Nicolazzo, Sarah

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  • Publication
    Vagrant Figures: Law, Labor, and Refusal in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
    (2014-01-01) Nicolazzo, Sarah
    The archive of vagrancy is a counter-history of economic rationality. In seeking to catalogue and apprehend the non-laboring body, vagrancy law theorizes labor by tracking its refusal. While vagrancy laws had existed in England since the fourteenth century, vagrancy takes on new meaning in the eighteenth century, as labor becomes central to economic theories of value, emergent penitentiary institutions promote work as a mode of criminal rehabilitation, and transatlantic debates over slavery lend new urgency to the problem of defining "free labor." When legal, economic, and literary texts invoke vagrancy, they therefore ask a crucial question for this period: what makes people work? Vagrancy law called on its enforcers to interpret and predict the actions of those who (in the words of many eighteenth-century statutes) could give no good account of themselves. Across a wide variety of genres, vagrancy appears not as an identity, but as a proliferation of figures, a picaresque parataxis that links characteristics and behaviors as signs of a common disposition yet refuses identitarian coherence. By figuring social threat as unpredictable mobility, ambiguity, and incoherence, the rhetoric of vagrancy justified an equally expansive mobility and flexibility for police power. By bringing together texts debating crime and poverty in England, the meaning of "free labor" in the context of slavery in the Caribbean, and the stakes of mobility in the United States, "Vagrant Figures" reveals how vagrancy linked police power to economic rationality across transnational circuits of commerce, legal thought, and colonial governance. As economic reasoning informed the management of colonies and the imaginative apprehension of the global, vagrancy came to signify threat to the global enterprises of capitalism and colonial expansion. At the same time, however, the power of vagrancy's rhetoric became a resource for authors seeking to challenge or critique police power. Through readings of authors including Jane Barker, Henry Fielding, Charles Brockden Brown, Edward Long,William Earle, Karl Marx, and Adam Smith, this project traces the resolutely figurative workings of political economy and police power in the long eighteenth century, as both theorized human perception and interiority through registers of the imaginative and rhetorical.