Monthly Archives: September 2014

Marx & Lit

“Mortality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking” (Marx, 409). This seems to take any spontaneity (maybe what Williams calls “determination”) out of art or negate originality in writing. It’s also interesting to place in the context of jazz and the improvised nature of it. Williams alludes to the production of art amongst the bourgeois as a privilege of “leisure”. I would say “leisure” is sometimes the saving grace of the subjugated classes. (1278) I think Marx is making an astute observation about what Williams refers to when he talks about “the dominant.” He states, “At any time, forms of alternative or directly oppositional politics and culture exist as significant elements in society (1279).”

Marx is a historian looking at the whole (and the cycles/patterns) of history, so when he approaches something more abstract than material production in the economic or political sense, and places the products of ideology and art in the context of his analyses, we can look at the ways in which cycles of art production come about (like the Harlem Renaissance…) in opposition to the “dominant” force and at moments of self reflection or awareness.

Quick Question

To anyone who might know–

When we were looking at McKay’s “America,” one question we focused on was why he chose the Shakespearean sonnet as his form of choice. As I was thinking about it more I thought  McKay might have been making a pun on the name of the Harlem Renaissance, since that was the time during which Shakespeare made his sonnets infamous. However, upon trying to research it I can only find that during its time the movement was called the “New Negro Movement.”


My question is: when did it start to be called the Harlem Renaissance, and who came up with the name?

Marx and the Consumption of Literature

Within his two texts, Karl Marx discusses the interrelation between that of man and his political and economic environment. Within this premise, the notion of man’s relationship to art and literature is also brought to light. Marx transcribes the idea that individuals cannot ‘create’ outside of which they already know. Man is bound to the concepts already presented within the society. Marx states, “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior” (Marx 409). The idea of true independence from a society does not truly exist because man cannot create beyond that of what already exists. Perhaps it is possible to say that true originality in literature can never occur because the societal forces have shaped the way that literature and art is intended. Material interaction is just that, material. Within the consumption of material surroundings, art itself becomes a material that can be utilized for an economic purpose.

Material, language, and the production of ideas

The anthology’s introduction to Marx helps clarify Marx’s relationship to literature in discussing how according to Marx “individuals can only think thoughts that are thinkable in their society. …On the other hand, in artistic matters at least, individuals can continue to think thoughts that their society no longer considers thinkable” (399). This contextualization helps focus Marx’s statements about the production of ideas. Marx posits that “the nature of individuals… depends on the material conditions determining their production” (406). In contemplating the role of literature in a society, we can interpret that literature is a type of expression of nature, that is thus dependent on material conditions. Thus, literature (and any type of artistic expression) is dependent on questions of material. This asserts again that both the ideas of individuals as well as their expression are both the output of surrounding, collectively-shared input, and therefore an individual can only produce what can be produced given material circumstances.

Further, the dimension of the individual being able to retain ideas that are no longer supported by surroundings seems to be expressed in Marx’s contention that “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking (409). While the degree of independence of man in the ability to deviate from the presented material world is not clear (at least to me), it seems that Marx is expressing that individuals hold a certain power over their ideas and the expression of these ideas.


Marxism and Literature

In On Greek Art in its Time (from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), Karl Marx examines the ways in which ideological forms (such as art and literature) arise out of a particular social landscape, are shaped by social history, and then are discarded once new progressions and productions can take their place. Marx argues that highly developed art and literature often come about in societies that may not be highly developed technologically or socially. He cites Greek mythology as an example of this, but poses the question of how these well-respected traditions and stories can still exist alongside the progressions of modern society. He asks, “Is the view of nature and of social relations which shaped Greek imagination and Greek art still possible in the age of automatic machinery, and railways, and locomotives, and electric telegraphs? Where does Vulcan come in as against Roberts & Co.; Jupiter, as against the lightning rod; and Hermes, as against the Credit Mobiler?” (Marx, 411). Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that mythology exists as a pinnacle of art and literature that — though it may lose its relevance — can never again be duplicated or attained in modern society. However, he maintains: “A man can not become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane?” (Marx, 411). In saying this, Marx declares that we can still attempt to hold our modern literature and art to the standards of “childish” Greece while utilizing the progresses of our “adult” society to strengthen our efforts. To Marx, ultimately literature (and the role of literature) is shaped and bound by the society in which it arises, but can remain a timeless ideal for all literature going forward.

future text/love prints

In the latter half of “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” Marx poses quirky, future oriented questions. One of these is “Is the view of nature and social relations which shaped Greek imagination and Greek [art] possible in the age of automatic machinery, and railways, and locomotives, and electric telegraphs? . . . What becomes of the Goddess Fame side by side with Printing House Square?” (Marx 411). What comes to mind is the reality of how fast everything in our culture, community, and processes are advancing, especially in the methods of communication and expression, which ultimately alter the different ways artists now express their art. We live in a digital age where almost everything can be found online. The world’s leading magazines and newspapers post their content online and through social media accounts. The written word is not as valued as it once was. Makers of literature are looking at all the new ways to publish their work and struggling to find a place where they can be recognized; more writers than ever have turned to blogging to project their voice in this eruption of technology. Even tweets, with the restriction of 140 characters per tweet, can be argued as an evolving form of literature with the popular emergence of “two-three sentence stories.”

“The difficulty is not in grasping the idea that Greek art and epos are bound up with certain forms of social development. It lies in understanding why they still constitute with us a source of aesthetic enjoyment and in certain respects prevail as the standard and model beyond attainment” (411). Though we have largely participated in social media interaction and reading online media, there remains a deep admiration for the printed word. Physical books are still read,  libraries are still frequented, and writers still want to be published in print. The “aesthetic enjoyment” of literature is not only constituted by every  natural, enjoyable, and relevant facet of literature, but reading a novel with a physical form is slowly becoming a novelty. Soon enough, physical prints will become the previous “standard and model beyond attainment.”

Marxism and Literature

I felt that the connection between the theories of political, economic, and social history and literature was made in both pieces by Karl Marx. In “Consciousness Derived” from The German Ideology, Marx begins by going into production and the labor force and explains the different stages of development in the various forms and hierarchies of ownership. He then uses this to explain that “Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. . . . men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking” (Marx. 409). In this sense, people’s positions and beliefs are created by their material, political, and economic circumstance. In “On Greek Art in Its Time,” Marx and Engels explain that art is the product of that social order of the time, “the product of the latter” (Marx, 411). Perhaps this is the connection between literature and historical context of the time. Although I personally had a hard time understanding Raymond William’s criticism, I found the ending to be rather interesting, where he cultural emergence in relation to both dominant and residential. Williams’ idea of the “structure of feelings” also struck me in its importance to his cultural theory, where he explains how they have changed in the social change to language.

Echoes of Life-Process

In sorting through the various terms used by Marx (or rather his translators), Williams and then Engels, I think I will settle on the “relationship” between two concepts (which might be one single substance to Marx). Rather than delving into the base and superstructure dichotomy that it seems so many Marxists used, as critiqued by Williams, I will try to go straight to the passages in which Marx discusses how ideology is produced. At the end of the selection from The German Ideology, Marx refers to “morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology” as “phantoms formed in the human brain” or which are not independent from man’s material processes, or “real existence.” Marx goes on to clarify that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,” but after reading Williams I am more inclined to say that consciousness is life, or at least its inseparable echo. The umbilical cord of more “distant” ideologies like philosophy or art or, perhaps literature, may be more tortuous, but they are never to be severed or considered separate from their mother: real, material life-process. This idea simultaneously imbibes significance to every type of art produced by man while flattening it in some way. If two people of similar circumstances, with the same material life-processes, produce very different kinds of writing and art – do they both still stem from and are they both part of the same “substance”?  Are they echoes of the same thing?

Prompt: Marxism and…literature? (group A)

Read carefully the two excerpts by Marx in the Richter anthology and the selection from Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature. Marxism is in the first instance a theory of political, economic, and social history. So what does literature have to do with that? Suggest how one or more of these texts make the connection. Write a paragraph or two, and cite particular language from one of the readings.

Essays forbidden.

Incidentally, Auden, McKay, and Hughes were all influenced by Marx and Marxist thinking, so these readings may spark thoughts about the poetry we have been discussing.