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Richard Keller
"Colonial Madness and the Poetics of Suffering: Structural Violence and Kateb Yacine"

Social scientists and humanists have exhaustively explored the production of biopolitical knowledge and its implications. Yet fewer have examined medicine as an explicit source of suffering. This essay explores iatrogenic forms of suffering by examining the complicity of medicine in the structural violence of the colonial situation. The intention is to explore the ways in which the medical and psychiatric clinic often operated as a literal theater for colonial conflict. For Algerian author Kateb Yacine, as for Frantz Fanon, madness in particular is the paradigmatic sickness of colonialism, while psychiatry operates as a biopolitical machine for the regulation of colonial order. Kateb’s poetry, his dramatic works, and his enigmatic novel Nedjma provide crucial sources for the exploring the clinic as a space of colonial oppression, and literature as a site of resistance against both imperialism and the sickness it generates.

I read these texts through the eyes of a social historian of medicine with an interest in how Kateb’s drama and fiction render the experience of colonial violence and suffering in a medicalized language. The intention is two-fold: to demonstrate the uses of literature for historians of medicine, and to explore the possibilities of applying methodologies borrowed from the social history of medicine and medical anthropology to literary works with the goal of shedding new light on the political dynamics of sickness and healing. By reading Kateb’s work alongside critical documents in the history of colonial madness and psychiatry—including Fanon’s contemporary articulation of violence and pathology in Algeria—the essay points to the multiple axes of oppression that shape suffering and preclude “healing” under colonialism. The essay also draws on recent anthropological work on suffering and structural violence to explore Kateb’s uses of medical language for the reinscription of social experience.

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Last updated 4/6/05 by Selene Platt