Wednesday 13 January 2016

Marxism: language, literature and children's literature

Literature is language.

(Some books combine language and pictures. Films combine language and moving image. Musicals combine language and music. I'll leave all that to one side for the moment.)

Of course, literature is language. But this means that every time we use words like 'character' or 'alliteration' or 'drama' or 'metaphor' or 'chapter'  or 'dialogue' - these are all uses of language.

All language originates with human beings. When we separate 'language' off from human behaviour for the purposes of discussing what it is, or for looking at in its different forms, we make it inert. So, though we say things like 'Drama can...' or 'The chapter says...', in reality, it can't. It's the human who uses language who is 'doing' something.

In that sense, language is a form of human behaviour.

Whenever we use language, we make decisions about who it's for. Sometimes this is quite conscious and we say or write something with a deliberate 'sense of audience'. Other times, we might be hardly aware of it. That's because our uses of language already have audiences 'implied' within it.

Audiences can be 'implied' for a variety of reasons:

1. because of the kinds of words we use, and the ways we 'stick the words together' - i.e. passages of text (compare a 'phonics reader', say, with a 'No Smoking' sign, with a flat pack assembly manual.)

2. because of the 'form' - a Shakespeare play, a birthday card, a football chant.

3. and, crucially, because of the total and specific context in which that use of language is produced and received, (spoken and heard, written and read). The sign 'Carry dogs' (which I saw yesterday) could mean that you must find a dog and carry it. (Terry Eagleton has a similar example!) Or it could mean, if you have a dog, you must carry it. Context of it being on an escalator at an underground station is that it means the second.

So, the first thing that listeners and readers do is they influence what the speaker and writer say and write. We may do that over time - people have been going to plays for thousands of years. The form of language we call 'the play' has evolved because of thousands of years of audiences influencing what and how plays are written. We may do it face to face. We may do it in all sorts of combinations of both the historical as well as the face to face.

The second thing that listeners and readers do is that we 'interpret' what is being said and written. We do not merely receive it, or are 'stimulated' by it, or even simply 'respond' to it. The human senses and mind are extraordinarily complex and we do not do ourselves any favours by simplifying it.

Interpretation involves a complex, interrelated set of processes to do with such things as perceiving, remembering, selecting, collating, sorting, ordering, reflecting on the new, reflecting on what we have already reflected on, revising, evaluating. Though I've said it involves perception and mind, it will also involve the body (e.g. laughter, squirming, dilation of the eyes, sweating, etc). Part of interpretation will also be responding to our own bodies as they respond.

Producing language and interpreting (speaking and listening, writing and reading) are social activities. Though we may appear to be, say, reading on our own, or writing on our own, all language is itself social. That's to say, embedded in language are the experiences and intentions of thousands of years of use. Every single word, every bit of how words are stuck together (grammar, and literary forms, how we construct conversations etc) is all social. It's all been made and re-made and being made again in the context of human interaction.

This is at the heart of the term 'intertextuality'. Any 'text' we create or interpret or come across is at a point in the history of all texts. It comes out of texts that precede it, and it becomes part of future texts in the eyes, ears and minds of those who hear it or read it. No part of the text is of itself new. It will in some way or another be related to previous texts. Nothing in our interpretations are themselves new as they will be made in part because of our previous encounters with texts, that is our 'repertoire' of texts that we have come across in our lives - for reasons that are 'social'.

This focuses us on interpretation. No matter how 'personal' interpretation appears to be, each part of my total interpretation is made of social interactions with previous texts and social interactions with other people and my own uses of language. There is no possible model of a totally lone human being, coming into the world, living isolated from all other human beings, and producing language alone.

If the producing and interpretation of language (including literature, of course) is social, this raises the question of how to understand 'the social'.

One way is to think of ourselves as lottery balls in a lottery machine, bouncing around, bouncing into each other, unable to determine our fate, not really influencing each other very much. A good deal of  everyday talk implies this view of ourselves. We are, supposedly,  all 'individuals' doing what we as individuals have to do, or is being done to us; our work, our hopes, our wishes and desires, our tragedies are often treated and described as 'individual'.

Alternatives suggest that this isn't really possible. However and wherever we live, however and wherever we produce and interpret language, we are doing this socially, influencing each other, being influenced by each other.

Within a range of alternatives for how we do this, are attempts to 'clump' us into groups, sections of the population, identities, organisations, institutions, people with similar outlooks and behaviours, nations, 'races', regions, cultural types, classes, traditions, genders, children, adults,  and so on.

Some of these descriptions are used as explanations for why and how we produce and interpret language in the way we do. Descriptions like 'British' or 'women's' or 'old people's' or 'children's' are sometimes used as 'sufficient' explanations for why this particular kind of writing was written, or why this particular response was made.

The marxist argument is primarily that these are not 'sufficient' explanations. They are not necessarily false or wrong, but not enough. That's because marxism looks at the 'social' (i.e. society) and says that society is organised mainly or mostly in a particular kind of way. Starting out from the prime needs that humans have: to eat, be protected from the elements and to reproduce, people are organised (or organise themselves) according to an 'economic system'. The shape or 'configuration' not only produces and distributes things. It also places us in particular positions within that economic system.

They system we live with at the moment is 'capitalism',  but in the past people have lived with other systems such as 'hunter-gatherer', or feudalism.

'Capitalism' describes how things are made and distributed, how wealth is made. Marxists tend to use the word to mean more than that: that is, not only as an economic system but also how that economic system produces or determines the growth of such institutions as the nation state or the instruments and institutions OF that state, such as  government, law, health care, nurture, education. The word is used to define a total way of being at a particular time or 'epoch'.

Starting from the word at the heart of 'capitalism', people with 'capital' (money, assets) employ people to work in order to make (or try to make) profits i.e. come out with more than they put in. Clearly, there are different kinds of capitalist and different sizes of capitalist.

It's convenient and important to think of the different kinds as putting capital 'to work' in different ways such as 'finance' (banking etc), financial services (insurance and the like), manufacture, distribution, rent (renting out property or plant). And again size is important - sometimes we're talking about capitalists with turnovers bigger and more important than the sums handled by a whole nation, other times we're talking about nothing bigger than a market-stall and people who work for the stall-holder on a Saturday.

The body of people who have no means of earning money other than through being employed are called by marxists either 'the working-class' or the 'proletariat'. This is not a value-judgement, or a description in itself of behaviour or culture. It's a description of nothing more or less than this matter of how such people earn a living. However, it's not just a matter of earning a living. It's their 'position in relation to production'. The capitalist is in one position, the worker is in another. The capitalist buys labour to make profits. The worker sells labour to earn the means by which to live.

The marxist argument is that this is a fundamental matter for how the whole of society works. That's because these two positions are in conflict with each other. The two sides may sometimes appear to have similar interests (to keep the business going, for example) but underlying that, there is a conflict over what the capitalist calls 'costs' and the workers call 'wages' or 'salaries'. It is in the interest of the capitalist to keep costs down. It is in the interests of the worker to get as good a price (wages) for the job as is possible. When marxists or anyone else talks of 'class struggle' or 'class conflict'  that's at heart what is being talked about, though the given dispute might be about hours worked or conditions of work too. The point is, though, that 'class struggle' is in reality, a struggle between classes not just one class doing the struggling.

Aside from people using capital and people employed by owners of capital, there are others in society who survive by any of the following: selling what they do on a fee by fee basis - sometimes enormous fees, sometimes nothing more than cash 'under the counter' for small jobs. There are also people who work but who are unpaid by an employer - homeworkers, carers. There are people who are retired who live off pensions. There are people who receive some kind of state benefit and/or charity whilst not being employed for money. There are people who are too young to work full-time because they are either in full-time education or too young even for that (under fives) or in full-time education thanks to the ability to survive whilst doing it (students).

Again, as well as capitalists coming in different sizes and kinds, within those who earn money through wages, there are a variety of other positions: some earn enormous wages in comparison to others and as a result use some of that money to buy property and rent it out, or to buy shares and make money through dividends. This makes them have two positions, wage-earners and capitalists. Capitalism cannot survive through all workers being of equal status, so it creates managers and supervisors who may have actual power on a day to day basis over other wage-earners. For that reason and/or for the reason that they earn enough money to earn yet more through their capital, they are effectively in a different position in relation to people earning only through their wages.

On the other hand, at the other end of the scale, some may only have wages but these may not be enough to survive and therefore need other means to supplement what they do through (depending on which nation state) charity, or state benefits and so on.

As a set of descriptions they key element missing from all this is 'change'. If the core element going on this description is a 'struggle' or 'conflict' over prices (this sometimes seems to be about other things such as tax, rich and poor, benefits, state provision of services and so on), the marxist argument is that this conflict always leads to change.

And change can happen to capital, to 'labour' and to the various elements in between that I've described as having other means of earning a living or are in a special supervisory or managerial position, or indeed find themselves in several positions.

So, all this describes the 'economic system' but we don't just live under that heading. We live in relation to the nation, the state, the law, religion, education, nurture, and social services provision, the mass media and the arts. And, returning to language, throughout all this we are all using language to express, reflect, describe our positions, our views, our intentions, our demands, commands, desires.

The marxist argument is that these all have a role to play in how this economic system runs, how the class conflict is managed, how the next generation is produced ('social reproduction'), how wars and peace are organised. The argument goes on to say that the main or 'prevailing' view expressed through these institutions of nation, state, law, the arts, nurture, education and the rest is an outlook that is more or less the same as that of the big capitalists or the 'ruling class', the group of people who own and control most of the 'means of production', that is the assets that enable production to take place.

Within these institutions, though, there is nearly always dissent, contest and argument.

The origins of that dissent are twofold: on the one hand there is the permanent conflict over price (and conditions), the other is that there is what is sometimes called a 'contradiction'. The main contradiction here is that on the one hand a capitalist society positions everyone in relation to objects, things and processes such that it can all be made private through the medium of money. You can buy a shirt, a car, a painting, or indeed, ways of affecting your body shape or mind. 'Everything has its price', which is another way of saying, if I have money, I can make anything private property. However, and in 'contradiction' to that, in order to produce all these private things, the system brings people together in a collective, co-operative way in places of work and also in some of the institutions of e.g. education or health. Even as we find ourselves pricing and privatising our consumption of goods and services, we may also find ourselves brought together in production, sometimes in the use of something like education, and when there is conflict over price, conditions and the like. we may find old or new collective behaviours and associations (e.g. trade unions) to protect our interests and improve our chances of doing better.

So, though the situation as I've described it, has resources and power largely clumped together on one side of the equation (the owners and controllers of most of the resources), there is constant conflict and dissent coming from various quarters:  sometimes even from when the owners of different sections of capital (finance, manufacture, distribution, small capital etc) are in conflict with each other. As I've said, language is one of the main means by which both the control and the dissent can be expressed, and within language there is literature. And within that there is children's literature.

As I've written elsewhere, children's literature is to my mind positioned not just within the arts but primarily as part of nurture and education. Nurture and education are both sites of conflict and dissent. There are prevailing or dominant views about how these should be conducted by carers and teachers, but there are many dissident views that contest these.

Children's literature is at the very heart of these conflicts, conflicts which ultimately owe their origins to a view about 'the status quo' (i.e. how things are run now) and how they do or might change. Broadly speaking, some aspects of children's literature have an outlook in favour of the status quo and are supporting 'social reproduction' - that is in support of how the economic system - and all or any the institutions dependent on it or supporting it -  run. Others contest either or both some aspect of the economic system or the institutions dependent on it or supporting it. This may well not be described like that by writers, critics, readers, educationists or anyone. These conflicts may be described as being over gender, power, race and the like - that is NOT about the economic system. A good reason for that is that people aged between nought and 18 are mostly in the west not immediately or directly engaged in that economic system. They are in 'nurture' (the means by which they are being brought up) and education. So it may well look as if the contest is purely or only about say, gender, or 'authority' but the marxist argument is that these are in their own different ways all related to 'society', the 'economic system' or to 'capitalism' (in the present epoch).

In other words, the dominant ideas and dissenting ideas of children's literature are primarily those located within nurture and education but of course, everything written here is an argument to say that in turn all these ideas, dominant or dissenting,  are themselves derived ultimately from the wider economic system - even if this are not immediately apparent.

Marxist criticism - and indeed the art or literature itself - is often engaged in making some of those connections apparent.

Sometimes the criticism talks of this as an expression of a class outlook, or that literature expresses history, or literature is itself or 'constitutes' part of the means by which social reproduction takes place. or constitutes the means by which one class comes to dominate another...and so on.

Returning to the matter of language and how we use language, the key element here is that we should ideally avoid implying or stating baldly that language simply 'expresses' something - no matter how tempting it is to write or say that. Language is always a means by which humans interpret, whether that's through producing it or through hearing and reading it.

Bearing in mind that we are all positioned by the economic system (which we may sometimes end up calling 'society'), and bearing in mind that this economic system is always involved in conflict and change, how we write and how we read (i.e. the language we use and interpret) will depend on both the positions we're in and how we interpret these positions.

So, 'out there' is society. Writers and readers are in society in various positions and are interpreting those positions.

To be clear, we are never in one position. The complex nature of society will call on us at different times in our life to be in, or to express, or to interpret those positions in different ways. Sometimes these positions are in opposition or in contradiction with each other. Sometimes this is a conflict between what we say and what we do. Sometimes it's a conflict between our sympathies and our actual way of life. Sometimes it's a conflict between ideologies that we were or are now part of or on the receiving end of at different times in our life and so on. All this will affect what and how we write, what and how we read.

To take one example: Hans Christian Andersen's story 'The Tinder Box' tells the story (in my interpretation) of a poor ex-soldier who both yearns for an aspect of what the aristocratic ruling class owns ('the princess') while also yearning for the means to destroy it (throwing them up in the air and killing them). In the end he does both, and joins that class - marries the princess. In its own way, this expresses two co-existing but contradictory views that Andersen had. On the one hand as the son of an impoverished, republican mercenary soldier who had dissenting ideas about equality, Andersen was well acquainted with ideas that could and, in the view of his father,  should overthrow the ancient regime of Europe, based as it was on the aristocracy and the dynastic system. On the other hand, he yearned for what that aristocracy owned and, once he became successful, spent many years of his life touring the royal and aristocratic households of Europe.

Note: none of these ideas are original. They are expressed elsewhere in many classic texts by Marx himself, and many people who have taken these on and developed them under such headings as: ideology, base and superstructure, commodity fetishism, dialectics, contradiction, historical materialism, cultural materialism and so on. I haven't filled this article with quotes and citations because many readers, I know, find this sort of thing harder to read.

People interested in any of it may find it useful or interesting to read Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Tony Bennett, Alex Callinicos, who all in turn provide excellent bibliographies, or Marx himself, particularly in the collection of writings known as 'The German Ideology'. It's online.

There are collections of Marx's writings, conveniently extracted and put under headings by Tom Bottomore. I've found these great ways of getting into the writing as a whole.

Earlier writers of interest might be Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin.

There are some books of criticism of children's literature which express some or most of these ideas:
any of
Jack Zipes many books,

Angela Hubler (ed) 'Little Red Readings' (which has an excellent introduction along similar lines to this article here),

Jenny Plastow (ed) 'Owners of the Means of Instruction?' (including an introduction by me on how marxist criticism doesn't need to be in conflict with various other kinds of criticism) ,

Bob Leeson, 'Reading and Righting' which tells the history of children's literature from a broadly marxist perspective and, to date, has never been bettered.

The Lion and the Unicorn (Vol 17, No. 2) Theories of Class in Childrens Literature Paperback – 1993
As and when people contact me through Facebook or twitter, I can and will add more names and publications here.

A very, very useful overview with articles written by many of the major thinkers in the field is in:

'Marxist Literary Theory, a reader', Terry Eagleton, Drew Milne (editors) published by Blackwell, 1996.

Useful chapters:
Chapter 8 'Marxist Criticism'
Chapter 9 'New historicism and cultural materialism'
Chapter 10 'Postcolonial criticism'
(and many other chapters in the same book:
'Beginning Theory, an introduction to literary and cultural theory' by Peter Barry, Manchester University Press.

For  people who have figured out that 'intertextuality' is not just a random matter of texts flying about between us but is 'socially and politically constructed' try:

'The Social Construction of Intertextuality in Classroom Reading and Writing Lessons' by David Bloome and Anne Egan-Robertson in

'Uses of Intertextuality in Classroom and Educational Research', Nora Shuart-Ellis, David Bloome (editors), IAP, 2004