An Excess of Babble: Slavery and the “Neurohistory” of 19th-Century Brazil

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:50 AM
Salon 1 (Palmer House Hilton)
Gregory Childs, Brandeis University
In November of 1798 a judge in the rural Bahian town of Maragogipe received a letter from the town’s Sergeant Major informing him of the consternation that was being caused in his neighborhood by an unnamed woman of color. She allegedly exhibited the behavior of a “possessed madwoman,” disturbing her neighbors and leaving other inhabitants of the city frightened by her babble. The sergeant recommended that she be placed in the city’s charitable house for the poor, but made no effort to explain or describe the sounds or words she uttered. In effect, the sergeant conceded his inability to decode the interiority of this black subject.

At the beginning of the 1800s, when slavery in the colony was expanding, little concern was given to understanding the mental states of non-white peoples. By the 1880s, however, considerable medical attention was focused on discerning the mental states of freed peoples of African descent. Engaging with a set of questions posed by the field of neurophilosophy, this paper traces a history of the relationship between slavery and psychosis in nineteenth-century Brazil, and how legal and medical efforts to lay bare the interiority of black peoples were critical to the professionalization of psychopathology. The paper will also interrogate whether neurophilosophy itself might offer a way to begin thinking about the interiority of enslaved peoples, or whether it may merely repeat the positivist attempt to “know” the interiority of blackness.