Nancy Rose Hunt
In the May 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Nancy Rose Hunt calls for a new reading of the sadistic violence that marks the Congo, one that connects its history as a Belgian colony to contemporary civil wars. Hunt’s essay moves from turn-of-the century photographs and transcripts of dialogue found in European archives to documentation of extraordinary brutalization of women amidst recent fighting between rebels and the Congolese national army. Attuned to the “acoustic register,” Hunt hears echoes today from the days of European overseers and their Congolese sentries.
Linking past and present violences can’t depend on visual evidence, Hunt argues, even if the visual evidence is horrific, as in the Congolese case. While “shock photos” documenting mutilations and murder sparked the protests that led to King Leopold’s loss of the colony, such photos blot out some things even as they expose others. Sexual violence is particularly hard to capture. Weaker, more fragile acoustic traces – a mention of the fear generated by a distant shot, a record of how a crowd roared with laughter, the very small voice of a frightened girl – become critical.
Hunt describes the visual evidence of violence in King Leopold’s’ Congo – photo after photo of severed hands and feet, in particular -- “as refractory evidence whose selective circulation then and since is worthy of canny attention.” “Some images from Leopold’s Congo traveled and were recycled, repackaged, and reframed, over and over again. Some did not.,” she writes. “The visual nature of the evidence—what foreign observers wrote about seeing, what Congolese explained that they had seen, and the kinds of photographs that circulated and shocked—has oriented humanitarian, scholarly, and popular attention toward severed hands. The mutilation photographs, in particular, have directed interest away from what was more hidden, tactile, and out of sight, and away from another modality of violence, the sexual. And this modality of violence was intrinsically more reproductive and transgressive in its nature.”
Thus the imperative of moving “beyond seeing as the primary mode of perceiving the past, by being wakeful to other senses and capacities, especially the field of hearing, producing, and muffling sound.” Attuned to the acoustic register, it becomes possible to sense how the past continues – how the figure of the hyper-violent, sexually brutal unpaid soldier of the postcolonial period, for example, might be understood to echo the figure of the sentry from the days of red rubber. “The work of strategically tethering the past to the present,” writes Hunt, “should not be about forging historicist links across time but about locating repetitions and difference.”
Nancy Rose Hunt is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Michigan.
Cultural Anthropology has published additional essays on the subject of gender and sexuality. See Christine Walley's essay "Searching for 'Voices': Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations" (1997) or Aradhana Sharma's essay "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India" (2006). "Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia" (2005) by Alexia Bloch also addresses issues of gender and sexuality.
Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on Africa in the past. Jennifer Hasty's essay "The Pleasures of Corruption: Desire and Discipline in Ghanaian Political Culture" (2005), Blair Rutherford's essay "Desired Publics, Domestic Government, and Entangled Fears: On the Anthropology of Civil Society, Farm Workers, and White Farmers in Zimbabwe" (2004), as well as Donald Donham's essay "Freeing South Africa: The "Modernization" of Male-Male Sexuality in Soweto" (1998), are good references.
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