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

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview

Introduction

There was a time, back in the last century, when most literary critics despised nineteenth-century British political economy. Our disdainful view of it had many sources—the American New Critics, the Leavisites, the Marxists, the early Victorian literati—but it seldom came from any serious encounters with texts by political economists. We preferred to get them secondhand, already packaged as the direct ideological justification of a particularly rapacious capitalism. After all, we had a stake in perpetuating our own image as their humanistic antagonists, the professionals dedicated to the unique, nonfungible properties of things and the autotelic, noninstrumental nature of people. We were the Kantians (or Coleridgeans), they were the Benthamites, and we lacked John Stuart Mill's reasons for attempting a dialectical synthesis.

It is difficult to say just why all of this began to change during the last three decades. The stress that deconstruction placed on displacement in the literary text—the unstable connection between signifiers and signified and the relational nature of all meaning—brought the economic logic of substitution much closer than it had been to the dynamics of textual analysis. Marxist ideology critique also began focusing more intently on the subtle ways in which poets, playwrights, and novelists, despite their overt proclamations, wrote within the dominant ideologies of their times. Reformulations of the concept of ideology also helped: it was seen to be less a set of explicit beliefs than a set of practices, which we repeat even while protesting against them, and which enfold almost inescapable underlying patterns of perception. The Foucauldian replacement of ideology critique with discourse analysis, moreover, allowed us not only to think beyond disciplinary borders to the organizing epistemes of a period but also to scrutinize the processes by which various discourses formed and differentiated themselves. The Foucauldian style of analysis had a particularly strong impact on nineteenth-century studies because that century was singled out as the period when the human sciences took their current form, bringing every aspect of human life into discourse. The discovery that literature played a part in the expansion of Man as a disciplinary object was then complemented by Bourdieu's sociological analyses of how different textual practices are constituted in diacritical opposition to others, so that the very nature of literature lies not in its independent substance but in its distinction from—and at times homologous duplication of—intellectual practices like economics. These theoretical innovations were paralleled by new kinds of criticism devoted to the economics of literature, both studies

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