The State of Exception and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness


Matthew Bonal

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Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness is set in turn-of-the-century colonial Africa against the backdrop of ivory production. It is based heavily on Conrad?s real experiences in the Congo, an area that saw a significant amount of genocidal violence. Conrad?s text reflects on the unprecedented violence that took place on a world scale, violence that reverberated from Africa outward. The European colony in Africa is an intersection of capitalist technologies of discipline and production that occur in a zone of indistinction. Africa is a legally empty geopolitical space where European states exercise their power under the rules of the state of exception. The Africans are made subject to European rule, while enjoying none of the benefits of citizenship in a nation. The relationship of the Europeans to the Africans is that of sovereign to subject. The sovereign is the figure of indistinction in whom the law and violence are united. Sovereign power is essentially sovereign violence and it is this type of power that is exercised in Heart of Darkness. Through the theoretical lenses of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe, Conrad?s Heart of Darkness reveals the colonial laboratory where the techniques of mechanized genocidal killing that were to take place in the twentieth century were first practiced. Conrad?s writing demonstrates the technologies of production and bureaucracy taking place in a permanent state of exception in Africa with death as their product. Heart of Darkness is an eerie anticipation of the mass violence of the twentieth century.


Warren Montag




Ford Research Endowment

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