- Conrad and Empire
The Empire in the title of Stephen Ross's study of Conrad should properly be in quotation marks. It refers not to colonialism or even to neocolonialism but to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book Empire and to their idiosyncratic use of the word to refer to globalizing capitalism. Ross's is thus not a study of a particular theme in Conrad but rather an application of a particular critical theory to Conrad, as though a monograph calling itself Conrad and History followed Francis Fukuyama in assuming there was an end to history and showed how Conrad had already foreseen that end. Ross's publisher colludes in the misrepresentation by featuring on the cover a map of Africa, the continent most associated with Conrad but the least integrated into the skeins of global capitalism. There is good news, however: what Ross's study does best - a close reading of Conrad's four greatest novels - it does very well.
Ross actually applies three distinct heuristics to Conrad, which in his desire for totalization he assumes are all related. The first is Hardt and Negri's dream-vision of the modern world, which has almost no reference to particulars on the ground and, at the same time, almost no analytical power. This is not Foucault or Jameson, not even close. Fortunately, Ross makes little actual use of this world model and uses the term 'Empire ' merely as a shorthand to mean capitalist modernity, including secularism, instrumental reason, and science. Capitalist modernity (Empire) is distinguished from imperialism as usually understood by its indifference to the nation. In Heart of Darkness, for instance, Ross focuses on the anonymous 'Company,' which he takes as a metonym for global forces, rather [End Page 319] than on the equally anonymous imperial nation. He then foregrounds the devastating operations of the law (and not, as in a more common reading, the absence of the law).
The second heuristic Ross makes use of is Lacan. This, of course, is theory as powerful as any. Nevertheless it, too, has drawbacks, foremost among them its ahistorical nature. Again, Ross succeeds in redeeming what I would have thought to be an unpromising strategy because he does not use Conrad to prove Lacan but uses Lacanian vocabulary to describe what Conrad is doing. Ross reads Lacan as having more to say about the psyche under capitalism than about human psychology in general. The 'Law' that Ross believes the Company is bringing to Africa is the Lacanian Name of the Father that also prevents Kurtz's union with the Intended.
The third heuristic, to my mind the least promising of all, is Nietzsche's notions of slave morality and master morality. A tendentious binary where slave morality (which includes all suspension of desire, including religion and love) is always false and harmful, and master morality (identified as existential authenticity) is desirable but unattainable does lead to some critical misreadings and strange omissions, but I was pleased to find how much valuable insight Ross could nonetheless derive from these notions. Ross's application of the same heuristic to four texts clarifies, for instance, how much Kurtz, Jim, and Nostromo have in common. The closing of horizons performed by the application of these limited heuristics suggests a cynicism in Ross, but, if so, it proves a worthy complement to Conrad's own cynicism.
Ross believes that the ease with which he can apply his theoretical models to Conrad shows the novelist's prescience: he says Conrad was a 'proto-Lacanian' of 'uncanny accuracy.' One could make the opposite argument: that Conrad already contains the later theorists who would be used to interpret him because his theme is precisely the desire to see around the world and so escape one's place in it. Ross gives altogether too much credence to Vladimir and the Professor in The Secret Agent, characters who see the arbitrary and constructed nature of world but are deceived into thinking that their insight means they are superior to that world. Conrad's ironic conservatism allows him to return any critical...