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Space for Rent: Cultural Lense-Marxist Literary Theory


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The Marxist school follows a process of thinking called the material dialectic. This belief system maintains that “…what drives historical change are the material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art that is built upon that economic base” (Richter 1088).

While Feminist literary theory focuses on the role/aspects of sexuality represented within a given work (and how that works reflects and is reflected in a larger cultural/historical context) Marxist theory focus is socioeconomic. Economic needs shapes all aspects of reality, including the literature. In turn literature either expounds or challenges existing socioeconomic paradigms. The critic that employs the Marxist analytical structure is more concerned with these values rather than the actual work.

Marx and Engels shifted the way we look at history. The old yet popular view of history is what we might call, “The Great Men” view, that is, history is shaped by the actions of great persons such as politicians, philosophers or generals. Concomitant with this view is the “Great Events” view of history, in which key events, such as famous battles, key discoveries and special dates also shape human history. Marx & Engels saw the flow of history shaped by economic forces, larger than any one person and so powerful that it was they (underlined by economic necessity) that lead to the constant struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This struggle led inevitably to revolution or the overturning of the existing social order and the creation of a new one. This in turn created an evolutionary model of human history that would lead to the abolition of social classes and an utopia.

History has so far shown these utopias to be nothing more than disjointed (and totalitarian) dystopias, but Marxism retains an unrivaled position as the premier deconstructor of  Market theory.  Thus, while most of us in the 21st century would scoff at the extreme naivety of the 19th century Marxist, we have adopted their language whole sale. And while postmodern literary criticism seems bent on a holistic approach to texts, part of that approach incorporates a hefty doze of Marxist language. Even pop cultural analysis, by the way of popular book blogs and websites uses it. The following paragraph would not be out of place in any of them:

The starkest contrast between the Cullens, the Swan Family and the Jacob’s clan is their social standing. The Cullen’s are rich, sophisticated and powerful. They try to blend in into the social fabric of the Northwestern town but Edward Cullen every word and action shows that everyone around him is beneath him. They are poorer, more ignorant and less experienced than he is.  He is then the poster boy for upper middler class that lives near but is set apart from the members of the working middle class town. The Swan’s and Jacob’s family are far closer. They share meals, speak the same language and are far more at ease with each other, despite the supernatural abilities that make the werewolves stand apart from mere mortals. As members of the working class (be middle or poor) they share the same interest and general outlook. Thus is not surprising that Edward is the exotic newcomer to Jacob’s childhood friend.

Class, economic standing and how the shape the relationships in a book all in one paragraph. Does it look like something you might have noticed while reading it? Are these legitimate points raised by the narrative?

I’m going to take a wild guess and say: Yes.

Many a critic may not (deliberately) approach a book from the perspective of Marxist Literary Theory but they certainly would not hesitate to use it in their reviews.  I would go so far that most readers today would find any work that at least doesn’t give a slight nod to the socioeconomic reality (whatever that may be) as “unrealistic”.  Of course too much of it and it will derail the piece. Readers are savvy enough to detect overt propaganda or didactic texts passing themselves as literature.

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4 comments on “Space for Rent: Cultural Lense-Marxist Literary Theory

  1. True, you can’t dodge the physical reality. Raw materials can become scarce and then what? Blowing hot air into the breeze won’t change the number of trees available for firewood or coal for power. We are physical and spiritual beings. All workable solutions to our problems have to acknowledge both aspects.

    Something I’ve been thinking would be a fun thing to do through the art of writing, would be to explore a fictional world whose government is a direct democracy along the lines of a wiki-style/open source way of structuring society.

    What would be even more fun, would be to write it as an ebook that is open source. This might help keep the propagandizing of certain personalities to a minimum.

    Not that digital worlds are immune to trouble (WOW corrupted blood comes to mind), but it would be interesting to play with the idea. I can’t help wondering if open source/direct democracy wouldn’t be a little more adept than older, more ego-driven/cult-of-personality forms of society.

    Sorry, you got me thinking aloud this morning. Nice post. 🙂

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  2. Have you read Marx? Not a criticism, just curious. I started a bio about him but didn’t finish it. And I have not read any of his writings, beyond excerpts in other texts. I am familiar with his basic ideas of class struggle, his views on religion. And I definitely tend to see the world through an economics lens.

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    • I read A Communist Manifesto in college and remember a few concepts there in. One professor of mine called Marx, “The Man that saved Capitalism” which I found totally ridiculous (this was at the time of the end of the Cold War and the Fall of the Soviet Union). But in retrospect I believe he was right, in as much as the observations by Marx on the Capitalist system as practiced in the Western World during the 19th century (and the fear of impending revolution) brought slow but positive change in these nations.

      I can’t call myself an expert, since I haven’t explored it as thoroughly as I should, nor do I concur with the inevitability of the Communist Utopia (no such place indeed). These series of post are not meant as a college level discussion of Marx/Engels (or any school of literary criticism) just an overview of how these schools reflect our understating of literature, writing and the society that creates them.

      And criticism is always welcomed.

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