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Modernist InformaticsLiterature, Information, and the State$
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James Purdon

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190211691

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190211691.001.0001

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Secret Agents, Official Secrets

Secret Agents, Official Secrets

(p.23) 1. Secret Agents, Official Secrets
Modernist Informatics

James Purdon

Oxford University Press

This chapter stages a new reading of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), tracing beyond the novel itself the communications and surveillance networks that traverse Conrad’s London, in particular the Post Office. It analyzes the novel’s interest in postal systems and its pointedly unsuccessful efforts to distinguish between public and private, official and unofficial, forms of communication. Situating The Secret Agent’s anxieties of information leakage and control in an historical lineage with the postal interception scandals of the 1840s, the intelligence leaks of the 1880s, and the 1889 Official Secrets Act, this section of the book re-evaluates the “gratuitous” and “irrelevant” matter disparaged by early critics. By doing so, it shows how Conrad’s work acknowledges the new social and technological extent of communications control while insisting on the prerogative of literary writing to reshape and critique the new systems of textual categorization that emerged in response to the late nineteenth-century information surge.

Keywords:   Joseph Conrad, surveillance, Post Office, interception, The Secret Agent, Official Secrets Act

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