Claudia Stein

Visions of Economic Man: Biomedical Bodies, Political Economy and History around 1900

In January 1901 the Munich police department entered a dispute with two local chemists which went on for months. It was caused by the prohibition of a large poster in fashionable art nouveau style showing microscopic images of the gents of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. It had been specially designed for public display by a local poster artist in order to advertise the services of the private laboratory of two chemists. By analysing the content and dynamics of the dispute, I want to highlight the relationship between Wilhelmine Germany’s new and celebrated experimental laboratory sciences and political economy. Historians have rightly pointed out that the ‘laboratory revolution’ overlapped with the nation’s late industrialisation and the explosion of consumer culture and have traced the close relationship between the new knowledge of the body (and its representations) and new strategies and practices of its commercialization.

What has gone unnoticed, however, is that the reigning German economic theory of the time was deeply at odds with the vision of universal scientific human nature propagated by the experimental sciences. The idea that human nature was empirically knowable, and thus both predictable and manipulable was regarded with suspicion by Germany’ established national economists. Almost universally rejected, therefore, was the suggestion of a group of young national economists from Austria to establish working collaborations between the new laboratory sciences (particularly experimental psychology) and economic theory in order to establish the scientific parameters of economic man. What the establishment of German national economists pitched against these ideas was a vision of a cultural and historical economic man, in which the scientific investigation of human’s subjective needs and desires and their manipulation, had no place. I want to argue that the Munich ‘poster struggle’ of 1900 needs to be seen not only as a struggle over the representation and popularization of the new biomedical body, but also, as an expression of the tension between different visions of modern economic man.

Today collaboration between the life sciences, biomedicine and biotechnology and economics are well established, selling the vision of a universal biological consumer, the German turn-of-the-century debates over economic man, remind us that the links between our versions of the biomedical body and economics theory and pratice might be less universal and less durable than we are made to believe.