Systems of Life: Biopolitics, Economics, and Literature, 1750-1859, offers a wide-ranging revaluation of the emergence of biopolitics in Europe from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. In staging an encounter among literature, political economy and the still emergent sciences of life in that historical moment, the essays collected here demonstrate that these three fields, understood as interacting and essentially interrelated, were both mutually reinforcing and mutually resistant. The volume provides new insights since the crucial contribution of the biological sciences to political economy’s articulation has rarely been examined, and since, in biopolitical contexts, despite Foucault’s seminal discussions of economics in the late 1970s, the economic element continues to be overlooked in subsequent descriptions of the operations of biopolitics in early modern historical periods.
An examination of the confluence of economics and the life sciences beginning in the middle of the 18th century reopens the question of how concepts of animal, vegetable, and human life, among other biological registers, had an impact on the Enlightenment project of thinking politics and economics as a joint enterprise. But rather than regard political economy as a readymade synthesis during its formative decades, the volume’s contributors consider politics, economics, and the biological as distinct, semi-autonomous spheres whose various combinations required inventive, sometimes incomplete, acts of conceptual mediation, philosophical negotiation, disciplinary intervention, or aesthetic representation. Thus this volume makes a compelling case forconsidering politics, economics, and biology as distinct, but never completely separate, systemic perspectives on life—hence the title of the collection—whose mutual articulation—again, as promised by the concept of “system”—produced one of the most dramatic intellectual, literary, and practical developments of the 18th and 19th centuries.