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 of man.

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 whole.

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.

©2000 Richard Stevens, All Rights Reserved.
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