Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 130-131
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Johannes Fabian is a prolific and provocative writer, always intellectually a step or two ahead of most of us. For the past thirty-some years, he has written about contemporary religions, the politics of language, phenomenologies of work, and popular arts and cultures in southeastern Congo/Kinshasa, all the while teaching us a great deal about how anthropology creates its Others. In Out of Our Minds, Fabian continues his double-barreled approach to central African ethnography matched by an ethnography of ethnographers. Here he brings his keen sense of social process to bear upon the intersubjectivities of early colonial history. What a mad lot the explorers were! And how similarly surreal were some Africans' reactions to them! In order to understand the circumstances of how Others—both colonizers and colonized—were created as objects of knowledge, Fabian brings facts to the fore that are nearly always glossed over in travelogues and early ethnographies: panic and the manic, to be sure, but also "the effects of alcohol, drugs, illness, sex, brutality, and terror, as well as the role of conviviality, friendship, play, and performance" (p. 9).
Given his earlier writings on the dynamic nature of African expression, few authors are better placed than Fabian to explain the ecstatic theatricality of imperialist adventures. His discussion of the gadgets and spectacles produced by explorers to astonish African audiences is brilliant, not only because the tales are so engaging, but also because the lessons Fabian draws from how observer and observed invented each other are so fundamentally important to an understanding of the colonial moment. Ever the theorist, Fabian uses his skillful narration to explain how "ecstasis, in a nontrivial understanding of the term, is. . . a prerequisite for, rather than an impediment to, the production of ethnographic knowledge" (p. 8). That is, the colonizers were not the only ones crazy about Africa: we who write for and you who read these pages most likely are as well.
Concentrating on the published literature by and archival materials about several German explorers, Fabian tells stories many of us know, but have never heard like this. "Documenting the chaotic" (p. 197) is one of Fabian's fortes. For example, expeditions into the central African interior were often led by the same African headmen, hunters, and porters who became true travel professionals over the course of time. "Mental solitude" may have been "a topos of travel writing" by Europeans visiting Africa in the late nineteenth century, but the "solitary traveler was never physically alone" (p. 38). Indeed, to some significant degree the African professionals accompanying the explorer and the circus-like "caravan culture" they produced around him must have conditioned his experiences before he could even set forth. Fabian asks readers to cast aside any notions of "exploratory travel as movement controlled by the traveler" (p. 58), to accept instead [End Page 130] "the somewhat demented character" (p. 57) of exploration as proceeding in many ways despite the traveler. All appearances aside, little that was "rational" applied to the endeavor.
The trials and tribulations of European explorers have never before been so lucidly portrayed as in Out of Our Minds. Oft-lethal tropical fevers, for instance, "far from being regarded as just a medical condition and a reaction of the immune system to multiple causes, became essentialized as the ecstatic counterstate to ascetic hygiene" and the "sacrifice every traveler must bring to the black continent" (p. 61). From their hysteria—in the late-nineteenth-century understanding of that word—European travelers developed a "poetics of fever," as when Jerome Becker described his first encounter with "terrible African fever" as "a bad love affair" (p. 62). Both the stress of central African exploration, and as Fabian asserts, the rather bizarre culture of central African exploration, led many travelers to drug abuse. Indeed, "we are entitled to imagine our explorers 'drugged,' most of them some...