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A Response to Peter Linebaugh

By Anja Kirschner & David Panos, 27 January 2010

Jack Sheppard and his Double: A response to Peter Linebaugh. Anja Kirschner & David Panos

Firstly we insist that our interview in Variant was fundamentally supporting Peter Linebaugh's work. We have been greatly inspired by his writing and owe him a debt for many of the themes explored in our films (our film Polly II paid tribute to his work with Marcus Rediker on piracy in the closing credits). It is not just the research he has done in bringing these histories to light that we admire, but also his sense of political commitment.

Perhaps Linebaugh's proximity to our work has led to a heightened sense of caution when asked to align ourselves to it publicly - we feel the need to treat all our sources and inspirations somewhat critically. Having seen Peter Linebaugh talk in public last year we were struck by the way that his deployment of social history to articulate a contemporary sense of injustice sometimes means drawing continuities and connections which seemed to do some violence to their historical specificity and separateness. As Peter Linebaugh's article above perhaps shows, his associative approach can be inspiring and productive. We ourselves often take a similar approach to historical material in our work - by juxtaposing different epochs and genres in our films and riffing on images and symbols. But what might make for interesting poetic provocations in a fictional/filmic work of art might be more problematic in the writing of history (we're well aware that this raises all sorts of tricky questions about the borders between these two disciplines).

In the course of researching our film ‘The Last Days of Jack Sheppard' we engaged with many of the documents cited Linebaugh's book ‘The London Hanged' and that led us to be more circumspect about some aspects of his methodology. Where we primarily differ with Linebaugh's reading of Sheppard is that we suspect that much of the discourse directly attributed to Jack Sheppard could be paraphrasing public debates of his period. Sheppard's two main biographies were anonymously compiled by hack journalists (probably including Defoe, although this is not proven) working for the Tory publisher, John Applebee. Linebaugh fails to mention that Applebee was notorious for fabricating and exploiting the life stories of famous criminals for profit and his publications were often spliced from various fictions and unreliable accounts. In ‘The London Hanged' Linebaugh repeats quotes attributed to Jack from these publications without making the reader aware of the complex history of their possible construction. For example, on page 33 of ‘The London Hanged' Linebaugh prefaces a quote taken from ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard' with "Jack used to say..." and praises Sheppard's "acumen as a political economist". He goes on to compare this quote with Mandeville's economic satire ‘The Fable of the Bees', claiming that Jack was "leading" such discussions. In fact, the first version of Mandeville's poem was written nearly twenty years previously and the debate it prompted was re-ignited by the tumultuous economic events of the 1720s. It seems very possible to us that a ghost writer such as Defoe (who had already blurred the line between fact and fiction in his ‘autobiographies' Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders) took the opportunity to insert this kind of material into Sheppard's story. It could also be that Jack, who was literate and clever, posed questions in line with discussions of his day, but either way, it is problematic to attribute the quote unquestioningly to Sheppard. This isn't just pedantic empiricism - it raises questions about how we approach and tell history.

In his response to our criticism, Linebaugh once again demonstrates a similar attitude towards reconstructing proletarian subjectivity from historical documents. He quotes ‘Betty Blewskin' on her bawdy ‘love' for Jack. Linebaugh holds up Betty Blewskin's letter as evidence of Jack's full-blooded relations to working class lovers. He does mention in passing that this quote might ‘perhaps be made up' but he appears to connect its fundamental intentions to ‘real life women' that associated with Sheppard. Actually the original letter, published by Applebee after Jack's hanging, presents Blewskin as the niece of ‘Moll Flanders' and many other allusions point to its fabrication. Fake letters were a staple of Applebee's armament of journalistic devices and its content would have played a part in boosting Sheppard as a publishing commodity. Despite this, later in the essay, when Linebaugh condemns relations between a courtier and King George as "unromantic" and "economic" he appears to use the Blewskin letter to construct an argument that contrasts the ‘authentic' romantic love of proto-proletarians with the alienated trysts of the ruling class.

Linebaugh also claims that our presentation of Edgeworth Bess AKA Elizabeth Lyon, omits any romantic element and shows her ‘strictly as inducement to commodity exchange'. But he has this wrong; Bess/Lyons is present throughout our film as Jack's lover and accomplice. Instead of simply a being a ‘love interest' Bess's character in the film works on multiple levels - she is presented as an aspiring petit-bourgeois but also as a bold and intelligent critic of the realities of her time. Furthermore, we also suggest in our work that Bess's overall portrayal as a corrupting influence on Sheppard is in part a fiction created by the ruling class (represented by Defoe). The figure of the wayward apprentice lured by a prostitute into vice was familiar from the many ‘apprentice tales' which preceded the writing of Jack's narrative and, we would argue, in part provided its template.

To highlight this fictive dimension is not to deny that Jack existed, escaped, inspired etc. We don't want to reduce Jack to a mere bourgeois creation and our doubts about the provenance of his biographies do not necessarily rob him of his force as a popular hero of the time or prevent us from using him as a cipher for working class desire for escape. There is plenty of concrete evidence of his existence. Our intention was to present a double aspect to many of the themes in the Jack Sheppard story: Jack is held up both as a symbol of working class desire and irrepressibility AND a mythologised figure that is so resonant of his time that upper class mediators try to use his story to think through their own problems. We are also very interested in how such semi-mythical constructions around an event or character can become operative in political struggles, sometimes in a progressive way.

To conclude, there are many things that we agree with Linebaugh about, chiefly the juxtaposition of finance and capital punishment, emphasised by us to reflect the present period where millions will get it in the neck because of capitalist crisis. We also agree with him about an early ‘stage' in working class consciousness (something we figured in the film in the mass refusal of work at the news of Jack's escapes - an 18th Century premonition of general strike). Linebaugh admits that our treatment of representation leads us to confront ‘filthy lucre' but he seems frustrated that we deal with ‘critics, painters, authors' and hints at the limits of our ‘post-modern' treatment were ‘deed is secondary to its representation'.

We concede that our foregrounding of art and representation is, at one level, self-reflexive; we're very conscious of the treatment of working class political subjects in our films and their uneasy place in an ‘art' context. Speculating on the Defoe/Sheppard relationship was part of investigating that unease, In fact, the last image of our film, where the ‘commodified' form of Jack as Harlequin Sheppard hangs himself suggests our concerns about the dead end of the representational hall of mirrors, or the general complicity of art and representation with a fatal capitalist system.

But ultimately, beyond our interests as filmmakers, we insist that the question of representation and the way that commodity exchange and financialisation materially impacted all levels of 18th century society is crucial for any account of that period. It is not just some ‘post-modern' predilection. The general slippage between fact and fiction that it ushered in is embodied by Jack's predicament as mediated class hero and Defoe's attempts to grapple with 18th Century reality. But, as society became more abstracted through exchange, bourgeois commentators like Defoe begin to give shape to the emergence of speculative consciousness and identity (as well as their speculative investments!) through fiction. Could this consciousness (prefigured in the film in the proto-Kantian work of Addison) be seen as the forerunner of German Romanticism and Idealism and ultimately of its great inversion in the work of Marx? In this way Defoe finds his double character, as our bourgeois villain who wants to reconcile morality with the ‘naked, shameless, direct brutal exploitation' of capitalist commerce, but who also opens up the role of speculation in imagining another world. Looking at the history of capitalism requires us to see both sides of such contradictions as we seek to transcend them.


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