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.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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