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  • Two Types of Secret Agency:Conrad, Causation, and Popular Spy Fiction
  • John Attridge

Scholars have long been aware of Joseph Conrad's avid interest in the scientific theories and discoveries of his day, whether the radiography machine that he described enthusiastically to Edward Garnett in 1898, the spectre of heat-death evoked in Heart of Darkness, or the many references scattered throughout his fiction to Darwinian and other theories of evolution and devolution.1 A smaller but still significant body of work exists on Conrad's representation of chance and determinism, and recent investigations of these motifs have been conducted explicitly under the rubric of causality.2 Little attempt has been made, however, to connect these two lines of inquiry: to consider how late-nineteenth-century scientific theories of causality may have influenced Conrad's thinking about cause and effect, and how such theories might be manifested in his fiction. It is my hope in this paper that conjoining these two questions in Conrad criticism will cast light in both directions, illuminating both the fictional uses of causality in The Secret Agent (1907) and the complex attitude to nineteenth-century science represented there. This novel's engagement with causality begins with its ironically loaded title phrase, which may be construed to mean not only a clandestine operative but also a hidden cause, and it is Conrad's skeptical attitude toward this latter sense of "secret agent" that I aim to explore here. The notion of cause as an invisible force or mechanism acting in nature has been the object of philosophical skepticism since at least as far back as David Hume's empirical critique of the "secret connexion," but Conrad would have found a more contemporary articulation of this critique in the fin de siècle positivism of Ernst Mach and Karl Pearson. Although The Secret Agent is far from being a treatise on the question of metaphysical causes, it does draw on this basic skeptical schema to interrogate other, more concrete specimens of phony causality—beginning with the supposed agency of social saboteurs on the body politic. I will argue here that this causal skepticism provides a guiding thread to the parody of sensational Edwardian spy fiction that critics have found in The Secret [End Page 125] Agent, heavily invested as that genre was in at least two types of causality that Conrad found intellectually risible. I begin, however, with a brief review of the empiricist critique of metaphysical cause, especially as it was developed by Mach and Pearson around the turn of the twentieth century.

I. "Secret connexion"

In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume formulated a devastating argument against the knowableness of causes, so powerful that every subsequent philosophical discussion of causality would have to reckon with it.3 In Treatise he observed that no philosophical problem has attracted more fruitless inquiry than this one of "the secret force and energy of causes" and concluded that in fact we have no conception whatever of any such force or energy (206, 208). He restated this conclusion in Enquiry: "The scenes of the universe are continually shifting, and one object follows another in an uninterrupted succession; but the power or force, which actuates the whole machine, is entirely concealed from us" (51). Succession is the most that an empirical philosophy can hope to discover: "experience only teaches us, how one event constantly follows another; without instructing us in the secret connexion, which binds them together, and renders them inseparable" (Enquiry 52).4

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, around the time that Conrad began his literary career, Hume's skepticism about causality received a vigorous reformulation at the hands of the Austrian physicist-philosopher Ernst Mach and, in Britain, the mathematician, eugenicist, and philosopher of science Karl Pearson. Several different labels have been assigned to Mach's and Pearson's campaign against overdrawing on the immediate givens of experience, including empiricism, descriptionism, phenomenalism, and positivism, and I will follow Michael Whitworth and other recent commentators in adopting the term "descriptionism" here.5 Descriptionists believe that the data of science ultimately consist of sensations, and that scientific knowledge amounts...