What are the similarities and differences between Marxist and psychoanalytic literary theories?

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Although Sigmund Freud, writing several decades later, was aware of Karl Marx’s theories, Freud’s ideas were primarily concerned with the interior, universal states of human consciousness. Marx, conversely, addressed the social dimensions of human life that formed the basis of political and economic behaviors and institutions. In his lectures published in 1933, Freud acknowledged that psychoanalysis owed a debt to Marx, but he remarked that a social theory must remain incomplete because there is not a unilateral, causative direction. Since the 1910s, many scholars have sought ways to bring the two apparently distinct bodies of theory together.

Notable among these efforts are the works of Louis Althusser. His attention to theories of reading point out the importance of individual perspective as shaped by ideology. The strong influence of Freud on Althusser’s works fed into a stated goal concerning literary analysis, “to see clearly in Marx.” This clarity depends on a theory of reading opposed to the idea that there is any standpoint independent of political bases of knowledge; that is, as transparent. Althusser’s theory of “symptomatic” reading depends in part on “free-floating attention” to what is not recorded as well as what is (such as unstated answers to questions posed) and to particular uses of language, including contradictions, elisions, or open-ended conclusions.

Althusser, Louis. 1991. “On Marx and Freud.” Rethinking Marxism 4 (1).

Ípola, Emilio. 2018. Althusser, The Infinite Farewell. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Both Marxist theory and psychoanalytic theory emphasize the examination and critique of underlying structures and their manifestations. With Marxist theory, one is analyzing the social structures which maintain and reproduce (material) culture. In particular, we look at class organization, ideology, and distribution of wealth. An example of a Marxist analysis of literature might be to consider European texts from 18th and 17th century. Around this time, many revolutions occurred. These revolutions challenged the "God-given" societal structure which justified the oppression of great numbers of people, keeping material wealth in the hands of very few. Literature from pre-revolutionary contexts may offer insight into how people thought about the world and its organization.

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, focuses on the examination of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as well as the underlying structures and functions which cause them. Psychoanalytic examination of literature draws from Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis and holds that texts can be read as manifestations of underlying mental processes. For example, consider Shakespeare's relationship with depression (or "melancholy") as evidenced by the characters he wrote.

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