Coffins, corpses and wheelchairs: mass hysteria and postcolonial constitutions.
Inexplicable events of mass hysteria are fairly common among school children the world over, from Le Roy, New York to Kashasha, Tanzania, and are generally considered an expression of some strain or anxiety that finds no other outlet. This is by no means an exclusively South African phenomenon, and yet mass hysteria is clearly trending there, as a label, in its literature, and as a cultural experience. A survey of the media reports indicates events in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, peaking in 2009 with a pile-up of reported clusters in Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and the Eastern Cape. Interestingly, 2009 was also a general election year and the year of the H1N1 influenza pandemic, both sources of enormous social stress and scrutiny. The newspaper reports offer some additional possible explanations--a recent suicide, discipline problems, moral degeneration--but there is no consensus and no coordinated attempt appears to have been made to account for the extent of the phenomenon.
A variety of local print media sources, from the Pretoria News to The Sowetan and The Sunday Tribune traffic in the terminology, with headlines reading "Mysterious wave of mass hysteria hits city", "Mass hysteria at Soweto school?", and "'Mass hysteria sweeps six E Cape schools." Other headlines emphasize spiritual and supernatural causes for these events, such as " 'Evil spirits' hit 70 Soweto pupils," "Prayer meeting for 'possessed' pupils," and "Demons take over Mdzimba High." The reports alternate between placing loaded terms like hysteria and evil spirits in distancing scare quotes and presenting them directly, as accepted classifications. Nicky Falkof in her recent essay in the Journal of Southern African Studies, "'Satan Has Come to Rietfontein': Race in South Africa's Satanic Panic/'observes a similar pattern in her primary sources. However even within individual articles the practice varies, so that in the piece "Pupils complain of 'evil spirits'; Religious leaders' intercession sought" the quotation marks disappear between the headline and the opening sentence, which reads, "Pastors and priests were called in to deliver children from evil spirits at a high school north of Durban this week after pupils started screaming" (Comins). As the quotation marks fall away so does any doubt or derision about whether these are real events which should properly be named in this way, possibly because the classification corresponds to a perception of today's South African reality. (2) An abridged timeline of hysteria in South Africa plots out an evolution of moral panics, each with its own politics of naming: from the Nongqawuse's millennialist prophecy of 1856 to the apartheid regime's concerted efforts to keep the population in a state of panic (planting professional agitators to spur on violent protests against the regime, warning of a "total onslaught," and wielding violence unpredictably and arbitrarily against its citizens) to the witchcraft and Satanism scares of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We can add mass hysteria to this list as its latest iteration. Nicky Falkof's essay on the subject connects accusations of Satanic possession to whiteness and accusations of mass hysteria to blackness. She concludes that this reinforces a racial dichotomy by placing blame outside the white victims of Satanism while making the black subjects of mass hysteria the source of the disturbance. Reading against the grain of her conclusion, though, if the hysterical subject is the source of the disturbance, then mass hysteria might be reappropriated for its potential disruption from within.
The press reports on mass hysteria clearly convey the failure to explain the events as a frustration of authority. Health and education officials are regularly called in, as well as police, pastors, and medical personnel who are always "unable to find any sign of clinical illness" ("'Mass hysteria' sweeps"). In the 2010 KwaShaka High School case in Umlazi, despite the efforts of medical rescue teams, the hysteria spread from the 80 students initially affected to their parents, who had been gathered for a meeting to address the situation: "It's alleged that while parents were at the meeting some female pupils started screaming at the top of their voices, and when some parents tried to help them they also started screaming while some fainted" (Sangweni). Department of Education spokesperson Mbali Thusi said, "'We do not know what is happening at the school, but our powers are limited'" (Sangweni). The urge to explain and therefore contain the hysterical events speaks to the threat of excess they represent. Although parents and teachers suggest everything from supernatural possession to contaminated water as possible causes, the children's bodies escape diagnosis. They also bypass the usual lines of power in another way: by transmitting agency and affect from body to body.
In an environment where the individual and the communal are habitually disenfranchised, the body politic is fashioned through body politics. We can think, therefore, about mass hysteria as a situated resistance to the dispossession of the postcolonial experience, inverting Walter Benjamin's idea that the collective is also corporeal to suggest that the corporeal can also be collective. Because of hysteria's history as a female disorder, and since mass hysteria tends to manifest itself among school children and especially schoolgirls, it is also a particularly gendered and generational form of expression. Most of the reported instances of mass hysteria in South Africa in the last 15 odd years primarily involve girls in high schools in black towns and townships. The country has a long history of youth resistance, including critical apartheid-era interventions on the part of school children, but whereas apartheid offered a call to action, plenty of evidence suggests that South Africa's youth, and especially its girls, feel disenchanted with national politics in the new South Africa. This can be attributed to an official unemployment rate of over 25%, the rape of a woman every four minutes, and the disconcerting sense that the new South Africa looks awfully like the old one in its turn to censorship strategies such as the Protection of State Information Bill (known colloquially as the Secrecy Bill) and violence, as in the Lonmin Platinum mine massacre last year. As an alternative means of collaboration with one another and resistance to the dominant culture, mass hysteria and other body politics can be seen as the youth of South Africa calling for an emergency constitution--constituting the nation corporeally.
I am interested in these collective acts for what they say about the postcolonial nation and its others in our contemporary climate of mobility and fragmentation. Can we think of hysteria as a mass movement, not only a political one but also a physical one in which bodies move together or are moved to act? Can solidarity emerge from the unconscious or the involuntary? Do visions of "coffins, corpses and wheelchairs" signal a failure to connect or might new practices of solidarity emerge from the deployment of disorderly bodies (even when, as we shall see, they are examples of state-sanctioned or induced)? Hysteria has long been dismissed as a female or colonial malady, (3) but I reconsider it as a critique of the dominant, in keeping with Elaine Showalter and Aihwa Ong's approaches. Instead of asking if rebellion is a mental pathology, Showalter asks if mental pathology might be suppressed rebellion, a form of protest. And Ong reads cases of mass hysteria in factory workers as examples of class resistance against undesirable actions or rules from managers. For Ong, mass hysteria is symptomatic of a critique of globalization and multinational corporations. It is a natural extrapolation from this to see mass hysteria as potentially productive of political resistance in a postcolonial, globalized society (albeit an extremely limited and problematic kind of resistance; one that results from limited and problematic circumstances). Not everyone has access to the nation-state, and in hysteria we see the body being used to forge, albeit fleetingly, a space for itself that might not previously exist or to circumvent the traditional nation-state completely. We also see that there might be very local or very global attachments formed: one of the notable aspects of the mass hysterical events in South African schools is that they often occur in clusters, so that hysteria is not merely locally but translocally contagious. Mapping mass hysteria reveals a network of bodies coming together, transcending the individual, to suggest broader commonalities and solidarities.
In "The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia," Ong shows us how "[s]pirit possession episodes may be taken as expressions both of fear and of resistance against the multiple violations of moral boundaries in the moderm factory. They are acts of rebellion, symbolizing what cannot be spoken directly, calling for a renegotiation of obligations between the management and workers" (38). The literature on mass hysteria considers factory and school to be analogous enclosed settings, and informs us of events "typically appearing in small institutionalised, social networks" (Rataemane et al). Recent reports out of South Africa about mass hysteria in its schools capture the disruptive potential Ong describes as they discuss how episodes of mass hysteria "engulfed the whole school" (Mabuza) or "brought learning and teaching to a standstill" (Sangweni). Some suggest an even more tactical intervention. In a 2008 Sunday Tribune article, we learn that after playing "occult games,"
[t]wo of the girls from the cemetery have been exorcised by priests after they displayed behaviour that indicated they were possessed. A local pastor, who did not want to be named, said the two girls were particularly affected and were exorcised after they spoke in a "demonic-sounding voice" and showed "superhuman" strength. He said one of the girls, who is petite, had even assaulted a strapping security guard by grabbing him by his neck and pinning him against the wall (Singh).
Magically endowed with superhuman strength, the girls find the power to resist authority, engaging in a renegotiation of reality with school, religious, and state regimes in the form of pastors, security guards, and the police. In the schoolyard setting of these episodes, the disciplinary economies of instruction, examinations, and even a "school's feeding scheme" of porridge, pap, and soup (Skade) are made glaringly apparent, as are the obvious figures of authority--teachers, principals, parents, pastors. The refusal to participate in these economies correlates to other, historic refusals to be productive in the face of establishment demands. We might think, for instance, of Isabel Hofmeyr's essay "'Nterata'/'The Wire': Fences, Boundaries, Orality, Literacy," in which, incidentally, she talks about officials in 1930s South Africa "complaining of 'a veritable epidemic of fence cutting'" (69) along with other tactics of resistance to colonial fencing and taxation such as delay, procrastination, and debate. JM Coetzee's notes on accusations of native idleness in the early colonial period give us another reference point. He writes, "In the first hundred years or so of settlement, the idleness of the Hottentots is denounced in much the same spirit as the idleness of beggars and wastrels is denounced in Europe. One might even say that the rhetoric used to justify a class war in Europe is unthinkingly transferred to the colonial situation to condemn the refusal of the natives to be drawn into the economy as wage laborers" (126). Mass hysteria performs this refusal to be coopted into a disciplining structure.
A recent rash of South African film and fiction to do with the occult (zombies, ghosts, outbreaks, and more) suggests possession or hysteria less as an intermittent interruption, and more as a permanent state of panic. If these themes are merely symptomatic of a hysterical, irrational system, we have no particular recourse to resistance or solidarity. Indeed, there has always been a hysterical quality to South Africa's race relations, with the apartheid regime producing a surfeit of rules and regulations in its anxious attempts to control the majority black population. Achille Mbembe argues that "the racial city was always a psychotic city or space of delirium" (45) (4) and that contemporary South Africa reiterates the pathological structure inherited from the racial city in an "architecture of hysteria" (62). We see this sense of endemic hysteria in popular culture as well, as in the 1988 film Mapantsula, in which the protagonist's nickname, Panic, "encodes [...] the insecurity of South African society" (Tomaselli 55); or, more recently, in the hubbub around the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa--the event most often linked to the term mass hysteria in the media. South African fiction has entered a new phase, one step beyond the immediate post-apartheid concern with thinking through its legacies. (5) This new phase, which imagines virtual, fantastic, supernatural futures rather than practical ones, would seem to let us take the pulse of the nation through pulp fiction like Lauren Beukes' and mainstream films such as District 9, which, incidentally, came out in 2009, the year the South African press reported the most mass hysterical events by far. Instead of reading this so-called speculative fiction for a cultural diagnosis, however, we will look at a sampling of it for how it theorizes--or speculates on--the dynamics of seemingly closed circuits of state-produced hysteria and moments of rupture that resist reincorporation. We will ask if the fiction lets us recuperate hysteria from its hegemony or if it insists on a pervasive panic.
The two texts read here, Henrietta Rose-Innes's 2007 short story "Poison" and Lauren Beukes' 2008 novel Moxyland, each commanded a wide readership:"Poison" because it won the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award and the 2008 Caine prize, and Moxyland because it has developed a cult following with consequent fan fiction spinoffs. The message of both is surely that we have something to be hysterical about, and yet hysteria seems unavailable to both sets of protagonists. It is, however, immanent for others: for those masses in the margins of the stories and for their readers. In "Poison," a chemical explosion has taken place causing a mass exodus from Cape Town. As everyone else leaves town, though, Lynn, the protagonist, is oddly stranded. The liminal setting of the story, in a petrol station on the side of the highway just outside of the city, captures her predicament:
Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind. She thought of the people she'd seen so many times on the side of the highway, walking, walking along verges not designed for human passage, covering incomprehensible distances, toiling from one obscure spot to another. Their bent heads dusty, cowed by the iron ring of the horizon. In all her years of driving at speed along highways, Cape Town, Jo'burg, Durban, she'd never once stopped at a random spot, walked into the veld. Why would she? The highways were tracks through an indecipherable terrain of dun and grey, a blur in which one only fleetingly glimpsed the sleepy eyes of people standing on its edge. To leave the car would be to disintegrate, to merge with that shifting world. How far could she walk, anyway, before weakness made her stumble? Before the air thickened into some alien gel, impossible to wade through, to breathe? (5)
Lynn feels "unnerved" or enervated in the etymological sense of the word. (6) In her nervous condition, she not only feels uneasy and debilitated, but she lacks a basic synaptical connection. Because she cannot imagine "merging] with that shifting world," she fails to achieve solidarity. What's more, this failure reaches both backward and forward in time. It is a problem of remembering and of future imagining: the people who regularly pass through the spaces "not designed for human passage" are black or coloured and she doesn't have the wherewithal to imagine herself occupying those spaces then or now. Instead, people are "attending to their own emergency" (2) around her while she remains out of place and yet stuck in this place. Not only does she make almost no effort to escape, she is strangely indifferent to what's happening around her: "A small red car with only one occupant was speeding towards them out of the smoky distance. The others went running out to join their friend, stringing themselves out across the highway to block the car's path. By the time Lynn thought about joining them, it was already too late--the young people had piled in and the car was driving on, wallowing, every window crammed with hands and faces. The girl gave the crowd a thumbs-up as they passed" (2). She should be hysterical along with everyone else but instead is vacated of all affect about the calamity. There is something about her very constitution--a weakened vitality, a failure to react, a lack of connection--that prevents her from participating in the emergency constitution of the new South Africa in which people are scrambling to form new alliances by sharing rides or combining petrol reserves.
A lack of affect not only describes Lynn's attitude but permeates the descriptive language of the story as well. We get someone with a "thin, villain's moustache" (2) and "[a]n oily cloud" that "boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie" (1). Even the descriptions describe their own stale quality: "The sun came through the tinted glass in an end-of-the-world shade of pewter, but that was nothing new; that had always been the colour of the light in places like this" (3). It is important that the story is told through limited third person narration and not the first person since this additionally distances Lynn from herself and from us. Lynn appears nearly immune to the public mood even as the environmental contagion looms nearer; even nature knows enough to flee: "The cloud was growing. As she watched, a deep rose-coloured occlusion extended towards her, pulling a wash of darkness across the sky. A strange horizontal rain came with it, and reflexively she ducked and put her hands to her hair. But the droplets were too big and distinct, and she realised that they were in fact birds, thousands of birds, sprinting away from the mountain" (5). Later, when it is clear to us that things have gone too far to be fixed, when the whole landscape, earth to sky, has turned lethal, Lynn remains in a state of denial. She sees birds again, only this time they are dead:
She just needed to walk around a bit. She headed off towards the sun, which was melting messily into smears of red and purple. The mountain was no longer visible. The road was discoloured, splattered with lumps of some tarry black precipitate. She counted five small bodies of birds, feathers damp and stuck together. Blades of grass at the side of the road were streaked with black, and the ground seemed to be smoking, a layer of foul steam around her ankles. It got worse the further she walked, and so she turned around. (8)
The story ends with Lynn entirely isolated in her passivity: "It seemed the pollution had created its own weather system over the mountain, a knot of ugly cloud. She felt washed up on the edge of it, resting her oil-clogged wings on a quiet shore" (8). Perpetually on the edge of things, her only point of identification--she's like one of the dying birds--is a direct result of her failure to adapt in the face of an evolutionary emergency.
Where "Poison" is a perfectly plausible-sounding apocalyptic tale in which hysteria is a healthy response to environmental and social collapse, Beukes' novel Moxyland depicts a dystopian, futuristic South Africa, exploding in various epidemics and contagions. An uneasy, permanently panicked citizenry is desired and designed. Corporate and government interests, barely distinguishable, not only manufacture contagious viruses that cause communal panic but they produce the resistance (in the political and the medical senses) to their own controls, wounding and healing themselves to make them stronger.
Narrated collectively, with each chapter told from a particular character's perspective, Moxyland structures a plural experience while denying its characters collaboration. The four main narrators are Kendra, an art photographer who deliberately uses outdated analogue technology, Toby, a game-playing flaneur, Tendeka, an anti-corporate activist, and Lerato, an "Aidsbaby" raised in a corporate orphanage (set up to "cultivat[e] proprietary workforces"), now a disaffected programmer (171). The novel opens with Kendra's branding. Like Lynn, Kendra also feels on the edge of things and "out of place," except that for Kendra this actually makes her "edgy"--she identifies with "all the effluent in the city" which is precisely why she was chosen to be the "shiny new ambassador" to the Ghost brand of beverages (7,9). Hoping to expand its market to the margins, Ghost practices a literal viral marketing technique. Kendra is inoculated with a nano technology, "like a booster shot with added boost" (1), that produces a glowing logo on her wrist which is not a tattoo but an internal mutation; it has altered her DNA so that she and her fellow Ghost "sponsorbabies" are "the next evolutionary" (160). When the company doctor says, "'You'll be pleased to know everything's fine. The nano has taken hold,' "Kendra retorts," 'You make it sound like I'm possessed'" (157). And she is possessed: as proprietary material she is now corporately owned as well as taken hold of, bewitched, by the changes to her self. She has become a "Ghost girl" (7). The disturbing depth and permanence of Kendra's alteration contrasts with the superficially revolting BabyStrange coat that Toby wears wherever he goes. Whereas for Kendra "this isn't sub-dermal. This is her skin" (31), Toby's coat can be discarded and its ephemeral display reprogrammed: "Here's a random sampling to give you an idea of what's displaying on the "smartfabric" that is so bothering Ten: close-ups of especially revolting fungal skin infections, Eighteenth Century dissection diagrams and, for a taste of local flavour, a row of smileys--that's sheep's head for the uninitiated--lips peeled back to reveal grins bared in anticipation of the pot" (24). Both skin and coat, however, project surface messages fitting for a society that operates entirely on a principle of display, in which everything is allegedly "all out in the open" (45), from its electronic billboards to its penchant for transparency, even in police reports. Kendra's glowing logo, "a riff on the standard dark marketing shit" (27) which works visually and virally, makes her a walking billboard for the Ghost brand, and operates on the same principle as mass hysteria, transmitted through line of sight (Rataemane et al).
The theme of sinister branding in Moxyland picks up on the very real effort over the last ten years to create "Brand South Africa," which I have written about elsewhere. (7) Selling South Africa through a "consolidated brand image" involves not only marketing the nation for international and domestic tourist consumption and investment but also the consolidation of a national identity. According to the Brand South Africa website, as a corrective to the fact that after apartheid "the world was unsure about what to think of South Africa, with many different messages being sent out by various sources," "Brand South Africa's role is to create a positive, unified image of South Africa; one that builds pride" (BrandSouthAfrica.com). In other words, the campaign aims to generate solidarity around the national brand despite forces that compete with a singular national narrative--both internally, as seen in intense xenophobia against workers from other African nations, and externally, as South Africa increasingly inserts itself into a global economy. Spoiler alert: In the final chapter of Moxyland, Toby watches his friend Tendeka, the idealistic would-be revolutionary, literally disintegrate in front of him as he dies gruesomely from a virus unleashed on the populace by the police:
My first thought is how much shit I'm in. How I need to just set fire to my entire apartment and all the evidence and walk away, disappear. What flammables do I have at handy? Or. Or I have the total sony exclusive on the untimely and grotesque death of a terrorist. Or a martyr. Depends on who's paying. I can't stick around here, though. They've already been here once. And they're sure to notice Tendeka's corpse on the roof. Hard to miss with all the splatter. I stuff the coat, spare clothes and my laptop-and fuckit, the VIM, cos wherever I'm going, I'll still need a clean-up--into my bag. I step out of the door into a whole new bright world, feeling exhausted and exhilarated. And thirsty. (367)
Although the idea of simply walking away from it all sounds liberating, we get the distinct sense that there'll be nothing new in Toby's whole bright new world: He carries with him his BabyStrange coat, which can record and project onto its surface whatever he chooses, including the grisly death of Tendeka, who died not knowing his resistance was carefully plotted, government-sponsored terrorism, plus other traceable devices, and last but not least, the bright new marking of a much more sinister contagion than the merely physical virus that killed his friend--a corporate branding virally transmitted and leaving him thirsty for the Ghost brand drink, the perfect programmed consumer, just another "sponsorbaby." The novel ends most cynically, any suggestion of an outside to this hermetic, though internally diseased, system shut down.
At the back of the US/UK edition of Moxyland, readers are invited to scan and photocopy a set of Moxy the mascot stencils as "a symbol of defiance to the powers that be. Use these nifty stencils to get the word out to people just like YOU!" The instructions encourage us to color the eyes "a different colour" because "No one's gonna tell YOU what to do, right?" A sardonic gloss on participatory action, this back matter incites us to act in unison, coopting our critique to the end. A genealogy of the text shows it to be reproducing itself: Beginning as an article about underground advertising parties, Moxyland then "transmuted" into a short story entitled "Branded," "blossomed like a tumor from there, mutating into" the novel (Beukes 375), and replicated itself again when the author announced a short-story competition based on the novel, with the winning stories published as part of her next novel, Zoo City. Gone viral, the text reenacts its own hysterical content.
About two thirds of the way through the novel, Toby participates in a game sponsored by Inkubate Inc., a corporation that borrows "realworld" spaces for virtual play. At the same time, Tendeka has organized his street kid followers into a pass protest. In the South Africa of 2018, passes serve the same function they did under apartheid--to control mobility and access--except that class, not race, is now the organizing principle. When Toby's game and Tendeka's protest collide in an underway train station, the constant, almost commonplace state of emergency that has existed until now turns into full-blown mass hysteria: "Chaos breaks out in shockwaves from the nucleus of the lifts. People drop to the ground, screaming, unaware that it's a game, cos they're idiots, cos you'd never mistake the sting of a dye pellet for a bullet. Others, caught in the panic, surge towards the exits. And then in one convulsive move, everyone drops to the ground, twitching, phones crackling as the defusers kick in" (259-60). Panic comes in two waves here: first the initial, biological reaction and then a technologically-induced one as everyone in the station is tasered by their phones with one command. This puts a new spin on policing the crisis: where Stuart Hall saw moral panics generated as a premise for social control, we now see an actual panic policed into being, as a matter of policy. And yet this panic, the second wave, is a simulacrum of the first: "It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes" (Baudrillard). At the risk of reductionism, this scene can read as a literalization of the Baudrillard: the simulacrum of hysteria replaces the real of hysteria through a mechanized, virtually operated, metastatic system which short-circuits not just the sign of the real but the real bodies at the scene of the crime.
Hysteria here is not a statement of protest, but a response to it, with only those "voluntarily disconnected! Voluntarily disenfranchised!" not succumbing to "the epileptic human sea jerking around their feet" (260). Tendeka's "terrorists" are not connected to this collective fit by virtue of not having phones, although the irony is that they are connected to the network in ways they are not aware of since they are controlled by skyward*, the cyber puppet master who makes a global mockery of their supposedly grassroots efforts. As they attack the police dogs, a voice over the intercom announces:
'Important message. Brought to you by the South African Police Services. We regret to inform you that due to an attempted insurrection by terrorists using banned technology, the SAPS have had no alternative but to make use of statute 41b, Extreme Measures, of the National Security Act'....
In accordance with this statute, activated for your protection, you have all been exposed to the M7N1 virus, a lab-coded variation of the Marburg strain. Do not panic.
This has the opposite effect. (265) (8)
When the state hijacks mass hysteria for a weapon in its own arsenal, it appropriates and systematizes what we have seen can be a disruptive resistance tactic. Whatever is felt in common here is manufactured by corporate power. For instance, Kendra feels "an overwhelming hysteria" in the station, when the police dogs surge forward: "I couldn't help it. I had to go with them" (277). She identifies with them not on some cross-species, universal level but on a visceral, microscopic one because they, too, have been altered by nanotechnology. Real connections are only produced by getting disconnected. After the underway attacks, Kendra feels perversely liberated by "the grounding of disconnect that separates me from the swirl of the city around me. The disassociation is real for once, not artificially imposed and filtered through my camera" (322). But of course this perceived access to the real is false, since Kendra has been so thoroughly incorporated into the system that she is the very definition of incorporation: her body has been integrated into the corporate body. "'But how else are they going to make it seem authentic?'" (330) Toby asks Tendeka when they start feeling symptoms of the virus. Toby suspects the virus is a hoax but Tendeka thinks his death is "the only way to expose it, for the outside world to know it's real" (331). They are both right: The virus is real and fatal, but it is also bioengineered, a deliberate scheme. Moreover, as we already know, Tendeka's death may well end up being valued not for its expose of the corporate state but because "Martyr relics get top price on eBay" (338). In every way, the text reminds us that authenticity is either manufactured or foreclosed completely, such as when a family mourning ceremony turns into a tourist spectacle or with Kendra's "retro print photos" (200), which only accrue value when they get splattered with blood in a corporation-sponsored piece of performance art.
It is no accident that Kendra feels "fractal with nerves" immediately before encountering a competing artist's "gruesome, red, and meaty" project, a thing with nerve endings but no pain receptors that is "supposed to be revolting" (200-2). This is the art of the nervous condition, its rawness in stark contrast to Lynn's numbness in "Poison." The closest Lynn gets to nerves is when she finds a car "rusted clean through" and incapable of joining the exodus: "Seeing the smooth finish gone scabrous and raw gave Lynn a twinge at the back of her teeth" (6). In the gallery, Tendeka and his street kids attack the art installation, as always not knowing their protest is carefully orchestrated from above. The audience assumes its all part of the show, until "the bright sprays of blood make it real" (215). What is raw, physical, and revolting here is also highly contrived, once again calling what is real into question. Nevertheless, this performance of the grotesque ultimately devolves to mere matter as the chapter closes with the artist "kneeling next to the gobs of her animal construct, trying to reassemble it, smearing herself with the bloody lumps of flesh" (216). Where before we heard "skitters of nervous laughter" (215) from the gallery-goers, now we hear "brittle, hyperventilating gasps" as onlookers are "laid waste by the shock" (216). In this moment of mass hysteria, aesthetics (or at least negative aesthetics, in the form of the unpleasant) elicit a real response from the bodies in the room as they encounter the body itself in its most basic parts.
In this dystopian world, there seems to be no real resistance, no real outside to this containment in which hysteria as tactic is coopted by the powers that be and performance absorbs protest, but if anything does remain outside the official purview, it resides in the body, where, regardless of whether the cause is manufactured, the experience is real and the surplus of affect exceeds state control. The final chapter is a study in Bahktin's grotesque as Toby watches Ten dissolve, undone by the virus. The state has overturned the people's tactic (real or imagined) of bodily revenge and used their bodies against themselves. In doing so, it lowers itself to the level of the body, acknowledging, however, tacitly, that the body is the locus of contested power. Nadine Gordimer's 1979 novel Burger's Daughter gives us this theory as fiction. From its opening epigram, "I am the place," the novel grounds the South African struggle in real, individual bodies, starting with the schoolgirl Rosa Burger as she waits to visit her mother in prison:
But outside the prison the internal landscape of my mysterious body turns me inside out, so that in that public place on that public occasion (all the arrests of the dawn swoop have been in the newspapers, a special edition is on sale, with names of those known to be detained, including that of my mother) I am within that monthly crisis of destruction, the purging, tearing, draining of my own structure. I am my womb, and a year I ago I wasn't aware--physically--I had one. (16-17)
At the end of the novel, Gordimer allows Rosa to reclaim the private body from the public realm when she returns to South Africa from a self-imposed exile to work as a physical therapist.
Aihwa Ong's factory workers also orient us to the urgency of paying attention to the body. Ong explains how spirit imagery makes sense of workers' fears and protests over social conditions in the Malaysian factories she studies. When entry into the rationalized Western factory disrupts "customs regarding bodily comportment and spatial movements" (31), the women behave in ways deemed unacceptable by the authorities. Broken taboos to do with the boundaries between dirty and clean (9) show up in filthy toilets, abandoned menstrual pads, and other bodily residue, disrupting what Jacques Ranciere calls "the fantasy of the glorious body of the community" (85). In the eyes of authority, the factory workers' bodies are revolting, in part because they are disgusting and in part because they are resisting, undisciplined, and disorderly. (10) Similar notes of physical transgression are struck in the South African journalistic accounts: "Terrified Greytown Secondary School pupils who were interviewed this week said the incident had caused mass hysteria, and rumours of other pupils seeing apparitions in a toilet were doing the rounds" (Singh). Not coincidentally, these are mostly female bodies--Rosa's, the women workers', the schoolgirls'--breaking with expectations that they will do the work of reinforcing and reproducing social boundaries (as well as hard, physical labor) and being disruptive instead of docile.
Pointing to the body as the place that matters runs certain theoretical risks, of course: of romanticizing it as the place of the real, or of asking it to do too much work of another kind. Theory's desire to ventriloquize the body can be heard even in the most well-meaning places because the body (especially the female body) has use-value for theory. Here, for instance, is Zillah Eisenstein on post-9/11 feminisms: "The true subversive of women's rights discourse is that it speaks from the female body.... The female body desires freedom from war, rape, unwanted pregnancy. It desires control over the self" (176). Not only does Eisenstein make the female body a typical site of desire, but it is made to speak intelligibly in a way that actual bodies (especially hysterical ones) have always frustrated.
The body's own ability to fake saves us from these theoretical pitfalls. Beukes' attention to artifice in Moxyland--the innervated art object, the staged attack, government-sponsored panics, even the novel itself--corresponds exactly to a long history of hysteria being associated with fakery. A number of case studies of hysterical epidemics suggest that they are staged or faked in some way, and it is often a working assumption in the South African cases as well: "pupils were not necessarily faking" (Nair). Conventional wisdom has it that, while a tiny fraction of subjects may enter trance states, the vast majority are playacting in a type of "ritualized rebellion" (11) for political or personal gain. This accusation dates back to the beginnings of hysteria as a field of inquiry. The need to maintain authority and paranoia about trickery can be traced to a question of agency. On the one hand, we have to pay attention to occasions of mass hysteria as possible actual psychological or somatic complaints; that is, to accept them as real. On the other hand, the accusations of artifice that plague the history of hysteria might actually be liberating--if the hysteric is often faking it, then mass hysteria might be taken as a more intentional challenge to authority. (12) For instance, in one episode of mass hysteria, not only did hysterical students blame the headmaster in their visions, but "pupils beat up another preacher who had come to pray at the schools, in the guise that they were possessed" (Mabuza). If hysteria is merely a guise, then the pupils are being truly willful: they are not just acting but acting out, deliberately and obstinately. This is then, in addition to being the rebellious act that hysterics have long been accused of, a conscious act of solidarity. If mass hysteria is unwilled, as some science seems to suggest, (13) then it becomes a purely physical solidarity, not a mindful one. Perhaps neither of these poles is wholly true, and solidarity always includes an affective, visceral component that cannot be reduced to mere strategy or vice versa. Regardless of its conscious or unconscious application, mass hysteria commands the attention and consternation of the authorities--whether they are factory floor managers, school principals, parents, physicians, or the state. It expresses an agency--either a conscious, constructed one, or, equally dangerously, an unconscious, uncontrollable one--that needs to be contained.
Although everything in Moxyland appears to be enfolded by its various artifices, with nothing outside the controls of the system, there are a number of compositional moments in the novel that fall into the interstices of the main events and yet like all marginal material, enable and constitute them. One of these is set in a refugee hostel:
Temporary residential is a hideous joke of course. The two girls she shares a room with have been there for three and half years, and still no word on when their assigned RDP (14) housing is going to come through. It's another perfect example of the system's egregious failings. There's a backlog of 1,190,000 or something, and that's just counting the legal applicants, not the African refugees or the rurals coming in under the radar, the ones who can't afford to wait around for the proper health clearances. (144-5)
Nothing about this passage is very far removed from the reality of South Africa today: here we see the superfluity of the nation (or of the corporate-nation) that generates the authority's own hysteria about bodies exceeding boundaries that once was figured as race and that now figures in life and fiction as an anxiety about contagion. In March 2012, South African authorities had to apologize for deporting Nigerians suspected of holding faked yellow fever certificates, an episode that neatly brings together the fear of a refugee influx with the fear of contagious disease. The plentiful scholarship on mass hysteria habitually uses the language of epidemics and outbreaks, emphasizing the way mass hysteria (also known as epidemic hysteria and mass psychogenic illness) mimics viral contagions or other infectious or transmissible diseases. For instance, a study in The International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation on student hysteria in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 2002 defines mass hysteria as "an outbreak of abnormal illness behaviour that cannot be explained by physical disease" and makes a number of references to "hysterical contagion" (Rataemane et al). And the South African Medical Journal talks about the "outbreak of the epidemic" in reference to a 1999 Umtata high school incident (Mkize and Ndabeni). Generally considered a diagnosis of exclusion, physical etiologies must be ruled out in order for mass hysteria to be ruled in, with an "outbreak response team" called in in at least one South African case (Skade). In the context of South Africa's concurrent crises of HIV/AIDs, poor sanitation for the majority of households, and a culture of violence, the metaphor of the epidemic makes sense, and mass hysteria as an extension or expression of those crises does as well.
Mass hysteria, with its etiology of contagion, parallels fears of physical contamination and works in the same way to veil the real cause for anxiety, whether it be xenophobia in the yellow fever scandal or deep dispossession for the schoolgirls described by the media: "They scream and then the other girls scream because it goes to the other girl. They are scared if they speak of it that it is going to be worse," a pastor is quoted as saying (Comins), and a parent in another article worries, "'It starts with just one person and in no time the other students will be doing the same thing'" (Mbuyazi).
A shift of emphasis, however, allows us to think about mass hysteria not (or not only) as a spreading infection but as a kind of epidemiological power sharing. In this potentially more empowering version, the body itself acts as a vector for an agency that remains at the most local level. Since whatever agency exists in the disorderly acting together of unruly bodies can only be momentary and inchoate, there's little risk of romanticizing resistance when it takes this form. In that moment, however, the solidity of the body, multiplied and synchronized by acting in consort, does produce a kind of solidarity. A recent New York Times article about a widely publicized mass hysterical event in upstate New York tells us that, since the girls there were cheerleaders, "it might also be that their enviable unity is what makes them more susceptible" (Dominus). In that case, in addition to mass hysteria producing solidarity, hysteria might be read as a sign of a solidarity that already exists, even if it is more sensed than known.
As it turns out, there might be a scientific basis for understanding mass hysteria as collaborative, volitional or not. The New York Times article explains:
In the last decade, scientists have begun to explore the concept that regions in our brain once thought to activate only our own activity or sensations are also firing what are known as mirror neurons when we witness someone else perform an action or feel a sensation. Mass psychogenic illness could be thought of as the maladaptive version of the kind of empathy that finds expression in actual physical sensation: the contagious yawn or sympathetic nausea or the sibling who grabs his own finger when he sees his brother's bleed. (Dominus)
In the urge to explain the seemingly inexplicable (the "mysterious mechanism" of mass psychogenic illness (Dominus)) underlying neurological structures lend at least partial explanatory value, so that physical connections of dendrites and synapses explain social connections. This does what has always been done to the hysterical act, from Charcot on: it rationalizes and pathologizes it, makes it legible, and certainly vaporizes any political design. If, instead, we take the medical discovery and make it work for the political, this maladaptive empathy, an apparent perversion of the sympathetic imagination, becomes an anatomized solidarity and mass hysteria can be conceived of as a postcolonial political move where politics are located at the most local possible level--in the body itself.
It is as dangerous a practice to look for the real in the margins as it is to look for the real in the body (EM Forster's Margaret Schlegel already knows this. Concerned about her sister Helen in Howards End, she muses: "There's an odd notion, that I haven't yet got hold of, running about at the back of her brain, that poverty is somehow 'real'" (154)), but in Moxyland Beukes encourages us to do so:
You just need to go a couple of blocks in to find the real deal, the tin shacks and the old miners' hostels and the converted containers now that the shipping industry has died together with the economy. All the same shit they've been promising to fix since the 1955 Freedom Charter or whatever it was. And despite the border patrols, the sprawl just keeps on spreading. You can't keep all of the Rurals out all of the time. (50)
The sprawl beyond the border patrols is also beyond the scope of the novel for the most part. It represents that which cannot be contained, possibly not even by the self-policing system of infection and inoculation. If the authorities are to be believed (but why would we believe them? "[I]f they're so casual about inducing widespread panic, lying to us like this, then what else have they been lying about?" (291)), the M7N1 virus is not fatal. The mass hysteria triggered by the attack clearly functions as a premise for social control: If you present yourself to a vaccination center within the allotted time, you will be treated and presumably recover, but you will also be documented, accounted for, quarantined, or simply killed off when Ten's bomb comes through the vaccine center's front door. Beyond the overt violence of panic, disease, and explosions, lie hostels, refugee camps, and borders--yet more anxiously reproducing techniques of containment that must ultimately fail in the face of a massive influx of refugees and migrant laborers, and awfully like the real strategies used by the South African state today. About halfway through the novel a Malawian refugee named Emmie simply disappears, escaping the system's desired closure (and the narrative, to the extent that it replicates state desires). And although Kendra is killed, Toby walks away infected by her with a new immunity and the potential to infect others. It seems possible that contagion might be the cure. In taking this very particularly raced, gendered, and unstable malady for itself, the state creates the very conditions for hysteria to exceed its control.
Also out of control is the potential for capitalist reproduction. With infection by the nano comes branding. The Ghost brand and its spectacular, glowing logo will live on, Ghosting others as they come into contact with it. In their work, Jean and John Comaroff shrewdly pick up on the language of haunting that swirls around South African capital and labor. They report fears of a "zombie work force," of "ghost workers," and of the "rise of a phantom proletariat" (289-90) in communities marked by dire inequality, fierce economic competition, and deep disappointment in a post-apartheid dispensation. The Ghost brand, a product that sells itself and creates its own, addicted, endlessly consuming customers, represents the work of "spectral capital," the "otherwise inexplicable accumulation" of value (Comaroff 290). Anyone Ghosted by the Ghost brand will become a ghost worker himself as he unknowingly does the work of production and consumption, or as his body does this work in ways beyond his control, just as zombie workers serve "unwittingly in the nocturnal economy to feed the greed of a malign master" (Comaroff 289). This is not a purely post-apartheid fear, though. In Athol Fugard's 1972 play Sizwe Bansi is Dead, the characters worry that apartheid's logic of surplus, interchangeable labor has made them into ghosts:
When the white man looked at you in the Labor Bureau what did he see? A man with dignity or a bloody passbook with an N.I. number? Isn't that a ghost? When the white man sees you walk down the street and calls out, 'Hey, John! Come here' ... to you, Sizwe Bansi ... isn't that a ghost? Or when his little child calls you 'Boy' ... you a man, circumcised with a wife and four children ... isn't that a ghost? Stop fooling yourself. All I'm saying is be a real ghost, if that is what they want, what they've turned us into. Spook them into hell, man! (38)
Moxyland, with its uncanny doubling of apartheid racial strategies as economic ones, seems haunted by the return of apartheid's repressed.
Back in the hostel in Moxyland, "[a] woman in a communal kitchen looks up startled from the Daily Voice with its screaming headline 'DYING FOR A CURE? MUTI MURDERS MULTIPLY' " (145). This is sci-fi as occult narrative experiment, only one disconcerting detail away from reality, since mud or medicine murders, sales of body parts, witch burnings, and other occult events are demonstrably on the rise in post-apartheid South Africa. (15) For the Comaroffs, they are "symptoms of an occult economy waxing behind the civil surfaces of the 'new' South Africa" (283). They ascribe this trend to "the dawning sense of chill desperation attendant on being left out of the promise of prosperity" (284) and highlight the roles youth, generation, and gender play in it. Mass hysteria clearly falls into this pattern of "new magic for new situations" (284), not least because the local press coverage regularly and sincerely connects mass hysterical events to demons, Satanism, evil spirits, and attendant exorcisms:
Demons have literally taken over Mdzimba High school near Dlangeni since Monday, where pupils are running amok and seeing visions mostly related to one of the teachers at the school. As a result, a mass demon exorcism exercise has been carried out at the school since then, by pastors from the Manzini based
Church of God, to no avail. The children run away from invisible apparitions, which at times direct them to a nearby pool, where they claim to see a register with the names of pupils targeted by the demons. At times, they claim to be instructed to drink water from the school tap, saying the instructions were coming from the school's principal, Sgwili Dlamini. They writhe around as if in agony while screaming loudly and if not restrained, they dash full speed to the pond where they return to inform others whose names they claim they saw at the pond. (Mabuza)
But, where for Ong possession is part of a "'complex negotiation of reality'" (Crapanzano qtd in Ong 28) and for the Comaroffs witch hunts and ritual murders "distill complex material and social processes into comprehensible human motives" (286) and "are instruments of social divination, dramatic discourses of discovery in the public sphere, whose unspoken object it is to yield explanations, to impress clarity on bodies and persons" (293), mass hysteria, with its unknowable causes and seemingly random resolutions, resists rationality. Although mass hysteria can be seen, like other occult practices such as witch burning, as a form of exclusionary solidarity, (16) marking boundaries and communities in the face of confusion, contradiction, and threat, the inexplicable, unknowable quality of hysterical events makes them messy, unruly, uncertain in a way that other occult happenings are not. Part of the Comaroffs' project is to redeem the occult as a rational, modern response to the irrationality of a postmodern and postcolonial millennial economy, to show how it is not a retreat into irrational tradition. Hysteria, on the other hand, is post-rational. Neither the fictions nor the reports of hysteria make sense of these "not-quite-human transactions in the corporeal" (Comaroff 282). This is not a question of making sense of a phenomenon but of an encounter with the non-sensical, the inexplicable, especially as it exposes the nonsense of the system or refuses to engage with it at all. In the throes of hysteria, its subjects are not only pitted against the status quo but removed from it by apparitions, visions, and hallucinations that counter the immediacy of vomiting, cramps, and convulsions. Thus, even though mass hysteria appears deeply embedded in the body (both as experience and as structure), we need to understand it as simultaneously supremely alienating from the normal experience of embodiment and from norms in general. As something that seems always uncategorizable, mass hysteria is in excess of medical/ state/ corporate discourses, which are often indistinguishable from each other. When Education Department spokesperson Thusi says, "'Usually when such situations arise, the school would engage with parents and the school governing body, the community and other relevant stakeholders to seek a solution" (Comins), her corporate-speak reflects capitalism's desire to corner all markets. Mass hysteria is also in excess of the discourses of enchantment and possession that have become so recently popular since even they have clear, explanatory logics. (17) Instead, then, of clarifying, hysteria shows us a collective indeterminacy, and the possibility of rallying around the unknowable. It shows us solidarity as a display of sheer alterity.
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(1) Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by The Professional Staff Congress and The City University of New York. Thank you also to the "Person and Politics in South Africa" panel and audience at the 21st Annual British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies Conference in Savannah, GA, Feb. 2012, and to the members of the 2011-12 Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center, particularly Anthony Alessandrini, for their helpful comments.
(2) To call this mass hysteria is to slot into a lineage of medical/ scientific discourse that gestures back to Charcot and Freud. I use the term here because the news reports of the incidents do. capitalizing on the high emotion of the term and thereby perpetuating the panic. The social construction of mass hysteria is quite different from that of so-called "culture-bound" syndromes such as amafufunyana (Xhosa for possession by evil spirits) and ukuthwasa (Xhosa for madness) (Niehaus). On the one hand, to read the phenomenon as culturally specific attaches it to tradition as a way of embodying the local and the customary. On the other hand, reading it generically as mass hysteria, as dismissive as the phrase is, suggests a more global experience.
(3) An exhaustive literature review is not possible here, but we can look to Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987), Megan Vaughan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), and Sander Gilman et al. Hysteria Beyond Freud (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993) for critical histories of hysteria.
(4) Manifested not only by the abstract "production and overcoding of fear and fantasies, faked objects and images" but by actual hysterias in the form of "'periodic waves of collective sexual hysteria'" (van Onselen qtd Mbembe 45).
(5) JM Coetzee's Disgrace (New York: Penguin, 2000) epitomizes this phase.
(6) From Latin enervare to remove the nerves from, from nervus nerve, sinew.
(7) "A Culture of Tourism: Branding the Nation in a Global Market." Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. 8:1. January 2007. 109-115 and "A Travel Paradise: Tourism Narratives from Robben Island." Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. 10.4, October 2009. 449-458.
(8) The Marburg virus, which causes viral hemorrhagic fever, has an actual history of weaponization. According to Biohazard, the chilling true story of the largest covert biological weapons program in the world, told from the inside by the man who ran it (Dell, 1999), Russian scientists in the former Soviet Union incorporated it into their biological arsenal.
(9) See, of course, Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin, 1966.
(10) This particular combination of hysteria upending rules of posture, comportment, and propriety in the multinational corporate setting suggests a kind of Victorian postcoloniality.
(11) A concept first proposed by Max Gluckman in 1952, but taken up by others such as Aihwa Ong.
(12) In "A very modern ghost," Cheryl McEwan gives us a ghost story in which "mischief and assertion of agency" on the part of a South African domestic worker add up to a symbolic reworking of space (30).
(13) Regarding the question of what is volitional, the difference between voluntary and involuntary is not easy to distinguish: "Conversion disorder presents something of a paradox in that it engages some voluntary pathways in the brain but is experienced by the patient as wholly involuntary.... The very notion of what makes a movement feel voluntary-and whether movements actually are voluntary, or only feel that way as a result of some post hoc coordinating that happens in the brain-is another philosophical and neurological question" (Dominus 33).
(14) RDP = Reconstruction and Development Programme--an actual post-apartheid ANC-led government effort to redress the vast inequities in housing and social services.
(15) See Helen Kapstein, "A Town Called Nobody: Violence, Nationalism, and Witch-burning." Alternative Modernities in African Literatures and Cultures. Spec, issue of Journal of Literary Studies, 18.1/2, June 2002. 85-110.
(16) Stuart Hall's Resistance through Rituals gives us 1980s Britain as a comparison: "The sense of being 'in the middle' of this variety of oppressive and exploitative forces produces a need for group solidarity, which though essentially defensive, in the Skinheads was coupled with an aggressive content, the expression of frustration and discontent through the attacking of scapegoated outsiders" (Clarke 100).
(17) Cf. McEwan for a handy overview of the recent theoretical movement from a disenchanted modernity to an optimistic politics of re-enchantment.
John Jay College, The City University of New York
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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