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Reviewed by
Stephen Ross. Conrad and Empire. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2004. xi + 208 pp.

Stephen Ross's Conrad and Empire is a fine new contribution to the field of Joseph Conrad studies. As the title suggests, Ross brings the analysis of capitalist globalization in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire to bear on four of Conrad's major novels: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent. Unlike most recent writing in the field, Ross sets aside issues of race and colonialism in order to examine Conrad's concern with capitalist modernity and its effects on the outer and especially inner lives of his characters. The conceptual framework of Conrad and Empire is drawn from three major concepts described by Hardt and Negri: "the distinction between imperialism and Empire, the historical transition from regimes of discipline to regimes of control, and deterritorialization" (Ross, 9). Hardt and Negri's work is supplemented by Slavoj Zizek's (Lacan-derived) theories of the ideological construction of subjectivities, which enables Ross to undertake a detailed analysis of the psychobiographies of some of Conrad's major characters—Jim, Kurtz, Nostromo, Winnie Verloc and the Professor. This in turn allows him to shed some new light on one of the oldest subjects of Conrad criticism: the intimate relationship between world-historical events and individual psychology.

Some readers will undoubtedly find Conrad and Empire's explicit departure from the preoccupation with racism and nation-state imperialism that has dominated Conrad criticism since the publication of Chinua Achebe's polemical essay "An Image of Africa" in 1977 a timely one. As the introduction explains, this post-postcolonial study reads Conrad's alleged "failure to be sufficiently critical of imperialism" as "less a symptom of his complicity with imperialism than a consequence of his grander, more oblique, and less articulate concern with what we might now call incipient globalization" (5–6). Ross aligns himself with Christopher GoGwilt (The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire) and [End Page 745] especially Chris Bongie (Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism and the Fin de Siecle), both of whom prioritize Conrad's emphasis on economic and cultural globalization in the colonial fictions. In fact, Ross's conclusion is deeply indebted to Bongie's earlier discussion of Conrad's commitment to "weak thought," which for both critics differentiates Conrad's politics from the absolute nihilism others have seen in his work.

Ross's decision to apply the concept of "Empire" to Conrad's work may appear to be somewhat anachronistic, since for Hardt and Negri the denationalized "flows" of people, products, and services to which it refers are primarily a feature of the latter half of the twentieth century, a product of decolonization that was intensified with the fall of the Soviet Union. In order to reconcile this contradiction, Ross emphasizes the emergent or incipient nature of the structures Conrad observes, and stresses the difference between "the imperialist world in which Conrad wrote and the incipiently Imperial world about which he wrote" (9). As the earlier studies by GoGwilt and Bongie anticipate, the problem of anachronism is mitigated when Ross begins to read specific texts in the four chapters: Conrad and Empire marshals plenty of textual evidence to demonstrate that in the novels (if not in the world), the older structures of nation-state imperialism were already being outpaced by multinational ventures. Ross's central thesis that the major novels offer "a sweepingly deterritorialized view of history and politics" (184) convincingly lays to rest earlier critics' concern with the issue of whether Conrad is less critical of Britain's imperial pursuits than of other nations'.

The four chapters are illuminating, and effectively draw to light the intimate operations of ideology in Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent. Considering the wealth of criticism these novels have generated over the years, Ross deserves a great deal of credit for managing to say something not only new, but also accurate and interesting, about each. The chapters are organized according to three heuristics, which serve to span the distance between Hardt and Negri's political and sociological approach and narrative...


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