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Book Review


Keller, Richard C. Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 294 pp, $25.00.

     In Colonial Madness, Richard Keller uses the study of France's approach to psychiatry in northern Africa as a springboard to look at its interwar colonial policies in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.  The application of mise en valeur (the French ideal of adding value to the decadent space of the colonies) and the balancing act between its application to economic concerns and the moral "civilizing mission" shaped France's colonial rule in North Africa.  The progressives "sought to "civilize" colonial space and colonized peoples according to the ideals of republican virtue." (5) These ideologies were used to justify the "psychiatric experiment" that was carried out in French North Africa. Covering primarily the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the author shows how attitudes that were developed and proliferated in this period are still affecting policy in France.  

     Keller is an Assistant Professor of medical history and the history of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his expertise in these areas is evident in his work.  One of the aspects of this text that stands out is the considerable archival research done by the author.  He does an excellent job of conveying the disparity between the metropole and the colonies, and demonstrates that the colonies offered a "pure" space to practice the renewal and rejuvenation of French psychiatry . 

     Keller investigates the imagined sphere of the Muslim colonies as a place of "primitive" behavior. The concept that, for the French, the Mediterranean was the dividing line between the "civilized" and the "barbaric" is a strong theme of the text.  In much the same manner as Tony Ballantyne's editorial compilation Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific: The Pacific World, Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900, Volume 6 discussed the view of colonial space in the Pacific as a pristine laboratory, so the French saw their colonial holdings in North Africa when it came to dealing with "madness."  Using medical history and social policy as tools, Keller provides a basis for current day concerns about immigration and racism in France.

     In the introduction and the first chapter of the book, Keller gives a quick overview of the development of French psychiatric practices. He describes not only general developments, but also the antagonisms that accompanied suggestions of reform.  The most prominent element that one takes from this overview is the distinct racist ideology that accompanied the French doctors.  Henry Bouquet did an analysis of lunacy in Tunisia and observed that this was a perfect place to do psychiatric experimentation because it was a "racial crossroad" and that "each race had its own defects, predispositions, and reactions." (27)  Even though Europeans settlers were treated in the colonial institutions, the treatment was different based on race.  For instance, in Bilda asylum (the Algerian equivalent to Bedlam) there were specific spaces for patients based on race.

     The institution at Bilda was built with the most modern of ideas in French psychiatry.  It had gardens and provided a new approach which allowed for outpatient care for those with mild 'lunacy.'  The use of new treatments is discussed in chapter three and provides considerable insight into the disparity between treatments based on race.  The European patients received "softer" treatment while the native populations were subjected to the "harder" approaches. Although colonial authorities saw these spaces as "blank slates" for experimentation, the native populations did not.  As Keller points out, "the colonial Maghreb was surely anything but a blank slate.  Local knowledge about suffering and healing proved resilient when faced with a modernizing psychiatry imposed from without." (87)  This conflict of ideas continued to plague the French as they attempted to fulfill their "civilizing mission" in North Africa.

     A discussion of "civilizing" the "primitives" is the subject of chapter four.  The author uses examples of the interpretations of behavior combined with severe racial stereotypes to point out the difficulty in arriving at useful clinical conclusions. The project of dealing with North African mental illness was perceived as "a matter of domination over not only indigenous madness, but also the personality and character of the North African Muslim" by the practitioners in North Africa. (123) Keller points to previous historical treatment of this subject as lacking proper placement within the political and medical context of the time period.  He also provides information on the use of the psychiatric knowledge gained through experimentation in colonial spaces to shape debates about immigration, law enforcement, and warfare.

     In the fifth chapter, Keller discusses the work of anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon.  His books, A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth, provide a poignant discussion of the failure of the French civilizing mission and the savagery of the colonial experience.  Fanon's work is placed alongside the narratives of Kateb Yacine, an Algerian who experienced the violence of the Algerian fight for independence. These two perspectives add a depth and humanity to the discussion of colonial conflict that cannot be achieved by a simple description of events.  Kateb writes heart wrenching poetry about the plight of those caught in the milieu.

     The Algiers School of French colonial psychiatry provides a provocative case study of the discordant nature of colonial logic.  The participants were "enlightened" men with utopian ambitions, they were progressive in their approaches to treating the mentally ill, yet at the same time they acted as a "violent entity driven by militant racism." (123) As discussed in chapter six, this legacy has carried over into postcolonial policies concerning immigration. Psychiatry still has a profound effect on French perceptions of North Africa and the people that live there.  Immigrants from Algeria to France find themselves embroiled in an alien culture that is unaccepting of their participation, and much of the rhetoric that shaped this ideology is situated firmly in the purview of colonial psychiatry.

     Keller's use of psychiatry in North Africa to point to larger considerations about science and its role in the civilizing mission is thought provoking and has broad historiographic implications. The text is readable and yet detailed enough to serve as an excellent research tool.  Complexity of issues and the necessity of a general knowledge of French colonial history make this book beyond a high school or lower division undergraduate text. It would be an excellent addition to any class on French colonialism or modern French history.  It is well worth the time to delve into this text and plow through the often tedious discussion of psychiatry.  The book contains not only treasure from a sheer information perspective, but an exciting framework for similar research in other areas of medical and psychiatric practice in a colonial setting.


Cherri Wemlinger
Washington State University


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