Saturday, March 31, 2012

Conrad's Radioactive Plebs

This is more or less the text from a recent presentation on Conrad's The Secret Agent, radioactivity rhetoric, and late nineteenth-century governmentality. I presented it at a Dickens conference, so a paper on a 20th century novel (1907) by another canonical yet, perhaps, antithetical novelist seemed like an odd choice.



The Secret Agent’s Radioactive Plebs:
A Twentieth-Century Simple Tale of Nineteenth-Century Governmentality

In The Secret Agent, A Simple Tale’s 1920 preface, Joseph Conrad defines his novel as the tale of “Mrs. Verloc’s maternal passion” (250) presented through an “ironic treatment” (251) capable of providing the critical distance necessary to keep Winnie’s story disengaged “from its obscurity in that immense town,” London, long enough to examine her “surroundings” and her “humanity” instead of her “psychology” or “soul.” By reducing Winnie’s story “to manageable proportions” (250), Conrad transforms that story into the focal point of The Secret Agent’s examination of how contingent surroundings engulf an individual; by re-focusing The Secret Agent’s readers on surroundings, humanity, and Winnie, Conrad gestures towards the specific target of his ironic “simple tale of the XIX century” (2): a tripartite formation of governmentality aiming “at a direct grasp upon humanity” (65) not only prevalent during the end of the nineteenth century but also taking its condition of possibility from the widely disseminated rhetoric of the second law of thermodynamics. While this paper won’t refute The Secret Agent’s concern with and utilization of the rhetoric of entropy (an irrevocable aspect of not only the novel but its critical heritage), it will argue that Conrad uncovers entropy as the very condition of possibility for the novel’s various governmentalities – the rationalizations and techniques of power seeking to conduct the conduct of a population. By arguing for entropy’s centrality to the operations of governmentality, this essay will instead posit a new agent provocateur – Winnie – whose irradiating vitality can be seen as drawn from the rhetoric of radioactivity emerging during the first years of the twentieth century.
Because of its apparently endless production of heat and its seemingly undiminishable storehouse of energy, at the turn of the nineteenth-century radium presented not only the dominant theories of energy with an impasse, it also challenged those theories of social and moral degeneration predicated on the second law of thermodynamics. In the years immediately before The Secret Agent’s publication, radium posed a threat to the very condition of possibility running through the physical, biological, and social sciences because as a form of self-generating energy radium subverted the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. Standing on the margins of the then dominant paradigm within the physical, biological, and social sciences (and through them, governmentality), radium and radioactivity appeared as mysteries, and increasingly the phrase “mystery of radium,” itself drawing on the phrase “mystery of life,” assumed cultural ubiquity (Campos 10-11) For contemporary readers, Conrad’s use of “vitality” and “mystery” would have in large part resonated with discourses surrounding radioactivity, which not only linked life and mystery with radium, but also pervaded all levels of culture, from scientific and literary journals to daily and illustrated newspapers (13).
            It is in the context of this precarious discursive field stretched between the initial moment of radium’s discovery in 1898 and its final assimilation within normative scientific and cultural discourses – in that moment when a “new fact is not quite a scientific fact at all” (Kuhn 53) – that both Winnie Verloc’s mysteriousness and The Secret Agent’s “ironic method” should be read. The Secret Agent does not recapitulate the previous century’s rhetoric and governmentalities of entropy, but rather stages a criticism of their very condition of possibility from a vantage point wherein their paradigmatic certainty – their ability to see a fact as a fact – comes into question. Such paradigmatic and discursive flux provides Conrad just such a startling fact. The startling anomaly of radioactivity – not yet assimilated into a scientific fact by 1907 – provided Conrad a figure through which he could critique the dominant model of governmentality during the end of the nineteenth century. Because radium undermined the very same condition of possibility Conrad located at the heart of governmentality, once fictionalized through Winnie Verloc it could anarchistically explode the operations of governmentality from within.
The Professor provides insight into the general operations of The Secret Agent’s various governmentalities. Differentiating himself from those he elsewhere derides as the “multitude” (240), the Professor diagrams the structure and operations of the novel’s governmentality: “They depend on life, which, in this connection is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point” (55). Here “life” is both contingent (historical fact) and constructed (organised fact). For both the Professor and Conrad, life and “humanity” (65; 251) contain no a priori essence forever elusive of power; rather, they form mediums through which “they” – a multitude of individuals – becomes imbricated within a governmental field. Because of a radical ontological division between living being (they) and nonliving being (restraints and considerations) any “attack” will here involve the mediating agents “life” and “humanity.” Living being is here transformed into an exchangeable unit through which governmentality can appropriate its own requisite energy or vitality. Within the novel, governmentalities function through the support of a historical fact without a priori essence, which is created by and for those very operations: life.
            Further, the Professor’s comments delineate late nineteenth-century governmentality’s constitutive, signatory procedure: energy transfer enacted through the reduction of living being to exchangeable forms of “life” appropriable by local governmentalities. That this transferal between living being and governmentality operates through a specific conception of energy can be illustrated by Winnie’s imbrication within a discursive apparatus of governmentality. Operating through heat, the byproduct of energy loss, “the words, ‘The drop was fourteen feet’” scratch Winnie’s body with a “burning,” “hot needle.” At this intersection between living being and governmentality, heat serves as both product and producer. As if released by the very act of energy transfer from Winnie to discursive governmentality, such heat becomes, at bottom, the medium through which Winnie’s surroundings engulf her.
This duplicity of heat within such a procedure of energy transfer indicates more than just the operations of bio-governmentality within The Secret Agent. Rather, that heat can be both product and producer underlines the fundamental role the widely disseminated rhetoric of thermodynamics’ second law plays for the novel’s various governmentalities. As Winnie’s heat-seared brain evidences, entropic energy transfer as conceived by the second law of thermodynamics forms the condition of possibility for the novel’s various governmentalities. According to thermodynamics’ first law, energy cannot be created or destroyed; however, the second law stipulates both that energy not converted into production is lost through friction in the form of heat and that this process of energy loss tends towards a maximum state of entropy (Whitworth 43). Although first theorized in 1824, the second law’s full cultural impact was not felt until the end of the century. What was at first a physical law crossed over into the biological sciences as a way to explain an impasse in Darwinian natural selection: if culture reduced the pressures of natural selection, variation would dwindle and biological forms would increasingly degenerate (Whitworth 43). Biological degeneracy, taking its rationalization from the second law of thermodynamics, quickly spread into social and moral criticism, primarily because of the proximity between the social/biological sciences and evolutionary theory.
Certainly such a yoking of physical, biological, and social sciences provided a cogent platform through which end of the century anxieties over imperial expansion and urban intensification were worked out; nevertheless, entropy and degeneracy functioned as more than metaphorical anodynes for an anxious age. As The Secret Agent displays, entropy and degeneracy form the very ground for fin de si├Ęcle governmentalities, perhaps most observable in the Lombrosian criminology it ironizes and employs, which functions only because its practices of veridiction and jurisdiction operate accordingly to the division between modern and atavistic types. What marks a subject as criminal is, simply, the criminal trait; but what marks a trait as criminal is its placement upon a ground of degeneration. The criminal trait is criminal because it evidences atavistic biological degeneration. Without this division between atavistic and contemporary types, Lombrosian criminology could never operate its practices of veridiction (who is/is not a criminal) or jurisdiction (who can/cannot be subject to penal law).
Entropy and degeneration function significantly within The Secret Agent’s other instantiations of governmentality such as state security – a key term for the Foucauldian frame I am working within. Through his “vocation of a protector of society” (5), Verloc strives simply to maintain the equilibrium of the “social mechanism,” not to perfect it (increase its energy) or to criticize it (decrease its energy) (12). Crudely, Verloc guards “the source of wealth” against “the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labor” (10) in order to prevent the diminishment of finite wealth through downward redistribution. Economically, entropy is both anarchistic and productive. Without the perceived threat of entropic wealth redistribution, the state security performed by Verloc becomes inconceivable.  For the novel’s apparatus of security, entropy serves as an anarchistic force necessitating the practices not only of Verloc, but also Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner, both of whom enact what Winnie adroitly claims as the purpose of the police: “‘They are there so that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’” (138).
That entropy functions as the constitutive force of The Secret Agent’s governmentalities brings us closer to their limit. As a more-or-less self contained regimes of truth, The Secret Agent’s governmentalities remain open to “sudden holes in space and time” (68). Because its mechanisms function through divisions between the knowable and the unknowable, the practicable the impracticable, and, further, because these divisions themselves operate only by drawing their very possibility from understandings of entropy, degeneration, and dissipation, the dominant governmentality in the novel breakdowns when confronted by self-generating life or energy.
This is precisely what occurs at the heart of The Secret Agent, the “domestic drama” of Winnie Verloc’s maternal passion. To the novel’s dominant form of governmentality, this passion represents a radical exception. While the rest of the novel’s world appeared to Conrad as dying a slow solar death, Winnie’s “maternal passion grew up into a flame between [him] and that background, tingeing it with its secret ardour” (250). Such juxtaposition between a self-generating maternal flame and a dying sun indicates both the zero-point in the play between power and resistance possible within the novel’s field of governmentalities and the potential conditions of possibility for a revolutionary model of governmentality resonate with the rhetoric of radioactivity emerging at the opening of the twentieth century. Because the novel takes as its task the critique of how an individual “life” becomes imbricated within in its “surroundings” (regimes of governmentality) and those surroundings operate through entropic energy transfer, Winnie’s “vigour of vitality” (244) represents the deepest level of that critique.
Winnie Verloc never ceases to be a mystery. Conrad first introduces her through her “unfathomable glance” (7) and closes the novel with ironic reiterations of the press’s attempt to frame her as an “impenetrable mystery” (242-246). Hers is an epistemologically mobile and methodologically contingent mystery: confronted with an epistemological blank, the novel’s characters either attempt to inscribe upon it (Verloc reads Winnie’s sorrow in relation to a presupposed domestic devotion; Heat reads Winnie’s ignorance as concealed knowledge [164]) or flee from it when inscription becomes impossible (Ossipon’s terrified abandonment). What anxiety Winnie induces arises from a reserve of energy always already in excess of her surroundings. As Verloc frantically complains, “There is no saying how much of what’s going on you have got hold of on the sly with your infernal don’t-care-a-damn way of looking nowhere in particular, and saying nothing at all” (204). Verloc surmises that Winnie has been storehousing information (and through it, power over him), but her very method (indifferent silence) renders such surmises impotent. While Bev Soane reads Winnie’s withdrawal as means of coping with her domestic monotony (4), I read such withdrawal as a more profound yet intentionless resistance to her imbrication within the novel’s dominant form of governmentality. Just to the other side of that horizon demarcating the knowable from the unknowable, the practicable from the impracticable within the novel, Winnie and her mystery stand in for what Foucault defines as “plebs, the permanent, ever silent target for apparatuses of power” (“Power and Strategies” 137). Plebs forms power relations’ limit, underside, and counterstroke precisely because of its location at the very threshold marking the application of power on the body. Accordingly, plebs responds to power “by a movement of disengagement” possible through “an inverse energy” (138).
In a novel otherwise dominated by forms of dissipation, Winnie Verloc’s “vigor of vitality” (244) represents just such an “inverse energy,” which is evident in Verloc’s terminal confrontation with Winnie’s vitality. Emerging from the other side of her condensed, energetic, and kairotic memories, Winnie undergoes a flash of self-generation and unaccountable growth – “And incredible as it may appear, the eyes of Mrs. Verloc seemed to grow larger still” (206) – that increasingly gathers force until it explodes with “the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms” (208). While “anybody could have noted the subtle change on [Winnie’s] features” (206), the energetic transformation underlying such a change falls outside the scope and capacity of Verloc, who “observed nothing” (207). Verloc’s fatal blindness results from his paradigmatic embeddedness within a governmentality predicated on entropy. More so in this scene than anywhere else in his lethargic existence, Mr. Verloc embodies the novel’s pervasive entropy. Pushed by the strain of the day’s actions, Verloc finds the “last particle of his nervous force had been expended” (205). Distended and supine, Verloc “observed nothing” of Winnie’s self-transformation because “he was reposing in that pathetic condition of optimism induced by excess of fatigue” (207). Lacking energy himself, Verloc can neither see nor account for Winnie’s radical form of energy, her ferocity and fury, because from the perspective of entropy and degeneration, self-generating energy is, in this case, invisible.
But even when characters notice Winnie’s energy it remains unintelligible. Having violently and ineffectually confronted Winnie’s “adamantine face” (235) with Lombrosian criminology, Ossipon nevertheless discerns beyond the “white mask of despair” a “vigour of vitality, a love of life that could resist the furious anguish which drives to murder and the fear, the blind, mad fear of the gallows” (244). Such a vigor of vitality remains for Ossipon a haunting mystery that “menaced” him “in the very sources of his existence” (243); accordingly, this vitality is unaccountable to criminal anthropology, employed here by Ossipon, because in drawing its very possibility from an entropic conception of energy and life, such governmentality finds itself inoperable when confronted with non-entropic energy and life. If Winnie’s energy had dissipated through a continued conflict with her surroundings (terror and despair) as stipulated by the second law of thermodynamics, she would appear intelligible to Ossipon. Instead, the tension between life and its surroundings, between Winnie and various governmentalities, only generates more energy, which for Ossipon explodes in a “gust of confidence and gratitude” (236).
What type of energy animates Winnie? While Conrad’s framing of Winnie’s ferocity and fury as belonging to the “age of caverns” and the “age of bar-rooms” draw on both the rhetoric of atavism and degeneracy within Lombrosian criminology, their disturbingly generative operations run counter to that governmentality’s condition of possibility, the second law of thermodynamics. Winnie’s vitality is a divergent fact unaccountable within the novel’s dominant forms of power/knowledge, its local dispositifs and global governmentality. This divergent fact and its expression as “vitality” resonate with the discourse of radioactivity emerging during the first years of the twentieth century, at which time scientific and popular writings about radioactivity incessantly mobilized the rhetoric of Vitalism to such a degree that radioactivity became framed discursively as both a vital and a vitalizing force.  Through his radioactive plebs, Winnie Verloc, Conrad became, as he notes enigmatically in 1920, “an extreme revolutionist” (251) – in science and in governmentality.

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