The Economization of Life

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 25 illustrations Published: May 2017

Author: Michelle Murphy

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science

What is a life worth? In the wake of eugenics, new quantitative racist practices that valued life for the sake of economic futures flourished. In The Economization of Life, Michelle Murphy provocatively describes the twentieth-century rise of infrastructures of calculation and experiment aimed at governing population for the sake of national economy, pinpointing the spread of a potent biopolitical logic: some must not be born so that others might live more prosperously. Resituating the history of postcolonial neoliberal technique in expert circuits between the United States and Bangladesh, Murphy traces the methods and imaginaries through which family planning calculated lives not worth living, lives not worth saving, and lives not worth being born. The resulting archive of thick data transmuted into financialized “Invest in a Girl” campaigns that reframed survival as a question of human capital. The book challenges readers to reject the economy as our collective container and to refuse population as a term of reproductive justice.


"Though this book be concise, it is fierce. It can be read, and reread, with profit by undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers. Highly recommended." — T. E. Sullivan, Choice

“Murphy’s work provides a solid and crucial theoretical foundation upon to begin the process of imagining and creating a different and more humane world. Information and culture scholars would be well advised to turn to The Economization of Life as a sobering and hopeful touchstone for our collective project of thinking and working our way out of the contemporary neoliberal world order.” — Marika Cifor, Information & Culture

"Murphy sketches a genealogy of financialized lives culminating in 'invest in a girl' programs in Bangladesh, cutting through what could otherwise have been a bloated and circuitous policy history with laserlike focus. Above and beyond demonstrating the conjunction between economic and reproductive normativity at the heart of postwar Western liberal institutions, the real 'value added' here is the sharp conceptual toolkit Murphy develops with urgent and inspired language. . . . Murphy’s incisive reading of graphs and charts should embolden STS scholars and historians of science." — Michael F. McGovern, Journal of the History of Biology

"The Economization of Life convincingly links experimentality to what has been one of the most popular developmental trends of the past two decades. . . . Michelle Murphy’s bold and sharp book opens many new lines of inquiries." — Stephen Macekura, Diplomatic History

"This is a valuable book that should be read by anyone who is interested in the mid-twentieth-century population control movement, including its history and socioeconomic context, or anyone who still adheres to the neoliberal view that population growth (or 'overpopulation,' as it is often called) has been and continues to be one of the greatest problems facing human society." — Garland E. Allen, Isis

"Murphy weaves helpful threads of history, literature, and economics, guides the reader through complicated ideas, and leaves enough notes so research can continue beyond the book’s borders. . . . The Economization of Life is a useful and an instructive tool for policy makers and researchers on population and reproductive health, and for scholars and students in gender, women, and sexuality studies, or anyone who may be concerned with matters of reproductive rights." — Kira Frank, Wagadu

"It takes a study as rigorous as Murphy’s to expose the double-edged nature of human capital: galvanizing self-improvement of, and popular support for, underprivileged populations, even as it does so according to metrics that have investor interests—rather than general well-being—as their goal." — Hadas Weiss, Public Books

"Through a series of chapters that explore the history of ideas about population control in the United States and Bangladesh in the mid-to-late 20th century, Murphy persuasively argues that life has come to be valued primarily in terms of its ability to contribute to the macroeconomy of nationstates. . . . In this moment when we are being asked to weigh the risks of (some people’s) deaths against the economic costs of stay-at-home orders, Murphy’s notion of the economy as a 'phantasmagram' is compelling." — Audra J. Wolfe, Science

"... [Murphy] offers feminist biopolitics a new political horizon that might orient an altogether different conception of life..." — Nathan Snaza, Feminist Studies

"The Economization of Life is a book that sticks. Author Michelle Murphy delicately surfaces the history and persistence of racist and eugenicist logics as they comprise global economies and state governance practices, and, in a bold and self-reflexive gesture, describes how these same logics operate in feminist organizations and academic research. Murphy's work forced me to grapple with unresolvable tensions, particularly between long term liberation and short term survival, which were simultaneously troubling and eye-opening. I can see these now in places where they used to be hidden." — Lourdes Vera, Somatosphere

"The Economization of Life gives us important tools to bring the work of reproductive justice from the world of feminist social justice organizing to the world of feminist scholarship. It shows us that the economy is an effect that materializes its own causes, supported by a structure of belief that holds together otherwise disparate data and calculations. With enough effort, it urges us, we should be able to divest from that enabling belief, and instead follow models for a regenerative politics, committing instead to reproductive justice as an infrastructure of regeneration." — Kalindi Vora, Somatosphere

"The Economization of Life is nothing less than a breakthrough text: it reframes the question of economy after World War II while historicizing and theorizing the emergence of neoliberalism as a global force. Readers will come to understand human capital in a new way and will consider an alternative system of value and a different geopolitics. Demonstrating a clarity of vision and synthesis of economic theory, history, and area studies, Michelle Murphy's book is an astonishing accomplishment." — Joseph Masco, author of The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

“This luminescent analysis does nothing less than reorganize the conceptual furniture of the twentieth century. From Raymond Pearl’s fruit fly experiments, to the postcolonial history of big data, to the girl as human capital, Michelle Murphy brilliantly illuminates how ‘population’ and ‘the economy’ have become sutured together epistemologically, experimentally, and affectively. GDP was never so lively, nor so fraught. The Economization of Life is one of the most arresting books, short or long, I have read in a long time.” — Cori Hayden, author of When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michelle Murphy is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Heath, and Technoscience and Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Bottles and Curves  1
Arc 1. Phantasmagrams of Population and Economy
1. Economy as Atmosphere  17
2. Demographic Transitions  35
3. Averted Birth  47
4. Dreaming Technoscience  55
Arc II. Reproducing Infrastructures
5. Infrastructures of Counting and Affect  59
6. Continuous Incitement  73
7. Experimental Exuberance  78
8. Dying, Not Dying, Not Being Born  95
9. Experimental Otherwise  105
Arc III. Investable Life
10. Invest in a Girl  113
11. Exhausting Data  125
12. Unaligned Feeling  133
Coda. Distributed Reproduction  135
Notes  147
Bibliography  179
Index  211
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6345-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6334-7
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