Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Malthus Our Contemporary?: Toward a Political Economy of Sex

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Malthus Our Contemporary?: Toward a Political Economy of Sex

Article excerpt

Species Means Guilt.

--Bruce Andrews (1)

... desire, as Aristotle knew, is all angle, and so he gave us the math to keep track of our loves: Number, he said, has two senses: what is counted or countable, and that by which we count.

--Angie Estes, "Take Cover," Tryst (2)

I BEGIN WITH A REMARK OF HAZLITT, WHO IN THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE glossed an aspect of what we might call The Malthus Meme: "There is this to be said for Mr. Malthus, that in speaking of him, one knows what one is talking about." (3) But do we know what we're talking about when we talk about Malthus? This essay proposes to reopen the question of "Malthus," and of Malthusian reckoning--or rather, to track the many ways Malthusian political economy might provide one horizon for a reckoning historicizable yet interminable and trans-specific. Or perhaps it is more precise to say that this essay partakes of, even as it registers, a return to Malthus in several fields. Malthus is, among many things, a Romantic theorist of change in biological populations; he is also necessarily a theorist of time--the time of production and reproduction within and across generations (and indeed across species), how this timing might be sped or slowed. Malthus emerges here as a sexual theorist worth taking seriously; his work intriguingly anticipates the possibility of rethinking biological networks through information theory. This essay proposes as well that Malthusian counting is not an arithmetic, geometric, or even algorithmic operation so much as a matching operation--and here I draw on recent work by (among others) Marjorie Levinson.

For one wittily efficient take on The Malthus Meme, consider Stephen Leacock, Canadian poet and humorist, in his Depression-era "Oh! Mr. Malthus!" (1936):

   "Mother, Mother, here comes Malthus,
   Mother, hold me tight!
   Look! It's Mr. Malthus, Mother!
   Hide me out of sight."
   This was the cry of little Jane
   In bed she moaning lay,
   Delirious with Stomach Pain,
   That would not go away.
   All because her small Existence
   Over-pressed upon Subsistence;
   Human Numbers didn't need her;
   Human Effort couldn't feed her.
   Little Janie didn't know
   The Geometric Ratio.
   Poor Wee Janie had never done
   Course Economics No. I;
   Never reached in Education
   Theories of Population,--Theories
   which tend to show
   Just how far our Food will go,
   Mathematically found
   Just enough to go around.
   This, my little Jane, is why
   Pauper Children have to die.
   Pauper Children underfed
   Die delirious in Bed;
   Thus at Malthus's Command
   Match Supply with true Demand. (4)

"Theories of Population," "The Geometric Ratio," "subsistence," "Supply" and "Demand"--all are keywords of Malthusian political economy, "geometric ratio" perhaps the most marked as a Malthusian phrase, designating the rate of increase of animal populations (destined to outstrip any increase in the vegetal kingdom, which according to Malthus would increase only along an "arithmetic ratio"). Malthus's concerns and his conceptual apparatus were of course those of his age, yet as Leacock's bouncing couplets attest, they were still and newly citable in the 1930s; and in several ways, mutatis mutandis, Malthus's concerns remain ours.

It seems timely, then, to assess whether and how Malthus might still be "good to think with," in Claude Levi-Strauss's terms. (5) That Malthus is considered still good to think with is suggested by any Google search as well as by more specialized research inquiries into demography, population theory, and indeed, political economy. An under-acknowledged Malthusian formula appears in popular TV: on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart casually invokes geometric versus arithmetic progression in a conversation with his guest Jim Cramer, of CNBC's "Mad Money" (airdate March 12, 2009). And those contributing to more recondite conversations also invoke Malthus: the London Review of Books recently published a letter from historian Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who notes that Malthus was a sharp critic of Ricardo's commitment to "the illusion that economics could be reduced to mathematical formulae. …

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