25 April 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 6

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology, excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

extracts from my forthcoming book:
Trope 7: ‘culture is a social product’

Is culture the product of individuals, or of society? Strictly, the question is meaningless. Much of Western culture was created by individuals working alone, supported by others, but those individuals were influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the society in which they lived. And society is of course made up of individuals; hence one can always say that anything done by individuals is, in effect, done by society. The question is really one of perspective, or emphasis.
   Initially, intellectuals in the West reacted to the extraordinary flowering of culture that took off in the eighteenth century by shifting ideological emphasis in the direction of the individual. Great works of art, literature and science – produced by individual artists and scientists – seemed to demonstrate that individuals had a more significant role than Christian ideology had taught.
   This first reaction is sometimes identified with the movement called Romanticism. It can also be seen in aspects of the intellectual revolution referred to as the Enlightenment. The latter, at least some of the time, stressed the importance of individuals thinking for themselves – rather than simply accepting what was generally believed to be true, or what was held out as ‘truth’ by intellectual authorities.
   However, another aspect of the Enlightenment was a desire to make individuals conform to models of ‘rationality’ that were deemed correct by philosophers and other theorists, and increasingly to limit intellectual authority to those who belonged to socially sanctioned institutions. The models of rationality were arrived at via a process of logic that theorists believed to be analogous to science, and therefore equally reliable, but this was an illusion. Philosophising on paper generates answers that can seem solidly based on logic but which depend on assumptions that are often hidden. Such philosophising can easily be worse than ignorance, if we move from an agnostic attitude to the unjustified belief that we have certain knowledge.
   By the end of the nineteenth century, the reaction against Romanticism, and against Enlightenment individualism, had started to set in. As an Oxford philosophy don wrote in his introduction to the 1901 edition of J.S. Mill’s mid-Victorian book On Liberty, Mill was
advocating the rights of the individual as against Society at the very opening of an era that was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the individual had no absolute rights against Society.*
In contrast with the eighteenth-century view that the individual existed first, and society second, in the late nineteenth century the view began to gain prominence that the individual
has no rights against the social organism. Society can punish him for acts or even opinions which are anti-social in character. His virtue lies in recognising the intimate communion with his fellows. His sphere of activity is bounded by the common interest.*
Fundamental changes in perspective are usually accompanied by new theories which rationalise those changes. In the swing away from individualism, and back towards collectivism (an older model of human society, with a much longer history), the theories of Marx have proved highly instrumental.
   Marx was the most important prophet of cultural collectivism, but not the only one. Among other, lesser prophets can be counted Arts & Crafts pioneer William Morris, for example.
   Marx argued that culture is merely the ‘superstructure’ of a society, built on the foundation of the economic relations within that society. He did not mean that capitalism facilitates culture, by allowing a few creative individuals to live off capital. He meant that human consciousness, and hence the specific content of cultural products, are strongly – but unconsciously – determined by economic conditions.
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. [Marx, Critique of Political Economy]
Marxists reject individualism. But Western culture can be seen as a product of such individualism, which for many observers counts in its favour. Marxists therefore have an incentive to promote the idea that culture should be seen as a product of society, rather than of individuals. The culture-is-social perspective, transmitted via the cultural Marxism tradition, is now widely distributed within contemporary literary and cultural criticism.
   An example of cultural Marxism in relation to literature is reader-response theory. One of the key contributors to this approach is American professor Stanley Fish. According to the book Introducing Critical Theory, Fish claims it is the reader who actually produces the work of literature.
   Of course, it is not just a single reader who ‘produces’ a novel by, say, Jane Austen. That approach to thinking about literature would be far too individualistic for cultural Marxists.
Fish’s ostensibly more radical approach is tempered by the insistence that the reader is a member of an ‘interpretive community’ whose shared values inform individual readings, as well as providing a criterion for assessing their validity. [Introducing Critical Theory, p.85]
In other words, society decides what the novel really means, not the individual author:
The novel Jane Eyre does not set out to be a discourse on the power of patriarchy, but the ‘madwoman in the attic’ motif starkly reveals it nonetheless. [ibid, p.81]
Invoking the concept of ‘society’ may seem like a form of democratisation. But what ‘society’ really means, in this context, is ‘socially appointed experts’.
   The rhetoric about ‘interpretive community’ is no doubt intended to seduce readers into believing they play as important a role as authors. However, it is not ordinary readers, but humanities professors, who will decide – supposedly on behalf of society as a whole – whether Jane Eyre is primarily about patriarchy, regardless of what author Charlotte Brontë said about the matter.
   Students who openly dispute the professorial viewpoint that a particular novel contains important political messages are likely to find themselves marked down.

* W.L. Courtney, in his Introduction to J.S. Mill, On Liberty, London: Walter Scott, 1901.
S. Sim and B. Van Loon, Introducing Critical Theory, Icon Books, 2009.

next post: ‘Language’, the final instalment in this blog series

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)