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Marxist criticism


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A form of cultural criticism that applies Marxist theory to the interpretation of cultural texts. Since neither Karl Marx nor his collaborator Friedrich Engels ever developed a specific form of cultural criticism themselves, Marxist Criticism has been extrapolated from their writings. As there is no one form of Marxism, so there is no one form of Marxist Criticism. This is not to say that the different variants of Marxist Criticism do not have certain features in common, but it is nevertheless also true that there is considerable debate within the field concerning those differences. In common, then, all forms of Marxist Criticism assume the following: (i) that no artistic object can be understood in isolation from the social, cultural, and historical conditions in which it was produced; (ii) that all categories by which artistic objects might be measured are themselves constructions that need to be evaluated from the perspective of the social, cultural, and historical conditions that gave rise to them; (iii) that all artistic productions are commodities that can and must be understood in terms of the production of surplus value; (iv) that art is a site for the playing out of a symbolic form of class struggle. The principle area of difference in Marxist Criticism is the issue of whether or not it should be prescriptive or not: in other words, is it the job of Marxist Criticism to determine what art should be like? There have been powerful movements in favour of this position—the most noted is of course socialist realism. This position has also been championed very strongly by such critics as György Lukács. But there is a similarly powerful movement against it and in recent years it has generally been agreed that it is neither possible nor desirable to prescribe what art should be like. But if that isn't the task of Marxist Criticism, then what is? As is the case with psychoanalysis, the response to this question is twofold: there is an attempt to understand the nature of the object (i.e. what makes it art and why) and alongside it there is the attempt to understand the subject's response to particular art objects. In both cases, the primary conceptual tool is the notion of ideology. Some of the major Marxist critics are: Terry Eagleton, his Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) was immensely influential; Fredric Jameson, his Marxism and Form (1971), and more particularly The Political Unconscious (1981), are perhaps the most sophisticated attempts to synthesize the critical methodologies from a broad spectrum of approaches; Lukács, although a troubled figure, his History and Class Consciousness (1923) continues to be studied today and it is in many ways a foundational text for the field; Pierre Macherey, whose Pour une théorie de la production littéraire, translated as A Theory of Literary Production (1978), is generally regarded as the definitive application of Althusser's work to literature; and Raymond Williams, a hugely influential figure, particularly in the nascent field of Cultural Studies.

(i) that no artistic object can be understood in isolation from the social, cultural, and historical conditions in which it was produced; (ii) that all categories by which artistic objects might be measured are themselves constructions that need to be evaluated from the perspective of the social, cultural, and historical conditions that gave rise to them; (iii) that all artistic productions are commodities that can and must be understood in terms of the production of surplus value; (iv) that art is a site for the playing out of a symbolic form of class struggle.

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Subjects: Literature.


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