The Sounds of Silence: Voice, Noise and Muteness in Heart of Darkness

By  Amit R. Baishya

This post is a provisional exploration of the relationship between the categories of “human,” “animal” and “thing” in Heart of Darkness (1999). The categories of “voice,” “noise” and “muteness” are connected in intrinsic ways to the three categories above and constitute a complex ontological framework through which “humanness” is recognized (or denied recognition) in the text.  I also argue that the paradoxical status of “voice” and its connection to “muteness” in the text reveal some contradictory aspects about Joseph Conrad’s attitude towards the brutal colonial system in the Congo.

Consider, for instance, the representation of “noise” and its relationship to “humanness” in the text. Chinua Achebe insists that the text’s representation of Africans as producers of a “violent babble of uncouth sounds” illustrates Conrad’s racist assumptions about Africans (cited in Achebe 2006: 341). By representing the “natives” as mere producers of “noise” reduces the Africans to the level of the human animal.  Effectively, such attributions of “noise” place the supposedly ahistorical “natives” outside the realm of the political. We may echo Jacques Ranciere’s idea of “policing” here: “an order of bodies [… ] that defines the allocation of ways of doing […] that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise” (Ranciere 1999: 29). In effect, Conrad’s representation of the “natives” as producers of mere “noise” could be considered an act of narrative “policing”: it reduces the Africans to the level of human animal and places them outside the realm of the political by stipulating what gets understood as discourse and what is relegated to the level of noise.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 2.34.14 PMIf noise reduces “natives” to the status of the human animal, “muteness” in Heart of Darkness is a herald of thinghood.  I must emphasize here that for the Conrad of Heart of Darkness, ahistoricity and the state of being-a-thing or being-an-animal go hand in hand (1). The difference lies in the fact that while the human animal sits outside the realm of the political, the human thing seems to hover outside the orbit of human existence.  “Muteness” plays a big role in Conrad’s representations of life degraded by colonial sovereignty and reduced to states of being-a-thing: first, in the “chain gang” episode and, second, in the “grove of death” sequence. Unlike the natives who produce “noise,” the members of the chain gang in the grove of death are “mute.” The “chain gang” are representations of the machinic slave. Reduced to the level of automatons, they represent what Donna Jones describes as forms of “repetitive, knowledge-dispossessed [… and…] easily replaceable labor” (35). Marlow is horrified by his act of witnessing such forms of “raw matter” whose clinking chains, akin to clockwork, “kept time with their footsteps” (18). Yet, nothing prepares him for his encounter in the grove of death. Discarded and abandoned as waste products, as things that have outlived their utility, these representations of the “mute” living dead stretch the capacities of language and representation. Although Marlow briefly recognizes the possibility of a particular history in one of these “phantoms”—the “bit of white thread from across the seas”—the “muteness” of these “moribund shapes…free as air” render the living dead as representations of a frozen, still “picture of  a massacre or a pestilence” (Conrad 1999: 19-20).  It is as if by being frozen in a moment of the pure present, these damaged, thing-like beings only invoke gestures of horrified witnessing. Here too, Conrad’s ambivalence cuts both ways—on the one hand, these passages gesture towards what lies outside the ambit of language, and representation is irrepresentable; on the other hand, these sequences expose the inability of the colonial-era observer to contend with the historicity of the colonized other. To be sure, the brief reflection on the “white thread” along with Marlow’s later observations on the “remote kinship” he ostensibly shared with the “wild and passionate uproar” (ibid. 44) shows a subliminal awareness that the colonized other—whether recognized as animal or thing—possesses history. However, recognition of coeval status between colonizer and colonized lies beyond the racialist economy underpinning Heart of Darkness.

Conrad’s depiction of “voice” in Heart of Darkness presents a peculiar paradox, exposing two fundamental, and seemingly contradictory, dimensions of the representation of colonial sovereignty: the seductiveness of the authoritarian voice and the aspects of totalitarian power where horror and parody are intermingled. Mladen Dolar’s formulations on the dimensions of the voice in fascist forms of totalitarianism will help us unpack this paradoxical depiction in Heart of Darkness. Consider, for instance, what Dolar says about the voice of the Führer:

“In the person of the Führer, zoe and bios coincide…the biopolitical swallows the sacred, the voice swallows the letter, the division collapses” (116-7). The totalitarian leader epitomizes the collapse of distinctions between “mere” life and the “good” life. The topological inverse of this blurring of distinctions is the production of bare life: the life that can be killed, but not sacrificed. Do these formulations not fit the pronouncements of Kurtz, the product of the “best of Europe” who also enunciates the chilling statement “Exterminate all the brutes”? Is this coincidence between zoe and bios not evident in the fascination that Marlow has with Kurtz’s seductive “voice” throughout the text? After all, Kurtz’s voice is one that calls from afar, that pronounces without inviting the other’s response. Furthermore, throughout the text, except for a few crucial moments towards the end, Kurtz exists as a mask that hides an embodied presence.  Finally, does this coincidence between zoe and bios in the person of the absolute sovereign also not produce its topological inverse: the figures in the grove of death? Even here though, Conrad’s racialist views about the sources of sovereign power manifest itself. Although Marlow acknowledges ironically that Kurtz is the product of “the best of Europe,” he also holds out the possibility that Kurtz becomes what he is because he loses “restraint” and goes “native” (Conrad 1999: 62-3) It is almost as if the prepolitical “native” universe contaminates the political—the repressed (for the European observer) seems to return with a vengeance.

The first direct presentation of Kurtz, however, complicates the coincidence between zoe and bios that we identified as the key feature of the totalitarian sovereign. The text prepares us to expect a figure who stuns us with his spectacular appearance. However, while Kurtz’s appearance is definitely spectacular, his bodily presence is decidedly underwhelming. Notice how Marlow describes Kurtz speaking to his followers: “I saw the thin arm extended commandingly, the lower jaw moving, the eyes of the apparition shining darkly far in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks…His covering had fallen off and his body emerged from it pitifully and appalling as in a winding-sheet” (ibid. 74). Quite a few critics suggest that this presentation of Kurtz follows the tradition of the parody of the gothic villain.  Moreover, like in its contemporaneous text, The Wizard of Oz (published in 1900), Kurtz’s awe-inducing mask slips to reveal emptiness underneath. The voice somehow doesn’t fit the body. Dolar defines the “acousmatic” voice as one in “search of an origin, in search of a body, but even when it finds its body, it turns out that this doesn’t quite work, the voice doesn’t stick to the body” (60-1). The representation of Kurtz’s “deep voice” as an excrescence that does not match his body seems similar to the exposure of the powerlessness of the wizard of Oz. This point is accentuated further when Marlow comes across the emaciated body of Kurtz “crawling on all fours” during the night he spends at the Inner Station (Conrad 1999: 80). Even though Kurtz manages to stand up and mesmerizes Marlow with the “terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares,” his initial posture of crawling on all-fours uncannily mirrors the “mute” figures in the grove of death who “went off on all-fours towards the river to drink” (ibid. 82, 20). I wager that the paradoxical relationship of Kurtz’s seductive voice and the ultimate revelation of its acousmatic qualities is connected to the uncanny mirroring of the overhuman (the sovereign who exists as if death is not) and the underhuman (the homo sacer). This mirroring of the sovereign and the homo sacer in the inner and the outer circles of the colonial Inferno show Conrad’s exposure of the emptiness of the space from where the law in a state of emergency originates. While a racialist aspect is present even here—is Kurtz able to tap this empty source because he “goes native,” loses restraint, and exists outside the realm of utility?—another reading is also possible. Speaking of the Nazi torture camps, the Holocaust survivor Jean Amery writes: “A world in which torture, destruction and death triumph obviously cannot exist. But the sadist does not care about the continued existence of the world…he wants to nullify this world, and by negating his fellow man, who also in an entirely specific sense is ‘hell’ for him, he wants to realize his own total sovereignty” (Amery 1980: 35). My wager is that by uncannily making “voice” and “muteness,” the overhuman and the underhuman, mirror each other, Conrad was gesturing towards a similar critique of the nullification of a common “human” world in totalitarian systems around half a century before Amery.


Amit R. Baishya is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Ball State University. He teaches courses on postcolonial and cultural studies.



(1) Unless, of course, the “thing” is a book like Towson’s manual.

(2) This links to the idea of the homines sacri (Agamben 1998).




Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” in Heart of Darkness: Authoritative Text Background and Context Criticism (fourth ed.). Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New         York and London: WW Norton and Company, 2006. 336-49.

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford:        Stanford University Press, 1998

Amery, Jean. At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, trans.          Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness ad Selections from the Congo Diary. New York: the Modern Library,       1999.

Dolar, Mladen. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 2006.

Jones, Donna. The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity. New York:       Columbia University Press, 2010.

Ranciere, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis:       University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Singh, Frances B. “Terror, Terrorism and Horror in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Partial Answers:    Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 5.2 (June 2007), 199-218.

Scholarship Highlight: April 15, 2014

Have you ever wondered how scholars of literature locate questions of humanness in texts? This month, Performing Humanity will feature the work of one such scholar — and we invite you, the readers, to chime in with your thoughts.

What links exist between scholarship and activism?

How do novels depict historical or theoretical moments that blur lines of humanness?

What other pieces of literature or art can help us to continue this consideration?


For those over-achievers who want to read ahead, the editor recommends Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

We look forward to sharing more on April 15!

Inspiring Change by Ending Female Genital Mutilation

By Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, in part because it constitutes an extreme form of discrimination. Within the practice, girls between eight and fourteen years of age are cut by elderly women who are untrained in medicine and often use unsterilized razor blades or knives. The practice, allegedly, initiates these girls into womanhood and subsequently leads to early marriages.Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 11.16.51 AM

FGM has no health benefits, and the harm it causes victims has both short and long term health consequences, including infection such as HIV from unsterilized instruments, psychological trauma, and, in some cases, death from excessive bleeding. Later in life, FGM can lead to complications in childbirth and increase the risk of the mother and infant mortality (1).

In East Africa, FGM is practiced by several tribes with proponents arguing that it initiates girls into womanhood and increases their chances of being married off. Other tribes believe that cutting off some of parts of the females genitalia like the clitoris reduces cases of girls and married women engaging in sex outside the boundaries of marriage. Promoters of FGM have little regard (if any) for girls and women’s lives lost or for the suffering that they experience after undergoing this cruel and life-threatening ordeal.

Despite the recently passed legislation against Female Genital Mutilation in some East Africa Community member States, hundreds of infants, girls, and women are still forced to undergo the knife. Young girls run away from their homes for fear of undergoing FGM and miss school while others drop out of school. Local political leaders shy from publicly condemning the practice for fear of losing elections; and in some cases they have even helped offenders escape being prosecuted in Courts of law. Girls and women are not informed about their rights and protection provided by the available legislations (2). My visits to communities that practice FGM in Eastern Uganda have exposed to me to the need to continuously inform communities about the dangers of the practice and to empower communities directly to take part in projects and efforts that end FGM. Such community empowerment emerges from increased investment in girls’ education, assisting local rights activists in leading anti-FGM activities, and continuously exposing the dangers of FGM through locally preferred forms such as film, and dance and drama performances, which can easily be used to engage illiterate communities.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 11.20.30 AM During my most recent trip in February to a community that practices FGM in Eastern Uganda, I met girls who had been forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation and needed collective surgery. As a result of unskilled surgical cutting, many of the girls pass urine uncontrollably and require surgery to fix their fistula. My trip inspired me to work to create positive change in these communities; and I am to help girls live in safer communities that promote their full potential as individuals. I decided to produce a film documentary about girls and women forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation in order to bring personal stories to the world about girls and women who are either at risk of being forced into FGM or those who have experienced health complications or death as a result of undergoing FGM.  I am now in my final stages to travel to Eastern Uganda, and Western and Central Kenya between April through to May to film and produce the documentary. Via Indiegogo I am raising funds to make film, organize public screenings across  East Africa, and carry out FGM campaigns that organize a procession of hundreds of Activists to deliver a petition to the East Legislative Assembly in Arusha Tanzania.  I am excited by the prospect of reaching to millions of people and inspiring change through film a to make a difference.

FGM is not only a women’s issue. Men must also actively take part in ending Female Genital Mutilation instead of promoting it, as is the case in communities that practice FGM, where men argue that it produces better wives. By educating about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation and assessing our community needs, we can then shape our own plans to completely stop Female Genital Mutilation. It’s our communal duty to protect and observe women’s rights and human rights, to end the social, cultural, and political causes of Female Genital Mutilation, and, above all, to demand for action from governments.  I am committed to lead the call for change and help girls live healthier lives.


Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael is the founder of two nonprofits in Uganda: ICOD Action Network and Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies. He is the Uganda Ambassador for Global Minorities Alliance.

Currently he serves as an associate consultant with Praxis Consult International, working on a girl-child education program in South Sudan. He previously volunteered with Lawyers Collective as a Uganda research partner in charge of identifying, summarizing, and translating court cases that impact the right to health in Uganda.

In addition to working on ending Female Genital Mutilation in East Africa, he is a food rights advocate and change maker, and he and has 10 years in the non profit sector. Ahabwe is an experienced public speaker with who has shared work both Uganda, South Sudan, and the U.S.


Works Cited:

(1) The World Health Organization, “Female Genital Mutilation,” Fact Sheet No. 241 (February 2014):

(2) Center for Human Rights and Policy Studies:

Image Credits:

Tracy McVeigh and Tara Sutton, The Observer, 24 July 2010.


Answers, Questions, and Movements in the New Year

“The day may come,when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.”  - Jeremy Bentham (1)

The dawn of 2014 marks 225 years since Bentham drew attention toward the divisions among how Eastern and Western cultures viewed the ethical status of non-human animals, and since he infamously claimed that the question of a being’s status ” is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (1). This year also marks 39 years since Animal Liberation entered the philosophical and activist consciousness, due to Peter Singer’s seminal work of that title.

Here at Performing Humanity, we work to raise questions about ethical and social status of humans, non-humans, and the Othered categories that further blur those lines. To that end, we’ve compiled a brief (and by no means comprehensive) collection of how and where we located new areas of inquiry that bridge 2013 and the year ahead. As always, our editor invites comments and submissions that further develop these dialogues.

* Shows such as The Walking Dead and True Blood continued in popularity, raising questions about the roles that mortality, reason, sentience, and physical appearance play in defining humans and humanness.

* In the popular music world, the difference among men and women — and the genders they perform — caused debate, bringing the work of Robin Thicke and the concept of “Blurred Lines” to the forefront of daily life. (For more on this issue in PH, see our past posting).

* In New York, a landmark case brought forward by the Nonhuman Rights Project called for the release of Tommy, a captive chimp. Filing a writ of habeas corpus, the group demanded that Tommy’s captivity was a violation of his rights.

* A series of undercover investigations led by the group Mercy for Animals exposed widespread abuses in dairy farms and pork facilities, leading to large scale media coverage and changes in how corporations such as Tyson Foods handle nonhuman livestock.

These issues and more have shaped our transition into the new year. At PH, we invite you to develop our conversations, knowledge, and questioning about them.





(1) Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation,  Chapter XVII, Section 1 (1789).

History Carnival 129: A Brave New Year

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Here at Performing Humanity, we’re thrilled to have a chance to kick off the new year in collaboration with History Carnival.  Over the past month you have nominated some of the most exciting history blogs and articles of December 2013; and we were fascinated to locate trends regarding the human body, its interiority, and what we learn when those interiors are publicly exposed. Some historians were intrigued by the reverse: what do exteriors teach us about humans and their interiors? Furthermore, what relationships do individual bodies have to the systems they build, participate in, control, and are controlled by?

At Wonders and Marvels, Helen King raised questions about how a 19th century Japanese woodcut depicting pregnant women not only visually illustrated the fetuses they carried, but in that illustration linked medieval Western art and healthcare to the East.

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Meanwhile, George Campbell Gosling examined the relationships among internal medicine, nutrition, and human compassion during wartime in Japan, telling the story of Cicely Williams and her roles in the Changi Gaol and with the World Health Organization.

Concerned the adornment of the surfaces of human bodies, Mark Patton posted at English Historical Fiction Authors about a cache of 16th-17th century jewels lost during the Great Fire and unearthed in London in 1912. His reflection suggested that such ornaments reveal a great deal more about their owners’ interior sympathies and alliances than one might expect.

Recent work at Women’s History Network continues the trend of focusing on female bodies; in this case, the blog tracks stories from female refugees during WWI and considers the challenges they faced in owning their  bodies, having social agency, and claiming space within their families while confronting international conflict.

A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England highlighted the inside/outside realities of prison, focusing on the role Holloway Prison played for men and women accused of crimes.

With a similar interest, Nancy Bilyeau of English Historical Fiction Authors, considered the Westminster Gate-House Prison and the famous poets and adventurers it once housed.

The Smithsonian’s blog Past Imperfect took us back to the 1980s to consider the emergence of the AIDS epidemic and how a variety of ad campaigns for safe sex dealt with issues of race and sexual orientation. Similar considerations were occurring at Nursing Clio, where Rachel Epp Buller explored the history of the epidemic and how, as a result of changes in social behavior and medical treatment, safe-sex and health advertising campaigns have been able to shift their message from the community and towards individuals.Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 12.15.58 PM

Ken Owen, at The Junto Blog, discussed how opening American history to acknowledge slavery, contact narratives, and cross-national interactions both helps us to educate our students responsibly about our complex human past, but also poses challenges to survey courses facing time constraints.

While The Junto was concerned with how opening history effects current communities, The History Vault featured an interview with Adrian Teal — the questions du jour emphasized the personal nature of historical studies and research methods.

Across multiple blogs and Twitter, the past, present, and future of the academic profession came under debate, with particular attention to the crisis surrounding contingent and adjunct faculty. In response to news emerging from UC Riverside about its timeline for notifying interview candidates, Rebecca Schuman of Pan Kisses Kafka called a search committee to task for assuming that past approaches to the MLA attendance hold true for scholars emerging into an evolving and increasingly strained market. Claire Potter, of Tenured Radical, responded by drawing attention to the ways social media has changed past approaches to conflict, conflict resolution, and discourse surrounding in-field tension. Chiming in as well, Post Academic in NYC asserted that such debates at times lose sight of the treatment of contingent faculty and graduate students — “unconscionable” treatment that might lead us to question academia’s position qua profession.

Finally, the passing of Nelson Mandela prompted The National Archives’ Rediscovering Black History to repost Tina L. Ligon and Michael Arzate’s post celebrating the leader’s last birthday. Here, the writers performed a photo and narrative retrospective of the fight Mandela led for human rights. Not afraid to tackle the difficult questions of posturing, positioning, and historical revision surrounding Mandela and Apartheid, Jamie Miller asked at The Imperial and Global Forum why our knowledge of the system remains incomplete and what responsibilities we have to fill the lacunae.

Thanks to the talented bloggers whose work we’ve featured, to those who provided nominations, to History Carnival for its collaboration, and to all of our readers for their support!

History Carnival: Call for Submissions

Performing Humanity will be proud to host the first History Carnival edition of 2014!

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Beginning December 1, 2013, we invite you to nominate the most influential, compelling, and otherwise intellectually stimulating history posts from the month of December. In particular, we encourage submissions that promote dialogue that queer conceptions of humanness.

Please fill out this form to submit. We look forward to sharing with you in 2014!

Practical Criticism Midwest, 2014

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The Graduate Student Advisory Board at Ball State is proud to announce its CFP for the spring Practical Criticism Midwest Conference. The event is open to all BSU graduate students, and this year’s event seeks to blur lines among genres and disciplines by inviting works from a variety of humanities fields as well as initiating a new tradition of hosting creative readings and poster presentations in addition to traditional conference presentations. Interested parties can submit at:


(Performing Humanity may be biased, but we’d also like to acknowledge the timeliness and relevance of this year’s theme)


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