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

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
Bioeconomics and Somaeconomics:
LIFE AND SENSATION IN
CLASSICAL POLITICAL ECONOMY

If political economy had its own peculiar organicism, its own way of imagining society as a vast, living system, and of basing its calculations on the certitudes of vital need, were its critics simply mistaken when they accused it of being “mechanical in heart and mind”? Not quite. The Romantic and early Victorian writers who feared that a moribund system was replacing a vigorous body politic were not entirely deluded, for they were following through on certain insights of political economy itself, which implied that the creation of wealth routinely rendered life and sensation dormant. Political economy's organicism looked peculiar to them not only because it predicted unceasing strife but also because it privileged abeyant forms of vitality and feeling. This chapter will give you a picture of this odd organicism, outlining what political economists said—primarily to each other—about economic life (as a biological entity) and about its sensations.

Before novelists like Charles Dickens and George Eliot incorporated them into extended narrative forms, which I'll analyze in subsequent chapters, political economy's organic premises were already structured as plots, as highly consequentialist, if extremely schematic, stories about the processes of life and death, pain and pleasure. I'll divide these plots into two broad categories. First I'll examine what I call the “bioeconomic” plots of political economy, the stories of how the economy circulates Life, with a capital L. Then I'll explore their “somaeconomic” plots, their accounts of how pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness, desire and exhaustion, stimulate economic activity and are in turn modified by it. Bioeconomic plots trace the interconnections among human life, its sustenance, and modes of production and exchange; they track the reciprocal effects of economic activity and life forms generally. Somaeconomic plots describe more intensively the feelings that are the sensual and affective causes and consequences of economic exertion. Obviously the two sorts of explanation overlap, for telling biological stories about the economy required attention to the sensations of economic actors, whose accumulated feelings, in turn, were used to explain both the quality and the quantity of economic life.

Nevertheless, the two kinds of narrative diverged in the major works of the political economists, and the divergence is symptomatic of the discipline's

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