the capacious theme of – not mental illness – but madness within histories of race, Africa, and Africans. The concepts I used when introducing several new African histories of madness (Psychiatric Contours, forthcoming, 2023) will be shared. The psychiatric lines to A Nervous State (Hunt 2016) will also be set out, for this history of a Congolese region from times of spectacular imperial violence to decolonization. Such lines and concepts surface in the way I teach histories of race and madness in North America, within a panorama from the 16th century and using many archival sources that students engage and unpack. Frantz Fanon is there amid other figures, opening intimate and insurgent angles over a longue durée suggesting the emergence of psychiatric categories, labor and care.  That I ask students to curate sources may surprise. Yet historical meaning always has individualized dimensions, and I do not want to dictate how derangement, trauma, and subjugation may resonate in subjective ways. In contemporary, neoliberal Africa, new forms of psy-humanitarianism have entered, beside war, rape, and genocide. The logics of Global Mental Health tend to miss vernacular, subjective forms of madness. The peripatetic, deluded persons in Africa’s city streets – in French, “les fous” – represent and enable vivacity. And, vivacity, a Foucauldian word, is part of my capacious ethnographic approach, one that reckons with the psychiatric but also keeps it remote and minor, so everyday lines of thinking, doing, and teasing – sometimes with reverie and afterlives – are not stifled or lost.



1.“Afterlives: A Trajectory and the Curatorial Turn,” the Afterlives Thematic Thread in Allegra Lab: Anthropology for Radical Optimism, 26 May 2020: https://allegralaboratory.net/afterlives-a-trajectory-and-the-curatorial-turn/

2.“Espace, temporalité, et reverie: Écrire l’histoire des futurs au Congo belge,” in special issue, “Politiques de la nostalgie,” eds. Guillaume Lachenal and Assitou Mbodj, Politique Africaine, no. 135 (octobre 2014): 115-36.

3.“Interview with Nancy Rose Hunt” on “Affect, Embodiment and Sense Perception,” a Cultural Anthropology curated collection of interviews with authors (Hunt plus Thomas Csordas, Joseph Alter, Lochlann Jain, and Eva Hayward),

            http://production.culanth.org/curated_collections/16-affect-embodiment-and-sense-perception, launched 15 March 2013.

4.“An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Ruination,” in “Scarred Landscapes and Imperial Debris” Special Issue, edited by Ann Laura Stoler, Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 220-53.


Nancy Rose Hunt has been showing up in Africa on educational and research pursuits, and with Fulbright, SSRC, and Guggenheim awards, since 1975-76 (Ghana), 1984-85 (Burundi), 1989-90 (Kisangani, Zaire), 1999-2001, (Accra, Ghana), 2000-01 (Mbandaka, DRC), 2007 (Kinshasa), and 2018-19 (Bukavu, DRC). An ethnographic historian of medicine, her research interests moved from reproductive matters to violence, suicide, and the vernacular healing of nervousness in the 2010s. She combines concepts and methods from anthropology, ethnography, and history, and for nineteen years was a Professor of History at Michigan (Ann Arbor), especially in its unique Joint PhD in Anthropology and History program. That she – a historian of childbirth – was also a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Michigan is a sign of how far interdisciplinarity can go, when visionary spirits think deeply about the educational value of crossing disciplines and professional training with a touch of madness.