Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels – from _The German Ideology_

February 25, 2007

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, from The German Ideology
(1846), pp. 70-8

The writing of Marx and Engels, at least in the translation presented in the anthology, is far from the clearest I’ve read. In fact, I often found myself wondering whether the lack of clarity I found at a given point in the excerpt was due to the imprecision of the translation or the muddiness of thought on part of the authors. In an attempt to be gracious to the creators of one of the most significant ideologies of the past two centuries, I will (perhaps a bit disingenuously) fault the translator and try to “read through” the sheen of his or her translation to comprehend the ideas as I might imagine they were intended by the original authors. In any case, I by no means profess to understand all that was said in the excerpt, but hopefully the following explanations and explorations will demonstrate that I at least possess a sufficient understanding of the general principles it posits.

One of the terms I had the most trouble understanding was “intercourse,” which, as nearly as I can tell, simply means interactions between people. Although I may be a bit off in that understanding, it will have to suffice. This term is crucial in that it appears in the excerpt from its very first sentence, which asserts that communism is different from all previous movements in that it treats current human circumstances not as the natural, inevitable products of the way things are but instead as specific results of human actions up to this point, which, as such, are subject to the scrutiny and reconsideration of the same group that determined them, that is, a collective, united group of individuals. This point, this systematic questioning of inherited systems, thoughts, and social assumptions, is perhaps Marxism’s greatest contribution to all theory and thought.

From this observation, the authors then move on to state that “it [is] impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals,” that is, that there is no outside ultimate authority that has determined the way things must be [NB I can see here a possible proof text for those who see communism as “godless”] .

Next, Marx and Engels discuss the “difference between the individual as a person [the essential qualities of a man?] and what is accidental to him [how the material circumstances and, hence, the sociopolitical forces of the age define him]” as arising from and defined by old ideologies carried over from “the earlier age.” Thus, they see the process of human history as one of an as-yet-unbroken chain of one generation figuring out how to meet its material wants and desires [which the authors see as the guiding force behind human history], defining themselves through the ways and the degree of success with which they have met those needs, and then passing those self-definitions down to the next generation as natural, innate definitions of self. Then, each new generation necessarily modifies that self-definition (“what is accidental to him,” that is, his socioeconomic standing) as they adapt to the economic realities of their own age, and then repeat the process endlessly.

The authors characterize the social change generated by this process as slow, unquestioned, and as generative of “illusory” power systems that are both unfair and unrepresentative of the actual material state of affairs. Because this form of societal progress is viewed as natural, Marx and Engels state, the “illusory communit[ies]” of those in and out of power “in the last resort can only be broken by a revolution,” a logical enough conclusion given the chain of reasoning thus far.

As a negative example of this phenomenon, Marx and Engels cite the nearly uninhibited spread of the ideologies of the founders of America (which the authors oddly refer to as the “country” of North America) in a land not “encumbered with interests and relationships left over from earlier periods.” However, in a knock on the American ideology, and on imperialist ideologies in general, the authors are quick to note that imperialist powers often use this ideological blank slate “only to assure the conquerors’ lasting power” instead of to effect the truly equitable society of communism.

In one of the brief moments of clarity in the excerpt, the authors reveal that they believe that “all collisions in history have their origin… in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse,” which, again, as nearly as I can tell, means between the actual material realities and needs of a generation and its inherited socioeconomic power structures. From this point in the essay, matters generally become clearer. The line of reasoning then flows as follows:

– Examples in history show that when this contradiction has grown too great, revolution has occurred; however, previous revolutions have only focused on one of the symptoms of the contradiction rather than the contradiction itself as the source of the revolution.

– Therefore, to resolve the contradiction, individuals must, as a community, rally together to launch a revolution that “subject[s] these material powers to themselves and abolish[es] the [unfair] division of labor.” This revolution will have several benefits, in that it will

a) liberate the masses from false, inherited, ideologies,
b) get rid of the “illusory” community, which, as a “combination of one class over against another” both pits equal individuals against each other in a false class system and dehumanizes all people, regardless of class, as mere members of their class instead of as complete individuals, and in its place
c)establish the legitimate “community with others [within which each individual has] the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions.”

From here, the excerpts concludes by further exploring communism’s proposed liberation of the individual from his supposedly intrinsic definition as a mere member of his class. Marx and Engels believe that the conditions for this to occur are not possible within the existing power structure, i. e. the State, for the current system of power only allows for movement from one class to another through the accumulation or loss of capital through labor. Hence, they believe, “the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto… namely labor [which is the power structure of the State]. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.” And there you have the revolutionary ideology of Marxism.

Although I’m tempted to go into an evaluation of the pros and cons of Marxism as an actual, functional ideology, I’ve already rambled on for far too long, so, for now, I’ll conclude.


Ferdinand de Saussure – from _Course in General Linguistics_

February 22, 2007

Ferdinand de Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics
(1915), pp. 111-19, 120-1

That Ferdinand de Saussure is very intelligent is immediately evident upon reading, or trying to read his writing. While the breadth and depth of knowledge he displays is at times humbling and overwhelming, I do realize that Saussure was writing for a very specific, very informed audience. I also recognize that he was creating an essentially new mode of thought, and that he therefore had the rather unenviable but admirable task of figuring out how to express all these new concepts. And, ultimately, his work is comprehensible and, moreover, valuable. However, even given all this, I wonder if some of the specific audience that he was writing for might not have appreciated or at least at times desired a bit of additional clarity and / or simplicity is his writing.

Saussure, to begin with his conclusions, finally asserts that “in language there are only differences [and that] a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms.”

The preceding portions of the essay are spent in service of providing the information, thoughts, concepts, etc. necessary to understand what is meant by that phrase. (I just now briefly considered trying to write the rest of this piece using the terms that Saussure defines in the excerpt, but then reason kicked in again, and I realized that I have nowhere near a good enough grasp on these concepts to successfully pull of such a task.)

The excerpt begins with Saussure defining “the linguistic fact [what is normally referred to as “language”]… as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas… and the equally vague plane of sounds.” By this, Saussure means several (actually, many) things:

First, that “the linguistic act” (the “complete sign”) is a union between an idea or concept (the “signified”) and a sound (the “signifier”).

Second, that both the signified and the signifier only have meaning as negatively defined as select parts of an “interdependent whole” (in the case of ideas, the nearly unlimited variations and combinations of various thoughts, and in the case of sounds, the more limited palette of phonemes and their almost equally unlimited variety of combinations and distinctions).

To expand, this means that “all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally” so that “the value of just any term is accordingly determined by its environment” so that “… it is understood that the concepts [expressed by words] are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.” That is, that a given word only has a meaning within a given linguistic system (language) insofar as it is distinct from other similar words. Hence, it is the interdependent system, not the individual words, that allow for meaning. Furthermore (and with the possible exception of onomatopoetic words), the sounds used to signify words are completely arbitrary, that is, without an intrinsic relationship to the ideas they represent.

Third, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, which are “both… purely differential and negative when considered separately,” is “a positive fact.” Saussure attempts two metaphors in search for one that adequately explains the nature of the union of the signified and the signifier: a sheet of paper that has a distinct yet inseparable front and back and the wave in liquid that is undeniably a product of both the water and the air that created the disturbance in the water.

Finally, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, “is even the sole type of facts that language has, for maintaining the parallelism between the two classes of differences is the distinctive function of the linguistic institution.” On the most basic level, this means that language’s unique function is as a collectively agreed-upon method of tying together certain arbitrary speech sounds with certain negatively differentiated ideas so that communication can occur. If this seems like a simple conclusion, that is because it, in a sense, is a simple conclusion; however, it belongs to the class of ideas that can be described as “simple in theory but astoundingly complex in application.”


Simone de Beauvoir – from _The Second Sex_

February 20, 2007

Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex
([1953] 1972), pp. 282-5

Reading the barely one-page excerpt from de Beauvoir in Modern Literary Theory was almost a laughable experience, in that it is so richly and tightly packed with thoughts and phrases that are now foundational to the world of literary criticism that it barely seems plausible. In fact, my marginal notes read like a brief glossary of theoretical terms and thoughts; brief, sparkling expostulations on reification, ideology, essentialism, and binaries are all to be found within four inches of each other on the same page.

de Beauvoir provides an excellent description of how ideologies are reified into “absolute truth” and lead to an essentialist worldview in the sentences from “This one, the myth of woman…” through “…it is endowed with absolute truth.” Specifically, she speaks of the reification of the diverse experiences of real females into the Eternal Feminine and Femininity. As a result of this process, when women deviate from either of these idealizations, it is they, not the ideals, that are wrong.

From there, de Beauvoir begins to riff on binaries (“antonyms in pairs”); because women are defined by the Eternal Feminine, when they fail to live up to its standards, they are then identified as its opposite. Thusly is the madonna / whore binary established. To move from this process to identifying women as essentially ambivalent is a short leap; to move form there to women as identified as “sentiment [unreasonable emotion], inwardness, immanence” is yet another small step. Perhaps the most striking line in this excerpt is the following: “This is the lot assigned to woman in the patriarchate; but it is in no way a vocation, and more than slavery is the vocation of the slave… To identify Woman with Altruism is to guarantee to man absolute rights in her devotion, it is to impose on women a categorical imperative.”

This excerpt from de Beauvoir concludes with her identification of what critical race theory refers to as the “interest convergence” – the usefulness of a myth or racist / sexist belief to the desires or a ruling class / gender – of the myth of the Eternal Feminine to males as exemplified by their refusal “to grant to woman any right to sexual pleasure, by making her work like a beast of burden.”


Annette Kolodny – “Dancing Through the Minefield”

February 20, 2007

Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,”
in E. Showalter, ed. New Feminist Criticism (1980), pp. 144-5; 159-63

I was quite taken with this excerpt from Kolodny. She is a careful thinker committed to both “intellectual honesty [and] hard-won insights,” both of which she displays in spades in her writing. I find it difficult to create a summary of this excerpt; I found so much that was enjoyable and noteworthy in it that I fear my summary may be longer than the excerpt itself. In any case, here we go.

Kolodny opens with a discussion of the history of the definition of “feminist literary criticism.” She traces its evolution from a practice that largely consisted of “exposing the sexual stereotyping of women in both our literature and our literary criticism” to a “catalyzing force of an ideology that, for many of us [feminists], helped to bridge the gap between the world as we found it and the world as we wanted it to be.” Particularly illuminating for me, as a male reader, was the following phrase from Kolodny’s introduction: “a painfully personal distress at discovering whores, bitches, muses, and heroines dead in childbirth where we had once hoped to discover ourselves.” This quote reveals to me, from an angle that I’ve never quite seen before, the experiential motivation for (some) females undertaking feminist literary criticism.

As something of a nonsequitur, I found it noteworthy that all three of the feminist critics I read directly mentioned Adrienne Rich; such pervasive reference seems to present Rich as something of a “voice of the movement.”

Kolodny then recognizes what she calls “the most explosive threat” leveled against feminism, the allegation that “feminist literary criticism appears woefully deficient in system, and painfully lacking in program.” Kolodny concedes that most critics are, in their “heart of hearts,” structuralists seeking order and meaning among apparent disconnection and hence find a certain sense of dissatisfaction with feminist literary criticism’s apparent lack of organization. However, she follows this concession by stating that feminist literary critics aren’t truly seeking to offer a definitive structure or methodology and that they are instead merely seeking to be recognized as legitimate voices in the crowd of an ever-more-subjective world.

Turning a rhetorical corner, Kolodny suggests that feminist criticism’s diversity is not only not a weakness but in fact a great strength (she also claims that it is “the only critical stance consistent with the current status of the larger women’s movement”). She references the (supposedly stuffy and outdated) Russian formalist belief that there are not simply true or false readings of a text but instead “‘readings that are more or less rich, strategies that are more or less appropriate'” to underscore the legitimacy of such an understanding. In her ensuing rebuttal to potential criticism of the value of feminist criticism’s diversity, Kolodny writes with such clarity and reason that I will step out of the way for a moment and let her speak for herself:

“Adopting a ‘pluarlist’ label does not mean, however, that we cease to disagree; it means only that we entertain the possibility that different readings, even of the same text, may be differently useful, even illuminating, within different contexts of inquiry… at the very least, because we will have grappled with the assumptions that led to it, we will be better able to articulate why we find a particular reading or interpretation adequate or inadequate… just because we will no longer tolerate the specifically sexist omissions and oversights of earlier critical schools and methods does not mean that, in their stead, we must establish our own ‘party line.'”

While Kolodny is specifically speaking of feminist literary criticism, I think that all critics can learn from her elevation of truth and mutual understanding over any one particular ideology or strain of an ideology. Indeed, in her call for “a playful pluralism, responsive to the possibilities of multiple critical schools and methods, but captive of none,” Kolodny articulates, to me, the most useful application of literary theory: the development of a set or sets of interpretive tools that allow us to better understand both literary texts and, by extrapolation, the world (or, to respect Kolodny’s pluralism, the worlds) around us. In her call to “generate an ongoing dialogue or competing potential possibilities among feminists and, as well, between feminists and non-feminist critics,” Kolodny paints the kind of ecumenical vision of literary theory that I think will ultimately be most profitable.

For all her idealistic language, however, Kolodny is careful not to slip too far into the realm of wishful fantasy. She acknowledges the difficulty of what she describes, but insists that “we do not give up the search for patterns of opposition and connection – probably the basis of thinking itself; what we give up is simply the arrogance of claiming that our work is either exhaustive or definitive.”

After all this time spent carefully defining what feminist criticism is not, she finally positively identifies it as “an acute and impassioned attentiveness to the ways in which primarily male structures of power are inscribed (or encoded) within our literary inheritance; the consequences of that encoding… and… a shared analytic concern for the implications of that encoding.”

Of course, much of this writing and quoting could be summed up with Kolodny’s penultimate assertion, namely that “If feminist criticism calls anything into question, it must be that dog-eared myth of intellectual neutrality.” However, I like Kolodny’s writing and thinking too much to simply leave it at that.

Her final assertion, that individual scholarly work in feminist criticism, while to some degree intrinsically valuable, is most worthwhile and worthy when it is in service of the goal of improving the lives of all women, underscores one of my most fervently held beliefs: namely, that theory is only valuable insofar as it affects practice. To paraphrase Brian McLaren in “a Generous Orthodoxy,” orthodoxy (right thinking) is only useful to the extent that it leads to orthopraxy (right actions).

I suppose that it truly is evidence of a patriarchally controlled world that the portrait presented to most people of feminists is (to use mild hyperbole) one that consists only of indignant militants and not one of such delightful, impassioned, and brilliant thinkers as Kolodny.


Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar – from _The Madwoman in the Attic_

February 20, 2007

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, from The Madwoman in the Attic,
(1979), pp. 27-36

I must admit that Gilbert and Gubar have never been favorites of mine. While I do believe that a great deal of what they have to say is important, I can rarely stand to listen to them say it. Although perhaps justified in their righteously indignant (if not, at times, angry) tone, it grates my nerves to read it. Of course, I’m not helping the situation any, because, by their metrics, I am just another patriarchally repressive male who is subconsciously horrified at the terrible sight of not just one but two females who have taken up the transgressive act of writing.

As suggested by the title of their book, Gilbert and Gubar are chiefly concerned with the idea of “the monster-woman.” A great deal of this excerpt shows the authors tracing this figure’s various occurances, developments, mutations, and transformations throughout literature. The authors see the monster-woman as an expression of “male anxieties about female autonomy [that] probably go as deep as everyone’s mother-dominated infancy,” of “male scorn of female creativity,” and, finally, “of man’s ambivalent feelings about his own inability to control his own physical existence, his own birth and death.” While the monster-woman is occasionally viewed as a perversion of the “sweet heroine inside the house,” Gilbert and Gubar press on to argue that all women, in fact, are on some level viewed by males as monstrous due to their very femininity, especially as it is tied to their sexuality and physical sex organs.

Gubar and Gilbert (to liberate the authors from the tyranny of alphabetical order, a form of oppression that I frequently endured in elementary school lunch lines as a Weatherford. Oh, the sweet freedom granted by teachers enlightened by the wisdom of Reverse-alphabetical Orderists!) posit that all female authors must endure, at least on some level, being characterized as monster-women, insofar as writing is a form of creation, which is (to use one of the authors’ favorite words) inexorably tied to supposedly disgusting female physicality and sexuality. Moreover, a woman undertaking the act of writing is not only repulsive but also threatening to males as it represents the possibility of a woman defining herself in a manner than disrupts the safe, patriarchal binary of masculinity and femininity with which men stabilize their worlds. To quote Gilbert and Gubar, “like mothers of illegitimate or misshapen offspring, female writers are not producing what they ought.”

My two favorite portions of this excerpt came near its conclusion. First, I found the authors’ observation that “the sexual nausea associated with all these monster women helps explain why so many real women have for so long expressed loathing of (or at least anxiety about) their own inexorably female bodies” particularly interesting and provocative. Second, the closing image of Lilith as emblematic of the experience of female writers is a wonderfully striking conclusion to the article.

To conclude, perhaps I find Gilbert and Gubar disagreeable because they are still in the mindset of Showalter’s Feminist phase, whereas I, like Showalter herself, find the understanding of women in literature presented by the Female phase more instructive, helpful, and engaging. This is not to say that their work is not valuable; indeed, one must have, I think, the foundation of Feminist critique before one can move on to Female creation. Perhaps I have simply heard enough critique recently and am ready for more creation.


Elaine Showalter – “Towards a Feminist Poetics”

February 20, 2007

Elaine Showalter, “Towards a Feminist Poetics,”
In M. Jacobus, ed. Women Writing about Women (1979), pp. 25-33; 34-6

Showalter begins by distinguishing between what she calls the “feminist critique,” which focuses on “woman as reader – with woman as the consumer of a male-produced literature,” and “gynocritics,” which “is concerned with woman as writer – with woman as the producer of textual meaning.” Feminist critique “is essentially political and polemical,” and is metaphorically similar to the “Old Testament, ‘looking for the sins and errors of the past;'” gynocritics, according to Showalter, “is more self-contained and experimental,” and, to extend the earlier metaphor, is like the “New Testament, seeking ‘the grace of imagination.'”

Showalter then provides an exemplary feminist critique of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to demonstrate that “one of the problems of the feminist critique is that is male-oriented,” meaning that, in some sense, every feminist critique, even when criticizing patriarchy, is focused toward the male. As an alternative, Showalter presents gynocritics as a way “to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather that to adapt to male models and theories.”

To begin to trace out this radically female-centered theory, Showalter notes excerpts from feminist historians and sociologists. She then moves on to an engaging discussion of the experiences of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other female authors to show the need for “completeness” in discussing women authors’ work way in which “it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides [women writers’] work, so much has that work been influenced by conditions that have nothing whatever to do with art.”

From these experiences, Showalter then begins an rough sketch of some of the elements that have characterized women’s writing: awakening, suffering, unhappiness, and matrophobia, among others. She concludes with her classification of women’s writing into three phases that “establish[es] the continuity of the female tradition from decade to decade, rather than from Great Woman to Great Woman.” Showalter sees the first phases taking place from roughly 1840 to 1880; she calls this “the Feminine phase” and declares that it is characterized by “women [writing] in an effort to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture… The distinguishing sign of this period is the male pseudonym… [which] exerts an irregular pressure on the narrative, affecting tone, diction, structure, and characterization.”

The second, Feminist phase follows from 1880 to 1920, wherein “women are historically enabled to reject the accomodating postures of femininity and to use literature to dramatise the ordeals of wronged womanhood.” This phase is characterized by “Amazon Utopias,” visions of perfect, female-led societies of the future. Finally, Showalter posits the third and (at least in 1979) final phase, the Female phase, which began in 1920. In this phase, “women reject both imitation and protest – two forms of dependency – and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature.” Significantly, Showalter does not (at least in the excerpt presented in the textbook) offer a characteristic sign or figure for the Female phase, suggesting a welcome diversity of experience that is too broad to be encompassed in a single image.

On the whole, I was rather drawn to Showalter’s writing. It is intelligent, largely devoid of rhetorical extremities, and confidently provocative. Welcomely absent is the stridently ideological tone common to so many theorists; instead, Showalter speaks with calmly convincing authority, as one who firmly believes in the verity of what she’s saying. She is both urgent, in that she sees change needing to occur immediately, and patient, in that she expects that, given time enough, the wisdom and truth of her cause will prevail.


Protected: tyson chapter eleven – african american criticism

February 20, 2007

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