Modernism and Subjectivity
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Modernism and Subjectivity

How Modernist Fiction Invented the Postmodern Subject

Adam Meehan

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Modernism and Subjectivity

How Modernist Fiction Invented the Postmodern Subject

Adam Meehan

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In Modernism and Subjectivity: How Modernist Fiction Invented the Postmodern Subject, Adam Meehan argues that theories of subjectivity coming out of psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and adjacent late­-twentieth-­century intellectual traditions had already been articulated in modernist fiction before 1945. Offering a bold new genealogy for literary modernism, Meehan finds versions of a postmodern subject embodied in works by authors who intently undermine attempts to stabilize conceptions of identity and who draw attention to the role of language in shaping conceptions of the self. Focusing on the philosophical registers of literary texts, Meehan traces the development of modernist attitudes toward subjectivity, particularly in relation to issues of ideology, spatiality, and violence. His analysis explores a selection of works published between 1904 and 1941, beginning with Joseph Conrad's prescient portrait of the subject interpolated by ideology and culminating with Samuel Beckett's categorical disavowal of the subjective "I." Additional close readings of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Nathanael West, and Virginia Woolf establish that modernist texts conceptualize subjectivity as an ideological and linguistic construction that reverberates across understandings of consciousness, race, place, and identity. By reconsidering the movement's function and scope, Modernism and Subjectivity charts how profoundly modernist literature shaped the intellectual climate of the twentieth century.

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Publisher
LSU Press
Year
2020
ISBN
9780807173596
Chapter 1
THE INTERPELLATED SUBJECT
Specters of Ideology in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo
Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony.
—JACQUES DERRIDA, Specters of Marx
There are two central reasons why Joseph Conrad’s sprawling novel Nostromo (1904) is an ideal starting point for our exploration of modernism and subjectivity. The first is chronological. While there is widespread debate about when modernism begins, there is general consensus that the technological, cultural, and artistic changes occurring around the turn of the twentieth century mark a decisive shift in the zeitgeist that justifies the drawing of an epochal distinction. As Conrad’s first serious attempts at writing began in the early 1890s, his writing career coincides with the dawn of modernism. Although his first two novels—Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896)—were largely reflective of his footing in Victorian realism and the adventure fiction of Haggard, Kipling, and Stevenson, by the time his writing began to fully mature in the subsequent Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Heart of Darkness (1899), and Lord Jim (1900) it was prototypically modernist in its form, style, and themes. On account of this dual footing in the old and the new, Conrad is widely viewed as a transitional figure who exemplifies that period when modernist innovation eclipsed the more conservative literary traditions of the nineteenth century. His modern(ist) sensibility becomes especially evident in the penetrating depth of psychological exploration that we find in the novels of his so-called major phase, which spanned the years 1897–1911. His writing during this phase unmistakably shows that modernism’s revolutionary insights with respect to subjectivity were present from its nascency. The second reason is that while Conrad’s other major-phase novels contain many of the same themes—the tension between the individual and society; the baseness of colonialism and imperial capitalism; the struggle to locate “truth,” or objectively narrate history; the instability of identity—it is in Nostromo that he most effectively incorporates all of these themes and unveils the ideological dimensions of subjectivity in a way that presciently anticipates theories of the subject coming out of the late twentieth-century (neo- and post-) Marxist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist theoretical traditions with which this book is concerned.
The key to understanding how the ideological dimensions of subjectivity operate in the novel can be found in its opening pages, which unfold like a panning shot across Sulaco, a coastal town in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguana that is insulated from the sea by a vast and tranquil gulf (the Golfo Plácido). The short first chapter is devoted almost exclusively to describing the geography of the town and its key topographical features, with one notable exception: the recounting of a local parable about “two wandering sailors—Americanos, perhaps, but gringos of some sort for certain” (6)—who disappear along with a servant and a stolen donkey while searching for a fabled gold treasure on the craggy peninsula of Azuera, which overlooks the Golfo Plácido. The mythopoeic implications of the parable are evident in the enduring legend that “the two gringos, spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty—a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced and been released” (6). Many critics have remarked upon the parable’s symbolic overtones—the critical reaction is perhaps best illustrated by Eloise Hay Knapp’s observation that “the superstition provides an allegorical framework for the obsession with the silver that gradually takes possession of the novel’s two central gringos, Gould and Nostromo” (84)—but I insist that there is something more at work here, a more far-reaching set of reasons why this parable anticipates and then continually haunts the remainder of the novel.1
These reasons are connected to the spectral imagery that appears in the Azuera parable and features prominently throughout Conrad’s fiction.2 But while other critics have focused predominantly on the aesthetic and symbolic dimensions of Conrad’s spectral imagery,3 his spectral engagement runs much deeper than has been previously acknowledged. In Nostromo, spectrality functions synchronously across symbolic, narrativistic, and ideological registers. These spectral engagements produce a self-contained form of ideology critique that operates simultaneously within and outside the world of the novel, thereby outstripping contemporary notions of ideology as “false consciousness” (Ă  la Marx) and anticipating the later formulations of Louis Althusser and post-Marxist theorists like Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj ĆœiĆŸek. Nostromo exemplifies modernist fiction’s capacity to anticipate theoretical insight and, furthermore, reinforces the indispensable value of ideology critique at a time when the rise of authoritarian populism across the globe has made it all the more imperative that we explore new modes of thinking about how oppressive power dynamics are legitimized through processes of ideological mystification. The eminent critic J. Hillis Miller has proclaimed that “somewhat paradoxically, one of the best ways to understand what is happening now in our time of globalization is to read this old novel by Conrad” (173). I would agree with his assessment and contend that Nostromo epitomizes the singular ability of the novel form to open up a space for a meaningful critique of how ideology functions across both theoretical and psychological registers.
Spectrality, Ideological Engagements, and Mystification
Spectral imagery has been prevalent in critiques of capitalism and ideology, dating back to the memorable opening line of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848): “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism” (78). In the Manifesto, Capital (1867–94), and elsewhere, Marx frequently refers to ghosts, hauntings, and other mystical images in order to explain the often elusive and shadowy ways in which everyday objects become fetishized and to evocatively describe the figurative bloodletting effected by capitalist forces. The specter also proves to be a fitting image for the workings of ideology, which can often seem so mysterious and haunting; demonic possession serves as an apt metaphor for the ways in which our actions can be manipulated by ideological mechanisms that we may not even recognize. Of course, Marx actually saw religion as a possession of sorts, famously writing that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx, “Contribution to the Critique” 54). Indeed, Marx proclaims that “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” (53), which makes the significance of religion in his worldview quite clear. His critique of religion also plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s only major engagement with Marxist thought, Specters of Marx (1994), in which he remarks upon “the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion, to ideology as religion, mysticism, or theology, in his analysis of ideology in general” (185). As Derrida says elsewhere, “Religion . . . was never one ideology among others for Marx” (51); in other words, all ideology functions as religion.
This concept will be particularly important in this chapter for two reasons. First, Conrad’s well-documented religious skepticism suggests that he too sensed a fundamental connection between religion and ideology. Second, this religion/ideology nexus informs other important theoretical formulations that will help us understand what Conrad is up to in Nostromo, particularly Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power (1997). In her chapter on Althusser, she wonders why “the mention of conscience in Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ has received little critical attention, even though the term, taken together with the example of religious authority to illustrate the force of ideology, suggests that the theory of ideology is supported by a complicated set of theological metaphors” (109). She goes on to argue that “although Althusser explicitly introduces ‘the Church’ merely as an example of ideological interpellation, it appears that ideology in his terms cannot be thought except through the metaphorics of religious authority” (109). As we will see, the function of ideology in Nostromo also intersects with religion, in both direct and indirect ways. As in Marx, we find a confluence of both theological and mystical imagery, particularly in relation to the characters’ various ideological commitments.
More specifically, Butler’s remarks help us appreciate how Conrad also uses “religious authority to illustrate the force of ideology” via the Azuera parable, which maligns the gringos as “heretics” who would have been spared their spectral slavery had they (like Christians) renounced their earthly treasure. The effect is that the poor (who would seem to be most of Costaguana’s population) associate “by an obscure instinct of consolation the ideas of evil and wealth” (5), which serves to reinforce the hegemony of the ruling class by virtue of the fact that the poor’s perception of wealth as “evil” arrests their desire to pursue it themselves. By linking the aspiration to accrue wealth with sin, the parable serves as a haunting reminder for the lower classes of the dangers inherent in attempting (or even desiring) to transcend their social class. The Azuera parable propagates what Stephen Ross calls a “slave morality,” which “keeps the people of Sulaco satisfied in their poverty while the material interests get rich” (Conrad and Empire 132). The Azuera parable is instrumental in showing how what Althusser calls the “Ideological State Apparatus” works in service of the ruling class by covertly warning the lower classes not to challenge the social order lest they fall victim—as do the treasure-hunting gringos—to “the fatal spell of their success” (6). It is essential that we recognize, then, that while religious ideology in the novel might initially appear at odds with the “material interests” with which the characters of the ruling class are primarily concerned, the two are in fact continuous. As Althusser reminds us, “What unifies their [i.e., the various Institutional State Apparatuses: religious, educational, private, political, cultural, etc.] diversity is precisely this functioning, insofar as the ideology by which they function is always in fact unified, despite its diversity and its contradictions, beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of ‘the ruling class’” (146). In one way or another, all the characters in Nostromo find themselves serving the material interests of the ruling class, either consciously or unconsciously.
As the title character, Nostromo is the lynchpin not only of the plot but of the novel’s exploration of how ideology intersects with subject formation. The title of the novel, according to Benita Parry, “functions as a metonym for an ethos that, by consecrating the private ownership of property, legitimises the concept of the person as possession” (102–3). This is certainly true, and Nostromo (“our man”) turns out to be the greatest possession of all. It is thus via Nostromo that this warning against challenging the social order comes full circle when he “appears in his full dimensions as a vision of the Imperial sub...

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