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Joseph Conrad

The New Modernisms: The Inaugural Conference of the Modernist Studies Association, October 7-10, 1999 at Penn State University, State College, PA

The inaugural conference of the Modernist Studies Association was a thundering success for all involved, and for modernist studies in general. Combining plenary sessions, special session panels, and discussion seminars, the conference provided a comprehensively satisfying mix of presentations by top scholars, thematically organised presentations of new work, and intensive discussion of perennial issues in modernist studies. Conrad studies were well-represented on either end of the spectrum, as papers on Conrad appeared in seminars on Modernist Irony and Modernism and Politics, as well as anchoring Susan Stanford Friedman’s closing plenary talk on pluralizing modernism.

I.    Modernist Irony:

The first occasion for discussion of Conrad in the context of the conference came at 3:00 p.m. on Friday October 8 with the convening of the Modernist Irony seminar, led by Kevin Dettmar of Southern Illinois University. Papers offered for consideration in this seminar ranged from treatments of George Orwell’s ironic approach to modernist anthropology (Patricia Rae) to sustained meditations on Joyce’s irony (Kevin Dettmar, Ross Gresham). Despite this range, however, the discussion was animated and free-flowing, frequently returning to issues raised by two papers on Conrad, Stephen Ross’s "Crisis of Consciousness": Irony in Nostromo" and Nico Israel’s "‘I had jumped…it seems’: Colonial Heteroglossia, ‘Half-Breeds’ and Lord Jim’s ‘Us- Prinzip.’"

Ross’s paper argued that the "ultimate irony" of Nostromo is that "any external moral code to which one might appeal may already be tainted by its appropriation to an amoral system, making adherence to it a matter of accepting a situational irony of existential proportions. The ironic abjuration of that moral code, however, produces not a state of undeceived awareness, but only a hypocrisy that is open to annihilation by the ever-present force of irony." Ross’s contention that "in tracing Nostromo’s fate, Conrad critiques the culture which both creates and destroys him, a culture based on a system that makes the ironic the only viable mode of subjectivity and collaborates in the naturalisation of that mode of subjectivity despite its obvious human cost" generated much critical discussion, as others in the seminar wondered whether, if this were the case, Conrad offers (whether explicitly or implicitly) any kind of utopian vision to compensate for this bleak vision. As one might expect, no conclusion was reached, but Nico Israel’s paper on Lord Jim provided another angle of approach to the issue at hand.

Israel’s paper addressed precisely the question of Conrad’s own situation in relation to the tag-phrase "‘One of us’" which organizes much of Lord Jim. Reading the "Patna" and "Patusan" sections of the book as two halves of an ironic dialogue in which the desire to build a community (an "Us-prinzip") is persistently undercut by the centripetal forces of ideological disruption: "Jim's us-ness is more clearly recognizable as a form of negation (he is not the product of coldly perverted (?) thinking; not a figure of Northern Mists) than as declaration of self-identity. He is a nebulous colonial form with his head in the clouds." In his sophisticated reading of Lord Jim, Israel complicated the discussion in the irony seminar by introducing the prospect that however much Conrad himself may have wanted to envision an organic community (like that reconstituted at the end of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’), the writing in which he attempted to do so was perpetually troubled by the distortions of imperialist ideology. In keeping with the "irony" theme of the seminar, Israel refused to take an unequivocal stand on Lord Jim. Instead, he argued that the text is a privileged place for discovering the ironies at work in imperialist discourse by paying attention to the discontinuities between form and content: "The point is not, then, merely to recognize that the narrative of Lord Jim generates contradictory ideologies--that the text philosophically debunks the idea of national and racial belonging ultimately only to valorize those same concepts. It is, rather, that race, nation, and the problematics of belonging in general are loci of considerable psychical and rhetorical tension in Lord Jim, an overdetermination that troubles any critique of imperialism that does not adequately account for the disturbing dilemmas of difference as encoded not merely in thematics, but form itself."

The discussion throughout the two hour session was highly productive, as the periodic focus on Conrad was supplemented by the insights of other Conradians present. Ned Sparrow provided important connections between Conrad’s status as an originator of many of the problems of modernist irony and the later practices of Virginia Woolf (Sparrow). Wallace Watson took rather a different approach, working from his own "disappointment" in the film versions of many of Conrad’s novels to offer some thoughts on the role of film in the development of modernist irony. In particular, Watson wondered why modernist irony had proven so difficult to translate onto the big screen: "One of my greatest disappointments in this effort has been the failure of virtually all the filmmakers involved to take the Conradian ironies seriously into account in adapting those novels for the screen." And while discussion in the seminar did not focus on the problems presented by Watson’s perspective, his paper did raise the important problems of how we decipher irony, how modernist irony differs from earlier versions of irony, and how (and why) Conrad’s much-remarked "cinematic" sensibility works for his irony on the page, but against it on the screen.

II.    Modernism and Politics:

In a continuation of many of the themes raised in the Modernist Irony seminar, Stan Smith’s (Nottingham-Trent University) second seminar on Modernism and Politics took place on Saturday October 9 at 3:00 p.m.. This session only included one paper on Conrad, Stephen Ross’s "Sanguine Humanitarians": Towards a Re-examination of Conrad’s Politics." Citing the critical commonplace that the conception of modernist politics as a combined ideology of "elitism and Eurocentrism" is a radical misrepresentation, Ross set out to address this problem as it affects the work of Conrad. In his paper, Ross undertook a "four-books-in-ten-pages" overview of some of Conrad’s most political works to suggest that "Conrad’s overt distrust of revolutionary tendencies is vitiated by a sophisticated rejection of the dominant cultural ideology (i.e. incipient global capitalism)" and that "his antipathy towards revolutionary ideals is, in fact, partly a response to their co-optation by an amoral and exploitative cultural system." Thus challenging such popular views as Chinua Achebe’s claim that Conrad is a "racist," Ross argued that "from the obviously anti-democratic thrust of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to the dialectical ambivalence of The Secret Agent and the complex staging of political conflict in Nostromo, Conrad displays a political awareness and agility that eludes more reductive simplifications" His paper concluded with the hope that "a more sustained analysis of the various political statements Conrad makes and revokes in his fiction can lead to a fuller understanding of how he can write in the same essay ["Autocracy and War"] that Europe is "an armed and trading continent, the home of slowly maturing economical contests for life and death, and of loudly proclaimed world-wide ambitions" [not the least of which is the aim "of improving the nigger (as a buying machine)"] and yet maintain that "The trouble of the civilised world is the want of a common conservative principle abstract enough to give the impulse, practical enough to form the rallying point of international action tending towards the restraint of particular ambitions."

III.    Plenary III:

Putting the cap on all the papers presented on Conrad was Susan Stanford Friedman’s (University of Wisconsin-Madison) paper, "Gender, Spatiality, and Geopolitics in the New Modernist Studies," given at the final Plenary Session on Saturday October 9 at 7:30 p.m.. In her discussion of the changing direction of modernist studies as a movement away from the traditional privileging of time towards a "geography of becomings," Friedman advocated a new approach of "locational" feminism/modernism. This approach would, she contended, give new significance to site-specificity, emphasising multiple centres and points of origin for the study of modernism, rather than simply focussing on Paris, London, Moscow, and New York. As a result, modernism could be re-born as a cultural phenomenon the temporal boundaries of which are permeable and shifting, depending on the locus in which it takes place.

Lending concrete substance to her argument, Friedman undertook a survey of works that participate in what she called "travelling modernism" as aesthetic manifestations of modernism in different places at different times. This part of Friedman’s talk centred on Heart of Darkness as perhaps the modernist Ur-text, and also as an example of "travel writing" that opens it up to post-colonial projects to "write back" to it. Pointing out that Conrad was himself an exile, a colonial victim, and a displaced and naturalised person, Friedman showed how works like The Voyage Out and The God of Small Things write back to Heart of Darkness to tease out its counter-hegemonic implications. Friedman thus argued that The Voyage Out is a re-writing of Heart of Darkness in which the Intended goes on a voyage, making a journey up the Amazon river, re-situating the "heart of darkness" in the cultural dominance of British male imperialist modernity. She extended her argument by considering Roy’s The God of Small Things as a "writing back" to both Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India. In this case, she held that Roy employs a locational approach that emphasises the location from which the work emerges as a way of decentring and resituating the locus of modernity (and the ways in which it is perceived). Drawing on both these works and another, Sudanese, novel, Friedman argued for an ascendancy of spatial modernism, a "geopolitics" that would allow for a "new" modernism that occupies multiple locations at differing times with no privileged centre and no privileged set of characteristics or concerns. She concluded by arguing that if modernity is a global, if uneven, phenomenon, then so is modernism as an uneven response to it; we can rehabilitate modernist studies, then by adopting a locational approach. Such an approach would allow us to keep such texts as Heart of Darkness as examples of a particularly situated modernity/modernism even as we admit other texts as equally valid responses to similar pressures (of which a literary tradition that includes Heart of Darkness may be one).

Discussion with other conference participants revealed that Conrad is alive and well in the "new modernisms," and though plans fell through for a Joseph Conrad Foundation/Queen’s University (at Kingston, Ontario)-sponsored reception this year, both the Foundation and Queen’s plan to hold a reception at the next conference at the University of Pennsylvania from October 12-15, 2000.

For more information on the upcoming conference or on the Modernist Studies Association, visit their web site at

(Contributed by Stephen Ross, Queen's University)

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