Drawing inspiration from Michel Foucault’s lectures on the emergence of biopolitics and liberalism in the eighteenth century, this essay considers eighteenth-century debates about genius through a biopolitical lens. The starting point for the essay is William Petty’s late seventeenth-century “political arithmetical” account of how best to maximize genius within a national population. Mitchell argues that the link Petty established between genius and population was consolidated neither in political arithmetic nor in its successor, political economy, but in two more “literary” arenas: mid-eighteenth-century debates about the nature of genius and mid- to late eighteenth-century poetry that reflected on ways in which geniuses might be overlooked or lost. In both cases, genius is tied to the imaginations of populations, and they ways in which the difference that characterize populations might be channeled and regulated. In Mitchell’s account, “literature”--understood as especially valuable instances of imaginative writing, primarily in the genres of poetry and drama--emerges as the concept and institution that fully sutures Petty’s biopolitical hope of maximizing genius with mid-century biopolitical worries about losing genius.


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pp. 405-427
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