ABSTRACT

This article examines Dickens’s Bleak House alongside the history of crossing-sweeping, a species of “vague” labor whose variable duties frustrated practices of Foucauldian discipline inside and outside Victorian novels. To depict this labor, the article argues, Dickens’s novel makes use of the flexible mechanisms of social management Foucault calls “security,” and, more specifically, the aesthetic infrastructure of these mechanisms, a regime of representation the essay terms “figural.” This regime mobilizes “typical” personae, like “the crossing-sweeper” and “the nervous woman,” to represent and regulate ungraspable groups. These vaguely formulated figures, the article shows, “problematize” those persons who resemble them, making them objects of action within relevant dispositifs (e.g., health, criminality, sexuality). By recounting the figural pursuits of his crossing-sweeper (Jo) by a police detective (Inspector Bucket), other professionals, and laypeople, Dickens ironizes the use of figures, exposing figures’ typifying effects and the absurd presumptions of “narratorial” omniscience they license. In turn, Dickens illuminates the violent abstractions effected by the agencies that deploy figures to regulate social vagueness. By moving between figures’ police-effects and figural policing, this article expands the history of police detection to include its participation in regimes of representation and traces the figural interventions central to the novel form.

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