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Reviewed by:
  • Postcolonial Disorders
  • David Napier
Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Sandra Teresa Hyde, Sarah Pinto and Byron J. Good, (eds.), Postcolonial Disorders. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 465 pp.

In this landmark collection, Good et al. bring together both seasoned scholars and young, newer voices to address the intriguing question of how one might identify and validate ethnographically the always complex, frequently chronic, and sometimes covert forms of suffering that arise in postcolonial environments. With seventeen contributors providing a total of fifteen chapters and an introductory essay, the volume might lay some claim to being encyclopedic. However, its tight focus on case studies and the impact of colonial oppression on illness narratives, and on narrative accounts of various colonial and postcolonial pathologies, means that readers can anticipate detailed, closely analyzed examples of how diseases are, as Hyde puts it, "mapped onto certain places and people more readily than others." (23).

The book's Introduction should be required reading—providing not only the best overview of the contribution of each of its fifteen authors, but a [End Page 599] seminal introduction to what postcolonial disorders actually are, and the volume as a whole offers major theoretical and ethnographic innovations.

Given the global impact of Europe from The Age of Discovery onwards critics might rightly ask what elements of human experience today are not either directly or reflexively postcolonial. After all, once one accepts the fact that even the most remote and isolated social groups are not immune to the disturbing repercussions of centuries of colonizing, establishing what is not postcolonial may itself prove daunting. This is where Postcolonial Disorders is instructive: divided into major themes, the collection allows us to realize that the enforced and unequal reciprocity that colonialism depends on also gives rise to new and novel—if also unequally tragic—effects. These effects crystallize into unique and disturbing ways of embodying—ways that, while identifiable, draw the already oppressed into yet new forms of oppression that may, in fact, be covert.

Because living out what to others may seem ineffable means that bodies merge with narratives in creating both meaning and its absence, the ghosts of colonial hegemony reemerge surprisingly in extreme forms of alienation that can strike us as inhuman, counterintuitive, and even bizarre. Taking on the task, therefore, of sorting through the morass of moments that constitute the psychologically unknown outcomes of reproduced and reconstituted colonial oppression requires a new analytical nomenclature. In Postcolonial Disorders the editors have chosen three categories within which to situate its diverse contributions: "Disordered States," "Subjectivity in the Borderlands," and "Madness, Alterity, and Psychiatry."

Why these categories? Are they analytical domains, authorial conventions, or new areas of inquiry? In fact, they are all of these. In the book's first section, "Disordered States," the authors make a strong case for the argument that thinking about certain new and emerging disorders as "postcolonial," allows us "to explore modalities of social life and subjectivities that reflect, ironically, the establishment of political, moral, and epistemic orders through state violence that reproduces disorder." (8) The basic idea here is that "the strategic assemblage of ideas, institutions, and forms of domination that constitute colonialism…all function to establish and maintain a distinctive "order," a mode of social life and an enactment of "the Real" characteristic of a particular Enlightenment vision of reason, progress, and freedom." (7) By taking this approach the authors intend to cut across the more well-known studies of moral violence in which new pathologies are rendered: as evidence for the powers of subjection (following Foucault); as reconfigured [End Page 600] examples of psychiatry's diagnostic categories; and as the so-called "experience near" forms of illness narrative analysis that this very group of authors helped to pioneer.

Of these it is this last which is most surprising, not so much because it may appear to signal a possible departure from the kind of primacy of narrative voice in medical anthropology that has defined an entire genre of the field, but because subjecting that primacy to the extreme pathological effects of long-term colonial domination allows these authors to posit a new direction in ethnographically-based research in which ongoing oppression may actually...


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pp. 599-606
Launched on MUSE
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