Essay: Faceless Institutions in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
One of the most profound elements of Joseph Conrad's Heart
of Darkness is the depth of detail and compelling personification
in his descriptions of the African jungle. Indeed, Conrad's
narrative introduces the reader to the macroanimal that encompasses
the various suborganizisms of the uncolonized environment.
However, Conrad's portrayal of the Company that hires Marlow
serves as a striking contrast: if the African jungle is a
living beast of nature, then Conrad's Company is a dead beast
There is something profoundly significant in the way that our
literature (both historical and contemporary) makes use of the
"faceless institution" to comment on the dualistic
nature between a human's moral sense and the manner in which
it is conveniently overcome by the apathy of the collective
Faceless institutions are those organizations and phenomena
that are presented by an author for the purpose of commentary,
criticism or (as in fiction) simply to serve as the benchmark
for the virtue of the protagonist. Often, these institutions
serve as metaphors for the society or movement under scrutiny.
Across different types of literature and mediated communication
forms, certain structural ingredients appear to be constant
in the preparation of these institutions for literary consumption.
First of all, size appears to be a necessary component of faceless
institutions, as the complexity needed to remove the individual
voice of the collected members requires a vast bureaucracy to
drown out the personal and reduce conversation to a monotonous
roar. Second, the organization tends to be impenetrable so that
the agents of the institution may conduct their schemes away
from the prying eyes of society. This feature is often dually
represented physically, as with a forbidding exterior, and environmentally,
as with darkness or dankness. Third, the institution must have
a public image that sharply contrasts the reality of its operations.
Finally, the individual agents of the institution must be reduced
into faceless automatons.
This collective othering follows a strong philosophical background
exemplified by the Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, a critique
of the collective organism that was social government. By universalizing
the sub-parts of the Leviathan, Hobbes is able to remove the
individualistic tendencies of the men and women under scrutiny
and instead describe the aggregated virtues and sins of the
organism of human government as a whole. In a similar fashion,
popular entertainment employs constructed faceless institutions
in order to shield the individual merits and tastes from the
society or group portrayed. Often, these faceless entities are
presented as a benchmark to contrast the individual struggles
within a protagonist. The individual is always the protagonist,
since the institution (often representing society or government)
is seen as a detached and insensitive beast. Examples from contemporary
popular film include the American military from Apocalypse
Now (obviously), the Company from the Alien saga,
the tobacco corporation from The Insider, and the Galactic
Empire from the Star Wars trilogy. In each case, faceless
institutions are presented as powerful organizations whose complexity
strips the potential virtue from the members that form their
ranks. These constructions make the adversary seemingly omnipotent,
as there is no individual manifestation that can be bested by
the hero. These constructions also make the adversary unreasonable,
as the collective organization is too complex for rational dialogue.
In contemporary social criticism, this same device can be found.
An easy example would be Neil Postman's essays attacking a vague
construct of "technology" or Rush Limbaugh's attack
on the "liberal media." Neither of these constructs
are ever operationalized, leading the audiences of these two
men to see the collected "sins" of the institutions,
without any sense of dualism in form or intent.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad's Company is an exemplary
example of a faceless institution. When seeking his appointment,
Marlow had "no difficulty at all finding the Company's
offices. It was the biggest thing in town, and everybody I met
was full of it (p.24)." The sense of impenetrability is
certainly present, as Marlow is forced to enter the building
through open doors, which he describes as "cracks (p.24)."
When he finally gets into the presidentês office, he notes
the lighting is dim and he is only on the president's presence
for 45 seconds, further impersonalising the visit. Marlow's
aunt provides the third variable, calling the workers of the
Company "emissaries of light" and describing their
activities as "weaning those ignorant millions from their
horrid ways (p.28)." Finally, all of the agents Marlow
encounters meet the reduction requirement, as none have names
(this is not necessarily artificial, for Marlow has stated he
will reveal no trade secrets in the telling of his story). Rather,
Marlow encounters "the manager," "the accountant,"
"the brickmaker, "the Pilgrims," and "the
doctor." It would appear that none of the company's employees
have names, with the exception of Marlow himself and Kurtz.
Although Kurtz originally embodies the company's mission, he
seems to have lost his ability to pretend to be on a civilizing
mission. Because he does not hide his intentions and promote
the official Company propaganda, the Company fears that he will
destroy the faÙade of their behavior. Apparently, though
the company would allow the morality of its individual agents
to be positively bent by Conrad's contemporary sensibilities,
its concern for protecting its corporate image show a hypocritical
acceptance of the social norms of its day. By Marlow's struggle
for his sanity, it almost seem as if the horrors enacted by
Kurtz that are inflicted by the agents of the Company are not
the worst sins. Far worse would appear to be the hypocrisy of
the faÙade. In other words, though Kurtz could be construed
originally as an exemplary Company agent, Marlow finds him to
be quite different from those he has come to despise. Somehow
through Kurtz's open depravity, Marlow sees the honesty that
Kurtz has embraced concerning his actions, the honest nature
of man unfiltered by the hypocrisy of his cultural image. Kurtz
is no faceless villain, far from it. And this identity and individuality
seems to hold Kurtz to a different standard than the other men
of the Company.
For Conrad, the one true sin (and perhaps the true horror)
appears to be apathy.
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