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Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature

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Marxism's core concepts: Class
We may therefore say that what distinguishes the Marxist from the sociological notion of class is that, for the former, class is precisely a differential concept, that each class is at once, a way of relating to and of refusing the others. Whatever its philosophical presuppositions, the sociological view is formally wrong to the degree that it allows us to think of the individual classes in a kind of isolation from each other, with the almost physical separation of social groups in city or countryside, or as "cultures" somehow self-developing and independent from each other: for the notion of the isolated class or social group is just as surely a hypostasis as the notion of the solitary individual in eighteenth-century philosophy. In history also there are no substances tranquilly persevering in their own essence but rather a relationality and struggle of every instant, in which the class is no more free than the individual not to be engaged.
Pages 380-381

A Marxist class analysis therefore proves to involve two distinct axes of judgment, depending on whether we stress the nature of the relationship between the cultural object and the class which it "reflects" or whether we focus on the historic destiny of the class itself....What this implies is that such apparent contradictions in judgment are in reality to be seen as variations on a common model, rather than as "opinions" which we are called upon to adopt or repudiate. History is indeed precisely this obligation to multiply the horizons in which the object is maintained, to multiply the perspectives from which it is seen; and I believe that to see differing judgments or evaluations in this fashion is not to speak out for some theoretical objectivity or neutrality, but rather to replace us at the very source of value itself and of such structural permutation, and to translate apparently literary disagreements back into the ultimate reality of conflicting groups in the historical world...
Pages 389 - 390

Marxism's core concepts: Commodity
What happens when we consider the work not so much as a relatively disguised relationship but rather as a form of density in its own right, as something produced, as consciousness quite deliberately reified?....Here we have evidently to do with a setting of the work in contact with the economic, rather than the social, reality: the coordinates of such analysis will therefore no longer be those of ideological formation, but rather of the forms of commodity production....A Marxist criticism ...will stress the way in which the commodity form conditions all more contemplative and theoretical perceptions of objects, including of course the aesthetic mode of perception. And in a world in which exchange value takes precedence over use value (such is, essentially, the definition of a commodity) it is not surprising that the making of works of art should also be governed by this dominant structure, which reaches down to influence everything in our daily world, our relationships with other people just as much as our relationships with objects...
Pages 390-392

For, particularly in middle-class society, the fact of work and of production -- the very key to genuine historical thinking -- is also a secret as carefully concealed as anything else in our culture. This is indeed the very meaning of the commodity as a form, to obliterate the signs of work on the product in order to make it easier for us to forget the class structure which its organizational framework. It would indeed be surprising if such an occultation of work did not leave its mark upon artistic production as well, both in the form and in the content...
Pages 407-408

Dialectical thinking
[Dialectical thinking is] thought to the second power: an intensification of the normal thought processes such that a renewal of light washes over the object of their exasperation, as though in the midst of its immediate perplexities the mind had attempted, by willpower, by fiat, to lift itself mightily up by its own bootstraps. Faced the operative procedures of the nonreflective thinking mind (whether grappling with the philosophic or artistic, political or scientific problems and objects), dialectical thought tries not so much to compete and perfect the application of such procedures as to widen its own attention to include them in its awareness as well: it aims, in other words, not so much at solving the particular dilemmas in question, as at converting those problems into their own solutions on a higher level, and making the fact and the existence of the problem itself the starting point for new research. This is indeed the most sensitive moment in the dialectical process: that in which an entire complex of thought is hoisted through a kind of inner leverage one floor higher, in which the mind, in a kind of shifting of gears, now finds itself willing to take what had been a question for an answer, standing outside its previous exertions in such a way that it reckons itself into the problem, understanding the dilemma not as resistance of the object alone, but also as the result of a subject-pole deployed and disposed against it in a strategic fashion -- in short, as the function of a determinate subject-object relationship. There is a breathlessness about this shift from the normal object-oriented activity of the mind to such dialectical self-consciousness -- something of the sickening shudder we feel in an elevator's fall or in a sudden dip in an airliner. That recalls us to our bodies much as this recalls us to our mental positions as thinkers and observers. The shock indeed is basic, and constitutive of the dialectic as such: without this transformational moment, without this initial conscious transcendence of an older, more naïve position, there can be no question of any genuine dialectical coming to consciousness.
Pages 307-308

Anglo-American Empiricism
For the dominant ideology of the Western countries is clearly that Anglo-American empirical realism for which all dialectical thinking represents a threat, and whose mission is essentially to serve as a check on social consciousness: allowing legal and ethical answers to be given to economic questions, substituting the language of political equality for that of economic inequality and considerations about freedom for doubts about capitalism itself. The method for such thinking in its various forms and guises, consists in separating reality into airtight compartments, carefully distinguishing the political from the historical, so that the full implications of any given problem can never come into view; and in limiting all statements to the discrete and the immediately verifiable, in order to rule out any speculative and totalizing thought which might lead to a vision of social life as a whole.
Pages 367-368

Dialectical thought is in its very structure self-consciousness and may be described as the attempt to think about a given object on one level, and at the same time to observe our own thought processes as we do so: or to use a more scientific figure, to reckon the position of the observer into the experiment itself. In this light, the difference between the Hegelian and the Marxist dialectics can be defined in terms of the type of self-consciousness involved. For this Hegel is a relatively logical one, and involves a sense of the interrelationship of such purely intellectual categories as subject and object, quality and quantity, limitation and infinity, and so forth; here the thinker comes to understand the way in which his own determinate thought processes, and indeed the very forms of the problems from which he sets forth, limit the results of his thinking. For the Marxist dialectic, on the other hand, the self-consciousness aimed at is the awareness of the thinker's position in society and in history itself, and of the limits imposed on this awareness by his class position -- in short of the ideological and situational nature of all thought and of the initial invention of the problems themselves. Thus, it is clear that these two forms of the dialectic in no way contradict each other...
Page 340

Such thought is therefore essentially process: it never attains some ultimate place of systematic truth in which it can henceforth rest, because it is as it were dialectically linked to untruth, to that mystification of which it is the determinate negation and against which it is perpetually forced to reclaim a fitful apprehension of reality, itself perpetually in danger of losing contact with the real in its turn...dialectical thinking thus proves to be a moment in which thought rectifies itself, in which the mind, suddenly drawing back and including itself in its new and widened apprehension, doubly restores and regrounds its earlier notions in a new glimpse of reality: first, through a coming to consciousness of the way in which our conceptual instruments themselves determine the shape and limits of the results arrives at ( the Hegelian dialectic); and thereafter, in that second and more concrete movement of reflection which is the specifically Marxist form, in a consciousness of ourselves as at once the product and the producer of history, and of the profoundly historical character of our socio-economic situation as it informs both solutions and the problems which gave rise to them equally.
Pages 372 -373.

For a genuinely dialectical criticism, indeed, the can be no pre-established categories of analysis: to the degree that each work is the end result of a kind of inner logic or development in its own context, it evolves its own categories and dictates the specific terms of its own interpretation. Thus dialectical criticism is at the other extreme from all single-shot or univalent aesthetic theories which seek the same structure in all works of art and prescribe for them a single type of interpretive technique or a single mode of explanation. Nor can it be reconciled with the specialized disciplines which have been erected on such bases...
Page 332

Thus philosophical thinking, if pursued far enough, turns into historical thinking, and the understanding of abstract thought ultimately resolves itself back into an awareness of the content of that thought, which is to say, of the basic historical situation in which it took place....This type of dialectical critique therefore involves a leap from the purely conceptual to the historical level, from idea to that corresponding lived experience which is then "judged" insofar as it is put in historical perspective for us. This is, indeed, the hermeneutic dimension of dialectical thinking, which is called upon to restore to the abstract cultural fact, isolated on the level of the superstructure, its concrete context or situation; the latter has, of course, vanished when we have to do with cultural objects from the past. But when we have to do with products of contemporary culture, this concrete situation becomes the object of repression to the degree that we wish to ignore the socio-economic situation in which we are really involved. Thus such dialectical judgments enable us to realize a momentary synthesis of the inside and the outside, of intrinsic and extrinsic, of existence and history: but it is a synthesis which we pay for by an objective historical judgment on ourselves.
Pages 346 - 348

From our present methodological point of view, however, this description may serve to illustrate the moment which mediates between literary criticism and sociology, in which the former begins to pass over insensibility into the latter under its own momentum: for the key terms of such a description -- totality and individuality -- are common both to the analysis of concrete social life and to that of the work of art, so that with a slight enlargement of the historical focus what seemed a statement about the work of art proves to retain its validity in the social and historical dimension. What is implied here, in other words, is the notion that at a certain level of concreteness the thing itself -- or what we will later call its existential reality -- may be formulated in any one of a number of different dimensions: as literary structure, as the lived truth of a determinate social organization, as a certain type of subject-object relationship, as a certain distance of language from its object, as a determinate mode of specialization or of the division of labor, as an implied relationship between the classes. This is truly the place of the concrete, in which alone we may mediate between one level and another of reality, and translate technical analysis of the idea into its truth in the lived reality of social history. It is clearly the most urgent task of a genuinely dialectical criticism to regain, on the occasion of a given work of art, this ultimate reality to which it corresponds.
Page 354

© 1972, Princeton University Press. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, N. J., Princeton University Press, 1972.


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