The Secret Policeman's Couch: Imforming, Confession, and Interpellation in Conrad's under Western Eyes

By Long, Andrew | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Secret Policeman's Couch: Imforming, Confession, and Interpellation in Conrad's under Western Eyes


Long, Andrew, Studies in the Novel


Joseph Conrad was fascinated by the political types that emerged with modernity, particularly from the muck of modern politics. We see this political preoccupation in his essay, "Autocracy and War," and in his most important fiction we find modern political types, the revolutionary (Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and "The Anarchist") and the informer ("The Informer" and Under Western Eyes). An analysis of the informer and the informer's confessional discourse, I argue, is central to any substantial reading of Under Western Eyes. Contrary to the "political readings" of this novel, which locate the political aspect in its content, that is, in the depiction of anarchism and of anarchists, or which interpret the novel as elaborating Conradian themes of betrayal and moral or existential dilemmas (1), I argue that Conrad is interested in the informer as a type of modern subject.

Some definitions are necessary. First, by informer I refer to an individual who "turns in" or provides information leading to the arrest of a fellow citizen. An informer is both a political type, in the broadest sense of "political," and a loyal citizen of the state. Second, a modern subject is a citizen of the modern liberal nation state, a state of "common" men and women, and government by laws and due process. In this sense, both personal and political identity is derived from the state, and indeed the citizen feels a national allegiance. Yet the nation state does not truly make citizens--this is mass politics, after all, and mass political forms do not precede the masses. The masses or the citizenry accompany the vast social, political, and technological complex of changes we know as modernity. Following the work of Ernst Gellner, Tom Nairn declares that the central development of the modern epoch was the modern subject, the "steam engine citizen" (1). Nairn writes, "It is the advent of capitalist industry and agriculture, and [of] the advent of middle and working classes which alters all social conditions. In these conditions--or sometimes, in hope of them-politics also changes its character" (2). Modernity produced citizens who demanded an accessible and demotic culture which paradoxically provided them-and us-with a place, a niche or specialization setting the citizen apart even as the nation of citizens coalesced as a whole. With regard to Conrad's novel, the new nation also leaned upon what we loosely refer to as "civil society," which in turn produces "civic nationalism." For this period (fin de siecle) and in this context, Nairn's definition of civil society is useful: "the notion of a self standing plurality of institutions 'opposing and balancing' the state" (74). In Under Western Eyes, these institutions (civil society) are the police and the university. As we shall see, they are critical to the development of Razumov as a character.

Indeed, informing or "calling the police," as Conrad presents it, is also constitutive of modern subjectivity, though two things are important for us to consider. First, Conrad explores informing as being separate from and yet intrinsic to the institutions of surveillance that post-date Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. Second, Conrad links informing and confession; his informer is one who informs as an act of confession, as though he feels compelled to confess as a way of professing allegiance to authority and to the state. So, the novel concerns modern subjectivity insofar as it also addresses the apparatus of surveillance--the use of the secret police and informers-and, significantly, the extent to which these are internalized. The modern subject, the citizen, is always guilty before the state and necessarily internalizes many aspects of the modern liberal nation state--the sanctity of voting, limited notions of freedom of speech, the "right" to "succeed" and "fail"--as a matter of everyday life. This is modernity as an intuited or felt experience, and importantly, a feeling which is rooted in a sense of injury. …

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