Cultural Materialism established itself permanently in the field of literary studies in the mid 1980s. Some imp books in this field are
1. Radical Tragedy: Jonathan Dollimore
2. The Subject of Tragedy: Catherine Belsey
3. Alternative Shakespeares
4. Political Shakespeare: Alan Sinfield
Some major assumptions of cultural materialism: (common with New Historicism)
All subjects live and work within the culture constructed by ideology, through discourses. The ideological constructions in which the authors live and have internalized, inevitably become a part of their work, and therefore their works are always political and always vehicle of power. For example, a play by Shakespeare is related to the context of its production-to the economic and political system of the Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and to the particular institutions of cultural production, e.g. church, patronage, theatre, education etc.
Since lit plays an active role in the creation and consolidation of power, a literary text does not merely reflect the culture in which it is produced, but also actively contributes to the constitution of that culture. Cultural materialism tries to bring to light how ideology and thus existing social order tries to maintain itself through literature without losing its grip. Since the status of lit is not essentially different from other texts (political, economic, religious,), in the sense that it has no special access to the transcendent truth, it merits no special treatment, but is read alongside a wide variety of non literary texts.
Points of departure for cultural materialism
a) Cultural materialists agree that at first sight, a literary text will seem supportive of the dominant/contemporary ideology, but they see that ideology as less pervasive than their contemporary new historicists. Cultural Materialists object to what they see as new historicism’s downplaying of subversion and dissent, and the dissent’s effectiveness.
b) They follow Foucault in their interest in the insane, the criminal, the exploited and all those who over the course of history have been marginalized. More than that, CMs follow Raymond Williams in his adaptation of Gramsci’s view of hegemony. For Williams, the dominant culture is never the only player in the cultural field, although it is the most powerful. There are always residual and emergent strains within a culture that offer alternatives to hegemony. In other words, the dominant culture is always under pressure from alternative views and beliefs.
c) So, the analyses of lit texts by CMs bring to light how these texts while being the instruments of the dominant socio cultural order, also demonstrate how the apparent coherence of that order is threatened from the inside, by inner contradictions and by tensions that it seeks to hide.
d) Focusing on the cracks in the ideological façade that texts offer, CM offers readings of dissidence that allow us to hear the socially marginalized and expose the cultural machinery that is responsible for their marginalization and exclusion.
e) They are also interested in the way in which the traditional reception of such texts has obscured the presence and operation of such ideologies. Ex: Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy argues that traditional interpretations of Jacobean tragedies have ignored how these plays undermine humanist assumptions because they focus on what fits the humanist framework.
f) CM sees such dissident readings of texts from the past as political interventions in the present, as political challenges to the conservative, humanistically oriented positions and critical practices that are very much evident among literary academics and among those that control educational institutions.
g) It not only tries to offer alternative understandings of the past, but also tries to effectuate political change in the present from a broadly socialist, and even feminist point of view. As Dollimore and Sinfield say, CM is committed to the transformation of the social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class.
h) Where new historicists would be satisfied to bring to light hidden power relations in a cluster of Renaissance texts, Cultural materialists seek to find instances of dissidence, subversion and transgression that are relevant in the contemporary political struggles.
i) As such, the CMs are interested in the way in which lit from the past, say Shakespeare has been made to function in the later periods and in our contemporary culture. CMs for instance may ask, which plays we find within the university curricula, or which sonnets are standardly anthologised. In the performance of Shakespeare’s plays, they may question how is Shakespeare constructed and from what ideological position?
j) In one of the essays collected in Political Shakespeare, Sinfield concludes that in education, Shakespeare has been made to speak for the right.
k) As with Raymond Williams, for CMs ideology takes on a tangible, material form in institutions like the university, the museum, the army, the school, the labour union, the church and so on. And it becomes material in the way in which images from the past are deployed in the service of contemporary ideology.