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This book claims that around the turn of the century a shift occurred in certain keywords that had been used to identify the Imperial nations of Europe as a group. Our current usage of “the West,” GoGwilt says, emerged at this time as a “shift from the dominant nineteenth-century European discourses of Orientalism to the twentieth-century idea of the West,” a “shift from a European to a Western identity.” GoGwilt traces this shift from Conrad’s earlier novels of empire, set primarily in Africa and southeast Asia, through the later novels, set primarily in Europe. In the earlier works, the image of “the West” emerges as “a crisis of colonial discourses,” a crisis that GoGwilt, following Homi Bhabha, finds built into the discursive identity of the colonial powers. In short, GoGwilt reads the invention of “the West” as the outcome of the self-deconstruction of the previous notion of imperial Europe.
Because he reads deconstructively, GoGwilt is careful to show how Conrad’s writings are not simply pro-empire or anti-empire but undecidably in-between, both affirming and denying the self-representation of Europe and of “the West.” For instance, of the early story “Karain: A Memory,” which features a Malay hero in one of Conrad’s standard frame-tales, the “tale’s framework demands an answer to the question whether the outer narrative. . . uses Karain’s experience to fit an imperial idea, or whether the inner tale subverts that narrative frame, exposing an imperialistic plot.” But in fact “Karain” matters [End Page 890] “because the story works to ensure the undecidability of this question.” Conrad’s colonial stories reveal the self-identity of imperial Europe as similarly undecidable, split from within by its own constitutive ambivalences. This revelation produces, in a “reaction-formation,” a new identity: “the West.” Invoking the ideas of Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, GoGwilt claims that, although “the West” is a new invention of geopolitical identity, it presents itself as “more historically rooted than the idea of Europe it replaces.” In fact, though, no matter how it conceives of itself, “the West” is a “political construct masquerading as cultural, historical, and political reality.”
Conrad’s turn from colonial/exotic to European/revolutionary tales, GoGwilt claims, links to the turn from the historical relationship in which the West equals Europe/Empire while the East equals the Asian/African colonies, to a relationship in which the West equals western Europe while the East equals Russia. All this GoGwilt discusses in terms of “the so-called Slavophile-Westerner debate”: the western European debate about the connection between the Slavic character and nihilism and the opposite debate in Russia about the nature and value of European culture and thought for Russia. Taking care not to favor either side of the orientalist relationship, GoGwilt finds that Russian debates about Europe determined the new idea of “the West” as much as western Europe’s influence determined the nature of Russia. Once again, though, representational fractures crack the cultural self-constitution. The west-European response to Russian-style revolutionary politics involves the invention of “an idea of ‘the West’ that appears to be greater than Europe, geographically and in political strength, yet at the same time represents only part of Europe, its ‘Western’ part.”
GoGwilt’s premise sounds like a ripe one, but it does not really bear fruit. The project reads as an attempt to apply Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial theories to actual literary texts, but an initial problem is that readers unfamiliar with Bhabha’s concepts will simply not understand what GoGwilt means by key words in his introductory chapter: “mimicry,” “doubling,” “reduplication,” and “ambivalence” are all dropped in as if their intended usage is common knowledge. But Bhabha has defined these words in particular ways in his own none-too-accessible writings, and a writer who wants to engage more than a very limited audience ought to explain how such terms are being used in the immediate context. [End Page 891]
Another more serious problem: too many...