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MLA Prof (Re)Presents Malthus

Another installment in the MLA quotations [1] collection.

NYU Professor Maureen McLane, speaking on a panel on “Major Romantic Writers,” recently promoted the idea that should conceive of Thomas R. Malthus’ population control [2] theories as “a theory of information” rather than biology :

“In her marvelous essay ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a Political Economy of Sex’ from 1975, Gayle Rubin follows Lacan in proposing that we ‘conceive of psychoanalysis as a theory of information rather than organs’ and we might follow this through for Malthus, undertaking along the lines of the extremely productive debiologization of Freud a debiologization of Malthus. Or rather, we might think of Malthus’ theory as a theory of information rather than or in addition to one of bodies. A media theory, perhaps, rather than an algorithm of reproduction and death. Or perhaps it is more precise to say, given transformations in biology, that any biological theory is also simultaneously a theory of information” (emphasis added).

Maureen McLane [3], English Professor at New York University [4].

English Professor McLane also asks:

Is sexual desire a special kind of desire or just desire in general, the general equivalent of desire or passion in terms of the potentialities of humans as desiring machines? Malthus famously rejected the labor theory of value because he rejected the abstractions of exchange value that could not be reconverted into sustenance but his treatise does implicitly propose a complex algebra for assessing the relations of desire, labor, reproduction and death” (emphasis added).

For those unfamiliar with Malthus, he writes in the Essay on the Principle of Population that

“The receipt of five shillings a day, instead of eighteen pence, would make every man fancy himself comparatively rich and able to indulge himself in many hours or days of leisure. This would give a strong and immediate check to productive industry, and, in a short time, not only the nation would be poorer, but the lower classes themselves would be much more distressed than when they received only eighteen pence a day.”

He also writes (around the end of the 18th century) that “The poor laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor in these two ways. Their first obvious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support” and

“Secondly, the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses upon a part of the society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and worthy members, and thus in the same manner forces more to become dependent.”

More to follow.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia [5].