Effectiveness of Literature: Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies

urlHow effective is literature? Does literature, or any art for that matter, have the potential to change lives, and even the world?

Ever since I first learnt about ideologies last year in my Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism module when studying about Marxism, I can’t help but view everything taught and believed suspiciously, aware that socially constructed ideologies permeate our lives, whether consciously or subconsciously. But it’s only when one achieves awareness, understands and transcends this notion of ideologies, that one takes a closer step towards discovering truths, both personal and social. And I earnestly desire to expose and criticise constructively such ideologies through my own writing.

5987588217_ca2d075c9e_zI’m not a Marxist critic—this was simply an essay I wrote last year addressing the issue of ‘the effectiveness of literature’ from a Marxist viewpoint. It’s also rather simplistic and not very in-depth. But there are several substantial points and issues raised; and it’s certainly helped me to reconsider the effects and consequences of literature.

I also encountered, in my reading, a book entitled The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer (1963) which is very insightful and unabashedly advocates the power contained within art to influence society for the better (or worse, depending on your motives). If you want to delve deeper into the issue of the effects of art, I highly recommend checking it out.

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Effectiveness of Literature: the Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies
by Justin Lau

Literature and art have been involved in major turning points throughout history. The extent of literature’s direct effects have understandably been debated and challenged. However, literature has always presented the world through a filter of light, often reflecting societal, political, and cultural conditions in which humanity has found itself present. Marxist critics have latched onto this concept by advocating their theories about the relationship between art and ideologies. Wilson says: ‘What Marxism can do […] is throw a great deal of light on the origins and social significance of works of art.’[1] Through an examination of such revolutionary perspectives, one can see that literature has not only been used as tools of political or social motivations, but its effectiveness has stood the test of time, bringing about radical changes that are difficult to deny.

‘Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world.‘[2] Ernst Fischer is ultimately saying, in a shortened and more concise paraphrase, that ‘literature can change the world.’ This bold statement often finds its way from the lips of many Marxist critics, albeit in various reworked forms, from Althusser to Eagleton. But to what extent can this statement claim to be true? Is literature, in actuality, nothing more than a form of entertainment with no apparent value? Before this complex issue can be addressed, one must first examine the beginnings of Marxism in order to understand the basis of this particularly literary theory and its subsequent dealings with ideologies. From Marx and Engels’ base and superstructure theories stemmed two extreme main streams of Marxist criticism: ‘Engelsian’ and ‘Leninist’. According to Peter Barry, Steiner described the ‘Leninist’ view as insisting ‘on the need for art to be explicitly committed to the political cause of the Left.’[3] This resulted in the 1930s in the Soviet State’s all-encompassing control over literature and other forms of arts through an imposing of ‘socialist realism’. One can see how literature was quickly forced to adopt a role to fulfil Lenin’s specific political program. Subsequent uses of literature as a tool for political motivations and spreading certain ideologies were carried out through what Althusser termed the ISAs, or ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’.

Louis-Althusser-Quotes-1Althusser was quick to realise the State’s use of both Repressive State Apparatuses, such as law courts or the army which functioned ‘by violence’, and Ideological State Appratuses, such as schools, churches, and art which functioned ‘by ideology’, in order to exercise ‘its hegemony’.[4] This cunning system made people believe that the way they ‘live out their roles in class-society’ and ‘the values, ideas and images’ which define their lives are absolutely normal and natural, when in fact it prevents ‘them from a true knowledge of society as a whole.’[5] Secrets are kept by the State through a deceptive method of enforcing ideologies that are thought of as the individual’s own way of thinking, when in reality they are aligned with the interests of the government. Balibar and Macherey describe the ‘bourgeois ‘cultural revolution’’ as the bourgeois class achieving hegemony by establishing its ‘political, economic and ideological dominance’ through the formation of new ideologies, disseminated ‘through new ISAs’.[6] This deceiving interpellation often remains unchecked and the unrecognised ‘systems of false consciousness’ must be exposed.[7]

Base-superstructure_DialecticThis is where literature steps in to overcome these oppressors. Marxist critics not only view literature as a work produced and influenced by the cultural and societal ideologies around them, but also as being able to affect the base from which it originates. The relationship between the base and superstructure is dialectical, and Eagleton remarks that ‘the text […] is a certain production of ideology’; it is precisely because literature is a production that it can affect its source.[8] This carries with it important connotations, for not only does literature reflect and expose hidden realities of society, but it can also potentially and effectively change the society which it deals with. Eagleton interestingly describes two extreme views of the relationship between literature and ideology: one, that literary works are merely ‘reflections of dominant ideologies’ also known as ‘vulgar Marxist’ criticism; two, that literature ‘always transcends the ideological limits of its time’, revealing truths and realities often hidden from view.[9] There is a middle ground presented by Althusser that connects these two extreme views, in which he proposes that art is ‘held within ideology’ but at the same time distances itself from it.[10] He suggests that art allows people to see, perceive, and feel ‘the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.’[11] A work of literature does not necessarily allow people to know the truth, but rather to experience the context from which it emerges from, thus leading to a deeper understanding. The importance of literary theory is exemplified here, for the writer who ‘translates social facts into literary ones’ must be followed up by a critic who will ‘de-code them back into reality.’[12]

But what about literature which does not consciously seek to expose and bring about change, but rather solely to provide entertainment? It is true that literature can be read superficially. Fischer notes that ‘countless millions read books’ to ‘seek distraction, relaxation, entertainment’.[13] But one must not forget that every work has the potentiality of causing revolution. Writers, whether they are aware of it or not, are undoubtedly influenced, whether consciously or subconsciously, by their environment and their works may easily contain unintended elements of criticism or commentary. According to Macherey, Sartre had mentioned: ‘All writing has a meaning, even if this meaning is remote from that which the author has dreamt of putting there’.[14] In elaboration, Fischer remarks that art carries ‘the role of illuminating social relationships, of enlightening men in societies becoming opaque, of helping men to recognize and change social reality.’[15] Plekhanov held that ‘only art which serves history rather than immediate pleasure is valuable’; though one must not undermine the freedom of pleasure reading, one must perpetually recognise that all literature holds the potential to serve history.[16]

Literature enlightens people about social, political, and economic situations, provides the possibilities of criticisms, and acts as a means to spur people on into action. Nineteenth-century Russian ‘revolutionary democratic’ critics believed that the artist should be a ‘social enlightener’ and literature should serve as ‘social criticism and analysis’ as well as an ‘instrument of social development.’[17] Marxism ‘leads directly to programmes of action’ in ‘the possibility of re-creating human society’ and emphasises the need to be active and not passive.[18] ‘Change’ is the keyword when talking about the effectiveness of literature; people constantly desire change. Fischer asks the question, ‘why is our own existence not enough?’ and answers it himself: ‘man wants to be more than just himself. He wants to be a whole man […] a world that makes sense.’[19] Man desires a coherent, comprehensible world, one that is free from ‘coercion, injustice, hunger, and chaos’; and in the pursuit of such a world, change is necessary.[20] But can literature really bring about change?

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

La Liberté guidant le peuple

Examining several examples in history demonstrates just how effective art, especially literature, can be. Morawski refers to the Greeks, explaining how Greek art expressed the ‘whole significance of the society’ and the ‘highest human values’.[21] These works of art were ‘bound up with certain forms of social development’, highlighting the importance of art in correlation with their societal progress.[22] Fischer introduces the ‘Romantic protest against the bourgeois-capitalist world’ as an exceedingly successful revolution.[23] Figures like Byron and the ‘Romantic idealization of folk lore and folk art’ served as weapons for ‘stirring up the people against degrading conditions’ of ‘medieval bondage.’[24] Fischer takes it even further by claiming that the adoption of realism by bourgeois writers and artists have resulted in a successful representation of social reality in ‘England, France, Russia, and America.’[25] Literature has transcended not only ideologies but also history, working as an ‘art of protest, criticism, and revolt.’[26] The power of literature lies, according to Williams, in its ability to reflect, break up, expose, and displace ideologies, glorified as a ‘potent source of emancipatory and critical possibilities.’[27] The effectiveness of literature and its capability to change society can hardly be questioned after such evidence and most Marxist critics have expounded this to an extent, but several critics have argued about the ‘nature of the relationship between literature and ideology’; what then is the best method of theoretical approach and interpretation?[28]

Althusser’s undeniable influence on Marxist criticism has served as a subject of in-depth examination and analysis. His theories on the relationship between art and ideologies have provided an extremely beneficial overview. But though he acknowledges the need to ‘see’ ideology through art, he often refrains from explaining the essential practicalities in exercising such a concept. Other critics have sought to expand on Althusser’s theories, Macherey being one of the more significant critics. In regards to ideology, Macherey says that fiction ‘is aimed at […] exposing it, helping to release us from it.’[29] ‘What is important in the work is what it does not say’: his emphasis on the gaps and silences of a text to reveal truth was a major milestone in the history of Marxist criticism.[30] But what about the text itself, what it actually says? Do silences speak all?

Lukacs and Brecht, both champions in their own right, have continually battled out their stance on the most effective form of art. Lukacs fight for ‘realism’ and ‘totality’ is entirely reminiscent of Engels own remarks in 1888: ‘Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.’[31] Lukacs says that the ‘literature of realism, aiming at a truthful reflection of reality, must demonstrate both the concrete and abstract potentialities of human beings’.[32] This will be the most effective way of recreating a ‘harmonious totality of human life’, which will combat society’s ‘alienation and fragmentation’.[33] Lukacs makes the important point of art not only having to reflect society but also to reveal ‘positive possibilities’ for necessary progress.[34] Though Lukacs’ realism and totality can be an effective way of bringing about change by straightforward exposure, his utopian idealism and ‘glance forward’ carries with it the risk of mystifying the ‘social reality of the present’.[35]

chalkOn the other hand, Brecht’s themes of ‘epic theatre’ and ‘alienation effect’ presented a modernist approach of defamiliarising art to expose ‘contradictions’ and ‘the processes of naturalisation.’[36] He desired to change the world through ‘enlightening and stimulating action’ that will bring about the abolishment of these contradictions.[37] His method of reproducing reality (‘making strange’) was different in the sense that he understood the impossibility of reflecting life exactly: ‘If art reflects life it does so with special mirrors.’[38] Even Adorno espoused Brecht with his view that ‘only avant-garde art is capable of penetrating through the veils of ideology’.[39] But despite Lukacs and Brecht’s conflict, they were both aware that ‘all art is conditioned by time, and represents humanity […] the ideas and aspirations, the needs and hopes’ and were advocators of ‘constant development.’[40] There was no time to waste idling around and being passive receivers of enforced ideologies; change was necessary and inevitable.

zzzLiterature will never be limited to just one way of writing or one ideology. What makes literature so powerful is its unique capability to adapt to various styles, forms, and contents in order to accommodate the very environment it is produced in and by. ‘Significant developments in literary form […] result from significant changes in ideology.’[41] And as ideologies evolve over time, literature will follow suit, producing ‘new means of expression […] in order to depict new realities.’[42] Adorno pointed out that often times literature, especially ‘poetic subjectivity is itself indebted to privilege’; but it is the role and responsibility of the privileged, of those who are aware of the critical meanings in literature to inform and educate those who are still yet unaware.[43] As new societal problems emerge, awareness through literary presentation must occur in order for change to come about. Brecht believed in changing the world, but he was also mindful that ‘every answer leads to a new question and that nothing on earth is final.’[44] He knew that ‘new things must arise against all odds’, and it is this very attitude that has allowed mankind to survive and improve humanity.[45] Literature has played its part in history and its effectiveness cannot be denied. It will continue to fulfil its role in the future, carrying with it the tremendous potential to solve problems, save souls, and change individuals, societies, and even the world. In this sense, man and literature must never lose sight of the ‘pleasure of changing reality.’[46]

~

[1] Edmund Wilson, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), p. 246.
[2] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, trans. Anna Bostock (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1970), p. 14.
[3] Peter Barry, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 154.
[4] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1971), p. 138-9.
[5] Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 15.
[6] Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, ‘From ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 135.
[7] Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 104.
[8] Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998), p. 64.
[9] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 16.
[10] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 16.
[11] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, p. 204.
[12] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[13] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 7.
[14] Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978), p. 78.
[15] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 14.
[16] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[17] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[18] Edmund Wilson, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), p. 252.
[19] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 8.
[20] Stefan Morawski, ‘Introduction’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), p. 10.
[21] Morawski, ‘Introduction’, p. 36.
[22] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 11.
[23] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 67.
[24] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 56.
[25] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 67.
[26] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 102.
[27] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 107.
[28] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 103.
[29] Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, p. 64.
[30] Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, p. 87.
[31] Friedrich Engels, ‘The Problem of Realism’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), p. 114.
[32] Georg Lukacs, ‘From The Meaning of Contemporary Realism’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 111.
[33] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 26.
[34] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 48.
[35] Morawski, ‘Introduction’, p. 11.
[36] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 105.
[37] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 14.
[38] Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), p. 204.
[39] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 106.
[40] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 12.
[41] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 23.
[42] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 114.
[43] Theodor Adorno, ‘From ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 114.
[44] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 99.
[45] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 99.
[46] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 10.

~

Bibliography:

Primary:

  • Adorno, Theodor, ‘From ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 114-21.
  • Althusser, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1971).
  • Balibar, Etienne and Pierre Macherey, ‘From ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 134-42.
  • Brecht, Bertolt, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), 179-205.
  • Eagleton, Terry, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998).
    • Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).
  • Engels, Friedrich, ‘The Problem of Realism’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), 103-16.
  • Fischer, Ernst, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, trans. Anna Bostock (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1970).
  • Lukacs, Georg, ‘From The Meaning of Contemporary Realism’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 108-14.
  • Macherey, Pierre, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978).
  • Williams, Raymond, ‘From Marxism and Literature’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 122-34.
    • — ‘Realism and the contemporary novel’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 580-91.
  • Wilson, Edmund, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 240-52.

Secondary:

  • Barry, Peter, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
  • Brooker, Peter, ’14 – Key words in Brecht’s theory and practice of theatre’, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson & Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 185-200.
  • Jha, Prabhakara, ‘Western Marxism and Literary Modernism’, Economic and Political Weekly, 17/44 (1982), 1787-92.
  • Morawski, Stefan, ‘Introduction’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), 3-47.
  • Mulhern, Francis (ed.), Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism (New York: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992).
  • Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 103-8.

© Justin Lau, 2015

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