The Political Economy of the English Rogue

By Joseph, Betty | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The Political Economy of the English Rogue


Joseph, Betty, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "rogue" first appears in use around the 1490s to refer to a vagrant or a vagabond. Subsequent usages show a slow gathering of many types of social misfits so that, by the eighteenth century, a rogue could indicate any one of a variety of deviants including athe- ists, scoundrels, thieves, tricksters, pirates, seducers, and libertines. The literary figuration of the rogue in England, however, is a later phenomenon. Rogues enjoyed wide circulation in the pan-European Renaissance literature of the pi- caresque in Spain, Italy, and France before manifesting (often as translations) in literature of the English Renaissance including plays, rogue pamphlets, and manuals.1 From then on, leading up to the eighteenth century, there is no dearth of historical documentation about rogue-l ike social outcasts in English legal statutes and Poor Laws, or in prison records like the published confessions of condemned Newgate criminals. A literary history of the character of the rogue reveals not only when this ubiquitous figure of social history made its entry into the English novel, but also the textual conditions of its admission.

Rogues are some of the first figures to move from the historical record of criminality into a sort of fictional rehabilitation within this new literary form in the eighteenth century. Male and female rogues appear in early English novels as key instantiations not only of economic or political dispossession and non- governmentality, but also, in their seeming circulation as "masterless men," as indicators of a new possessive individualism within which political liberty and private property can be imagined. The infamous rogues and vagabonds in Daniel Defoe's novels-Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxana, Captain Jack, Captain Singleton, and so on-provide us with key examples of this double connotation of dispossession and freedom. The complexity of these figures does not allow us to imagine their meaning within a double-stranded history where one might have to choose one thread of questioning over the other: are rogues representatives of a political history, of debates about free- dom from coercion and thus to be associated with the liberatory social move- ments of their time, or are they instead interested figurations of forces driving governmentality-dangerous elements in the social that must be controlled, disciplined, and brought under the law? My sense is that these figures, through their ability to represent possession and dispossession at the same time, are able to transform fictional vicissitudes-their emplotment in stories of power and accumulation, subordination and penury-into a more abstract discussion of "rogue economics" that tells us much about early modern ruminations on the nature of political economy.

The formal link between literary narratives and figures, and the imagining of economic processes, is hardly specific to the early modern era. Indeed, one of the most important literary lessons about economic phenomena emerges in Karl Marx's rumination on the commodity: that it is the particular histori- cal form through which the value of the social character of labor is expressed. Thus cultural forms of appearance, whether they be things or people, are often important embodiments of economic phenomena, and their assemblages at various times form the ideological constellations through which present read- ers can see how past historical conditions were grasped imaginatively in par- ticulars. So while rogues may have been recognized by their original readers as representatives of the demographic at a particular historical moment (the poor, vagrant, criminal, and dispossessed in seventeenth-century England for instance), their ideological value also lies in their narrative capacity to project a subject's relationship to a system. Today, a comparison of consecutive remakes of similar stories allows us to detect shifts in these ideological constellations. …

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