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THE AMBIGUITIES OF EMPIRE INTRODUCTION Christopher Keep University of Victoria The frame narrative of Joseph Conrad's Heart ofDarkness (1902) has become a kind of strange attractor for many theorists of empire, its elaborately-staged scene of enunciation exerting an inescapable gravitational pull on those who enter too closely into its orbit. In that scene, the yawl Nellie is anchored in the harbor of the Thames as the sun sets. On board, an unnamed narrator sits amongst a group of businessmen listening to the wanderer Marlow reflect upon London, the great metropolitan heart of the British imperial enterprise: "And this also," he announces, "has been one of the dark places of the earth" (7). For Chinua Achebe, Marlow's declaration establishes an oppositional tropology of white and dark which denies the cultural and historical specificity of Africa and casts its people as threatening reminders of the savagery over which European "progress" and "civilization" had triumphed in the ages long since past If the Thames, he writes, "were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings" (3). Africa, in this schema, is simply the inchoate "other" that confirms the claim of the European as the ontic standard against which all cultures and all races must measure their worth. Writing in 1974, Achebe's attack on the author whom F.R. Leavis described as "among the very great novelists in the language" (226) was an important provocation to the literary establishment to account for the ways in which not only canonical literature, but the hermeneutic practices that subtended that literature, had actively extended and legitimized the practices ofcolonialism. Achebe's emphasis on the ways in which Conrad reproduces the oppositional logic of empire, however, has recently given way to an attentiveness to the tenuousness and incompleteness of that logic. Edward Said, for example, returns to the deck of the Nellie in order to Victorian Review 24.2 (Winter 1998) CHRISTOPHER KEEP113 argue that it offers a way out of the epistemological closure of imperialism. Conrad, he readily admits, was a man of his time and Heart ofDarkness is thus unable to imagine Africa in terms other than those provided by the discourse of colonialism. But, in foregrounding the very problems of representation, or as Marlow says, of conveying "the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence" (39), the text acknowledges its own historical and ideological contingency. "Conrad's self-consciously circular narrative forms," Said writes, "draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control, and that only after Conrad's death, in 1924, acquired a substantial presence" (29). The "potential reality" to which Said refers here is that of a distinctly "postcolonial" identity — or, better, identities — that would be forged in the process of dismantling the colonial governments that once ruled over eighty-five per cent of the world's surface. Such identities are necessarily absent from the narrative of Heart of Darkness, but their possibility is indicated precisely in the gaps, the inconsistencies and confusions of Marlow's narrative. Pronouncing London "one of the dark places of the earth" thus inaugurates both a tropology of race and indicates something of its instabilities: "darkness" is not a fixed or natural property of cultures any more than ofbodies. Nor is it yet a "free-floating" signifier, a sign whose meanings circulate in a dionysian play of endless signification without reference to the material conditions of lived lives. Rather, race is a radically overdetermined effect of power at both the global and local levels. In the very moment of ushering in the project of empire it also enables the contradictions, misidentifications, and ambivalences that interrupt its totalizing claims to hegemony. Thus, for Said, Conrad's is a "world being made and unmade more or less all the time" (29). This understanding of empire as a discursive site in which the colonizer no less than the colonized...


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