In The Economization of Life (Duke University Press, 2017), Michelle Murphy pulls apart the late modern concept of “population” to show the lives this...

In The Economization of Life (Duke University Press, 2017), Michelle Murphy pulls apart the late modern concept of “population” to show the lives this concept has produced and continues to produce, and, importantly, the lives it has failed to allow under the banner of postwar development projects. In the post-WWII period of decolonization, experts and state planners in the Global North tested in the real-world the hypotheses of Demographic Transition Theory (industrialization leads to few births which leads to “better” lives). In doing so, they repackaged the racist logic of earlier eugenicist definitions of population in the postwar period by harnessing the concept of population, not to environmental limits, but to economic optimization. Murphy show how this postwar “regime of valuation” played out on the ground through an extended study of population management and family planning projects in Bangladesh. Murphy’s work—which combines a new history of the population concept with an original study of lives lived (and not lived) in Bangladesh—demonstrates her broader point: namely that seemingly abstract, large scale elements of late-capitalist infrastructures of industrial production depend upon emotional, affective sensibilities about sex and reproduction.

By telling a history of expert concepts of population, the infrastructures that perform it, the affects that pulse through it, and forms of life it continues to produce and prevent, Michelle Murphy invites readers to speculate towards other worlds—and other words. Murphy teaches us why population is an “intolerable concept” and she does the work of imagining other, more just, more apt words we might use in place of “population.” She suggests that her term “distributed reproduction” might help shift our attention, our thinking, and our practices towards more emancipatory collective responses and responsibilities—given our own existence as part of infrastructures of racism and violence.

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and is Associate Editor of the journal History & Theory. Laura’s first book, Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research, was published in 2012 by University of Chicago Press. Her current research explores how a market for healthy civilian “human subjects” emerged in law, science, and popular imagination in the post-World War Two period. It is based on a vernacular archive she created with more than 100 “normal control” research subjects and scientists who took part in postwar experiments at the US National Institutes of Health, now archived at Countway Library for the History of Medicine. Overall, Stark’s work uses social theory to map the intersections of science, morality and the modern state in a global context.




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