The Conradian: Review

By Yael Levin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Nidesh Lawtoo, Conrad’s Shadow: Catastrophe, Mimesis, Theory. East Lansing: Michigan University Press, 2016. 420 pp.

Nidesh Lawtoo’s Conrad’s Shadow: Catastrophe, Mimesis, Theory is an important contribution to Conrad studies. It reads a range of the author’s work from Almayer’s Folly to The Shadow Line alongside a history of the anthropocene, of immanence in the place of transcendence, of the singular-plural instead of the one. The study’s originality lies not only in its choice of theoretical and critical paradigms but also in its method of presentation. It is playful and performative; it stages dialogical encounters and imaginative reenactments. It takes us on a journey through Conrad’s narratives that is entirely contemporary. 

First and foremost a study of mimetic effects, this book cannot be read without a rudimentary understanding of what Lawtoo means, precisely, by mimesis. The book’s introduction helpfully teases out some of the term’s shape-shifting articulations. An alternative to critical analyses anchored in psychoanalytic, postcolonial and cultural models, Lawtoo utilizes the mimetic to launch a perspectival, transdisciplinary and comparative study that borrows from anthropology, metaphysics and psycho-ethics. The critical aim is to utilize these new paradigms as a means to explore the othering of the self. Psychic identifications and unconscious forces that penetrate the ego are grouped under the heading of “mimetic pathos.” Its multiple forms, what Lawtoo dubs “just the major protean manifestations of mimesis” (xviii) include “enthusiastic outbreaks, affective contagion, ritual sacrifices, shared sympathy, communal frenzy, and reciprocal violence, […] panic, possession trance, depersonalization, hypnotic suggestion (or rapport), psychic dissolution (or psychasthenia), mirroring reflexes (or mirror neurons), and brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity). The working premise is that, like pharmakon, the mimetic is both poison and antidote, positive and negative. The phenomena enumerated here consequently fall into one of two sides of an evaluative binary, a duality that is performatively mirrored in the presentation. Much as every mimetic expression finds its antonym, an argument is always followed by a counter-argument.
Where the introduction might be lacking for some readers is in a neglect of the dual history of mimesis in poststructuralist thought. Here too mimesis can be viewed as both good and bad – but this is a duality Lawtoo does not unpack. In an essay that reads as a helpful gloss on the study, Martin Jay explains that for poststructuralists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean¬ François Lyotard and Paul de Man, mimesis is treated as “an ideologically suspect recirculation of the readymade, a false belief in the fixity of meaning and the possibility of achieving full presence, a language game that fails to see itself as such” (120-21). Jay offers Philippe Lacoue-¬Labarthe and Adorno as representatives of an alternative poststructuralist take on the concept. A method of bridging rather than razing differences, for these thinkers the mimetic 

involves a more sympathetic, compassionate, and noncoercive relationship of affinity between nonidentical particulars, which do not then become reified into two poles of a subject/object dualism. Rather than producing hierarchical subsumption under a subjectively generated category, it preserves the rough equality of the object and subject involved. More precisely, it assimilates the latter to the former in such a way that the unposited, unintended object implicitly predominates, thwarting the imperialist gesture of subjective control and constitution that is the hallmark of philosophical idealism” (1998, 123). 

No longer conceived as rationally motivated imitation, mimesis is reconfigured as a method of intuitive, physical and/or affective assimilation. In order to appreciate the difference, it is necessary to make a conceptual transition from a mimetic tradition rooted in analogy and sameness, i.e. the categories of logical thinking, to the unfolding nature of immanence and the univocal. Conrad’s Shadow participates in this critical project by isolating thematic and stylistic instances in Conrad’s work that allow for an exploration of a self that is no longer autonomous but one that is shared. The study signposts this shift by abandoning the focus on sight and the rational mind and turning to the tactile, the auditory, the psychic, the unconscious and affect. The human condition is not read in isolation but is complemented by an analysis of the natural world, disease and media. 

“The more it resembles, the more it differs” (1989, 260) serves as a Lacoue-Labarthe refrain for the first part of the book, “The Ethics of Catastrophe.” “The Duel” and “The Secret Sharer” with which the study opens offer a helpful illustration of this principle and a good entry-point to this philosophical engagement with Conrad. Attending to the dynamics of mirroring in “The Duel,” Lawtoo suggests that 

What Conrad shows, in fact, is that these characters do not fight because they are similar, or have similar desires that converge on the same object. Rather, they fight because their nervous systems unconsciously respond to the contagious pathos of violence. Such a mimetic principle follows, shadowlike, Conrad’s diagnostic of the homo duplex as it appears throughout his corpus. It can be schematically summarized as follows: an external, psycho-physiological manifestation of an affect (or pathos) in the other generates an automatic, mirroring reflex in the self, triggered by the all-too-human tendency to involuntarily mirror people (or mimetic unconscious). This unconscious reflex, in turn, generates an affective flow of nonverbal communication that blurs the boundaries that divide self and other (or individuation). The violent affect present in the self is thus triggered in the other as well, catching the antipode in a double bind that turns him into a mimetic double (or homo duplex)—no matter how rational, temperate, and self-controlled this other is, or may want to be (21-22). 

The collapsing of enlightenment subjectivity as described is a thread that runs throughout the study and is informed not only by the tension already foreshadowed here between Apollonian order and Dionysian frenzy, but also by conceptual models provided by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy and René Girard. From inoperative communities to the scapegoat and triangular desire – such models are repeatedly called upon to demonstrate the manner in which a subjectivity that is anchored in reason, autonomy and control comes under strain in Conrad’s fiction. Lawtoo’s readings bring the author closer to late modernism and postmodernism by suggesting we read his works as early instantiations of an interdependent subjectivity. 

Here, as in other parts of the book, a Conradian prompt issues forth a dialogic engagement that (mimetically) reenacts the work in some way. The reading of “The Duel,” to give an example, is followed by Lawtoo’s pitting against each other of Karl Clausewitz, author of the “most influential theoretical text on military strategy in the West” (4) and Girard, and then Girard against Derrida. Similarly, “The Secret Sharer” concludes with the setting up of a court case that generates its own verdict on the ethical significances of Conrad’s story. 

Where D’Hubert and Feraud’s infectious encounter is framed within a discussion of war, mimetic effects in “The Secret Sharer” are read against the backdrop a violent, anthropogenic cataclysm. Catastrophes, Lawtoo explains, “are never simply natural, but are anthropogenic,” “the consequence of an ecology of mimetic actions and reactions that introduce sameness in place of difference. In fact, nature not only has a physical effect on human lives; it also has a psychic effect on human affects, which disrupts the systematic structure of social ‘duties’ and, in turn, accentuates the possibility of disaster” (70). Leggatt assumes the role of savior, an exponent of the difficult choices necessary to ensure the survival of the species. Lawtoo reads with rather than against the captain, rejecting traditional readings of the story that underline the captain’s willingness to repress moral and legal considerations in his attempt to bolster his confidence in his command and identity. Those of us who are all too aware of the implied author’s insistence that his narrator is unreliable and repeatedly buries evidence in support of such narcissistic objectives might find such a reading challenging. And Lawtoo perhaps unwittingly turns a blind eye to some of the more damning evidence that would challenge his interpretation. Regardless, this chapter confronts us with a different reading of an overdetermined text. It reads against specular identifications and emphasizes the aural in a reading that demands we set aside the Lacanian mirror stage in order to reassess the dynamics of sharing at work in the story. 

The transition from narcissistic paradigms of subjectivity to affective communal pathologies is traced further in a reading of The Shadow Line. Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000) and The Inoperative Community (1991) inform a reading of the story premised on the understanding that the foundation of self is shared, that communality rather than independence is the key to identity. In his attempt to explain how we might reconfigure community and individuality in light of Nancy’s philosophy, Lawtoo explains: “The strength necessary to affirm survival as individual bodies are infected by a shared pathology stems from a sovereign communication of souls who are not singular (the head) nor solely plural (the body). They are, rather, composite souls in the sense that each soul is mimetically entangled with another, composing an affective chain of solidarity that holds subjects together from a social and cooperative organism (the community)” (124). Although the insight might evoke the familiar emphasis on communal solidarity in Conrad’s fiction, the nuance is ontologically significant. It asks that we re-envision that community not as a rationally organized group of individuals, but as an intricately and organically woven psychic whole. 

The second part of the book, “Anthropology of Frenzy” will be familiar to readers acquainted with Lawtoo’s article, “A Picture of Africa: Frenzy, Counter-Narrative, Mimesis” (2013). One of the most important recent articles to tackle Achebe’s critique, the article is happily reprinted here in its entirety. The chapter includes many insights – from the more outlandish in the reading of Kurtz as an anthropomorphic manifestation of Marlow’s soul to the suggestion that Achebe’s reading, like much postcolonial criticism, is haunted by a Platonic suspicion of representation. 

The third part of the book, “Metaphysics of Tragedy” is Nietzschean through and through. In his reading of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ Lawtoo calls on Roger Callois to assist in an exploration of what lies beyond individuality. Callois, a French anthropologist, avant-garde theorist and surrealist writer takes inspiration from animal camouflage and psychoanalytic theory in describing the psychic and physical blurring of the self in ‘legendary psychasthenia.’ The disorder is associated with a troubled relation to one’s environment that affectively disrupts the unity of the ego. The claim is that Jimmy and his author occupy a twilight zone where differences between figure/background and human/non-human are visually, physically, psychically and metaphysically blurred. Much as this chapter’s claims are accompanied by a psychoanalytic history from Pierre Janet through Callois to Lacan, the following chapter’s investigation of affect in Almayer’s Folly is conducted alongside a philosophical history anchored in Nietzschean thought. 

The section on metaphysics concludes with a discussion of two films inspired by Conrad: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936). Two conceptual foci are offered. The first is Adriana Cavarero’s term horrorism, a term that brings Conrad’s novels to bear on the metaphysics of terrorism. The second is borrowed from Baudrillard’s work on the simulacrum. Lawtoo deftly demonstrates how The Secret Agent’s London is a hyperreal city where copies subsume and cancel out their origin. Though a more ontologically stratified Conradian universe finally reasserts itself, the brief nod to postmodern theory convincingly shows how the author is ahead of his time.

Conrad’s Shadow is an immense and impressive undertaking that cannot be summed up in the space of a short review. It is well worth reading. The study introduces the uninitiated to such thinkers as Philippe Lacoue-Labarathe, Jean-Luc Nancy and René Girard and suggests ways in which their thought might be brought to bear on Conrad’s writing. It presents a pageant of unknown figures in Western thought who emerge with their own, surprising and often entertaining insights on the way in which we can think of being as communal, infectious and fluid. The book’s many rewards are not without certain challenges. First, its conceptual slippages might be frustrating to readers looking for neat formulations. One of the symptoms of this slippage is in the persistent use of mimetic as adjective. Mimesis, the author repeatedly reminds us, is protean, Janus-faced and shape-shifting; it is never one. Each use of the adjective therefore begs the question as to which of its many faces is evoked. The adjectival insistence serves to emphasize the relevance of the term in toto but does so at the expense of lucidity. Second, suggestive of a French tradition of writing more so than its Anglo-american counterpart, arguments unfold in a metonymical way that often entails repetition. A more rigorously edited version of the book would have made for a clearer presentation of its materials. Finally, Conrad’s texts are not always as illuminated as they illuminate the work of a diverse range of contemporary thinkers; the fiction is often treated as the point of departure rather than a destination. The title, Conrad’s Shadow, would suggest this is not a weakness but a methodological choice. Lawtoo himself writes: “Conrad remains important for us today not simply because his fictions confirm mimetic hypotheses about our past but also, and more importantly, because mimetic theory finds in Conrad’s fictions insights for the future” (163).

Works Cited
Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Ed. Christopher Fynsk. Harvard: Harvard UP, 1989.
Martin, Jay. Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time. University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. 

© 2018 Yael Levin.

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