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Catherine Gallagher. The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN: 0691123586. Price: US$32.95.

  • Brian Cooper

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  • Brian Cooper
    Hobart and William Smith Colleges

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In The Body Economic, Catherine Gallagher offers readers a superb literary and intellectual history. She places T.R. Malthus’s work on population at the center of debates on British political economy in the nineteenth century. There is nothing new in this. For many in the nineteenth century, Malthus was synonymous with political economy. What Gallagher convincingly demonstrates is how Romantic and Victorian critics of Malthus incorporated assumptions of the political economists about the body, sensation and value into their own work even as they strenuously sought to distance themselves from the discipline. Further, she describes Malthus’s significance to the early comparative anthropology of John McLennan, E.B. Tylor and others. Again, this connection is not new. As Gallagher notes, the hand of Malthus has previously been detected in the development of British comparative anthropology, and, thanks to the work of Christopher Herbert and others, the development of the concept of culture itself. What is novel in her argument is the central role she accords Malthus in the beginnings of modernist literature.

While far too modest in citing her own earlier groundbreaking contributions, Gallagher locates her work among literary and historical criticism by Patrick Brantlinger, Philip Connell, John Guillory, Boyd Hilton, Mary Poovey, and Regenia Gagnier, all of whom consider the knowledge produced by political economists as more than mere apologetics for bourgeois capitalism. Body departs from this body of work in that it also sketches a history of thematic continuity in political economy which extends through the mid-Victorian marginal utility theory of William Stanley Jevons. The standard histories of economics have described the “marginalist” revolution as a radical turn from the classical tradition of Adam Smith because it shifts the primary locus of value from production to include consumer desire, and the primary analytical focus from objective to subjective value. Gallagher’s revisionist history, which places the body at the center of the marginalists’ subjective analysis of utility and value, makes for a too brief and not altogether convincing narrative, in part because, in contrast with Gagnier, she barely acknowledges that these shifts occurred. But the main weakness in the book lies in the fact that Gallagher rarely deviates from close readings of canonical authors, both in political economy and among its literary critics. I will indicate some of the shortcomings of her focus on the canonical authors in political economy below.

The first chapter traces the shared organic views of society of political economists and their Romantic opponents. Laboring bodies constituted the source of value for both sides. Common ground meant Malthus, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and other Romantic writers could initially engage in a mutually comprehensible conversation. But the meaning of “labor” proved problematic, and constituted one source for the increasingly bitter tone the Romantics directed toward political economists in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Romantic writers fretted over the value of their literary productions, and whether they constituted the outcome of work or labor, pleasure or pain. Political economists married Jeremy Bentham’s pleasure/pain principle–which they considered the motive force for all action—to David Ricardo’s production-based labor theory of (exchange) value. But they too encountered contradictions in their accounts. They were forced to acknowledge cases where desire and demand, not labor and production, determined the value of a good. And the labor theory of value embodied a multitude of moral and political interpretations of the value of work, including those that justified laborers keeping the entire share of the fruits of production.

The next chapter details what Gallagher characterizes as the peculiarities of the political economists’ organicism. She identifies two “plots” in political economy: bioeconomics and somaeconomics. The former concerns “the interconnections among human life, its sustenance, and modes of production and exchange.” Somaeconomics reflects “the feelings that are the sensual and affective causes and consequences of economic exertion” (35). Gallagher calls the political economists’ elaborations of the two versions of organicism “plots” because, in their debates with one another, political economists more “rigorously and self-consciously” explored the very contradictions brought forth in later literary critiques of political economy’s organicism by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others. Because these plots overlapped yet diverged–the health, well-being and, indeed, life of individuals was not isomorphic to that of society—Romantic and Victorian critics reacted with mistrust, suspicion and hostility toward political economists. Gallagher’s analysis thus restates a recurrent dilemma in political economy: what is the relationship of the part to the whole?

The third through sixth chapters offer excellent readings of these plots in Dickens’s Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend, and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Scenes of Clerical Life. Gallagher’s intricate yet elegant interpretation of the nature of work in Hard Times, for instance, points out the similarities to Smith’s unusual conception of labor in Wealth of Nations–everyone works, and this inclusive classification, unlike Carlyle’s, remains morally neutral (73-4). Through his defense of the work of the circus players, Dickens unwittingly apes the work of political economists on the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Gallagher perceptively indicates that this defense unearths the “oddness and paradoxes” of the labor theory of value: work is defined by circumstance, and has “no intrinsic attributes” susceptible to utilitarian calculus. Rather, the activity itself, once defined as work or not work, helps bring about the sensations associated with it. An activity, like that of the circus performers, can be play, and evoke pleasure, under one set of circumstances, or work, and evoke pain, under another (79).

Gallagher’s sixth chapter illustrates how Malthus’s population principle underpinned the developments of early anthropology in Britain. Comparative anthropology in Britain developed in two widely divergent yet Malthusian directions. Researchers focused on the organization of culture around population pressures, specifically the need to repress sexual desire and increase food resources, in the work of McLennan and Charles Darwin, respectively. Gallagher calls the late-nineteenth-century research into the creative forces unleashed by responses to Malthusian pressures “the sexual organization of culture,” a process which ultimately produced James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published in 1890. The Golden Bough, which meshed the two Malthusian approaches, dominated British comparative anthropology for three decades, and served as “a foundational text for modernism” (170). Hence, the modernist idea of culture, modernist literature, and modernist literary criticism all stand as part of the legacy of Malthus (172).

Gallagher remains mindful throughout that political economists sought to “understand the phenomena they observed….within the terms and according to the protocols of certain historically determined mental operations (otherwise known as “ideologies”), which were by definition outside of their purview” (3). But Gallagher misses an opportunity to examine how British political economists attempted to impose their own view of mental operations upon the world. The purpose behind what contemporaries in the first decades of the nineteenth century referred to as the “rage” for political economy was that the political economists’ ideal characters, whether the provident worker or the Malthusian couple, were to be realized through the operation of prudence or moral restraint, or some other behavioral adaptation. When contemporaries recoiled at the organicism of the political economists, they did so not only over the political economists’ apparent callous disregard of workers’ bodies—in debates on the New Poor Law, for example—but also over the “art” which sought to prescribe, not just describe the roles of subjects and objects in political economy.

The prescriptive nature of political economy complicates interpretations of political economists’ valuation of their own work. According to Gallagher, most political economists paid little attention to their own labor or to that of any professional writer—such work, in their view, fell outside of the “productive” fold. In her recounting, Adam Smith did not seem at all bothered by the fact that he belonged to his own “unproductive” category” (29). But Smith did claim, at the beginning of Wealth of Nations, the philosopher's trade was "to observe every thing," and, since they "are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects, they can thus invent new machinery or new systems of knowledge” (Book I, chapter i, paragraph 9). Followers of Smith believed that their educational mission, if not economically productive, at least produced, in the language of the day, useful knowledge.

An additional problem arises with Gallagher’s account of political economy as, to use Smith’s words, a “new [system] of knowledge” with both significant autonomy and far-reaching interdisciplinary effects. In noting the passing of moral philosophy and the birth of political economy (”Afterword”), Gallagher cedes the political economists too-easy a victory in their struggles to erect and maintain disciplinary boundaries. One constant irritant Gallagher refers to, and here she quotes, for example, Nassau Senior’s Outline of the Science of Political Economy (1836), was the political economists’ perceived need to cast out questions of happiness and to confine their inquiries to questions of wealth. This would simultaneously make political economy more of a science, and avoid the involvement of the discipline in arguments about the ethical implications of its analysis. By mid-century, however, Senior was not so sanguine about the possibility of turning political economy into a science. He concluded that a lack of objectivity in political economy was “inherent in its nature [due to] its direct influence on the welfare of mankind…and of all branches of human knowledge…[it] offers the easiest scope to a prejudiced or uncandid reasoner.” Thus, political economists would never “examine questions which come home to their business and bosoms, with the unbiased spirit which charges the astronomer or the mathematician” (12, 13, 14).

The rage for political economy also sharpened uncertainty over who was or could claim to be a political economist. The political economists’ reflexive habit of defining political economy and its terms anew, which Gallagher takes as a sign of the confident putting up and surveillance of disciplinary borders, can just as easily be seen as a reflection of anxiety about the discipline. Take the catchphrase “political economy is to the state what domestic economy is to the family.” In the preface to Illustrations of Political Economy, Harriet Martineau simply repeated the analogy, and then rejected it as false. This was no different from what James Mill and most self-identified political economists did. In his debate on methodology with William Whewell, John Stuart Mill called the analogy “objectionable,” and claimed that political economy was a science, whereas domestic economy was an art: “It consists of rules, or maxims of prudence, for keeping the family regularly supplied with what its wants require, and securing, with any given amount of means, the greatest possible quantity of physical comfort and enjoyment” (125). He concluded, however, that Malthus’s work on population meant that domestic economy was an integral part of political economy. As a result, political economy would depart from “the strictness of purely scientific arrangement,” because of its intimate relationship with domestic economy.

Critics happily excoriated Martineau as a political economist on the basis of Illustrations. Anyone could easily become an “economist,” well-versed in the “art” of household management, or, in Martineau’s case, domestic realism in the service of political economy. By extension, despite protestations about the analogy, any economist could easily become a political economist, adept at the “science” of political economy. In 1832, the political economist Richard Whately claimed that the fundamental principles of political economy rested on “very little information beyond what is almost unconsciously, and indeed unavoidably, acquired by everyone.” Such facts were “few and simple, and within the range of everyone’s observation” (149-50). And if the facts of political economy lay within the reach of almost everyone, could everyone claim to be a political economist? Gallagher herself refers to a character in Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” as a “homespun, religiously inspired political economist” (174). The uncertain status of political economy and political economists diminishes the impact of Gallagher’s arguments: who are the political economists in this period? Still, Gallagher’s book is indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the complexity and complementarity of the work of political economists and their literary critics.