Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Introduction: The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Introduction: The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

Eighteenth-century British literature is populated by dispossessed figures: or- phans, swains, slaves, rogues, prostitutes, gypsies, second sons. As the Anglo- Irish poet and critic Oliver Goldsmith lamented, "But times are alter'd; Trade's unfeeling train / Usurp the land, and dispossess the swain."1 This special jour- nal issue is organized around the concept and lived history of dispossession. Its immediate occasion is provoked as much by our current conjuncture as by the legacy of enclosure and dispossession in the British Empire of the long eighteenth century. In our contemporary moment, the redoubled attacks on the poor and working classes, and the intensification of state violence that has been waged under the cover of claims to restore economic "stability" since the punctual crisis of 2008, call out for a sustained inquiry into the histori- cal dimensions of capitalist production-with its attendant crises and violent consolidations of power and resources-as well as the mediations of these phenomena in aesthetic form. Our special issue suggests that a long view of capitalist production is foundational to thinking through these categories as critical formations, and thus to providing the historical framework neces- sary to fleshing out new, leading analytic approaches in literary and cultural studies.

Throughout, and using a range of methodological orientations, our con- tributors deploy the analytic categories of accumulation, dispossession, and enclosure: a set of concepts that together refer to a range of legislative, architec- tural, agronomic, penal, and economic processes that create private property and profit out of public land, human labor, and natural resources. These are often violent processes that, from the early modern period to our present day, have outlawed customary forms of subsistence and severed populations from traditional ways of engaging with the natural world. They are also seemingly "rational" or "noncoercive" measures that extend from legal proscriptions to bureaucratic governance, and from the racialization of hierarchies of labor to the naturalization of the "freedom" of wage labor.

A quick, initial shorthand for our categories-one that our contributors both elaborate and productively complicate-might look like this: enclosure creates private property out of commonly held resources and land; in the process, it generates a rootless population "free" to sell itself into wage labor. Disposses- sion expropriates resources in the form of time, land, labor (remunerated, incar- cerated/enslaved, and unremunerated), and financial extortion. Accumulation fires the engines of production and profit and maintains capitalism in motion as the dominant mode of production. This tripartite logic characterizes both the early modern rhythms of industrialization and colonialism, and the imperial depredations of our contemporary world.

Equally important to our approach is to undo a notion of enclosure that is con- strained to the English countryside.2 We cannot simply isolate English agrarian re- form or development from the interconnected labor and commodity markets and projects of colonial settlement and mercantile expansion in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The worlds of English land use and domestic policies are inextricably linked with those of overseas practices of dispossession through a world system. And the demands of land, labor, and capital circulate in and between colonial contexts that span the East and the West Indies. As such, our project foregrounds the mutual constitution of English domestic policies and overseas practices, and addresses questions of enclosure, dispossession, and accumulation from differ- ent vantage points and phases of the British Empire. Rather than demarcate the bounds of eighteenth-century Britain by traditional chronologies (monarchies, wars, aesthetic movements), our contributors frame the period via phases of empire and Enlightenment, the development of merchant capitals, slavery, and abolition (in this issue, our "long eighteenth century" extends from 1651 to 1823). …

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