Response to Comments by Craig Dionne and Linda Woodbridge

Sandra Logan


     1. First, let me say that it's a pleasure and an honor to be included in this edition of Early Modern Culture. Craig and Crystal have done a first-rate job of bringing together and editing these essays, and the comments from both of them were helpful and exacting. Craig Dionne begins his commentary with the reminder that the causes of downward mobility and sexual transgression run parallel to each other in the language of early modern representation. Thus, debauchery, profligacy, and destitution were terms applied to sexual and economic mobility, melding moral and economic deficiency and redefining poverty as the outcome of moral debasement rather than as a sign of the rejection of worldly desire and comfort associated with traditional church values. The rise of downward mobility was symptomatic, in the eyes of at least some early modern writers, of the failure to exercise self-restraint, and thus of the failure of moral character. In his initial set of questions concerning the implications of rogue literature, Dionne notes that scholarly responses focus on the extent to which such literature can be understood to reveal the actual practices and schemes they depict. Most striking to my mind in this material is its revelation, not of criminal practice, but of the social conditions behind the rhetoric of literary and legal representations of the transgressions of the mobile poor. In this literature (and in parallel legal discourse), the effects of systemic dysfunction are everywhere visible, whether we see the representations of the rogue as tropological or historical.

     2. For example, Robert Greene's inclusion of the lament of the poor woman gulled by a "leger" -- that is, by a false collier who defrauds his customers by using smaller sacks and lower grades of coal than he charges them for -- emphasizes that the poor are most vulnerable to such abuses, and suffer disproportionately when they become victims because they live on the edge of destitution at all times. Greene notes that, despite his own call for strict punishments of such criminals when confronted by the poor woman's lament, the collier "went smiling awaie, because he knew his life was not lokt into, & the woma[n] wept for anger that she had not some one by that might with iustice reuenge her quarrel."1 Recognizing the failures of the system in two ways -- to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty -- Greene calls for harsh punishments, but has no solution to the problem of distinguishing between the worthy and unworthy poor. His tract shares with other such writings the assumption that such a distinction can be made, but suggests that the legal system fails for the most part to militate against this category of crime, perhaps in part because of the social unimportance of those it targets. In other words, the abjection of the impoverished, their unimportance in the eyes of society, and the failures of the system to ensure justice for its poorest members, actually produces more crime and creates greater difficulties in regulating criminal behavior. Whether the poor are driven into crime or fall into it out of opportunity, pamphlets like Greene's suggest that society is culpable at some level for the condition of both the "worthy" and "unworthy" poor, and this recognition is as pertinent today as it was in the sixteenth century.

     3. At the end of his comments to my essay ("Fright Flight"), Dionne asks a series of provocative questions that situate both More and Jonson as potentially complicit in the reassertion of class distinctions they seem to challenge and undermine in their texts (More by reminding the wealthy of their social responsibilities, Jonson by reminding the elite of their moral vacuity). Regarding More, Dionne asks me to consider the implication of movement in the humanist intellectual project. Certainly in the double framing device More employs in his text, the legitimacy of his self-presentation is drawn from his role as diplomat and from his capacity to take advantage of an international convocation of intellectuals that gathers by happenstance in the early pages of his text. This group includes and is in fact centered on a seafaring philosopher (Hythloday) whose insights into social and political debates come from reading the "book of the world" rather than the texts of the humanist scholar. That Hythloday is himself a vagabond by choice, having renounced his worldly goods and estate in order to become a traveler seems to suggest that More rejects the socially prevalent negative view of poverty and vagabondage, as well as the converse valuation of wealth and social place. The mobility of the author on a legitimate political mission is no more valid than the mobility of his character Hythloday, whose mobility both results from and generates transcendent knowledge and values. In the account More provides, it is the on-site interaction among these intellectuals that guides the reader, through literary tropes, to attend to the matter at the periphery of the conversation. While there is not space here to fully develop this reading of More's text, I will point out that the commentary on poverty in England comes, not as a central topic of discussion, but as an example of monarchical deafness in the debate about whether or not men of strong moral virtue should spend (waste) their time advising monarchs. Framed by More as the verbal account of a conversation within the literary account of a conversation, Hythloday's condemnation of the injustices of the English treatment of vagabonds exemplifies how monarchs ignore sound advice and lean toward flattery. Does More mean to suggest that the issues of poverty, crime, and justice are peripheral to the "more important" debate about the counsel of kings? I think not. Rather, he seems to use this conversational digression as a hint about how to read his text -- to indicate that what seems to be at the center is not the most important issue, and what seems to be at the periphery should be seen as an oblique view of the central problem, an anamorphic image like the skull in Holbien's painting, The Ambassadors. In the context of More's own mobility or of the mobility of real or imagined voyagers like Hythloday, and More's embeddedness in the discourse of humanism, this strategy of oblique reference reminds us that it is only by focusing on the world beyond this world -- on the no-place of Utopia rather than on the quotidian world, on the examples of social and legal injustice, not on the debate about monarchical counsel, on the skull, not on the vanity of the material world -- that we come to understand the relationships and responsibilities of the temporal human context. As with most intellectuals of the period, it is the "mobility" of the soul rather than the body that is of paramount importance to More, and the knowledge that beyond the justice of the temporal world lies the justice of the eternal that must serve as a guide to their actions. Humanism, for More as for his contemporaries, necessitated maintaining a balance between the matter of the temporal world and the immateriality of eternity. Moral qualities like charity, social responsibility, and personal virtue were the stuff of contemplation and action for both monarchs and their poorest subjects -- but More wrote for the elite, not for the common man. Jonson, on the other hand, wrote for a broad audience, and does seem less than sympathetic to the conditions of the poor, as Dionne suggests. Yet, The Alchemist, like many of Jonson's plays, reminds us that there is no natural moral order, and that however difficult it may be to strive against our natural condition of debasement, there is at least no advantage in this struggle for those at the top of the social hierarchy. Like More, then, he seems to recognize the conjunction, not of poverty and moral degradation, but of material desire and moral degradation, and to suggest that it is the role of the elite to serve as the model and establish the conditions for moral reform -- for the lower orders are driven by necessity, while the elite have the luxury of choice.

     4. I would also like to respond to Linda Woodbridge's closing question, about the impact of our ongoing association of poverty with vagabondage, roguery, and a collection of apparently related conditions and responses. I began my essay by calling attention to the parallels between the victims of hurricane Katrina and the poor in early modern England, and arguing that, in the views of some early modern writers, the condition of the impoverished so resembled the condition of the sentenced criminal that they represented a group condemned without crime to lives that embodied the kinds of suffering imposed on more privileged social subjects as punishment for legal or moral transgressions. As I argue, this condition is recognized by writers like Thomas More as actively productive of actual transgressions through lack of choice (e.g., theft as a response to starvation), creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of the criminality of the poor. In her introduction, Woodbridge suggests that this condition, which I have labeled "criminality avant le crime," reduces the capacity for society to apply pressure for compliance to the law through the threat of punishment, and that those who have already been reduced to a "bare life" (as Georgio Agamben might put it) have little motivation for avoiding punishments that could not significantly worsen their already-abject existence. That is, Woodbridge seems to infer a causal relationship between the threat of punishment and compliance with the law.

     5. There are good reasons for making such an argument, in that it seems to offer a link that would remain valid diachronically, between the condition of poverty and the logic of criminality, and to suggest that legal compliance is a choice that is enforced by the threat of punishment, but that fails in cases of intense abjection. In other words, as Woodbridge implies, the poor are unmotivated to comply with the law because they are aware that there is little left for the law to deprive them of (and More makes this point when he says that capital punishment for theft encourages the thief to kill his victim). Yet, this argument at least implicitly both negates moral judgment in general and bases impoverished criminality on the criminal's perception of relative freedom from additional legal repercussions. The danger of such a view, I believe, is that it seems to reinforce the claim that there is a direct parallel between the lack of economic viability and the lack of moral judgment. I would argue that such a claim suggests that moral values are eliminated by the condition of abjection, rather than recognizing the greatest tragedy of poverty -- that moral judgment may remain intact, while forcing the desperate poor into acts they understand to be criminal, but that are inevitable when they are faced with the retraction or denial of basic needs.

     6. Of course, my desire to insist that the poor are not less morally directed than their economically privileged counterparts might be dismissed as mere wishful thinking if we did not have appalling statistics to demonstrate that the poor are more likely to be punished for crimes, more likely to receive the most severe punishments, and more likely to be punished unjustly. In the face of the perception that criminality results from poverty, the relative leniency of the justice system toward more privileged criminals suggests that both the deterrent force of punishment and the disproportionate protection of privileged members of society encourages crime in the privileged classes more than among the poor, but punishes the poor in disproportionate numbers. The privilege granted by the neck verse of the early modern era remains a grounding premise of the contemporary legal system -- the well-to-do don't do time. There is in fact a history of intensified punishment based on the rhetoric of the moral emptiness of the poor, and long-standing cultural preconceptions that some kinds of crime are more egregious than others, so that it becomes worse to steal a loaf of bread than to manipulate the stock market. Woodbridge's closing concern that by linking vagrancy and poverty as all of us have done here, we may reinforce the social conditions and perceptions to which we call attention, reminds us that we must vigilantly distinguish between the ideological and the material, while attending to their inevitable interconnections.

 

 

Note

1 From Robert Greene. A notable discovery of coosnage. 1591. The second part of conny-catching. 1592. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. London: John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd. (The Bodley Head Quartos) 1923. The Renascence Edition quoted here was transcribed, July 2007, by Risa Bear, 2007 The University of Oregon.

 

 

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