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Reviewed by:
  • Systems of Life: Biopolitics, Economics, and Literature on the Cusp of Modernity ed. by Richard A. Barney and Warren Montag
  • Robert Mitchell
Richard A. Barney and Warren Montag, eds., Systems of Life: Biopolitics, Economics, and Literature on the Cusp of Modernity (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2018). Pp. 280. $35.00 paper.

Richard A. Barney's and Warren Montag's Systems of Life: Biopolitics, Economics, and Literature on the Cusp of Modernity consists of a substantive introduction and nine essays, which focus primarily on eighteenth-century European and colonial American texts by well-known authors such as Anna Barbauld, William Blake, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, John Thelwall, and Phillis Wheatley. However, as suggested by the final phrase of its subtitle ("on the cusp of modernity"), this book aims to trace multiple ways in which eighteenth-century "systems of life," and especially the new science of political economy, established assumptions, aspirations, fears, norms, and institutions that continue to structure ways in which life—both individual and collective life, and human and non-human—is "systematized" in our moment. This is an admirable aspiration, even if one that is difficult to achieve, and perhaps especially tricky to pursue by means of an edited volume, which draws together the different, inevitably somewhat divergent, projects of multiple contributors. Yet Systems of Life seems to me largely to succeed in achieving its goal of establishing how eighteenth-century systems of life have set the basic terms for contemporary systems of life. My review aims both to clarify why this is the case, and to put this judgment to work by connecting Barney's and Montag's volume to several recent trends and projects within literary and cultural theory with which the volume is implicitly in conversation.


A significant strength of Systems of Life is that its key words—"systems," "life," "biopolitics," "economics," and "literature"—are all carefully chosen, and a majority of the essays take up at least two (and often three or four) of these [End Page 481] terms. The importance of "system" for this volume is underscored by Barney and Montag in their introduction, where they suggest

that the concept of 'system' can help specify all the more concretely the ways that the 'bio' was articulated in relation to the 'political' in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century biopolitics, with 'economy' serving as a useful mediating term between them by offering a way to articulate their 'order' as a matter of exchange, valuation, or management.


Barney and Montag note that system had come, by the eighteenth century, to denote both the "features of a natural or material phenomenon—for instance, astronomical orbits, climate, or human social behavior," and "the analytic discourse aiming to organize what may otherwise seem to be incongruous elements" (3). That system referred both to something naturally given and its discursive representation encouraged suspicions on the part of some eighteenth-century authors that discursive systems were "invented formulas rather than found artifacts" (4). (It was this sense of system as an illusion, for example, that motivated Edmund Burke's contention that the revolutionary "French system" was serving as "the bank of deposit and the bank of circulation of all the pernicious principles that are forming in every state.")1 Yet, Barney and Montag continue, "it is precisely system's dual conceptualization that ideally qualifies it to serve as the mediating term in the biopolitical imagination, since it promises to bridge the formidable gap between 'natural and 'artificial' registers—between the biological patterns that have been observed and the political gambits that motivate the desire to govern" (4).

Before considering the ways in which Systems of Life helps us to understand the productive functions of the semantic ambiguity of the term system, it is worth recalling ways in which earlier literary criticism has refracted contemporary concerns through reflections on the eighteenth-century fortunes of this term. In the 1990s, for example, David Simpson made a compelling case that "theory" was our contemporary synonym for system, and that the theory wars that dominated literary criticism in the 1980s and '90s could be productively understood within a much longer history...


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