The following is an edited interview between Jordan Alexander Stein, associate professor of English at Fordham University, and Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox–just out from One World–and professor of eighteenth century literature, gender and sexuality studies, and critical theory at the University of Massachusetts.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Confessions of the Fox is a romp! The novel follows a beleaguered Professor Voth at a Kafkaesque neoliberal university as he discovers a hitherto unknown eighteenth-century manuscript about the well-known thief and jailbreaker, Jack Sheppard. The manuscript presents a lively story about the adventures of Jack, assigned female at birth, as he learns to speak the slang of the underground and discovers love with a lascar sex worker named Bess. Along the way there are tales of queer pirates who synthesize a testosterone serum, the rise of the London police force, and the tandem growth of securitization and the rationalization of capital flows in the colonial metropolis.
Given this wonderful and wild plot, my first question is why you chose to write a historical novel?
Jordy Rosenberg: Thank you for this rich summary of the novel—it’s a pleasure to have it redescribed back to me in this way.
I am not sure that I did write a historical novel. Certainly by Lukacsian standards I did not; and anyone looking for what is typically marketed as “historical fiction” will be surprised by Confessions, especially the metafictional aspect. I did, however write a novel that, in part, came out of an obsession with a historical question. That question was something I’d been trying to think about from a more scholarly angle, and it had to do with the representation of the criminalized body in the early eighteenth century in Britain, and the way that the colonial project and commodity capitalism produced some very macabre and cruel legal and political-economic debates around capital punishment. In essence, the debates had to do with whether people convicted of property crimes should be executed and their bodies dissected and displayed to the public, or whether those convicted of property crimes would be more “profitably” transported to the colonies to do the work of colonial dispossession. In essence, the debate ranged around the historical intersection of the body, land, imperialism, and the rise of the capitalist form of property: was the criminalized body of more use to the state as a form of scientific “raw material” or was the criminalized body of more use as a form of exploitable indentured labor. But of course this debate also exceeds the question of “use” and so-called efficiency, because there is, folded into and underwriting all of this, the supererogatory violence and indeed constitutive sadism of the state. Brenna Bhandar’s work on the property form and racialization really helped me think through a lot of this, and I’m excited that her book synthesizing much of her work over the past many years has just come out. In any case, these questions crystallized for me not only in thinking about the baleful records of official bourgeois and bureaucratic discourse of the early eighteenth century, but also in the question of resistance. For many people at the time, Sheppard—with his notorious efforts to evade pursuit by Jonathan Wild, London’s “Thief-Taker General”—became a beloved figure for the flouting of these institutions and norms.
JAS: Tell us more about the historical Sheppard.
JR: I was reading about Sheppard while I was in residence at UCLA’s Clark Library in 2010. I was doing research for my monograph, but I kept getting distracted by the source material on Sheppard. Along with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, there was a large amount of minor work produced in the period around the figure of Sheppard: multiple hack memoirs and autobiographies, fake letters written by “Sheppard” from the afterlife following his execution, many broadside accounts of his goings on, etc. He was really a folk hero, in part because he made a mockery of the sacralization of private property—commodities and prisons alike. And one of the things I’d noticed about representations of Sheppard was that he was frequently described in ways we might see now as genderqueer or gender nonconforming—effeminate, very “pretty,” and lithe. Moreover, this gender nonconformity was also represented as not only legendarily sexy but key to Jack’s ability to escape confinement, due to smallness of frame, flexibility, and so on.
So Sheppard, as this beautiful deviant figure, functioned as a way for people to libidinally invest in imaginaries of embodied, spatialized forms of resistance to the intensifying police and prison system in the period, as well as to the cruel framework of the political economists and jurists who were squabbling over the significance of the criminalized body as raw material in death and/or as laboring body (to expropriate the land and turn it into the raw material of private property) in life. To this brutal “choice” that is not a choice, Sheppard held out the fantasy—and the praxis—of escape and liberation.
Circling back to your first question, this long history of the carceral imperial state, the property form, and gendered embodiment was also a lens through which to think about these questions in the present (and vice versa), and I believed that the interplay between these two historical periods would be generative. In this sense, I think (hope?) I produced something in the genre of what Madhu Dubey has recently described as the “anachronistic [rather than the historical] novel”: a novel that performs historical leaps or conducts impossible proximities. The mediating wall between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the Aztec rule of contemporary Los Angeles in Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex, and of course the transposition of pre-Emancipation frames onto post-Emancipation temporalities in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad are three really salient examples she gives.
JAS: How does Bess fit into all this? She’s an astonishing character, and at a couple of choice moments, the novel does something formally very interesting by shifting into her perspective. Much as I want to, I don’t think we can close read these moments in this forum; so perhaps the best way to ask the question is, what’s the place of the sex worker in the history you just laid out, especially considering that Confessions figures her in terms of both extreme dispossession and remarkable self-possession?
JR: Much of the Sheppard material from the period makes mention of a lover, a sex worker called “Edgeworth Bess.” The depictions of Bess in the source material are not particularly flattering. She is usually characterized in typically sexist ways as a temptress who seduces Jack into a life of crime. At a very basic level I wanted to revise the record, and to flesh out her character to exceed and refute her coding as demonic vixen. While my portrait of Bess is empirically unverifiable, that wasn’t the frame I cared about. In fact, just the opposite. Like a lot of scholars and friends, I wished to open up the fetishized, frozen archive to some theoretical questions and to a more experimental approach to history itself. I wanted to work outside of some of the constraints of the more conservative aspects of the discipline of history, and to allow speculative or philosophical questions to shape the narrative and the characterization. And, too, I was influenced by what we know about political movements, agitation, uprising, vanguard politics that have been waged by sex workers. Here, we could turn to work by scholars like Durba Mitra, who writes about the way that the figure of the sex worker underpins early sexology and the articulation of sexual difference more broadly; Svati Shah, who writes about sex worker radicalism and labor activism; and also Christina Hanhardt, whose book Safe Space has been key for me in thinking through the inextricable weave of sexuality and the spatial politics of cities. In writing the novel, I drew on this scholarship not always so much for empirical histories of sex work, but more for the theoretical constellations being mapped around bodies, power, desire, and subversion.
There’s a related point, which has to do with the fact that I am—and many of us are—always trying to think through what it means that the privileges of access to hormones and even just to the category “trans” more broadly are rooted in struggles waged by people we may not know—people (a great many of whom were involved in forms of sex work) who fought for forms of rights and access decades before some of us were born or were adults. One of the questions that I personally needed to let guide the work had to do with how that debt and that history would or could be metabolized in fictional form. Indeed, how the form needed to be subservient to that debt in many ways.
This returns us to the question of writing “anachronistic” fiction. “Bess” as a character doesn’t stand in for a specific political history, nor does “Jack.” For me, lining up history and characters by identity-categories wasn’t the point. I think of these characters, rather, as metafictional; and I think of them also as shaping the metafictional structure of the novel itself. Unlike some of the metafictional authors from the nineties (I won’t name names), I came to care about the stakes of certain metafictional questions like these not through Bachelard and Derrida and the fetish of literary self-reflexivity, but rather through work like Jasbir Puar’s detournement on assemblages (and Jasbir’s readings of early drafts of Confessions were crucial to my writing of the novel more broadly). What Terrorist Assemblages does with Deleuze is really open up the question of the assemblage itself–and remove it from the hallowed space of being an untouchable meta-concept–and kind of contextualize it and cause it to function within its own assemblage of thought and theory that, for me, includes work on decoloniality, the casting-into-suspicion of the archive, and a kind of fellow-traveling critique of identity politics that comes from within marginalized communities.The point here has to do with seeing history through a prism of assemblage (of space, sexuality, and policing, for example), and this leads–I think–to an understanding of how character itself might not be a reified “thing,” but rather a function that is secreted by these assemblages in a necessarily anachronistic way.
So, the writing of the book got bound up with thinking about the ways in which gender and sexuality in the present are not things in themselves but rather are concepts forged in relation. This leads back to the issue of desire. For the book (and for its author), masculinity, you could say, is an assemblage—a form of desire more so than an identity, and this (for the book) does not exist autonomously from a relation to femmes. Despite the rise of auto-theory as perhaps the ur-mode of our literary present (which is another conversation we could have), that’s about as auto-theoretical as I’ll get in this forum.
JAS: What about race? In Confessions, Bess is the daughter of a lascar. Is that in the historical record?
JR: One of the things I came to feel about the way the character “Bess” functioned in other texts that rework the Sheppard narrative–primarily John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Threepenny Novel–was that she became a kind of very explicitly floating signifier. Although we really don’t know much about Bess’s “actual” history, this character is always represented as white, even though other enormous liberties have been taken with her. So many liberties are taken that, at a certain point we become aware that this character is functioning really explicitly in Gay as a fiction and as a synecdoche for a kind of collage and composite of infamous women of the period. (The artist Anja Kirschner has written very eloquently about this.) But yet no matter what extravagant liberties have been taken with this character, Bess had remained unquestionably racialized as white. It was striking to me the way that authors were happy to speculate on any aspect of this character—in fact, just create an explicit fiction of a character who happened to be named “Bess”—but shut down around the question of race and the actual concrete histories of racialization at the time. Although I have no idea how successful I was at this, it was important to me to resist the tendency of much historical fiction to just completely whitewash the city, when we know—from authors like David Dabydeen, Gretchen Gerzina, and David Olusoga—that that wasn’t what early modern London was like. Given that London was an extremely multiracial city in the eighteenth century, and that the social class that Sheppard moved in was not at all monolithically white, it seemed to me that representing Bess as the daughter of a Anglo-Protestant mother and a defected South Asian sailor was in fact a characterization more true to the spirit of the historical conjuncture than the repeated depiction of her as simply a demonic white temptress who mind-controlled Sheppard. I had some desire to write these characters into an actual love story, and in some ways this summoning of all the (utopian?) potentialities latent within the conflicting forces of a particular conjuncture goes back to the assemblage theory of fiction, rather than a fidelity to some misleading and reified notion of “character.”
JAS: Last question. I want to go back to your point that “masculinity is a form of desire more so than an identity” and relate it to this history (and privilege) of what you called access to the category “trans.” One of the things it seems to me that Confessions handles amazingly well, from a narrative vantage, is how it expresses characters’ desires without characters necessarily having the language for what they want. Jack in particular is shown brilliantly in pursuit of things he can’t easily articulate. At the same time, a couple of subplots or scenes turn on the slang of thieves—a social context for your novel in which initiation into language is crucial. (It also proves crucial to the reader, as Voth footnotes and translates this argot for us.) So, the question here is: how are you thinking about language in relation to things like desire, identity, history? (You know, I thought it would be good to end with something small!)
JR: The first thing to say about fiction and desire is that it’s really all about the reader’s desire, and the author’s desire for the reader’s desire. I hate to refer to Barthes because it’s such a cliché to do so at this point, but he did say it very well when he emphasized that it’s not the author but rather the reader who imparts meaning to a text by bringing their own desires/neurosis to bear upon it. The author, he says, just creates “a minor disaster of static.”
But as for this issue of language: one thing about the thieves’ slang that interested me was how these slang dictionaries that exploded as a genre in the early eighteenth century existed to project, define, and linguistically certify a subculture in relation to the calcification of standardized English. Clearly one of the functions of these dictionaries was to conjure by spectacular exception—by fetishizing and cordoning off the “vulgar”—the space of the norm. And then these dictionaries are interesting on a number of other, related levels as well. They contained not only a great number of words for all the new kinds of property theft that had risen up in relation to the birth of commodity capitalism and the advent of shopping as such, but also a deluge of extremely explicit language for sex, sex work, and body parts. So, through the use of these slang dictionaries, I wanted to kind of riff on the ways in which the body and the institutions of capitalism are bound together at the level of language.
And then there’s the metafictional aspect of the dictionaries—the way they are serving as a kind of vehicle for the footnotes in the novel because the editor needs to translate the slang for the reader, and, through that, we start to get a sense of the editor’s own story. So, as for that particular metafiction: I am thinking of this a bit in terms of a little theory I’ve been trying to work out that has to do with found footage and film, actually. Caetlin Benson-Allott has a really excellent discussion of the found-footage subniche of the horror genre and its convention of dual authorship (one author who is unknown, who shot the original footage; one who is known and re-presents the footage). For Benson-Allott, this is a kind of meditation on questions of the division of labor and the torquings of labor relations in austerity-culture. More complexly, I think she shows that the found footage genre (which has really exploded in the twenty-first century, particularly since, say, 2008) has two simultaneous and countervailing trajectories: the democratizating tendencies of video on the one hand, and the influence of austerity and autocracy in the industry on the other. Put another way: there is a non-coincidental simultaneity to the expansion of handheld video technologies with the industry’s push toward microbudgeting (the wars on writers’ unions, professional actors’ guilds, etc.).
Now I want to say that I think we can see a kind of echo of this within the literary humanities and the becoming-lyric of so much theoretical writing. There is a kind of drawing-close of theory and lyricism that is also exemplified in the rise of auto-fiction or auto-theory: Brian Blanchfield, Maggie Nelson, Kate Zambreno, etc. (Theodore Martin talks about this as the “recoding of literary language as theoretical discourse”). So here theory takes on some of the aesthetic, lyric qualities of fiction, and fiction or fictive-adjacent genres take on a self-reflexive quality in kind. None of this is new per se, but there is an intensification of this, I think, since at least 2008—a compression of lyricism and analysis at once. (To me, this is different from, though not unrelated to, Guillory’s interpretation of the lyricism of Paul de Man as symptomatizing a reaction to the shifting of university funds from the humanities to the hard sciences during the Cold War, and the legitimation of the humanities through scientific-sounding “jargon” as a somewhat unwitting response). In the case of the present, I take the becoming-lyric of theory to be (in part) a two-for-one kind of efficiency “solution” to the labors of writing and of interpretation that surfaces as a response to an increasingly defunded humanities. This move sits in strange proximity to things like the rise of data-based humanities theory. So, in an atmosphere of intensifying scarcity, theoretical writing simultaneously turns toward quantitative methods, while (only seemingly contradictorily) taking on styles of fiction and lyric, absorbing the aesthetic object within itself. In this sense, theoretical writing becomes a kind of microbudgeting which—much like the found-footage horror film—no longer has the need for costly and time-consuming extras, such as “extra-diegetic” soundtracks or (in the case of theory) aesthetic texts/object of analysis. The aesthetic text is the theory, and vice-versa. If the found-footage film absorbs the extra-diegetic as a horrifying “possession” (see, for example, Paranormal Activity), so too might contemporary theory be said to be possessed by its erstwhile objects of analysis: aesthetics, style, technique.
Rather than struggle against this tendency, I think part of the impulse behind Confessions was a kind of literalization or exacerbation of it as a way of exploring/intensifying/recasting this phenomenon through aesthetic form itself. The result is a novel preoccupied by the uncanny horrors of unknown authorship and the instability of self-possession/inevitability of dispossession, to get back to your earlier question. All of this transpires within the diegetic frame of the novel.
But finally, I think this question of metafiction is most intelligible when considered through the framework that someone like Dubey brings to the relationship between racialization and metafiction in twenty-first-century fiction. Dubey talks about a contemporary consciousness around “race as a hypersignificant yet not fully intelligible category, one that retains its damaging power despite its limited explanatory scope.” For Dubey, recent metafictions, in response to this contradiction, “exemplify an aesthetic—distinct not only from older models of corrective mimesis but also from the widely heralded post-postmodern realisms of the present—that is uniquely calibrated to the tricks and turns of American racecraft in the post–civil rights decades.” I’ve been thinking about this, too, in relation to some things Simone White has recently articulated regarding Amiri Baraka’s relationship to W. E. B. Du Bois, the racial politics of citationality, and even a potentially utopian aspect to citiational form: “The ocular and intellectual stress induced by attempting to read more than one text at a time…intensifies textual interplay. Reader and text (must/do) draw close…The compositional assertion that the texts must be read together means something…these marks-become-writing fasten the original to the past and herald the possibility of, not separating from the antecedent, but mutual release from the antecedent’s conditions of possibility” (79-80). Here we can see that the issue of metafiction isn’t that overplayed post-structuralist mise-en-abyme fascination with hyper self-reflexivity in itself, but rather a complex theory of history and relationality and an insistence that we cannot think about what metafiction is and what textuality is without thinking through conjunctural questions around racialization and power.
And speaking of power, and that ur-theorist of it, and the question you closed with around desire: I think here of your chapter on Foucault in your fantastic forthcoming book on reading theory, where you describe the excitement of coming to Foucault’s critique of homosexuality as “individual psychology or identity.” If it seems counterintuitive to get excited at this disidentification with homosexual identity, you clarify in the most lovely way: “Coming out seemed to us to be the springboard not for finding ourselves, but for finding one another.” Probably this “finding” is what I cared about most in writing the novel, after all is said and done.