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Aug 6, 2011

The Formalist Approach

The formalist approach emphasizes the manner of reading literature that was given its special dimensions and emphases by English and American critics in the first two-thirds of the Twentieth century. It should be mentioned, that to many students of literature during that era, this approach came to be called the New Criticism.

In the last third of the century, the New Criticism came to be called by other names, and at least it has come to be called by many of the old New Criticism, for even ‘newer’ approaches have gained popularity and have had little or nothing in common with the old New Criticism. The New Critics helped us to read well, they taught us to look at the individual work of literary art as an organic form. They articulated the concept that in an organic form there is a consistency and an internal vitality that we should look for and appreciate. In doing so, we would appropriate the work to ourselves and make it part of our consciousness in the same way that we might when we study Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or Michelangelo’s David.

One of the most salient considerations of the New Critics was emphasis on form, on the work of art as an object. Art entails form; form takes many forms.

Marxist Literary Criticism
Western Marxist criticism underwent renewal and diversification in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming more visible within academic literary studies and interacting with a range of other critical schools from structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, and postcolonial theory to deconstruction and new historicism. In this ‘neo-Marxist’ phase, the traditional Marxist metaphor of economic causality in which a ‘superstructure’ of political and cultural forms grew up from a ‘base’ of economic forces and relations was either openly challenged (as it was by the British socialist critic Raymond Williams, who inspired the school of cultural materialism) or quietly set aside in favour of explorations of literature’s relations with ideology and with the specific cultural contradictions of modern capitalist society. In English, the leading figures in this phase have been the American theorist Fredric Jameson (in Marxism and Form (1971), and later works) and the prolific British essayist Terry Eagleton (in Criticism and Ideology (1976), The ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and numerous other works).

A tradition of literary and aesthetic interpretation and commentary derived from the principles of Marxism (‘historical materialism’), and thus tending to view literature in the light of modes of production (feudal, capitalist) and their property relations and class struggles. Little in this tradition derives directly from the writings of Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, who provided no developed aesthetic theory, although they expressed doubts about the value of propagandist fiction and thus discouraged the simple judgement of literary works according to the degree of socialist sentiment they express.

In general, the claims of Marxist literary analysis have been more compatible with literary history (in which the formative importance of economic factors in literary evolution has commonly been accepted) than with evaluative criticism itself. Critical positions claiming to be Marxist arouse later in the two divergent currents of official Communist doctrine in the Soviet Union and its satellite parties (1917-1995) on the one hand, and of ‘Western Marxism’ on the other. Russian Communist literary policy generated a short-lived ambition for the proletarianization of literature and the rejection of the bourgeois inheritance, under the name of proletcult (memorably derided by Leon Trotsky in his Literature and Revolution, 1924), and then a more conservative doctrine of socialist realism, which tended to impose a bland official optimism upon writers while suppressing ‘decadent’ alternatives along with independent critical positions such as those of the Russian Formalists and of the Bakhtin group.

The more creative and ultimately more influential trends in Marxist criticism emerged from various Western Marxist thinkers, who tended to disagree on a range of questions including the requirement upon writers to be ‘committed’ to the socialist cause and the progressive or reactionary tendencies of realism and modernism. Notable figures here include the Hungarian writer Georg Luk√°cs, who in Studies in European Realism (1950) and other works upheld the value of ‘bourgeois’ realism as a basis for socialist literature while attacking the allegedly apolitical pessimism of modernist writing; the German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht, who argued to the contrary in defending modernist experiments as potentially radical; and some writers associated with the Frankfurt School, notably Walter Benjamin, who interpreted the significance of Brecht’s epic theater and whose essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) is a widely admire classic of Marxist reflection upon modern culture.


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