Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Marxist Criticism (3)

Walter Benjamin, for a while associated with Adorno, took a contrary view to him and was pro-Brech. He surveyed the importance of technology in 19th and 20th century urban and industrialized society, and also the enormous development of the media. As a Marxist he is interested in ‘mass culture’ and in the way in which culture is packaged and consumed by the masses. In his view the media – in close contact with reality – have the power to eliminate the ritual and bourgeois elitism of art and literature and give it a kind of political ‘freedom’. He is more concerned with technique and with artistic forces at work than with the correct position of art and literature socially and economically. So, the emphasis is on the relation of a work of art to the ever changing conditions of production of art itself. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he suggests that modern technological innovations (e.g. the cinema [especially], radio, photography and the gramophone) have radically transformed the whole idea of a work of art: the very concept, status and value of such an object. Technology enables individual works of art to be reproduced in various ways, by various means, indefinitely, thus making them ‘available’ to the masses rather than to a minority elite.

Yet other theories and attitudes were expressed by the Romanian critic Lucien Goldmann, who developed a theory of ‘homologies’. The term ‘homology’ is more commonly used to denote a concept in the natural sciences. For example, the pectoral fins of a fish, a bird’s wing and a mammal’s forelimbs are ‘homologous’ because they occupy morphologically equivalent positions in the body and are genetically cognate. Thus, it denotes affinity of structure and origin apart from form or use. Goldmann’s ‘homologies’ are structural parallels between literature, ideas, and social groups. In his view literary texts are not the work of individual geniuses but are based on ‘transindividual mental structures’ which belong to groups or classes. The ideas which exist in these structures are discovered and then re-created in literary form by outstanding writers. Goldmann elaborates this theory through “The Hidden God 1964” in a discussion of Racine’s tragedies, Pascal’s philosophy and the social group called “noblesse de la robe”. In his book “Towards a Sociology of the Novel (1964) he pursues the ‘homology’ idea in an analysis of the structure of the modern novel in relation to the structure of market economy.
(To be continued...)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Marxist Criticism (2)

A key figure is the fist major Marxist critic, namely the Hungariar, Georg Lukacs (1885-1971). He developed the critical theory of ‘reflection’, seeing literary works as reflections of a kind of system that was gradually unfolding. In his view, the novel, for instance (and he had much to say about this genre), revealed or ought to reveal underlying patterns in the social order and provide a sense of the wholeness of existence with all its inherent contradictions, tensions and conflicts. Like many Marxist critics he was mainly concerned with content; hence his adverse comments on writers who were preoccupied with form, technique, literary ingenuity and innovation. Lukacs created his own idea of realism and failed (or declined) to see that modernist writers were also capable of realism—albeit of other and different kinds. Hence his disagreement with the modernist techniques of Brecht (and with Theodor Adorno, too), another Marxist and a didactic dramatist who was at pains to show social injustice. Brech made clear his attitude to socialist realism thus: “We shall take care not to ascribe realism to a particular period, Balzac’s or Tolstoy’s, for instance, so as to set up purely formal and literary criteria of realism.” He rejected anything formulaic on the grounds that reality changes, and in order to represent it the means of representation must also change. Thus, it follows that Lukacs and his followers would hardly approve of formalism, futurism, epic theatre (qq.v.) and many other innovative theories and developments.

The Frankfurt school of Marxist aesthetics is associated with the Institute of Social Research founded in 1923 and affiliated to the University of Frankfurt. During the Nazi period it was exiled (in 1933) to New York, from which it returned to Frankfurt in 1949-50. This school (whose chief spirits were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse) rejected realism more or less completely and developed what is known as ‘Critical Theory”. They were much influenced by: (a) their experience of a totalitarian regime and Fascism; (b) their experience of American mass culture, capitalism and commercialism. Both the Nazi and American societies were regarded as “one-dimensional”.

Adorno advanced the theory that literature does not have direct contact with reality. He favored modernism in literature because it is ‘distanced’ from the reality it seeks to describe, and this ‘distancing’ enhances its critical reality. Thus, knowledge of reality is achieved indirectly or obliquely. As he put it: “Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world”. Horkheimer was in favor of the avant-garde (q.v.) and modernism because they are hostile to passivity, acquiescence and submission to the political and artistic status quo, and thus to any form of inhibitive or repressive ideology. Their views were worked out in terms of Marxist beliefs and principles. Marcuse works through the idea that the autonomous work of art negates a repressive society.
(To be continued ...)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Marxist Criticism (1)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) were primarily concerned with economic, political and philosophical issues and worked out explanations of the capitalist theory and mode of production. They did not develop an ‘aesthetic’ of culture or literature, although they did say quite traditional things about Greek art which suggest that Marx himself believed in the relative autonomy of art (cf. Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, 1857, and Hans Robert Jauss’s article in New Literary History, titled The Idealist Embarrassment). However, Marxist principles and attitudes and modes of thought and inquiry have been adapted to create a Marxist theory of literature: what it has been, and what it might and, perhaps, should be. The Marxist critic (who tends to be primarily interested in content) writes from the definite standpoint of Marx’s philosophical ideas, and from his view of history in which the class struggle is fundamental, or in terms of socio-historical factors.

Much earlier Marxist criticism has been devoted to a reconstruction of the past on the basis of historical evidence in order to find out to what extent a text (say, a novel) is truthful and accurate representation of social reality at any given time. As Trotsky suggested in Literature and Revolution (1924): “Artistic creation is a changing and a transformation of reality in accordance with the peculiar laws of art.”

The concept of “Social Realism” (q.v.) marked and important advance in the development of Marxist and, ipso facto, Communist views on literature—and art in general. Basically, socialist realism required a writer (or any artist) to be committed to the working-class cause of the Party. And it required that literature should be ‘progressive’ and should display a progressive outlook on society. This necessitated forms of optimism and realism. Moreover, doctrine demanded that literature should be accessible to the masses. This was particularly true of the novel.

Modernism (q.v.) in Western literature was deemed to be decadent (especially by critics such as Georg Lukacs) because it was, among other things, subjective, introverted and introspective and displayed a fragmented vision of the world. By contrast, the 19th century realist novel was extolled. However, a certain amount of squaring of circles and an element of double-think was involved, especially in relation to such novelists as Dostoievski and Goncharow, for example, who were profoundly pessimistic and introverted.
(To be continued.......)