I wouldn’t normally link to one of my own reviews like this, but this review of Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville raises some issues that might be taken further.I have to say at the outset that my own critical stance is not Marxist, but I have found a lot of Marxist criticism very useful. Actually, most of the fruitful ways of talking about science fiction seem to come back to Marxism at some point. (Is there any literary ‘Theory’ that doesn’t have Marxism as, at least, its grandfather?)
But when I read Marxist criticism (or, to be a little more precise, when I read the work of those most steeped in Marxist criticism) I keep coming up against the same issues. These seemed to be particularly clearly on display in the book I reviewed. I’ll summarise the main points here:
- The criticism is authoritarian in that it is heavily and inevitably reliant on authority figures. All it takes to win the argument is to throw in a suitably weighty name – Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson and Zizek seem to be particular favourites at the moment (though there are fashions in this).
- The criticism is authoritarian in that it is deliberately voiced in an hieratic rather than demotic language. I know the language of academic criticism is intended for precision, but its effect is to make huge swathes of it virtually unreadable for anyone not already trained in the theory.
- The criticism is authoritarian in that theory holds sway over everything, even chronology. I have lost count of the times I have seen works criticised for failing to allow for certain theoretical perspectives that were not formulated until long after the work in question was published. So once stated, a theory is true for all time.
- The criticism is authoritarian in that theory is never allowed to lose. If there is any clash between theory and practice, then the practice is wrong. If there is a contrast between what a novelist presents in a work of fiction and what a theorist says should be, then the theory will not be adjusted to suit the situation.
And in general, it always seems that the theorists are talking primarily to other theorists. They may be writing about literature, but their concern is not with the literature but rather with the theories they can apply, the theorists they can call upon. As I say, if you can untangle all this, there is often stuff of value to be found. But I do feel that they are not really talking to me, or to anyone else whose primary interest is with the literature.
So how do you approach Marxist criticism?