• The Marxist Beginnings of Cultural Analysis

    An excerpt from Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory

    David Anshen

    March 23, 2018


    Eagleton’s Economic Marxist Literary Theory

    To conclude the analysis and overview of Eagleton’s generic classification of Marxist literary, we come to what he terms the ‘economic’ approaches. By this Eagleton does not mean to emphasise economic themes within literature, as might be expected. As Eagleton explains in Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory, the "topic might be called modes of cultural production" [italics in original] by which he refers to the historic implications of ‘material apparatuses of cultural production, all the way from theatres and printing presses to literary coteries’ through to “a new form of culture whose material apparatuses (film, radio, television, sound recording)” have an “obvious and intimate relation to ‘content’.” Indeed, the implications of transformed means of cultural production can deeply impact upon society. In this regard, there is a parallel with the ways technology transforms the labour process through history. Eagleton goes on to suggest, “modern cultural technology violently estranged these familiar perceptions forcing us” “to register the way a particular medium generates specific sorts of meanings […] and making dramatically clear the interpenetration between these cultural institutions and the power of capital itself." 

    This mode of Marxist analysis tends toward sociological analysis of the conditions surrounding the work of culture. Rather than reading individual art works or even sets of work centring on theme or period, such critics focus on the culture surrounding the aesthetic realm and its function within a given historical, technical period and how various cultural, artistic mediums and technologies determine the role and function of art. Early versions of this mode of analysis have been discussed in terms of the work of Walter Benjamin, particularly his essay "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which stresses the transformation of the functionand mystical, "auratic" quality of art that Benjamin argues gets largely eliminated in the aftermath of photographs and cinema.

    In another key essay by Benjamin, "The Author as Producer" (1970), heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht (who himself can be seen as an "economic" cultural Marxist), Benjamin argues that the politics of art lies, largely, not in the ostensible or even interpreted political meaning of works of art, but rather in the relations of the artist to the institutions that control the production of art and their function in capitalist society. In other words, message aside, the class position and relations of the artist and their use of advanced techniques to critique society function politically more than the message. It calls to mind the non-Marxist cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan who famously stated, "The medium is the message."

    This genre of Marxist or Marxist-influenced cultural analysis led to what has been termed "cultural studies," which initially, in a more explicitly Marxist manner, attempted to situate works of art in the range of cultural institutions and realities they were placed under and to apply literary critical methods to aspects of daily life. One form developed around Raymond Williams and associates in what became known as the Birmingham school, with studies of classical British literature and its connections to British social life. Another strand developed in France around Henri Lefebvre, with his magisterial multi-volume work titled The Critique of Everyday Life. Lefebvre, with his analysis of architecture, spatial relations, gender, entertainment and other measures that tried to evaluate the entire life process influenced the avant-garde, largely anti-art movement "The Situationists" and their influential main theorist Guy Debord. Debord calls for the abolition of art and its replacement by real life, perceiving representations as only pseudo-life.

    Debord remains best known for his influential work The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which argues that "spectacles" or mass media impressions of life replace meaningful experiences in late capitalism. This leads to an extreme critique of all aspects of modern culture as almost completely successful in colonising the minds of masses of people. While the Situationists enthusiastically greeted and participated in the May 1968 uprisings in France, most obviously through their graffiti with revolutionary and poetic slogans, and their extreme hostility to all that exists, over time the movement petered out and dissolved itself.

    Interestingly, both strands of cultural studies have, over time, lessened their Marxist convictions and connection to a belief in working-class revolution. The work of Guy Debord morphed into the work of Jean Baudrillard, an extreme postmodernist thinker who believes that the world of signs and culture dominates life so completely that no reality or basis for opposition remains. Ours is a world in which references to objective reality dissolve and we live among a plethora of signs and signifiers with either no reality or signified at all, or they remain completely inaccessible. Of course, if truth unmitigated by ideology remains permanently closed off, the potential for any relationship with reality close enough to aid in changing the world seems foreclosed.

    It also seems to be the case that as cultural studies migrated from its original British home, it has largely transformed into a study of popular culture and mass media phenomena. These studies that focus on video games, soap operas, popular bestsellers, TV shows, etc., often tend towards interesting studies of material traditionally not viewed as literary but often without much interest in politics, at least of the Marxist variant. Born out of Marxist theorists, such approaches tend towards being respectable and increasingly popular methods of analysing a range of material not previously thought of as either political or aesthetic. However, the discipline grows in importance while Marxism grows increasingly attenuated.

    The previous consideration of the organisation and generic classification of Marxist literary theorists serves two functions. The first allows the grouping together of theorists with common features despite their different moments in time and space. This illustrates continuity within Marxist literary theory. In the second, we detect changes shaped by history even within similar approaches. This affirms the Marxist conviction that thought remains historically situated but not in an absolute manner, since a given mode of Marxist production determines the general contours. Yet, I hope that the plurality of approaches allows readers to see the richness and breadth of concerns in contrast to the ascription to Marxism of dogmatism and simplicity. There remain many key Marxist thinkers that interested readers can and should investigate. And, hopefully – perhaps certainly – many more will come.


    This is an excerpt from from Chapter 2, "Major Marxists' Approaches to Literature and Culture," of Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory by David Anshen and edited by Andrew Slade, published by Orient Blackswan, 2017. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

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