Marx said 'philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.' What implications does this have for literature?
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Marx believed that history determines consciousness. In other words, the things we think and do are determined by our social and economic institutions. This includes all of culture. Therefore, all of our cultural artifacts, textual and otherwise, are products of history. There are ideological forces working through political and economic structures that condition the roles of classes. This includes the actual conditioning of personalities. People will continue to allow themselves to be oppressed if they think this is their role. This is called “false consciousness.” In order to make a change, the worker (or reader in this context) must become aware to the social forces that influence him/her. He/she must think outside the box of his/her own historical moment. This is very difficult to do, but not impossible.
These social forces also influence writing since writing is a part of culture which is influenced by historical conditions. To spark change, writers can awaken readers to the social forces that influence how they live and how they read. Marx was expressing his theory of historical materialism. All the things we do and all the things we create are produced by our understanding of our role in society and our place in history. If people are influenced to act in certain ways, then writers are influenced to write in certain ways.
If you apply this quote by Marx to the theory of New Historicism, which is indebted to Marx’s theory of historical materialism, then literature plays a big role in the development and/or revolutions of history. New Historicism is the theory that history influences literature but literature can also influence history. A New Historical approach to literature or criticism is as objective as it can be. The goal of this approach is to understand the historical forces that guide society. Another goal of the New Historicist is to understand his/her own biases resulting from historical determination. So, in order to spark change, writers and critics have to be aware of the social forces that determine what they are studying/reading. This means that interpretation does not go far enough. Philosophers must deconstruct the world and be aware of their own influences.
In this context, Marx interprets “interpretation” as “this is how the world works.” Here, interpretation sounds like a justification of the ways of the world. This is hardly revolutionary. To change the world, philosophers have to look for what conditions the world and point out oppression or brainwashing when they see it. Some writers do this. But some writers also just reflect (interpret) the world; these literary texts must also be deconstructed to reveal how they were influenced.
A philosopher looks at the world to describe it. Understanding the world is useful to changing it, but if you make no efforts to create change, then all you are doing in describing. Throughout history, there have been many writers who have used literature to both describe and society. For example, Charles Dickens wrote about poverty and class inequities in Victorian England using sentimental characters and melodramatic plots. His goal was to describe the world as it really was, and lay bare the ugliness of his society for his readers.
Dickens did not just write to describe or understand, although those were some of his goals. He wrote these books to convince people that change was needed. The characters and plots reached their hearts in ways that cold facts and figures never could. They remembered the people and stories from the pages of Dickens’s books, and Charles Dickens was actually instrumental in bringing about significant social change, such as the repeal of the Poor Law.
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