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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[ESSAY] Marxist Theory in Literature

My intellectual formation in anthropology played a critical role in my intellectual formation, demonstrating to me (among other things) the reality of cultural materialism. To me, it is nonsensical to insist that culturally generally, and literature specifically, exist autonomously from the material realities of a culture. The literature of nineteenth century Europe, for instance, could never have been written but for the emergence of a complex industrial society that pulverized traditional barriers to general intercourse such as region and language, and allowed memes of secularism and liberalism to propagate; Flaubert could write a realistic and naturalistic Madame Bovary in mid-nineteenth century France, but even in mid-eighteenth century France a putative Flaubert, without any way to make a realistic Emma in a self-contained conservative peasantry, would have been stymied.

To be sure, Marx’s specific predictions of class conflict might not be automatically applicable in every instance, such as the common theme in much post-colonial Third World literature of the threat posed by the First World’s material (military and economic) superiority over the Third World to distinctive Third World cultures. However, Marx’s theories can be extended and made to apply to any number of situations which have structures and dynamics akin to those of class; Frantz Fanon’s definitions of colonial countries as bourgeois and colonized countries as proletarian come to mind in the context of post-colonial culture. Many of the problems of Marx’s original work, in fact, can be effaced by the work of later scholars, by their application of Marx’s original insights to situations apart from class.

Marxist theory encounters two major problems when applied to the study of literature, however. The first of these is the question of how, and why, works of literature from cultures less materially developed than our own continue to be relevant to contemporary readers, and valued by these moderns. His attempt to argue that some cultures (the ancient Greeks, for instance) can flourished artistically out of all proportion to their economic development, and that works produced by materially inferior cultures to those of the reader can still be enjoyed as products of childhood, is valid in a certain sense. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for instance, is a foundational text of Western drama, profoundly rooted in the ancient Greek pantheon and concepts of fate alien to moderns. This is approach is flawed, however, since a text’s status as foundational hardly means that it cannot stand comparison with modern texts, much less that it cannot be appreciated in its own right. The second problem of Marxist theory as applied to literary study is the question of how closely the material basis of a society should be related to that society’s cultural products, including literature. I’ve always found one-on-one correspondences to ring false notes; in my own studies, when using Marxist theory I’ve tried to apply it loosely and flexibly, staying away from reflectionism.

It seems that my liberal views of Marxist literary theory have helped me to independently develop some of Althusser’s theories. From anthropology, I was familiar with the general idea lying being ideological state apparatuses, of organizations which exist autonomously from the state but reinforce existing mores. In my own readings of Gellner, particularly his Conditions of Liberty, I was made aware of the concept of civil society, and of the need for stable and liberal states to be anchored in a society anchored in a dense network of private associations. The implication that much art–articularly what Althusser calls, in his reply to André Daspre, inauthentic or ideologically-driven art–exists to reinforce existing cultural codes and ideologies is something that I’ve long been aware of through my anthropological studies.

The question of just what is ideologically-driven art–motivated, one might say, by Tolstoyan conceptions of art (including literature) as something which must be ennobling in order to be good–of course, remains open, while Althusser’s argument that ideological work cannot be authentically good art is problematic. For instance, throughout the Soviet Union’s existence officially approved art tended to by dominated by Marxist theories; there are huge differences in aesthetic quality, however, between the Socialist Realism that dominated Soviet art after Stalin, and the innovative designs of the 1920s. One might suggest that he conflates
“ideological” with “culturally-bound” that some ideologically-inspired art might have lasting value while much, perhaps most, shares a common obscurity with art based on what would be to the modern reader obscure models or theories. After all, if ideology slides into all human activity, and if there can be (as Marxist theory argues) some experiences common to all human beings, surely there should be some ideological premises which all people could share.

Althusser’s letter to André Daspre struck me as critical in considering the question of non- ideological art. It’s interesting that he takes an unorthodox view (from the Marxist perspective, at any rate) of the question of whether art has any value independently of its producing society’s material base, arguing that it in fact can so long as it refrains from attempts at ideological solutions to existential and social problems. One wonders if Marx himself might have approved of such a solution, since after all Engels did write near the end of his career that he and his partner exaggerated their materialism for rhetorical purposes.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 26, 2003 at 9:47 pm

Posted in Assorted

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