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  • Pathologies of the Imperial Metropolis:Impressionism as Traumatic Afterimage in Conrad and Ford
  • Christina Britzolakis (bio)

The cognitive and aesthetic mapping of urban modernity has always relied heavily on notions of shock. From the 1880s onwards, neurological discourses occupied a central place in accounts of the origins of modernity, as well as in the genealogy of the modernist artifact. They serve as shorthand for the far-reaching reorganization of spatio-temporal experience brought about by changes in transport, energy, urban planning, communication and media, the "taylorizing" of labor in the factory, and the mass slaughter of modern mechanized warfare. The history of shock as a discursive formation of modernity, culminating in Freud's famous analysis in 1920 of the mechanisms of traumatic neurosis, is intertwined with notions of modernization itself as pathogenic.1

In recent years, a number of modernist scholars have embraced neurological readings of modernity, particularly in relation to the impact of visual technologies. Modernism, with its impressionistic sampling of the moment, is seen as decisively shaped by the advent of the cinema.2 If mass urbanized existence was conceived, from the outset, in terms of a constant assault on the senses, the nascent cinematic technology of the 1890s, based on the sudden and incessant displacement of images, formalized this principle as the basis of its medium (Charney and Schwartz).Attention emerges as, in Jonathan Crary's words, a problem of perceptual synthesis produced by "a social, urban, psychic and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory impact" (17).3

Crary's work has been pivotal in the impetus to resituate impressionist painting, and modernism more generally, in relation to the field of mass visual culture. What arguably remains elusive, however, is the geopolitical location of the literary "impression" as the widely acknowledged cornerstone [End Page 1] of an emergent modernist rhetoric. The situation of the novel around the turn of the century—in particular, the impressionist remodelling of the form by the James-Conrad-Ford group—registers an intense anxiety concerning the imagined boundaries of the metropolis. Critics have long recognized Conrad's sustained if ambivalent interrogation of European imperialism and its cultural consequences.4 Less attention has been paid, however, to his collaboration with Ford Madox Hueffer (as he then was), between 1898 and 1908, which coincided with the appearance of many of Conrad's most well-known works. In his memoir Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1919), Ford claims that it was through their collaboration that a shared "impressionist" aesthetic was evolved: "we saw that life did not narrate, but made impressions on our brains" (182).5 During the period of the Congo debates and the Boer War, Conrad and Ford were participating in a wider conversation about imperialism, race, and capitalist modernity that included figures such as H.G. Wells and the socialist politician and writer R.B. Cunninghame Graham and whose implications for impressionism, as a term of literary-historical analysis, have yet to be unravelled (Delblanco).

The Edwardian moment was characterized by considerable interchange between what are now seen as "modernist" and popular fictional forms (Trotter, Daly). As collaborators, Conrad and Ford explored the various possibilities of contemporary mass-market genre fiction, such as Wellsian fantasy, travel fiction, invasion novels, political satire, espionage fiction, and the detective novel. I shall focus here on a few of these generic experiments: Ford's travel book The Soul of London (1905), the jointly-authored scientific "romance"-cum-political novel The Inheritors (1901), and Conrad's spy story The Secret Agent (1907). These texts, I shall argue, respond to a historically specific metropolitan experience of cognitive dissonance in the face of violently reconfigured relations among urban, national, and global space. Their generic instability, or hybridity, is symptomatic of their attempted "cognitive mapping," in Fredric Jameson's phrase ("Modernism and Imperialism" 52), of the imperial world-order, following an accelerated period of European expansionism. What is at stake is a crisis in the location of a metropolitan subject increasingly grasped as an ensemble of particularized and disjunct sensory experiences. "Impressionism," the rubric which, by Ford's account, unites his and Conrad's literary endeavors during the 1900s, names, among other things, the conversion of late 19th century...