An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition


This article argues for the importance of rewriting the conventional atrocity narrative about violence in King Leopold's Congo Free State in relation to the present, the ongoing war-related humanitarianism and sexual violence in the DRC. The central idea is to push beyond the shock and tenacity of the visual, the ubiquitous mutilation photographs that tend to blot out all else; and instead seek weaker, more fragile acoustic traces in a diverse archive with Congolese words and sounds. This sensory, nonspectral mode of parsing the archive tells us something new about the immediacy of violence, its duration in memory, and the bodily and reproductive effects of sexually torturing women. The sound of twisted laughter convulsed around forms of sexual violence that were constitutive of reproductive ruination during the rubber regime in Leopold's Congo. The work of strategically tethering the past to the present should not be about forging historicist links across time but about locating repetitions and difference, including differences among humanitarian modes and strategies in the early 20th and the early 21st centuries.

Editorial Footnotes

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.

About the Author

Nancy Rose Hunt is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Michigan.

Interview with Nancy Rose Hunt

Editors: Please provide a description of what affect means to you. Is it distinct from “emotion”? If so, how?

Nancy Rose Hunt: Affect is the wider term and embraces feelings, emotions, moods, sensations, and the like. I like to think of affect as a register, the visceral, psychic, emotional register. Affect can be embodied, but may also be verbalized or penned. It can suffuse a milieu, mark a situation, or stir beings and worlds. Kathleen Stewart on “ordinary affects” (in Ordinary Affects) is an excellent place to begin getting a sense of affect’s range and importance; her take is influenced by everything from Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling” to Deleuze. Ann Stoler on “affective states,” the imperial managing and “redistribution of sentiments” often within an “emotional economy,” is different but also important, especially for historians of colonial situations.

I find Williams’ “structures of feeling” helpful, but like to return to Simmel on “mingled feelings,” “impulses,” “tone,” “reactivity,” and “mood.” He speaks of seeking a “structure of sympathies, indifferences, and aversions.” I also like William Connolly’s “visceral register,” of course. I use it when thinking of the affective register that suffuses a situation, moment, or event, and within which feelings may run dense and swift. The challenge for me always lies in the how: how and where I find, sense, and locate sensations and affect, and then use them to thicken a sense of temperature or mood. Usually my hows comes through delicate, textured readings of sources and then splicing bits together into a patchwork or ambience that anchors readers’ sense of the often unsteady historical constellation (or space, situation, event, interval) at hand, through which coursed not only power but moods.

Eds.: Some people say that affect is pre-social without being a-social. What do you think about this?

N.R.H.: Not very much. William Mazzarella (in “Affect: What is it Good For?”) clarifies and critiques some of these points well. Affect is embodied and often begins in and with embodiment, that is for sure. It is interesting the number of anthropologists of affect who do not even bother to cite Massumi. Clearly working directly with the primary theoretical source, Deleuze, is more productive.

Eds.: How is the notion of affect helpful or relevant to your work? Would you categorize your work as “affect studies”?

N.R.H.: No. I am not keen to see an “affect studies” category emerge or to join such a box. This is not to say that affect as a wave or turn is not interesting to ponder. It is especially intriguing to think about why affect has emerged now—just as gender studies are drooping, when “representations” are no longer tenable, when people are growing weary of Foucault. The Deleuze storm may be with us for a while; it has hardly hit history yet, but it is coming and with a fury.

I am doing quite a bit right now on nervousness in colonial Africa. My point is not that there was “an age of nervousness,” but nervousness—more than any other register—shaped history and sometimes produced events. It only partially works, but it is at least a nice way to link registers of fear among Europeans with the intensities of therapeutic forms among Africans. I am also doing a lot with kinds of wonder and daydreaming as forms of subaltern consciousness, sometimes expressed through prophetic movements and therapeutic ritual, sometimes found in rumor or fashion. But if I made all my queries about “affect,” even in the concrete, immanent ways so beautifully demonstrated by Kathleen Stewart, I would be missing something. Affect is wonderful for rethinking the everyday, including materialities and horizons of the future. Affect is splendid for thinking about colonial ambivalence, humiliation, revenge, and ressentiment, especially if one moves beyond just finding these as emotions in one’s source material, and instead shows them as a mood suffusing a space or motivating an event. Let’s not forget that when Marc Bloch wrote that an historian should not be “a stranger to emotion,” he also spoke about “tone” and “tonalities” in relation to the “rhythm” and “plasticity” of time, epochs, and zones. This vocabulary remains useful.

Eds.: Does attention to affect change the field for potential political action? Is it related to older concepts like “ideology” or “structures of feeling” (in the sense that Raymond Williams gives both terms in his Marxism and Literature)?

N.R.H.: Attention to affect surely may go with pressing forward political issues and doing so with a radical edge. Again, we see this in Kathleen Stewart’s work: her affective readings of America rock as important political work. Affect may surely extend notions of identification, and usefully reprise Williams on “structures of feeling.” I especially like what Williams says about “generative immediacy.” He imagines affective “elements of impulse, restraint, and tone,” and as “a set” that is “in solution.” This liquid set, he suggests, generates the forms, conventions, and style of a generation (or era, zone, or situation). Importantly, he also signals that the same set is the scholar’s hypothesis; thus this liquid set structures method, the process of gathering evidence and clues. Some will not like the idea of “structures” or such a “set,” just as they may not appreciate a similar tension about pressures and limitations, form and the everyday kept taut by Simmel. But I find this kind of structuring but ever liquid thinking very helpful methodologically.

Showing how emotions, moods, and the visceral were part of situations of domination or violence, and doing so through a sensory register (sight, sound, and the like), may make our work more arresting, vivid, or moving. In the process, it may unsettle our readers. But attending to affect does not necessarily make one’s work more political or more effective. One of the strokes of brilliance in Stewart’s work lies in its accessible poetics; she is not writing for some tenure box, for Critical Inquiry or American Ethnologist, or a twenty-minute slot at the triple AAAs. Ordinary Affects belongs in public libraries everywhere, being read aloud.

Eds.: What methodological advice do you have for anthropologists in the field who are researching affect? How might they approach fieldwork?

N.R.H.: Nothing has changed. Listen. Observe. Ask. Record. Imagine. Keep reading and analyzing fieldnotes in the field while sharpening hunches and testing small, often quirky ideas and clues.

The human face is one zone to be read. It might be added to more canonical sources like stories and song, places and practice. Try to add in zones of sound and how they relate to grimaces and gesture. If there is a lesson from my work it is about laughter. Track it—and track vocabularies, idioms, stories, and gestures about laughter. Evidence on laughter is bound to yield a complex knot, worth disentangling as best one can, both in the field when talking with people and back at one’s desk while wading over various archival and field scraps. Consider what laugther does to faces and to the sounds, sensations, and feelings it creates. All of these dimensions are revealing.

Eds.: What has inspired your work, and in what ways might it contribute to a more thorough understanding of affect?

N.R.H.Landscape for a Good Woman. Not Either an Experimental Doll. Bwiti. I think it is important to realize that we have long had something like “affect studies.” From superb microhistories to autobiographical feminist stories to beautifully rendered ethnographies, historians and anthropologists with poetic sensibilities have been bringing us “an affective register” for at least a few decades. Some subjects, like spirit possession, have pushed scholars like Janice Boddy to keep this stream of work alive. A new generation is finding a fresh vocabulary, and they are partially setting aside “the psychic” and “the religious,” and instead looking at the politics of the everyday through the concrete and the sensory. Again, one place to begin to get a sense of this is Ordinary Affects, and not through The Affect Theory Reader. Unless we keep alive a sense of this older, poetic stream, which has long produced ethnography and history not only as analysis or politics but also as literature, I fear the new overtheorizing risks clotting prose and thwarting insight, squandering chances to pry open something new and special out of this ferment.

Eds.: Your article demonstrates how the researcher’s subjective experiences — specifically, your sensory encounter with the archives — complicates and deepens social theory. Could you reflect on how self-reflective attention to the embodied research experience might contribute to the ethnographic study of affect?

N.R.H.: No. I do not want to privilege my sensory encounter with the evidence. Nor do I want to imagine pouring over archives as an “embodied research experience.” There is no reason to get self-indulgent here. There is an important place for critical self-reflexivity when doing fieldwork and writing fieldnotes amid human lives in a present time and space; but the word critical needs to balance and brake the self-indulgent. It is not my sensory encounter with archives which enabled any complicating of social theory that emerged in this piece. Rather, a very specific and intensive kind of intellectual labor was involved: to work across a large archive, to find bit after bit of text relevant to the question at hand. In my case, the questions were: What were the sounds that accompanied violence? What acoustic register emerged? The bits of evidence about human cries and laughter and hushing of sound did suggest such an acoustic register or soundscape, and it was also affective, visceral, and related to violence. Theoretical questions about ruination, immediacy, duration, and the senses were at stake.

Eds.: Could you say more about what’s at stake, both academically and politically, in engaging with different kinds of archival data? In the conclusion to your essay, you write that “...We should not repeat and reproduce the tenacity of the visual and the sense of shock it produces.” Could you recap why the tenacity of the visual and its sense of shock are problematic? Why does sound present a better alternative?

N.R.H.:There is nothing universal about these claims. The choice of sound was the best alternative for this historically specific situation and for the specificities of the archive most used previously by historians and journalists. The frequent repetition of atrocity photographs about King Leopold’s Congo was quite simply overdue for a rejoinder, for a new take. Involved here were partly issues of what I call “suturing”: how we position our readers to understand and identify, how we jar them in the process. Repeating those same photographs once again was only going to produce more simplified, flattened humanitarian feelings, and also reprise the visceral speed of their capacity to shock.

If I had begun with a subject that had primarily been studied through an acoustic register (say, the sounds of radio broadcasting during wartime somewhere), I may instead have made claims for shifting the focus toward sight and visuality. If sound does not always present a better alternative, it is always interesting. And, since sound is somehow new and refractory, we would do well to do more with it. My piece is also unusual in that I reads texts for sounds; one can also read texts for images or for other concrete and sensual bits suggesting an affective register or mood. Just beware: it is very labor intensive work. But historians with sensibilities know well this kind of craft.

Eds.: Could you please elaborate on what you mean by “producing history in a ‘mode of repetition’”? Methodologically, how is this kind of historical work distinct from others? And what role does sound, in particular, play in it?

N.R.H.: I very much wanted to avoid suggesting that war and rape in Congo today (or since 1996 with various wars in the East) was a historical repetition of violence and rape in central Congo of the 1900s. It is not that there are not similarities and parallels worth exploring, but I wanted to counter—and avoid giving new evidence for—the reductive logic (found in many journalistic treatments) about contemporary Congo as a timeless zone of barbaric rapists using crude instruments to destroy women’s insides. My use of Harry Harootunian to speak of a “mode of repetition” became my way to suggest that there might be strategic ways to use this particular historical situation (of destructive rape and war in the 1900s) to produce a different awareness on the ground today in Congo, where Congolese are debating contemporary rapes and violations among themselves.

Thus, I wanted to short-circuit the kind of historicist temporalization that would imagine some long-standing, continuous historical stream about African male rapists. The result instead is a discontinuous “tethering” between past and present. (“Tethering” is Stoler’s word.) At the same time, I wanted to point to the (almost structuring) elements evident in the two decades a century apart, the 1900s and the 2000s. Harry Harootunian’s work helped me begin pressing in this direction; he used Deleuze’s language of a “mode of repetition” and so did I. But more could be done here. How might historians and anthropologists of affect and politics productively use Deleuze on repetition and difference to think through issues of temporality, tonality, and the formal architecture of our texts? Please, ask me next year. I am working on this and related issues now.

Related Links

"A Love During the War", screening with Cameroonian feminist filmmaker, Osvalde Lewat-Hallade

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