Academic journal article Conradiana

Time as Power: The Politics of Social Time in Conrad's the Secret Agent. (21)

Academic journal article Conradiana

Time as Power: The Politics of Social Time in Conrad's the Secret Agent. (21)

Article excerpt

Initially deemed an "honourable failure" by even Conrad himself,(1) The Secret Agent continues to provoke critical debate about its quality. As Jacques Berthoud observes, many critics, influenced by Conrad's assessment, maintain that the novel "for all its stylistic and narrative brilliance remains short in intellectual substance and coherence." In fact, Berthoud, writing in 1996, elaborates, "during the last two decades commentary on the novel--whether politicized, deconstructive, post-colonial, feminist, historical, Freudian, or even plain appreciative--has continued to take for granted that The Secret Agent remains a conceptually low-powered work." (2) Berthoud defies this general trend by providing a complex reading of the novel's social themes and asserting that The Secret Agent "is now regarded as [Conrad's] consummate achievement in the art of fiction," a view which accords with Geoffrey Harpham's only slightly less superlative contention that the novel should be placed among Conrad's "very greatest w orks." (3)

Despite the substantial critical attention devoted to The Secret A gent over the past century, however, a crucial aspect of the novel--the question of how to interpret the role time plays in this remarkably complex narrative--has yet to be answered satisfactorily. This circumstance is puzzling, as Conrad's weaving together of time's many aspects into an intricate tapestry of modem sociotemporality (4) in this novel contributes significantly to what F. R. Leavis has called "the subtle and triumphant complexity of [The Secret Agent's] art." (5) Furthermore, achieving a proper understanding of Conrad's development of the concept of sociotemporality would significantly help to allay critical doubts about the novel's conceptual or intellectual complexity.

Certainly, recognizing the centrality of time in The Secret Agent is not difficult. The novel does, after all, concern an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, site of origin for the World Standard Time system, and the weapon of choice is a time-bomb, not to mention that the novel is filled with references to clocks and schedules. Even so, despite time's inescapable presence in the novel, only a handful of critics have attempted explicitly to analyze its full meaning in The Secret Agent. Moreover, the critics who have done so have been conditioned by conventional modernist preconceptions regarding the intrinsic relationship between time and the individual self, and the inherent opposition between private, subjective time and public, objective time. (6) Consequently, although the criticism on time in the novel has yielded some insightful commentary--particularly by R. W. Stallman and Avrom Fleishman in the 1950s and 1960s--the critical tendency to view time in the modern novel almost exclusively in Be rgsonian terms continues to obscure the magnitude of Conrad's achievement in rendering in its full complexity the multi-faceted temporal structuring of the modern world. (7)

More recently, Mark Conroy has analyzed the political aspect of time in The Secret Agent from a Foucauldian perspective, (8) using Foucault' s analysis in Discipline and Punish (1979) of the shift in modality during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from direct physical punishment of criminals through torture and execution to penitentiary methods designed to change behavior using indirect surveillance based on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon plan. In his brief statement on time as a mode of panoptical power, Conroy focuses on the Observatory's astronomical function, seeing Greenwich-based astronomical time as a political tool, "an instrument of social control." (9) In fact, according to Conroy, the "all-seeing eye of the Greenwich Observatory, is, in one sense, the ultimate political institution, insofar as it grounds and gives form to time." (10) Despite the suggestiveness of this idea, in the end Conroy disappointingly agrees with the dualistic notion that slavish individuals would otherwise experience an ideal, subjective temporality were it not for the constant reminder of an oppressive public authority, which wields time unidirectionally as a form of sovereign power in order to control the movements of the subjects under its surveillance. …

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