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  • Life in Crisis: The Biopolitical Ambivalence of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent
  • Christian Haines (bio)

Of late, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale has capitalized on a certain timeliness. A number of critics have remarked on the way that this tale of terror not only resonates with the present historical period—the so-called War on Terror—but also reveals its truth. In this line, Tom Reiss, writing in the September 11, 2005, edition of the New York Times, asks which work by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes, is the “true classic” of terrorist literature. According to Reiss, the value of these novels is in their ability to explain “why real people throw away promising careers and families to become terrorists.” Although Reiss mentions the history of “the troubled zone that divides West from East,” the pressing task remains entering into the terrorist’s “psychic world” in order to map “the terrorist mind.”1 In weighing these two novels against each other, Reiss relies on a psychologizing paradigm of interpretation that reduces the subject of political terror to a matter of the individual psyche. Joseph Conrad’s novels transform into a vast diagnostic tool, classifying individuals according to their normality or abnormality, in the process becoming void of political and historical content.

The diagnostic approach is not, however, limited to a narrow psychological focus. There is a long tradition of criticism staging The Secret Agent as a drama pitting the forces of social order against the forces of social anomie. More specifically, several critics interpret the text as an attempt to resolve the crises confronting liberalism and capitalism during the fin de siècle. Eloise Knapp Hay argues that the The Secret Agent polemicizes against the revolutionary desires of the novel’s anarchists. In Hay’s reading, Conrad represents a tradition of social conservatism in which the organic foundations of society are threatened by anarchist malcontents, or hommes de ressentiment. Avrom Fleishman, on the other hand, portrays Conrad as an organically minded social conservative but suggests that instead of depicting a struggle between extrinsic forces (society [End Page 85] and anarchism), the novel stages a contradiction internal to liberal society. The social forms that organize liberal society—especially individualism, national citizenship, and private property—also threaten to tear it apart by fragmenting society into a chaotic tangle of atoms.2

Indeed, one of the most persistent perspectives from which to view The Secret Agent is what Alex Houen has aptly termed “entropolitics,” that is, the political implications of social/physical chaos.3 Houen remarks on the pervasive sense of entropic social decay in the novel, a sense that the world of late Victorian London risks dissipating into a flow of unorganized energy. This disorganization translates to social disorder within the novel, making politics into so many attempts to plug up holes in society proper. Yet for Houen, entropolitics is not merely a matter of conservation but is also the invention of a new political field. The political becomes a corporeal fabric of organization and disorganization comprehending the architectural mass of London, the bureaucratic networks and social institutions of the nation-state, the revolutionary underground, and the news media.4 However, Houen’s concern for the blurring of the line between order and disorder, for the indiscernibility of state power and anarchism, risks neutralizing the antagonistic political gesture that constitutes one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Carey James Mickalites’s “The Abject Textuality of The Secret Agent” acts as a notable corrective to such a tendency in Conrad criticism. Mickalites argues that “Conrad employs figures of the abject to reveal that anxiety-ridden, ‘perverse’ desire defines the public unconscious of Victorian social order, and that this return of the repressed constitutes the novel’s modernist effort to push literary signification beyond the bourgeois limits of the Victorian symbolic order.”5 Mickalites demonstrates the existence of a corporeal element in Conrad’s novel irreducible to bourgeois Oedipal forms of social and political organization. There is an abject material underside of the novel in excess of any attempt to identify Conrad’s text with a conservative or reactionary intention. If the narrator...


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pp. 85-115
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