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  • Anarchy in the Flesh:Conrad's "Counterrevolutionary" Modernism and the Witz of the Political Unconscious

I don't think I've been satirising the revolutionary world.

—Conrad, on The Secret Agent(Jean-Aubry 2:60)

I want to approach the question of "The Politics of Modernism" by way of a more general question about politics and literature: is it possible that the politics of the literary text is a joke? Or, to put it differently, that the jokes of the literary text are its politics? The question arises if we accept, at least in their general contours, two well-known arguments: Fredric Jameson's argument that "the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts" requires the assertion and analysis of a "political unconscious" at work in those artifacts (Political 21); and Freud's argument not so much for a particular psychoanalytic theory of Witz as for the centrality of Witz to psychoanalytic theory in general—his insistence on the "wit of all unconscious processes" (Weber 84).1 Together these formulations seem to suggest that, read on the level of the political, that is, as a "socially symbolic act," the literary text is encountered as a series of jokes. Just as important, they imply that the politics of the text has to be understood in terms of the "joke-work" it performs or enables—the redistribution of energies it effects through processes of "condensation, displacement, indirect representation, and so on" (Freud 95)—and not in terms of a stable and altogether "serious" partisanship. [End Page 615]

These are clearly not the usual assumptions that inform discussions of literary politics or literary humor, much less articulations of the one with the other. Where the politics of jokes becomes an issue in literary criticism it is generally handled as a question of translation. A more or less straightforward piece of polemic, of hostile partisan critique, is thought to have been translated (consciously or unconsciously) into the comic mode, where it has become more palatable and, often, rather less straightforward. Without much difficulty, although always acknowledging that something essential is "lost" in the process, the critic retranslates the joke back into the (non-comic, witless) language of politics—where it is, as expected, a good deal less interesting. This is perhaps too gross a caricature of current practice. But one is hard pressed to cite instances where Witz is conceived as essentially political (rather than as an alternative discursive practice into which political agendas may be drawn) and the political as essentially witty.2

Again, these observations are not restricted to the politics of modernism. But they can, I believe, help to orient us more perceptively toward the politics of modernist texts, particularly as regards that line of "great political novels" which Jameson has called modernism's most "powerful counterrevolutionary tracts" (Political 268): the line that extends from Dostoevsky and Conrad through Wyndham Lewis to George Orwell. I will focus here on just one of these texts, The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad's reactionary satire of the late-Victorian anarchist movement in London. Of course to describe the novel in these terms is already to beg the question of Witz and the political unconscious. Whatever the hyperformalists of genre studies might claim in the way of distinctions between the satiric and the comic, when we apply the label satire we perforce implicate a text in the processes of joke-work. But how compatible are such processes with the idea of a "reactionary" novel, of a novel firmly set against "the late-Victorian anarchist movement," of a novel that can properly be read as a "counterrevolutionary tract"? We can address The Secret Agent in these unequivocal terms only as an initiating and provisional move, as a way of opening the question of the comic object. We cannot hope to close that question, to make a final determination regarding the novel's "politics" based on the identification of its comic object with a particular social group or institution. For it is precisely the witty and inventive means of avoiding such an identification that constitutes the novel's politics, its characteristically modernist engagement with the contradictions of a late-imperial social order...

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