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.[Record]

  • Brian Cooper

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  • Brian Cooper
    Hobart and William Smith Colleges

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 …