Overview | Marxist Criticism & the Frankfurt School

Seminar overview

The Marxist Criticism & Frankfurt School seminar will introduce participants to the central debates about the place of literature and the arts in Marxist criticism and the key theoretical concepts that have informed them, as well as explore some of the different ways these concepts can be applied today. One of the key aims of the seminar is to encourage participants to see this field not as unquestionable doctrine but as a living tradition and a tool that, while rooted in historical debate, still serves a useful purpose for critical discussion today. Our approach will be practically focused, aiming to demonstrate how the ideas apply in the practice of textual analysis.

The opening lecture will introduce and problematise the terminology and framework of ‘Marxist’ criticism, stressing that whilst there is no developed theory of literature to be found in the works of Marx and Engels, we can still trace how their concepts and principles have been understood in and through the study of literature. The lecture argues that Marxist theory provides the tools to historicise its own conditions as a method of critique, as well the conditions of the literary works that are its object. The lecture will then argue that Marxist theory can provide a counter to postmodern critiques of culture, history, ideology, utopia and totality―critiques that are often functional to neoliberal practice even as they presume to challenge it. The lecture will be structured around three headings: Historical Materialism and the Literary Imagination; The Politics of the Literary Text; and The Role of the Critic.

The seminar will then be turned over to a series of group presentations by seminar participants, organised around three main discussion points: on Culture and Economics, looking at the place of culture in Marxist theory, and the politics of how it is produced, distributed, and consumed; Ideology and Imagination, focusing on the problem of false consciousness and belief, and the power/limitations of the literary text in response; and, Utopia and Revolution, highlighting more directly the relationship between the literary text and social change by means of its potential for imagining other kinds of reality.

In the afternoon, the seminar will conclude with a discussion of some of the new directions that Marxist literary criticism might take, and the ways in which our own research and that of the participants has engaged and can engage with it.