Weekly Response: Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory
Terry Eagleton’s “Categories for a Materialist Criticism” focuses upon the commoditization of literature and the many effects and implications that result from literature’s role in trade and commerce. Eagleton also maintains society’s progress as it is gauged by the production of literary texts. Literature, similar to the control of wealth, takes on aspects of power and dominance. Books become produced, distributed, and consumed items, adding a restrictive element to the creation of texts that has the power to alienate those not within the cycle. Literary texts, in Marxist terms, are not passive. They are facilitating agents and producers of ideologies.
‘Homology’ is defined as a ‘structural likeness’ among different elements of an individual whole. Eagleton uses the term to denote the tendency to draw distinct lines using Marxist ideology. The placing of a single society beneath the ideology of a single Literary Mode of Production is not the rule, according to Eagleton’s work. Differing modes of production may exist simultaneously within the same society.
‘Speculative’ is used by Eagleton her in its financial sense. Literature is changed as it becomes a part of a speculative market, where it is bought, sold, and speculated upon. The literal value of the work becomes subject to market forces. This affects literature and its production, especially the artistic merits of a certain work and their critical evaluation.
‘Ideology’ is employed by Eagleton here in its textbook definition; however, the many qualifiers-general, authorial, aesthetic-allow for a closer look at the term and its basis meaning. A system of ideas or ideals is the accepted definition of the term. Eagleton refers to language and its relation to “General Ideology” by referring to the ways in which political changes affect language and how the dominant ideology is witnessed in a language’s structure. As language functions as such, so does literature.
“In developed capitalist formations, for example, the distribution of income and high price of literary products determined by the GMP produces the social relation of ‘borrowing’ rather than exchange between the mass of proletarian and petty-bourgeois consumers and the LMP; the purchase of books is increasingly confined to members of the dominant classes. Indeed the growth of circulating libraries in nineteenth-century England is a classic instance of a major mutation in the dominant LMP, a radical reconstitution of the structures of production, distribution, and consumption.”
The library is an easily undervalued and overlooked part of the literary trade. The purchase of books by the dominant power structure for the purposes of consumption by the proletariat seems altruistic until one focuses upon the books that are not purchased by this dominant class. The library becomes a form of control and the furthering of ideology by way of selection and omission of certain texts.
Question 1: How does a company like Amazon function in much the same way as the library? Do any other forms of subversion of choice, like the restriction practiced by these institutions, exist?
Question 2: If different LMP’s, are capable of reproducing similar ideologies, is Marxist theory crafting theory to fit facts or facts to fit theory?
Raymond Williams Marxism and Literature
In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams re-evaluates the assumed components of Marxist theory, comparing them to the original texts of Marx and Engels from which they originate. Williams claims that many Marxist theories are based on misinterpretation of these original ideas. Williams looks closely at base/superstructure, determinism, and productive forces, three cornerstones of Marxist philosophy. In short, Williams argues that certain forms of materialist criticism overlook phenomena that should be considered material, such as intellectual production. Also, Marx’s intended definition of determine, and possible translation difficulties, are also examined for their relationship to contemporary Marxist critique.
‘Superstructure’ is defined as the upward extension of an existing structure. Marxist philosophy theorizes the superstructure to place the idea within an economic context. The base is considered to be the productive forces while the superstructure is considered the culture and political structures. In other words, one exist atop the other. Williams emphasizes Marx’s initial criticism against separation of “areas of thought and activity” as part of his argument. Williams also cites the “indissoluble connections between” base and superstructure that are overlooked.
‘Determination’s’ use here lies in the placing of limits and boundaries on certain parts of society. The determinant can either be abstract or inherent, limits determined by birth, class, and other aspects of reality or by some abstract power figure or structure that, in essence, is out of the control of man. This is analogous to historic and abstract forms of objectivity. Williams claims that determinate natural and social laws are also overlooked in their difference to one another and importance to contemporary Marxist thought.
The term ‘mediate’ relates to the reflection of reality through the medium of artistic interpretation. Williams notes the “reflected social realities” that are, in truth experienced through a mediating filter. This filter changes this reflection. In other words, “[a]rt does not reflect social reality, the superstructure does not reflect the base, directly; culture is a mediation of society” (Williams 99).
“The most damaging consequence of any theory of art as reflection is that, through its persuasive physical metaphor (in which a reflection simply occurs within the physical properties of light, when an object or movement is brought into relation with a reflective surface—the mirror and then the mind), it succeeds in suppressing the actual work on material—in a final sense, the material social process—which is the making of ay work of art.”
The idea of ‘art as reflection’ is inherently problematic. It negates the artist’s agency, and with it, the social factors that contribute to the subject’s message. The various factors that contribute to an artwork’s production cannot be simplified to mere reflection without the loss of something vital. The basis of certain Marxist theory—the reflection of the dominant hegemony as seen through the art—doesn’t withstand this questioning of the artist’s personal agency. A simplification along these lines is far from Marx’s original theorizing.
Question 1: Mediation, and remediation, are terms now used in regard to technology and digital representation. Does this effect William’s view on reflection, or Marx’s?
Question 2: How exactly does the superstructure not reflect the base? Is a view of the superstructure ‘mediated’ by our view or knowledge of the base?