Marxism, Language, And Literature: Rethinking The Early .

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Marxism, Language, and Literature:Rethinking the Early Marxist LiteraryCriticism*Jun Young Lee1)차례Ⅰ. IntroductionⅡ. Language and the Early MarxismⅢ. The Reflection Theory of Language and MarxismⅣ. Russian Formalism and MarxismⅤ. Volosinov and the Marxist Philosophy of LanguageⅥ. ConclusionI. IntroductionIn his classical work of cultural materialism Marxism and Literature,Raymond Williams said that, emphasizing the rising importance of languagein the philosophical and cultural discourses of literary criticism at thattime, “A definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, adefinition of human beings in the world”(21). What Williams meant by thisdeclaration has been yet somberly valid since the way how to definelanguage works as a barometer of defining human beings as well as ofcharacterizing widely different tenets of literary criticism. Therefore,* This work was supported by the 2013 Yeungnam University Research Grant.

264 영미연구 제30집literature, a form of art that is primarily made of language, also concernsmore or less “a definition of human beings in the world” in many direct orindirect ways. In other words, literature deals with, first of all, the diverseconditions of human life in this world, regardless of whether it isconcerned with creative fantasies or reflective facts. Since both literatureand language pay decisive concerns to human beings, it could be said thatan attempt to define language inevitably accompanies the definition ofliterature to a considerable extent. The fact that literature uses languageas its primary medium more than any other forms of art fortifies thelegitimacy of this proposition. Therefore, it has been taken for granted thatthe problem of language should serve as a formulating impact to mostcontemporary theories of literary criticism ranged from post-structuralismand semiotics to Lacanian psychology and cultural studies.In case of Marxist criticism, however, there seems to be a longstandingconsensus that language has been peripheral to its main praxis of literarycriticism. Moreover, such limited opinion that the founders of MarxismKarl Marx and Frederick Engels has rarely revealed their thoughts onlanguage enforces the prejudged misconception that Marxist criticism hassimply treated language as a passive, reflective mirror of the materialconditions of a society. In my opinion, this oversimplification has not beengained from precise and meticulous studies on Marxism but fromprejudices against the widely condemned dogmatism in some branches ofMarxism, especially the doctrine of socialist realism in the Soviet tenet.However, if we follow the transition faithfully in the thought of languagein Marxism from the mid 19th-century initial stage of Marx and Engels tothe early 20th-century developing stage of V. N. Volosinov and critics ofRussian Formalism, it is possible to track down the genuine and substantialdiscourses of language even in the early tradition of Marxism. Moreover, inmy opinion, those discourses could suggest a breakthrough against

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 265dogmatism into which some of Marxist literary theories have been lapsed.Besides, if a literary theory of Marxism has been built around thephilosophy of language, it is also able to surpass the textual limitations ofFormalism as well as dogmatism by way of bridging literary texts oversocio‐historical and economic conditions of the world. This paper is tryingto prove it, since the philosophy of language has played an essential anddecisive role in constituting the theory of literature. Therefore, afterdiscussing the early thoughts of language in Marxism, including those ofMarx and Engels, and the Russian Formalism, this paper is to presentVolosinov's philosophy of language as a significant case of the literarytheory of Marxism.Ⅱ. Language and the Early MarxismDuring the initial phase of Marxism, the two important issues in thephilosophy of language were of interest to Marxism: the first was onlanguage as activity, and the second, on the historicity of language(Williams21). These are reverberated through The German Ideology where Marx andEngels reveal their thought of language as part of their critique againstabstract idealism of German philosophy.The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, isat first directly interwoven with the material activity and thematerial intercourse of men, the language of real life.Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear atthis stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior. Thesame applies to mental production as expressed in the languageof the politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics of apeople. . Consciousness can never be anything else than

266 영미연구 제30집conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actuallife process. (36)Here, Marx and Engels argue that all the mental activities of human beingoriginates from “the material activity and the material intercourse of men,”and this active materiality corresponds with “the language of real life.”Language is regarded as an activity inseparable from the actual life processdetermined by “the mode of production in material life.” Although they donot directly mention language itself linguistically, it is enough to infer fromthis passage that they emphasize the active aspect of language, that is, theconstitutive function of language in human life. Language in their thought isclearly different from the language as an autonomous, objective systemseparated from real life. And it is also different from the idealist notion oflanguage: language as a providential entity predetermines the consciousnessof human beings.As a matter of fact, the notion of activity is naturally accompanied withthe concept of historicity. Therefore, Marx and Engels apply their materialconception of history to their thought of language:Only now, after having considered four moments, four aspectsof the fundamental historical relationships, do we find that manalso possesses “consciousness”; but, even so, not inherent, not“pure” consciousness. From the start the “spirit” is afflictedwith the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which heremakes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air,sounds, in short of language. Language is as old asconsciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it existsfor other men, and for that reason is really beginning to existfor me personally as well; for language, like consciousness,only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse withother men. (German Ideology, 43‐44)

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 267With an emphasis on language as practical and constitutive activity, Marxand Engels draw our attention to the historicity of language. What theysaw as the essential character of language lies in its synthesizingprocesses of combining the diachronic movements and synchronicdimensions. In short, they define language in terms of historical flows andsimultaneous totality. Thus, the diachronic movements are seen as “thefundamental historical relationships” and its synchronic dimensions aredescribed as “moments” and “aspects.” Also their language is materializedwith the physical substances of “agitated layers of air, sounds,” that is, the“appearance” of the “spirit” burdened with matter. Not separable from theproduction of material life, language originates from social relationships,"the necessity of intercourse with other men." Moreover, humanconsciousness is of language: language is the practical consciousness ofhuman beings.It is obvious that Marx and Engels define language in terms of adynamic and generative process. Language is always in the middle ofcreative and recreative process, sided with socio-historical transitions ofsociety- historical changes in the modes and relations of production in thereal life. Their philosophy of language seems to be in direct opposition tothe structural linguistics initiated by F. Saussure. In the structurallinguistics, the notion of system, backed by Saussure’s concept of “langue,”implies the impersonal and ahistorical autonomy of language. Although it isundeniable that Saussurean structuralism has contributed immensely to theunderstanding of language as a self-reflexive arbitrary system, it neglectsthe active and historical aspects of language. On the contrary, Marx andEngels see language as a social activity, above all.Despite the dynamic and generative view of language by Marx andEngels, some tenets of Marxism reduce language into a mechanical andpassive medium that is merely reflecting the material condition of society.

268 영미연구 제30집Thus, ironically imitating structural linguistics' separation of language fromthe real life, these reductionists embrace the reflection theory of languagethat estranges language from the historical process of material productionand reproduction. This reductionism of language is, in part, coming of themechanistic application of the binary scheme of the base andsuperstructure in the Marxist analysis of society. However, in Grundrisse,Marx clarifies that these two fundamental sub-structures of society do notcorrespond with a “symmetrical relationship, dancing a harmonious minuethand‐in‐hand throughout history”(Eagleton, 14). Such superstructures asart, law, politics, and religion have their own processes of autonomousdevelopment, so that it would be a very limited scheme to reduce asuperstructure to a mirror of the base structure. Likewise, it is also acrude reduction to define language as a passive reflection on the basestructure of society.Thus far discussed, the reflection theory and the structural linguisticsshare a common ground in their methods of reducing language to anisolated entity from the practical world. The structural linguistics onlyconcerns a synchronic layer of language, excluding the diachronichistoricity of language itself, while the reflection theory sees language asa mere reflection upon the material conditions. This ironical contradictionof reflection theory had been criticized by Marx himself in his argument ona defect of materialism:The chief defect of all previous materialism . are conceivedonly in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but nothuman sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence ithappened that the outside, in contradistinction to materialism,was set forth by idealism . (German Ideology 6)Although the reflection theory appears to be faithful to materialism,

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 269according to Marx, it is in fact more closer to idealism in its way oftreating language as static a priori being, neglecting the dynamic andgenerative activity of language in the real world.Language, for Marx, is not a passive medium but one of the constitutiveagent of society. However, if the constitutive activity of language itself isdisregarded, the limited and partial understandings of language areinevitably produced, which Williams points out in his discussion of"expressivism" and "formalism"(Williams 165). According to Williams,expressivism, which sees language as an isolated medium reflecting realitypassively, is likely to present literature under such trends as realism ornaturalism. For example, socialist realism can be sorted out as a school ofexpressivism since it is based on the reflection theory of language. On theother hand, formalism would include critical tenets like Russian Formalismand New Criticism. Formalism tends to see work of literaturefundamentally as a synchronic system of signs, and then, it delves intosuch an intrinsic issue as what the “literariness” of literature is, beingsevered from socio‐historical contexts of the practical world. Therefore, inthe next chapter, the critiques on socialist realism and formalism,especially Russian Formalism, are to be dealt.Ⅲ. The Reflection Theory of Language andMarxismThe well-known emphasis of socialist realism on the partisanship ofliterature originates from the reflection theory that limits language to areflective mirror. The doctrine that literature should serve certain politicalgoals has arisen with an assumption that literature is only the reflection orreproduction of social reality in a fairly straight way(Eagleton 37‐39).

270 영미연구 제30집However, Marx and Engels never used “the metaphor of reflection aboutliterary works”(Eagleton 49). It should be an irresponsible oversimplification,for example, to say that Marxist criticism equates literary texts withideological products of social relations and productive force. Engels once saidin Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy that “art isfar richer and more opaque than political and economic theory because it isless purely ideological”(qtd. in Eagleton 16). Besides, in his letter to JosephBloch, he condemned mechanistic application of social phenomena toproductive relations.According to the materialist conception of history, theultimately determining factor in history is the production andreproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever assertedmore than this. Hence if somebody twists this into saying thatthe economic factors is the only determining one, hetransforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurdphrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the variouselements of the superstructure . . . also exercise theirinfluence upon the course of the historical struggles and inmany cases determine their form in particular. (39)Engels's denial of the mechanical application of the base structure into theformation of diverse superstructures is also very valid for the critique ofthe reflection theory both in language and in literary criticism.Moreover, Marx’s famous discussion of the Greek literature denied themechanical reflection of literature to the social development in the mode ofmaterial production. When Marx describes the relationship between thebase and the superstructure in Grundrisse, he selected art as a typicalexample that shows an asymmetrical and autonomous complexity of therelationship.1) Marx explained “the unequal development of material

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 271production and . that of art” in terms of the Greek art that reachedmonumental greatness in an economically primitive society. He keptinquiring why its art was still regarded as great ideal, “the difficulty is thatthey still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded asa standard and unattainable ideal” (35). Then, Marx continued to presenthis opinion, which invited controversial and indiscriminate attacks on it:An adult cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish.But does the naivete of the child not give him the pleasure, anddoes not he himself endeavor to reproduce the child’s veracityon a higher level? . . . The Greeks were normal children. Thecharm their art has for us does not conflict with the immaturestage of the society in which it originated. On the contrary itscharm is a consequence of this and is inseparably linked withthe fact that the immature social conditions which gave rise,and which alone could give rise, to this art cannot recur (35).Marx attributed modern appreciations of the Greek art to the nostalgia forchildhood, which appears to be irrelevant and sentimental. However, if weconsider his opinion in the context of Grundrisse, what he really meant isthat “the Greeks . were able to produce major art not in spite of butbecause of the undeveloped state of their society”(Eagleton 12). As a pre‐capitalist era, the Greek society would achieve a certain harmony betweenman and nature, so its art could be seen as a product of this1) Marx said that, in Grundrisse, upon the unbalance between historicaldevelopment and the evolution of art: “As regard art, it is well known thatsome of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development ofsociety, nor do they therefore to the material structure, the skeleton of itsorganization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or alsoShakespeare. It is even recognized that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, canno longer be produced in their world epoch‐making, classical stature as suchhas begun; in other words, that certain important creations within the compassof art are only possible at an early stage in the development of art”(34).

272 영미연구 제30집socio-historical environment, to which modern people of "transcendentalhomelessness" have been attracted.IV. Russian Formalism and MarxismAs have been discussed so far, for Marx and Engels, art is not a directproduct of the base structure of society. Considering their view oflanguage as a dynamic and generative entity firmly interlaced with practicallife, we come to know that, for them, literature, primarily made up oflanguage, is not the passive mirror of the economic conditions of a society.With their refusal to see language as an inert system, they also denied themechanistic reflection theory of literature. In this respect, Marx andEngels would have been very critical to the so-called vulgar Marxismsince it is firmly bound up to the reflection theory of literature andlanguage.In relation to the limits of the reflection theory of the Vulgar Marxism,it is useful to look at an issue of literary criticism proposed by P. N.Medvedev: “the problem of specification”(Titunik 178). This is about howthe domain of literature is different from the other domains of suchsuperstructures as ethics, religion, legal system and education. However,for the study of specification in superstructures, the problem lies not inthe specific properties of the superstructures but in the elucidation ofwhich specification distinguishes one from others. The reflection theory,rooted in the mechanistic and ideological copy of the base structure, cannotoffer any productive solution to “the problem of specification.” Therefore,Medvedev suggested a way out of this impasse:Each of them [superstructures], after all, commands its own

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 273“language,” with its own forms and operations, and its ownspecific laws for the refraction of the unitary reality ofexistence. The specificity of art, science, ethics, and religionmust not, of course, obscure their ideological unity assuperstructures over the one, common basis, each of theminfused with unitary socioeconomic coherency; but neitherought their specificity be effaced for the sake of generalformulations of that coherency. (Titunik 178)Especially in the domain of literature, the problem of specification is anessential issue than in any other domains of superstructure because,literature has "its own language" and "its own specific laws" in response tothe socioeconomic base structure, as Medvedev suggested. In this respect,the literary theory of the “expressivism,” like the vulgar Marxist criticism,has a limitation in offering meaningful clues for the problem. However, ifwe draw our attention on the language of literature, that is, the literarinessof language in the domain of literature, it is surely possible to find out away of solution to the problem.With regard to the language of literature, as well as the problem ofspecification, Russian Formalism arguably achieved a certain degree ofsuccess with its considerable insights into and theoretical sets of literarycriticism. In short, Formalism was optimistic for sieving out the essencethat constitutes the literariness of literature, the specific qualitydistinguishing literature from the rest of superstructures. Viewing literarytext as self‐valuable, self‐contained, and self‐perpetuating linguisticconstruction, it launched literary criticism as an objective science. Eventhough social forces and historical transitions could affect literature tosome extent, according to Formalism, the essential natu

Marxism, Language, and Literature: Rethinking the Early Marxist Literary Criticism 265 dogmatism into which some of Marxist literary theories have bee n lapsed. Besides, if a literary theory of Marxism has been built around the philosophy of language, it is also able to surpass the textual limitations of

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