introduction | bottlEs and curvEs
A camera captures a bottle at three points in time. It is filled with Dro-
sophila, also known as fruit flies, an organism that is born, reproduces, and
dies in a flicker. In the first photo, the sparsely populated bottle, rich in food,
finds generations of happy fruit flies reproducing and living long lives. In
the second snapshot, the busy fruit flies multiply rapidly, sharply increas-
ing their numbers until, in the third image of the bottle, the fruit flies are so
numerous the container can no longer support them, a point in time when
death rises, birth declines, and population growth stagnates. The bottle be-
comes a container of mass death.
Looking at images of this jar today, I want to reach back, pluck open the
lid, and release the fruit flies to other fates. Or I could take responsibility
for feeding the flies, bred as dependent laboratory creatures by the scien-
tific practices I care so much about. Or better yet I could smash the bottle,
breaking the illusion that it is the container that conditions how the flies live
or die. I want to imagine other ways of understanding aggregate life that do
not demand a contained existence that ends in extermination. What would
it take to smash the container?
This book is a history of two aggregate forms of life being modeled in
this bottle of fruit flies: population and economy. Together population and
economy have rearranged worlds over the twentieth century. New ways of
valuing of life have been tied to their fates. Population and economy have
been built into the architectures of nation- states where practices of quan-
tification have helped to install economy as our collective environment,
as our bottle, as our surround. How does capitalism know and dream its
own conditions through numbers and data? I hope that this book will leave
readers feeling and thinking differently about population and economy as
adequate analytic containers for assembling life toward other futures.
Population became a new kind of experimental concern in the work
of Raymond Pearl, the prominent and prolific American biologist who
claimed that his 1920s experiments with fruit flies in bottles captured a law
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