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Woke Culture on the Conrad Industry: 

Alice M. Kelly’s Decolonising the Conrad Canon

Yael Levin


Decolonising the Conrad Canon

Alice M. Kelly

Liverpool UP, 2022

264 pp. $139.69


In “The Anti-Racist Educator Collective’s video on Decolonising the Curriculum” (2020), Navan Govender unpacks the way colonialism venerates sameness. According to Govender, the colonial project promotes and fixes a canon founded on monoculturalism and monolingualism. Alice M. Kelly’s Decolonising the Conrad Canon takes its cue from Govendor’s call to provide plurality in the place of the same, a call to consider multiple ways of knowing and of doing. Kelly’s vision of how Govender’s prompt might be applied to a reconsideration of Conrad’s work is summed up in the closing pages of her book. She writes: 

The colonial canon does not require our faith or fidelity, as modern readers, because it is, at base, a lie constructed to tell the story that some bodies are human, and others are not. … The first step in decolonising the curriculum, then, is the simple understanding that the singular genius of the white male author-God cannot and does not represent universal human experience. This is not a radical suggestion. (231)

The summary reflects both the strength and weakness of Kelly’s work. Decolonising the Conrad Canon makes for a compelling rereading of Conrad’s Lingard Trilogy; it offers many engaging and illuminating chapters to support its ambitious premise. The argument is accompanied by nuanced and productive readings of the novels in question. We are introduced into sexual dynamics and details of identity that have not yet been tapped by critical readers. These are rewarding finds. 


The book is weakened only by the same lack of intellectual humility that it diagnoses and warns against in the very tradition it aims to dismantle. Colonialism, dead white writers, gloomy white men, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy and the Conrad label make up one loosely connected conceptual category that lacks nuance and depth. These labels are oftentimes interchangeable under the banner of a corrupt, dehumanizing source of enduring trauma. The Conrad canon and its traditional critical reception is made to bear the brunt of this charge – as Kelly suggests that it is his readers, perhaps even more so than the author himself, who have made him a dehumanizing author. My discomfort with the discourse used here is not ideological. We agree that colonialism is corrupt, that the patriarchy fixes inequality and that heteronormativity needs to be challenged. Where I disagree with Kelly’s method is in her choice of language and tone and the way she channels populist discourse. Kelly sets out by making the following claim:

I personally think it is possible to engage with a text, be moved by words on a page, without foregoing every other principle you bring with you to that text. I believe there is a way to read dead white men as products of our time, without losing our humanity, without eliding or perpetuating the inhumanity of which Achebe writes. (7)

The insistence that we have been dehumanizing ourselves in reading this multitude of authors, rendered interchangeable as so many “dead white men,” is not only dismissive of the unique vision of each, but also of the varied and honest critical endeavors their work has generated. 


My reading of Decolonising the Conrad Canon is an attempt to read beyond this rhetoric. The book’s introduction, where much of this form of thinking and proselytizing is focused, frames the book in a way that is conceptually unhelpful. Where the rest of the book offers critically engaging insights on Conrad’s Trilogy, rigorous close readings of the novels that are accompanied by interesting and often original intermedial juxtapositions, the introduction offers populist ideas that are backed by a mixture of theoretical discourses that are not always immediately relevant or fair. The language is manipulative rather than analytic. Because of this, the opening chapter weakens rather than supports the project. The introduction would have better served the book, to my mind, if it had articulated what the subsequent chapters actually show. That is, that Conrad’s writing is not single but multiple; it undermines the conceptual collocation of “dead white” authors by creating subversive, queer, lesbian, hybrid textual spaces that challenge the colonial project and imperial discourse, that question gender hierarchy and upset the foundations of heteronormativity. Though subsequent chapters of Kelly’s book demonstrate this, it is not in this vein that the book sets out. Instead, this book frames the project in the form of a correction of a single Conrad canon founded on a monologic tradition of Conrad criticism. 


According to Kelly, this critical tradition reinforces a Conrad label that will forever mark the author as a dehumanizing force. Such a message is supported by Kelly’s repeated invocations of the work of transmodernist critic David Earle, who inspires her project and serves as its theoretical foundation. Quoting from his work, Kelly writes: “In ‘today’s Conrad industry’, ‘Conradian’ signifies the highbrow, worthy, philosophical output of a singularly extraordinary white male genius (whose ‘genius’ resides in this writing about white men)” (135). Conradians reading this introduction will feel that this is a grossly oversimplified view of both Conrad and “the Conrad industry.” The so-called industry is much more diverse than Kelly’s argument would allow. This statement might have been applied to the Conrad criticism of the 1950s and 1960s, but it fails to recognise the work that has been done on Conrad’s women and his Malay fiction, for example. Conrad criticism has taken on board successive theoretical revisions: feminism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, animal studies, disability studies, ecocriticism and the planetary. The repetition of this caricature of “the Conrad industry” throughout the book is unjust to the industry that will ultimately promote it.


The review essay offered here will be in two parts. The first will be devoted to Kelly’s productive and engaging rereading of Conrad’s fiction and the intermedial juxtapositions she presents. The second will offer a dedicated reflection on the direction in critical thought and methodology that is presented in the book. My aim is to consider the discourses that deepen the divide between two academic stances – between those who believe it is their duty to read and teach the Western tradition even as they acknowledge its limitations – and those who believe that if they teach it, it is against their better judgement. This latter group would include those (like Kelly) who feel they would have to refer to it with a dismissive tone in order to maintain their humanity. The divide, I would argue, is more rhetorical than ideological. I will end with some thoughts on how we might move beyond this ideological and critical impasse. 


1. Rereading Conrad

The first part of the book focuses on female homeroticism in The Rescue. The discussion is anticipated by a return to “Freya of the Seven Isles” and a rewriting of its triangular desire. We are to view the sexual dynamic not as a love triangle between Freya; the English captain, Jasper Allen; and the Dutch naval officer, Heemskirk; but between Freya, Antonia (her maid) and Jasper. This strategy of rewriting will return in the book – and for good reason. The rewriting of the terms of Conrad’s plots of triangular desire is a productive way of refocusing our gaze on the female characters and eliciting textual dynamics that would otherwise escape our notice. 


A second introductory frame to her reading of The Rescue takes the form of a survey of existing studies of homoeroticism in Conrad. Kelly opens by engaging with Richard Ruppel’s Homosexuality in the Life and Works of Joseph Conrad (2008). She claims that the book’s privileging of male homosexuality results in the dismissal and marginalization of female homoeroticism. Such privileging, she goes on to argue, is demonstrative of the way in which Conrad criticism produces the author as a male author, a “man’s man” (Ruppel 1). Sharon Marcus’s Between Woman (2007) is brought in to support Kelly’s attempt to correct this critical blind spot. Marcus’s book argues that female relationships and identities are distorted by critics’ inability to read them outside their relation to men. Kelly circumvents this critical trap in her own study of The Rescue by focusing on the relationship between Edith Travers and Immada. Where Kelly’s analysis offers an alternative entry into the text, the next section of the discussion looks to early magazine illustrations of the two women characters to demonstrate that the tendency to see women as nothing but the extensions of male protagonists is already a paratextual given. The intermedial comparison with the serialized novel is not brought as a new strategy – Kelly acknowledges that much critical work has already been devoted to these illustrations and the way they met (or failed to meet) their author’s approbation. She intervenes in this existing discussion in order to reflect on the limitations of assessments of these illustrations that use the author’s intent as a measure for their success (as evidenced in the work of Joyce Wexler, Laura Davis, Linda Dryden and Susan Jones). She claims such studies deny “the disruptive potential of the periodical setting” (91); they tell us more about the author than they do about his text, his readers and his characters. If she returns to these illustrations, then, it is not in order to consider them in light of Conrad’s expectations, but to highlight the way in which these characters are seen by the illustrator, the editor and their readers. Kelly’s analysis of the illustrations offers visual support for Marcus’s thesis: the art that accompanies the stories shows these women to be superficial extensions of the male protagonist with no life of their own. 


The following chapter reconstructs Aïssa’s character in An Outcast of the Islands. It argues that the critical reception of the novel mistreats her character when it reads her as a foil to the white male’s ambition and potential, a figure for temptation that paves the way to the familiar colonial horror scripts of “going native.” Kelly acknowledges work by Susan Jones, Henry Selwell, Robert Hampson and others who show Aïssa’s character to be a powerful force in her own right. But she claims that these writers fail to recognize the subversive potential of the character, the way Aïssa troubles the racial hierarchies of colonialism. Kelly unearths this potential by focusing on the character’s eloquence and desire. It is in these narrative spaces where Aïssa is voiced that Kelly locates a passionate demonstration of the limitations of the colonizers and the assumptions on which their supremacy is founded. Homi Bhabha’s concept of mimicry is used in order to unpack the subversive nature of Aïssa’s imitation of the white culture that Willems forces on her. Kelly claims that in doing so, Willems unwittingly gives Aïssa the language and space to dismantle the very culture he wishes to impose. 


Kelly argues that by consistently returning to the question of the disintegration of white identity in the undoing of Willems’s character, critical readings neglect the no-less significant expression of Aïssa’s identity and the way in which her voice pierces the colonial register of the novel. Taking leave of this interpretative focus, she sees the novel’s conclusion not as a crime of passion (as suggested by Susan Jones) but rather as an act of political protest. As a result, she suggestively reads the conclusion not as the strengthening of the conceptual coupling of miscegenation and degeneration (a coupling born of colonial ideology) but rather as the empowerment of a subordinated, captive woman of color. 


This reading of the novel is followed by a second intermedial juxtaposition. Kelly presents cover illustrations of the pulp paperback editions of the novel published between 1959 and 1966. Here too, Aïssa is presented as nothing more than a supporting character, a force of seduction or temptation that emerges as a foil to the protagonist. The comparison shows that the character is not only critically but also paratextually misrepresented. 


This addition weakens the convincing theoretical introduction that precedes it. The discussion of the illustrations is framed by an elaboration of the process of pulping modernism, an idea taken from Paula Robinowitz’s American Pulp (2014) and the previously mentioned Earle. But where the theory suggests that the pulping of Conrad’s canon should have a transgressive, liberating and democratizing effect – one that would lend support to the project of decolonizing Conrad – the presentation of the covers seems to do the opposite. The discussion concludes with the suggestion that though embracing the trashiness of the pulp paperback can unlock the subversive potential of a text (an argument promoted by David Glover and Scott McCracken), here, it does not. 


A further issue I would take with this intermedial addition is its conflation of sixties paperbacks with the volumes of Conrad criticism that have been been written since. Kelly does not do justice to the many ways in which Conrad readers have worked to liberate his women characters from the traditional blind spots of gender and sex. 


The last part of the book focuses on the three women of color in Almayer’s Folly. Nina, Taminah and Mrs. Almayer become the focal points of Kelly’s reading of the novel; the relationships between them are read as the dynamics on which the novel is structured. Kelly begins by contextualizing her own project alongside existing feminist readings of the novel and staking her contribution to this corpus. Kelly claims that where previous feminist readings still view the characters as counters or foils, the objects that form the backdrop to the experiences and identity of the white subject, she looks to these women as subjects in their own right. A brief critical survey (dating back at the very least to Robert Hampson’s 1992 Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity) will show this statement is easily refuted. Where Kelly is certainly departing from existing critical readings is in her claim that the novel is not about white men but about South Asian women. The ideology behind this rereading is clear, and its critical value is great. The tendency to present her readings as correct and all others as morally suspect, however, begs questions. This may well be a story of South Asian women and not of European men, but we cannot claim that it is not also the latter. The idea that our various readings of the story must be corrected – or, rather, that the novel must be read a certain way – is suggestive of a new aesthetic yardstick that no longer does justice to the text (which clearly houses a white protagonist and his story and point of view), but to externally imposed moral parameters. 


Nina’s mixed race is beautifully unpacked in the chapter. Kelly follows other readers’ example in drawing our attention to the ways in which the character’s hybridity becomes an obstacle to both her white and Malay acolytes. This textual analysis comes with a moral admonition to Conrad’s readers:

To find this kind of resonant anti-colonial critique – powerful, piercing, delivered by a mixed-race young woman – in the depths of the colonial literary archive, reminds us that when we decide to record European cultural history through the work of dead white men, and when we make a further choice to remember that work as being populated by dying white men (‘a Kurtz, a Jim, or a Heyst’), we are also making a choice to forget characters like Nina, who are not dead, not white, not male. Nina emerges from within the recesses of the Conrad archive to renounce the hierarchies by which such racialised cultural distinctions have been built. Nina’s voice is a breathing space. (174)  

This breathing space likewise emerges in her reading of the character of Mrs. Almayer. Kelly claims that, like Aïssa in An Outcast, Mrs. Almayer is presented as the realization of derogatory colonial stereotypes and their destabilization. The codes of European culture that determine her monstrosity are undermined by her character’s strength, will and devotion to her daughter. In turning to Taminah’s character, Kelly again overturns the parameters of the triangular desire presented in the story. Rather than view it as a product of a heteronormative competition between the women over Dain, Kelly teases out the dynamics of lesbian desire. Against the grain of the text, she offers a reading whereby the rivalry over Dain becomes a rivalry over Nina. 


The last intermedial comparison offered brings the novel into dialogue with Chantal Akerman’s La Folie Almayer (2011). The intermedial comparison, more so than others explored before it, is more in tune with the ideology that motivates the study in its entirety. Rather than rehearse the biases of a heteronormative, colonial reading, this film rendition undermines ideological traditionalism. The difference between Akerman’s film and the popular visual representations may well be traced to chronology; the earlier examples take us back to the early and mid-twentieth century and offer less room for ideological subversion. It might also be argued that unlike the artefacts of popular culture, Akerman’s avant-garde production is more likely to be oriented to ideological subversion.


This last comparative study is prefaced by a productive and illuminating introduction to adaptation and remediation theory. Adaptation is viewed as part of a wider expression of participatory culture and the way it offers readers and viewers a method to expand the textual archive by recreating it through personal stories and perspectives. Adaptation leans on identity, subjectivity and personal experience. Akerman’s work is a case in point. She rewrites Nina’s story as an extension of her own. In doing so the film unfolds as a revision of the colonial archive: 

The colonial archive is therefore represented here through the movements, perspective and dilemmas of a woman of color, meaning that those bodies of the dying white male (anti-) heroes we have grown so used to finding in the Conrad canon lose their authority as its only resonance-bearing, meaning-making occupants. This version of the Conrad archive, instead, comes to account for a more plural sense of the dissonant desires, bodies and voices that are written out of imperial memory. As an example of the way such dissonant breathing spaces can be extracted from the Conrad archive, remade, reperformed and returned to it, La Folie Almayer is therefore a crucial text for the future of a feminist, postcolonial Conrad canon and an exemplary model for how the work of dead white men can be retooled to circulate a more inclusive cultural air. (227) 

Kelly’s suggestion here is incredibly productive. By seeking out meaningful intermedial resonances and effective rewritings of Conrad’s work we can bring Conrad back into the classroom and engage anew with his writing. I admire Kelly not only for envisioning a Conradian afterlife but for fashioning a methodology that will facilitate it. 


2. Dead White Men

There is a Machiavellian quality to Kelly’s introduction. It presents interpretations and assumptions as fact; it uses metaphors of battle and passion to raise the stakes of the critical question, and it presents binary opposition in the place of nuance and connection. Generalizations and metonymies are rhetorically effective. And Kelly uses them to convince us that the “Conrad label” is corrupt. As she will write in closing, in a comment on Michael Atkinson’s 2016 review of La Folie Almayer:

There is something about the world of Conrad, or ‘the bush of Conradistan’ (Atkinson, 2016, 96) as Atkinson calls it, that allows the lexicon of colonialism to creep into public discourse, that makes it socially acceptable in December 2016 to describe Aurora Marion as a ‘Belgian-Greek-Rwandan beauty’, rather than an actor, or to call her ‘half-blood’ or ‘temptress’. Sticky ‘Conrad’ permits the recirculation of words in colonial ways. It is OK, because ‘Conrad’ makes it so. Here again, we see how insidiously a ‘Conradian’ vocabulary empowers certain bodies to speak while excluding others from cultural production. (217)

A Conradian critic might find the idea of a “Conrad label” odd. To an insider, the group is too heterogenous to be represented as a unity; we all turn to different concepts, ideas, methodologies and perspectives when we think about his writing. Given this diversity, what might a Conrad industry be? Where might we locate it? Is it outside our critical discussion? Or are we all complicit? Kelly seems to be arguing that the latter is true. If this is the case then we are all to blame for the Conrad brand standing for male, heteronormative colonial power, cisgender society, the patriarchy, imperialism and whiteness. Such a claim grates against our impression that, in this critical moment, Conrad is generating critical readings that undermine and complicate such a unified cultural product. Critical readers of Conrad have for decades questioned the principles of heteronormativity and colonialism in the writing. They have long since argued for Conrad’s explosive, revolutionary and moral value. Readers of Kelly’s book who are familiar with Conrad criticism might thus feel that it is unjust to claim that “the bodies who are put together in this space, in the ‘Conradian’ discourse Foucault’s work suggests is attached to his name, can only follow the expected tracks of their heteropatriarchal, imperial roles in the scholarship, regardless of how they actually move within the texts” (15).


Kelly is most convincing when she turns from generalizations to textual detail. When she traces the ways in which critics reiterate the term “Kurtz’s mistress” in their own writing, she persuasively shows how they fix the character’s role as an object of white heteronormative desire and deny her independent subjectivity outside Kurtz’s role in the text. That we do this is true. It is because we follow her denomination in the text. The text sets the two women side by side in a clear hierarchical distinction. One is the Intended, the other a mistress. Both are satellites of Kurtz’s fading image. In keeping with the insights offered earlier, wherein our roles as critical readers have shifted, perhaps Kelly is suggesting that we no longer follow the text but correct it, that we do justice to the values of current readers of our prose and not the concepts.


Heart of Darkness figures widely in this introduction. The chapter’s premise is that this text should be excised from the canon. We should move on to other texts where otherness is given life, where the death throes of the white anti-heroes can be relegated to the margin. Kelly asks: “what life force is sustained by a text like Heart of Darkness? To what entity might this work give cultural oxygen? Whiteness, of course” (21). We might offer the counter argument that the text effectively takes some of the oxygen out of the still-powerful discourses of colonialism and empire, but according to Kelly, this particular text is beyond redemption. And the introduction uses the novella as a metonymy for the Conrad label in its entirety: both are corrupt. 


These generalizations are complemented by the language of psychoanalysis for rhetorical effect. Psycholanalytic figures are used here to cancel out the possibility for any rational debate. Rewriting Achebe’s critical argument about Conrad through the prism of their critics battling over love objects means that any attempt to challenge the argument can be read as a form of libidinal resistance. If we question Achebe’s argument it is not because of critical merit but because of libidinal drives; it is resistance rather than critical insight. Those of us who might argue with Achebe need a cure.


The distinction between the two men produces a lasting binary structure to the moral outlook presented throughout. The book deals with two warring camps. The first is synonymous with privilege, with the patriarchy, imperialism and colonialism, all summed up in the figure of the white, heteronormative, cisgender male. The second is associated with the marginalized, the culturally displaced and the disenfranchised, summed up in the figure of the woman of color. The first is also associated with “oneness” – a unity and purity that appears to be enacted in the ideological debris of the discourse and ideology that such a camp creates, one that haunts us to this day. That the same oneness and purity emerges in the critical discourse that aligns itself with the second camp is obviously troubling – but here it is presented as necessary and moral. The double standard faulted in the oppressive regime of history reemerges in new form in the revisionist discourse where it goes unchecked. 


The book also offers an interesting test case for the intermingling of academic and popular discourses and the rhetorical effects of such a strategy. The African-American fan communities’ veneration of Bill Cosby is seen as a valid parallel to the white veneration of the western white canon. The comparison has little critical merit. Those of her readers who are not reading critically, however, will probably find the point convincing (even if it is unfair). She casts the literary critic as a social and discursive diagnostician whose role it is to pick the pure from the impure, to show where her predecessors (even those that are well meaning) fail to acknowledge oppression, and where they are complicit in further promoting such violence. 


The muffling of the difference between critical and popular discourse is not without theoretical foundation; it is in keeping with a general shift in critical thinking towards inter- or transdisciplinarity, a mode of thinking that calls for the breaking of disciplinary boundaries and the non-hierarchical sharing of a form of knowledge that is more accessible to a wider audience. The implementation of such crossovers, however, is not free of the possibilities of manipulation. Whether consciously or not, certain generalizations and metonymic uses of theory distort where nuance might have offered a more accurate picture. More honesty would also have been welcome in the noting of existing critical work that does precisely what Kelly argues Conrad critics do not do, and that is to unpack racial and gender stereotypes and to read the works against the grain of colonial and gender commonplaces.


I enjoyed this book even as I objected to the populistic tactics that make it less than it could be. Kelly casts her fellow Conradians at the start in the role of the Intended. We are enthralled with a genius, and we will not hear the truth that is whispered to us from within his pages. We love Conrad’s writing, that is true. But I think we have all been listening to the silences of his texts for years now. Kelly has brought another, important silence into play. But her suggestion that there is a right way to read Conrad, and that her role as critic is to cancel out or undermine all other, existing interpretations is a preaching of sameness that appears to be at odds with her initial premise.


Kelly suggests that one should read differently, that reading is a profoundly personal and subjective enterprise and that she who reads should be more important than he who writes. Kelly demonstrates such a methodology in her choice to read these novels for their lesbian context, to tease out of the narrative spaces left open a queer female desire. In so doing she constructs a personal canon that serves her project as a rival for the western canon. The idea of a “personal” canon is an oxymoron of sorts, once again placing the personal and the subjective in the place of an accepted, sedimented and plural project that has stood the test of time. The canon was originally a choice made by a select committee, an elite with the power to exclude. Kelly’s reading of Conrad demonstrates that even the established canon can be stripped of its meaning and thought anew to accommodate those writing from outside – in this case, perhaps, those writing outside the Conrad critical tradition. But by staking the proposed canon on the personal insights of a single reader, and excluding all those who have been reading Conrad in different ways, Kelly stages a return to the single voice, a preaching of sameness and purity. Surely, there must be a more open and plural way of reading today, one that does not exclude but that celebrates ambiguity, multiplicity and openness – particularly when, as the history of Conrad criticism shows, it is precisely such ambiguity, plurality and openness with which Conrad’s texts are so richly imbued.


Yael Levin

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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