The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Book Reviews

The Last Universalist

Sunil Khilnani

Joseph Conrad by Jeffrey Morgan; Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo.

Reconsidering Conrad as a citizen of the global world.

Joseph Conrad died in 1924, but in her bold and winning book Maya Jasanoff portrays him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalized world. Through his characters, she claims, he whispers “in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own.

Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed of a new generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, skeptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to exploring what empire enabled as much as what it pulverized. Her previous books have examined India and the histories of loyalists who fought on the king’s side in the American Revolution. The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire, one who has always been hard to place: He reveled in slipping free of contexts, and labored to hide his traces.

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