- The Abject Textuality of The Secret Agent
In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson proclaims that “Conrad marks . . . a strategic fault line in the emergence of contemporary narrative, a place from which the structure of twentieth-century literary and cultural institutions becomes visible.”1 In the case of The Secret Agent (1907), the emerging visibility of the literary institution we call modernism depends on the abject. In fact, the novel defines the intersecting political, economic, and cultural institutions of late-Victorian England by their proximity to abjection and its corresponding anxieties. From the Verlocs’ home in the dark and dirty alley of Brett Street to the impotent and ineffectual anarchists Michaelis and Karl Yundt to the Professor’s fanatically ascetic fear of being swallowed by London’s masses, not to mention the multiple reports that reverberate the blown-up bodily remains of Stevie, the abject is the site of intertwined cultural anxieties that drive the narrative and its understanding of the paranoid politics of prewar London. The Secret Agent is a system of abject representation.
In Julia Kristeva’s theory, the abject—excrement, filth, bodily fluids, the corpse—names that which defines the permeable borders of culture and subjectivity. The abject hovers on and haunts the margins of being, of knowledge, of language. While the abject “cannot be assimilated” to the symbolic order of language, it is that which must be thrust aside, disavowed, in order to mark the borders of the speaking subject in the symbolic order.2 The abject beckons to and threatens the subject with nondifferentiation. Subjectivity, for Kristeva, is fundamentally based in this threat of a nondifferentiated, excessive outside or bodily interior that is “permanently thrust aside in order to live.”3 Further, “it is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.”4 Thus, for example, “filth is not a quality in itself, but it applies only to what relates to a boundary and, more particularly, its other side, a margin.”5 Being is constituted in and against an excessive, unnamable outside that always threatens [End Page 501] to engulf the subject in a cesspool of sameness, a return to the presymbolic, prelinguistic oneness with the mother. The abject figures that which is continuously ejected beyond patriarchal social systems of rationality, order, and value and, as such, serves to define zones on the body according to a relative system of value.6 This abject inscription, both material and phenomenological, spreads out to the whole of the social body and its systems of classification: “Defilement is what is jettisoned from the ‘symbolic system.’ It is what escapes that social rationality, that logical order on which a social aggregate is based, which then becomes differentiated from a temporary agglomeration of individuals and, in short, constitutes a classification system or a structure.”7 For Kristeva, in short, classification and social order are defined by what lies threateningly beyond their symbolic margins.
Kristeva’s theory of abjection offers a productive model with which to think through the anxieties of embodied subjectivity and their role in shaping prewar British politics as Conrad’s The Secret Agent envisions them. Reading the novel for its figurations of the abject—including bodies, institutional cultural spaces, and objects bearing the inscriptions of value and thus a relation to abjection—allows us to read for the convergences of psychological and cultural economies along the perimeters of meaning and value, without collapsing the distinctions into a social determinism or an ego psychology. More specifically, Conrad’s fictional focus on an abject underside structuring late-Victorian bourgeois political order anticipates Kristeva’s thinking. And yet situating the abject squarely within the realm of paranoid politics serves simultaneously to expand and contract the limits of Kristeva’s model. The abject may indeed function transhistorically (as Kristeva persuasively suggests), but it is during modernity’s moments of pronounced political paranoia—rampant throughout the modernist period—that the role of abjection in establishing the normative and naming that which threatens it becomes most apparent.
Other recent studies read the novel as an expression of late-Victorian anxieties attendant on pornography, anarchism and political surveillance, gothic modernity, the gendered body, or the...