restricted access Implication or Application? Theory in Recent Approaches to Conrad
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 713-726

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Review Essay

Implication or Application?
Theory in Recent Approaches to Conrad

Stephen Ross

Daniel R. Schwarz. Rereading Conrad. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 2001. ix + 194 pp.
John G. Peters. Conrad and Impressionism. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. xiii + 206 pp.
Andrew Michael Roberts. Conrad and Masculinity. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. xi + 250 pp.

In "On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches," Shoshana Felman points out that one of Jacques Lacan's major contributions to the practice of literary criticism comes from his emphasis on the implication of theory and literature, rather than the application of the former to the latter:

since psychoanalytic theory and the literary text mutually inform—and displace—each other; since the very position of the interpreter—of the analyst—turns out to be not outside, but inside the text, there is no longer a clear-cut opposition or a well-defined border between literature and psychoanalysis: [End Page 713] psychoanalysis could be intraliterary just as much as literature is intrapsychoanalytic. The methodological stake is no longer that of the application of psychoanalysis to literature, but rather, of their interimplication in each other. (152-53)

Felman's point here is restricted to the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis, but her contention about their interimplication also holds true for the larger set of relations between literature and theory in general. Indeed, the last thirty or so years have seen the virtual extinction of the notion that one can read without at least implying a theoretical perspective regarding the relative roles of the author/scriptor, the reader, the text, psychology, cultural milieux, gender, race, class, and geopolitics. The result has been an importantly-expanded understanding of the complexity of reading and writing, an understanding that has generated a whole new world of commentary and criticism ranging from the wonderfully-nuanced and sophisticated to the reductively partisan. Perhaps no writer has elicited a wider - and more controversial - range of these interpretations than Joseph Conrad, as evidenced by the three new books under consideration here: Daniel R. Schwarz's partisan Rereading Conrad, John G. Peters's scholarly Conrad and Impressionism, and Andrew Michael Roberts's sophisticated Conrad and Masculinity.

Rereading Conrad is the most programmatic of the three in its application (rather than implication) of theory to Conrad's work, collecting essays written by Schwarz between 1985 and 1997, with only the introduction for new material. Its declared aim is to "take account of recent developments in theory and cultural studies, including postcolonial, feminist, gay, and ecological perspectives, and show how reading Conrad has changed in the face of the theoretical explosion over the past two decades" (3). This sounds like a laudable and potentially very useful project, but Schwarz's real objective comes to light when he characterizes himself as

someone who, with a small band of other surviving humanists, has created a little island outpost where we pursued our interests, and perhaps has been grudgingly given a place in the General Assembly—certainly not the Security Council—of theory. While welcoming the destabilizing insights of much [End Page 714] recent theory—including the idea that language does not signify absolutely and texts are historically and culturally produced—I am willing to be identified with such quaint ideas as humanism, pluralism, and canonicity, and to use such terms as ethics and even author. I am for a pluralism of readings, a pluralism of texts, and a pluralism of cultures. Because I assume human agency in writing and reading and believe that there is a space for a non-Marxist version of cultural studies, I am on occasion invited to play the role of Academic Dissenter (for some, read: dinosaur) in journals and at conferences. (40-41)

The false modesty of this passage begins to reveal Schwarz's real investments in this book, and we need only read a little farther to discover an overt statement of his "credo":

I believe that the close reading of texts—both from an authorial...