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3 ways to read a poem: Structuralism, Marxism and New historicism

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Naomi Ziewe Palmer

on 12 March 2014

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Transcript of 3 ways to read a poem: Structuralism, Marxism and New historicism

Three Ways to Read a Poem

New historicism

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ (Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet)
Intellectual movement (France, 1950s) - Structuralism proper: anthropologist Levi Strauss / literary critic Roland Barthes. Had its roots in Saussure.
Its essence is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation - they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of (hence the name).
Meaning or significance isn’t a kind of core or essence inside things: rather, meaning is always outside.
Meaning is always an attribute of things, in the literal sense that meanings are attributed to things by the human mind, not contained within them.
Saussure emphasised that the meanings we give to words are purely arbitrary, and that these meanings are maintained by convention only. ‘E.g. ‘hut’, why is it called a hut?
There is no inherent connection between a word and what it designates (except for particular onomatopoeic words - vary between languages). This is not a new idea, Plato already discusses it.
new to emphasise the concept as it means if language is a system of signs pointing to the things themselves, then language is a system that doesn’t reflect the world, but stands apart from it.
Secondly, the meanings of words are relational. No word can be defined in isolation from other words. E.g. ‘hut’ = hovel, shed, hut, house, mansion, palace. We define each word by how it relates to the words surrounding it. Also, male / female, night / day (dyads).He says: ‘In a language there are only differences without fixed terms. 'E.g. analogy: Train station. In this example, identity is purely relational.
Poll tax / community charge, freedom fighter / terrorist. Trigger’s broom.
In short, what do structuralists do?
They analyse narratives, relating the text to some larger containing structure, such as:

the conventions of a particular literary genre, or
a network of intertextual connections, or
a projected model of an underlying universal narrative structure, or
a notion of narrative as a complex of recurrent patterns or motifs
Structuralists treat language as a ‘system of signs’.Structuralists explore parallels, echoes, reflections, patterns and contrasts.
Consider the pairings idea (dyads), if we had to reduce a poem or narrative to one single pair of dyads, what would this be? And what side does the poem or narrative does they dyad come down on?
Marxist criticism:‘Religion is the opium of the people’
German Philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) & German Sociologist Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), joint founders of school of thought. They called their economic theories ‘Communism’. Communism is the belief in state ownership of industry, transport, etc. rather than private ownership.
Communist Manifesto 1848: The aim of Marxism is to bring about a classless society, based on common ownership of the means of production, distribution , and exchange.
Marxism is a materialist philosophy: that is, it tries to explain things without assuming the existence of a world or forces beyond the natural world around us (scientific, logical, observable world).
Whereas other philosophies seek to understand the world, Marxism seeks to change it. Marxism sees progress as coming about through the struggle between different social classes. The exploitation of one social class by another is especially evident in modern industrial capitalism, particularly in the unrestricted 19th century form, in which people (workers) become ‘things’ having been ‘deskilled’ and made to perform repetitive, fragmented tasks.
Marxism built upon the socialist thinking that was around in France at the time of the French Revolution. Marxism inverted the underlying rationale of capitalism, the view that the ‘pursuit of individual economic self-interest would bring economic and social benefits to the whole country’.Marxist view was that culture was shaped by the economy. Good art always has a degree of freedom from prevailing economic circumstances.Marxist literary criticis maintain that a writer’s social class, and its prevailing ideology (outlook, values, etc.) have a major bearing on what is written by a member of that class.Marxists see the producer of art as being formed by their social contexts in ways which they themselves would not admit.
Marxist criticism tends to deal with history in a fairly generalised way.
Current Marxist thinking has been influenced by Marxist theorist Althusser: Ideology & hegemony
State power = the institutions through which power is maintained (repressive structures: law courts, prisons, police force, the army)
But also through ideological structures: political parties, schools, the media, churches, the family, art (including literature), thus each of us feels we are freely choosing what is in fact being imposed upon us.
Hegemony is the ‘world view’ or ‘class outlook’ - internalised view of social control which makes certain views seem natural - just the way things are. Althusser says that Capitalism thrives on the trick of making us feel like we’re a free agent.
Hegemony accounts for the operation of control structures not maintained by physical force, and hence for the perpetuation of a social set-up which concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few.
The main tenet of Marxist criticism is:
the nature of literature is influenced by the social and political circumstances in which it is produced.
Marxists relate the covert subject matter of literary work to basic Marxist themes such as class struggle.
Marxist critics relate the context of a work to the social -class status of the author. (Btw, Blake’s father was a hosier and Blake an engraver).
Marxists relate a literary work to the social assumptions of the time in which it is ‘consumed’.
Marxists view literature as itself determined by political circumstance.
ew Historicism“The historicity of the text and the textuality of history.” (Stephen Greenblatt, 1980)
A simple definition of the new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period.
New historicism refuses to privilege the literary text, giving them equal weight which constantly inform and interrogate each other.
What is ‘old’ historicism?
In this criticism, the historical background was merely the setting, and, by definition, of lesser worth.
Everything about the past is only available to us in textualised form, thrice -processed: i) through ideological outlook, ii) discursive practices of its own time and through ours, and finally, iii) through the distorting web of language itself.
New historicists are interested in history as represented and recorded in written documents: the
of the past replaces the
of the past as the events and attitudes of the past now exist solely in writing.
It makes sense to subject that writing to the kind of close analysis formerly reserved for literary texts.
New historicism is a way of ‘doing’ history which has a strong appeal for non-historians.W
hat new historicists do:T
hey juxtapose literary and non-literary texts, reading the former in light of the latter. They try to
ach from the accumulative
ight of texts that precede it, seeing it as if new.They focus attention on issues of State power and how it is maintained, on patriarchal structures and their perpetuation.
Divide into 3 groups.
Each group will be given the same poem,
by William Blake.
Analyse your text through the eyes of your particular theory.
Each group has a unique task to help you focus.
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