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

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
Malthusian Anthropology and the Aesthetics
of Sacrifice in Scenes of Clerical Life

Not too long ago, it would have seemed implausible to link the Victorian concepts of culture with the name of Thomas Robert Malthus. Although the impact of his thought on a variety of developing disciplines was widely recognized—think, for example, of demographics and evolutionary biology—until quite recently we regarded Malthus's influence on the nineteenth century's cultural discourses as almost nil. During the last twenty years, though, scholars in various fields have reassessed Malthus's impact on nineteenth-century anthropological and literary discourses, discovering (as several earlier chapters of this book corroborate) the unwitting conformity of many of his severest critics to the fundamentals of his vision. It has become commonplace to view Malthusianism as an integral component of several interlocking discourses that include not only political economy but also speculative history, moral philosophy, nascent anthropology, linguistics, and aesthetics;1 consequently, it no longer seems surprising to think of Malthus as a pioneer of cultural theory.

Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of intellectual history that Malthus's writings nourished ideas that were so thoroughly intertwined with Victorian “developmentalism.” Culture came into focus for the British primarily as an evolutionary concept, and in the second half of the century it was laden with the issues already linked to developmentalism, one of which was the role of population growth in stimulating cultural change. The culture idea took the shape it still recognizably holds for us alongside its evolutionary diacritical term: the “nature” that lacked it but out of which it must have emerged. This was the case, moreover, in both of the contexts in which the word was most often used: (1) the study of the whole way of life and collective consciousness of a specified people (the protoanthropological context); and (2) the study of the singular, inward processes that result in unusual achievements of individual consciousness (for my purposes, the literary context). In the first half of

1 For example, in Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the
Species
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), Maureen McLane traces Malthusian concepts
of Man in the works of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Wordsworth. Christopher Herbert's
Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chi-
cago Press, 1991) details numerous ways in which “Malthus's population theory moves decisively into
the field of cultural theory” (111). See also Philip Connell, Romanticism, Economics and the Question
of “Culture”
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 13–18.

-156-

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