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Productive literary and art criticism tracks social changes

YAN JIA | 2018-06-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Terry Eagleton (1943- ) is a British literary theorist and critic. Eagleton’s approach to literary criticism is one firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition. He was one of the first scholars to apply Marxist theories of literary and art criticism to social production, productivity and social ideology.


The emergence of capitalism in the 17th century has revolutionized the social landscape of the Western world. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century ushered in the era of mass production while capitalism incorporated all aspects of social life into commodity production, exchange, distribution, consumption and reproduction, including cultural production and consumption. The profit-seeking nature and global expansion of capital have increasingly connected every corner of the world into an integrated whole.


Artistic creation proposed
Marxist theorists were the first to identify the ways capitalism changed human society and history, critiquing its intrinsic greed, exploitation and commodity fetishism. On this premise, they put forward the theory of art production on the theoretical basis of historical and dialectical materialism.

Influenced by earlier Marxist critiques, 20th century theorists like Walter Benjamin, Pierre Macherey and Terry Eagleton proposed Marxist theories of literary and art criticism relate to social production, productivity and social ideology. They regarded artistic creation as a part of social cultural life and ideology as well as a type of political and economic practice in society or production activities for a certain category of commodities. It is a form of production coexisting with other forms and associated with society and economy.

Eurocentric theories of literature and art since the 19th century have generally featured three theoretical traditions and relied on different theory resources. The traditions are British pragmatism grounded in the empiricism of epistemology, French criticism on the basis of art experience and creation, and German metaphysics based on philosophical idealism.

Marxism integrated their theoretical criticism into social practice and production, not only creating the dimension of social production for literary and art criticism, but also breaking it away from literature and art alone and widening the scope for theoretical construction and criticism practice. Particularly it changed the situation in which literary and art theory and criticism were confined from theory to theory and from idea to idea, placing them in the broad context of social life.


Productive literary and art criticism
Since it was proposed in the middle to late 19th century, the theory of artistic creation has been echoed, supplemented and advanced by Marxist theorists, with lots of revelatory and constructive results achieved.

Various schools of thought emerged around the globe, contributing to artistic creation and productive criticism theory, including the Frankfurt School represented by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno; the French School, represented by Louis Althusser and Henri Lefebvre; the English School, represented by Richard Hoggart from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and Eagleton; the American School, represented by Fredric Jameson; the Budapest School, represented by György Lukács, and Neo-Marxism represented by David Harvey and Edward Soja.

Their criticism of capitalist culture industry, reflections on subculture and pop culture, and exploration of spatial social production played a significant role in enriching and developing Marxism.

From the perspective of Marxist historical materialism, academics interpreted literary and art criticism and theory as productive art and cultural activities, which include the whole process of art production in society at macro levels, such as elements for artistic creation, process and mechanism of art circulation, and all-dimensional examination of art consumption and meaning reproduction activities. Moreover, they contain intrinsic forms of literary and art texts, as well as skills and production of meaning through micro lens.

According to the framework of Marxist art production theory, the attention of productive criticism to the process of art production first manifests in the producers of artwork and their creative activities. In other words, it requires grasping the impact of creation on social cultural life by investigating some aspects of their lives and creative activities.

For instance, Western Marxist critics like Benjamin, Macherey and Eagleton, who were deeply influenced by Marxist theories, took materialism as a starting point and voiced objections to the idea of regarding writers as creators. They argued that writers are producers, a type defined by their role in the process of production. That is to say, writers are no longer creators who rely on their inspirations to create or create something from nothing.

The second focal point of productive criticism is the productivity of art or artistic skills in the process of text production. Eagleton noted that artists use some means of production—special artistic skills—to translate materials of language and experience into certain products, adding that their production is without any reason more mysterious than other forms of creation.
Literary and art works per se—particularly the focus on forms and skills—can be construed as enormous attention of literature and art to social productivity.

In addition, productive criticism pays attention to the production of literature and art along with various social factors and complicated relations between social ideologies, highlighting the dominant role of such factors in the social context of literature and art production as historical traditions, economic life, capital operation, commodity production, political form and life, race, attribute, gender characteristics, class stratification and religious belief in the processes of literature and art production, circulation and consumption.

Schools of criticism in contemporary Western academia, like Neo-Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, Post-Colonialism and Cultural Studies, all strive to reveal literature and art production activities as correspondence of art production to social or ideological context, or deviation against it.


Breaking tradition
Since the start of the 21st century, changes in the world historical pattern, transformation of social production modes, conflict and evolution of thoughts and ideologies have caused literary and art criticism and related theories of the Western world to become divorced from traditional criticism theory and develop toward economic, political, ethnic, gender, philosophical and linguistic issues in society with the production of meaning at the core.

It is worth noting that with the establishment of aesthetics as a discipline in the 18th century, the emergence of the aesthetic self-discipline theory, and value orientations different from aestheticism, the starting point and fundamental aim of productive criticism totally went beyond the scope of literature and art and pointed to other dimensions like society, history, class, gender, race and revolution.

Productive literary and art critics held that literature and art alongside creative activities always represent the trajectory of historical evolution, social transition, class struggle and revolution, and fight for rights as well as huge, profound and broad content within. Thus production in literary and art criticism and the production of meaning are never restricted by the boundaries of literature and art, nor will aesthetic self-discipline be considered as its theoretical appeal.

In productive criticism, the production of meaning is a highly utilitarian and critical idea, so many concepts outside the realm of literature and art, such as capital, ideology, field, production, consumption, system, cognition and alienation, were brought into literary and art criticism.

Because of the effort to break boundaries and aesthetic self-discipline theorists’ claim for non-utilitarian literature and art, literary and art criticism has obviously been freeze-framed in the well-known “cross-discipline” state. Consequently, aesthetic self-discipline, which had been popular in the literary and art community, collapsed before one even knew or was reduced to unsubstantial symbols.

The cross-disciplinary state of literary and art criticism results most noticeably in the extension of the realm, so that literature and art can be “wedded” to any different disciplines, generating new fields like sociological criticism, psychological criticism, ecological criticism, sci-fi criticism, gender criticism, literature and art economics, literature and art politics, and online literary and art criticism, not to mention varieties of branches prefixed with “post.”

In fact, the territory of literary and art criticism is never demarcated by literati and artists, critics or theorists. It is first restricted by the social context that preconditions creation and criticism activities. The society for human survival and production activities themselves are the foundational basis and soil. Hence that aesthetic self-discipline was restricted in various forms since the 19th century was simply a kind of self-imagination or self-comfort by some theorists. Meanwhile, it disagrees with the physical truth of literary and artistic creation.


Yan Jia is a professor from the College of Literature and Journalism at Sichuan University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)