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‘A Benevolent Institution for the Suppression of Evil’: Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and the Limits of Policing

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The study of law in literature stimulates critical reflection about law and the limits of its institutions by expanding contextual analysis to include the emotive discourses of fiction. This article starts from the premisses that the orthodox separation of literary expression from social scientific writing is not immutable and that different temporal settings are not barriers to exploring themes that traverse them. It uses Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, a story of policing and anarchism in late nineteenth-century London, in order to discuss the limits of policing today. This novel is read in parallel with two modern police studies to show how it prefigures current concerns, portraying policing as an imperfect totem of security, immaterial to the individual's emotional crises, which, by extension, can be seen to illustrate the limits of law itself. This article thus raises methodological and theoretical issues of general interest to the study of law in society and suggests how reading literature can thicken' legal analysis by offering experience of the emotional beyond that law ignores.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-09-01

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