The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview
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Chapter One
The Romantics and the Political Economists

How did political economy come to have such a bad odor among the most prominent literary figures of the early nineteenth century? Answering this question has lately proved more difficult than literary historians previously believed, for they used to be content to generalize about the natural antagonism between “organic” and “mechanistic” ways of thinking, or to gesture toward the rift between “enlightenment empiricism” and “Romantic idealism.” Now literary and intellectual historians, however, are piecing together a complex picture, which relies less heavily on the self-representations of the “Lake Poets,” especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey.1 Instead of taking the antagonism for granted, scholars are analyzing it in some detail, and they are uncovering both the multiple contexts of the disagreements and some surprising commonalities between British political economy and Romanticism. In this chapter I will sketch the development of hostilities, from the outraged reaction to the first editions of Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on Population, through disagreements about the national economy during the Napoleonic War years, and into disputes (some might say misunderstandings) about the nature of labor, value, and happiness. But I will also explore the unacknowledged shared premises, the larger discursive agreements that made the terms of the controversies intelligible to both sides.

I hope to show that Romanticism and political economy should be thought of as competing forms of “organicism,”2 both of which flourished in British

1 Philip Connell's Romanticism, Economics and the Question of “Culture” (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2001), which is the most authoritative and detailed examination of the topic, notes that
early nineteenth-century commentators referred often to hostilities between “'scientific' forms of
socio-economic analysis” and “an alternative strain of social criticism, which aligned itself in opposi-
tion to the new sciences of society, and which has subsequently come to be identified, above all, with
the literary milieu of British Romanticism” (5). And yet we are still trying to understand the “leading
causes” of the antipathy (25). For a general analysis of the original proximity between British (primar-
ily Scottish) aesthetic and economic thought in the 1700s and their developing discordance at the
end of the century, see Howard Caygill, Art of Judgement (London: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

2 The meaning and history of “organicism” and “organism” in social and economic thought have
been much analyzed. For a general discussion of the terms, see Raymond Williams, Keywords (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Immanuel Kant is said to have been the first to establish criteria
for “organic” or natural entities, which, taken together, differentiate them from machines: (1) the
whole determines the form and the relation of parts; (2) parts mutually form each other; and (3)
the whole reproduces itself (Critique of Judgment, Part II, Analytics of Teleological Judgment). For
descriptions of the uses of biological sciences and natural metaphors in the history of economic


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The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel


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