‘Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective’ reviewed by Dan Swain

Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective

Palgrave Macmillan, London and New York, 2015. £60 / $95 hb
ISBN 9781137526601

Reviewed by Dan Swain

About the reviewer

Dan Swain is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Social Science at the Czech University of Life …


Culture is often seen as something of a blind spot for Marxism, either presented as a ‘superstructural’ irrelevance, or reduced to opportunities for didactic illustrations of some element of theory or politics (a friend of mine used to joke that every ‘Marxist’ review should end ‘and that is why we need a revolutionary party’). Tony McKenna’s book, however, illustrates both the possibility and relevance of a consistent Marxist approach to culture, which understands it both as a social product and as autonomous art in its own right. The book offers a series of twenty essays on culture from a Marxist perspective, weighted more heavily towards contemporary film and television, but with various novels also included: From Breaking Bad to Iris Murdoch, Harry Potter to Tupac Shakur. Each one offers insightful and thought-provoking commentary, elaborates and elucidates areas of Marxist (and some non-Marxist) thought, and, just as importantly, enriches our appreciation of the works concerned, and certainly makes you want to go out and read, watch or enjoy them. It is, however, worth warning that it cannot do this without in depth discussion of plots and storylines, and thus while this review does not contain spoilers, the book itself certainly does!

A short review cannot do justice to the depth or scope of these essays – instead I want to draw out several examples which illustrate the various ways in which McKenna’s ‘Marxist Perspective’ operates. McKenna himself, in the Introduction, endorses a Kantian conception of art as “purposeful-purposelessness” (5-7), combined with a Marxist sensitivity to particular historical social forms and the contradictions that underlie them. From Kant, he takes the sense that a great work exhibits and fills us with a deep sense of purpose, while simultaneously being essentially purposeless, existing for its own sake. From Hegel and Marx, however, comes the source of this sense of purpose: Its capacity to represent a historical epoch. Thus, in his own words, he seeks to “try to identify within the work of art the crystallization of a broader historic necessity: the reason why the work has arisen at this moment, at this particular juncture, and how its greatness lies in its ability to preserve in a moment of eternity the historic contradiction and mood of the epoch more generally” (7). This, however, is always tempered by the recognition that this happens neither consciously nor mechanically, rather “these elements are manifested only in a fantastical, individualized and profoundly unconscious form” (8). This sets up the terrain in which McKenna operates – the dynamic between the artwork’s autonomous, formal features and its specific social and historical context. Given this, it is somewhat inevitable that the most vibrant and engaging passages are those where he discusses elements of contemporary culture, and how they reflect the society in which we live.

The Marxist perspective that McKenna employs in fact involves approaching these works from several different angles. At its most straightforward, it uses various elements of Marxist theory to illustrate features of the work and, in turn, uses that work to help us better understand that theory. When done badly, this kind of approach can collapse into the one I mentioned above – a didactic presentation of some aspect of theory bolted on to a review. Fortunately, McKenna never falls into this trap, and the various comparisons genuinely aid our appreciation of both the work and the area of theory considered. Thus, the forgettable Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried movie In Time, in which time itself has become a currency bought and sold, hints at but fails fully to capture the Marxist idea of value as abstract labour time, and also posits an utterly preposterous, heroic vigilante solution to it, while Breaking Bad’s Walter White contains within him both the cancerous drive to accumulation that characterizes capitalism, and the possibility of freedom that might annihilate it.

But the various chapters do not stick at merely illustrating aspects of Marxist theory; they also suggest that their popularity itself is in part explained by their unconscious reflection of some aspect of our society. It is this approach that allows McKenna to take admirably seriously works others might dismiss as flawed, banal, or ‘just a story’ – a position he challenges head on in the chapter on Harry Potter. Some of these are inventive and interesting: Sherlock Holmes’ enduring popularity is explained by his being, somewhat paradoxically “a more fully embodied human being”. The super-human rational, scientific approach that sets Holmes apart from ordinary human beings is, at the same time, “in a fantasy guise, the reappropriation of [the productive process] by a more rounded intellect, [in which] the scientific character of production loses its alien form and is exhibited as a property of a given individual in and through his labour activity” (167).

The most interesting example of this, to my mind, is in McKenna’s analysis of The Walking Dead, a long running series based on the common theme of a zombie apocalypse. Here, he develops on what is now quite a familiar account of the popularity of this motif – the zombie “functions as an emblem of alienated labour in a capitalist/slave mode of production – his or her personhood is annulled in favour of abstract, mindless compulsion” (36). To this extent, he agrees with David McNally’s recent treatment of the zombie archetype in his Monsters of the Market. However, McKenna disagrees with McNally on a crucial point. For McNally, later developments of the zombie genre shift our focus from alienated production to alienated consumption, with the zombie’s mindless drive to eat human brains often seen as a commentary on consumer culture (most obviously illustrated in Dawn of the Dead‘s shopping mall setting). For McNally, this is a retreat from a focus on production, whereas McKenna suggests that “the motif of production doesn’t simply vanish in the new aesthetic form … rather it is ‘sublated’ … preserved but also transformed” (36).

However, it is McKenna’s second disagreement with McNally that is more interesting. For McNally, the new, consumerist zombies also ceased to be figures of rebellion, thus losing the sense of an agency that might overcome alienated labour and transform society. McKenna, however, sees this as fundamentally wrong-headed: “The zombie could never have emerged as a figure of rebellion in any case because the figure itself also embodied in its aesthetic a form of alienated labour – that is, labour divorced from any spiritual content such that it is exhibited only in terms of a mindless force” (36) So, “to permit to the zombie some level of will or agency is to undermine its fetish”, and McNally is at risk of “unravelling the zombie archetype itself” (37).

Instead, in order to see themes of resistance and rebellion in the zombie archetype, we have to look to the survivors. These people are attempting to live with the consequences of the zombie apocalypse, fend off the zombies while also building viable social organisation of their own within the wreckage of what had gone before: “Or, if one tears away the fantasy veil, these people are trying to develop new forms of life in opposition to the rapacious consumerism and debilitating patterns of labour which are part and parcel of the anarchy of the world market” (38). And this is where the strength of The Walking Dead emerges. A frequent criticism of the series is the absence of actual zombies, and frequent focus on the challenges, disputes, and agonising of the various groups of survivors and their different responses to them. For those who want more zombies, this is tedious; but in McKenna’s schema, it becomes the show’s true strength: “The Walking Dead reflects, with the bleak surrealism of a nightmare, the most pressing problem bequeathed by historical development to the billions of human beings across the globe: How can one even begin to make a new world?” (41)

As this implies, the capacity to reflect the world of capitalist relations does not merely operate as an explanation of a work’s popularity, but as an aesthetic standard itself. In this, McKenna is strongly influenced by Lukács and the Hegelian tradition from which he emerges, and we see on a number of occasions central Hegelian themes of dialectical development, mediation and unity. One recurring motif is Lukács’ notion of a ‘type’, a character that combines the universal and particular, and thus unites themes of universal significance in a real, flesh and blood character. These characters are not, however, abstract ‘representatives’ of a social class or historical trend, but real people, with personal features and particularities which distinguish them from other characters. Indeed, it is through these particularities that the broader historical context becomes filtered and represented.

One of the clearest illustrations of this dialectical movement is in an essay that compares the figure of the vigilante in film – focusing first on Charles Bronson’s character in Deathwish, Batman in his various representations, and Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle. In classically Hegelian fashion, Deathwish and Batman are opposite sides of a dialectic, with Taxi Driver forming the true resolution of the genre. Deathwish represents the vigilante as pure moral force “an untramelled goodness despite the violence of his or her actions” (130). They are ordinary people who have been wronged by a fundamentally uncaring system, who act in the name of “a broader abstraction – a community of individuals who have been unvoiced and disempowered” (130). Batman, on the other hand, is far from an ordinary person, just striving for goodness – he is the mirror image of the criminals he fights – masked figures with alter egos and aliases. This is represented as a movement which sees “an unmediated and abstract goodness replaced by a far more ambiguous and contradictory morality” (131). Thus while Batman represents a development on the abstract, and utterly implausible and reactionary, goodness of the vigilante, it does so in an utterly fantastical form.

The figure which resolves this dialectic is Taxi Driver‘s Bickle. He is just as conflicted and morally ambiguous as the Batman, but no longer a fantasy. Rather, he is a real historical figure with a plausible history in 1970s America: A Vietnam war veteran with delusions of grandeur, who fantasises about a role in government but is in reality abandoned and ignored by state organizations. What sets Taxi Driver above the other vigilante films, then, is that the vigilante character is no longer a fantasy, but a real, plausible historical figure. Moreover, the conception of vigilante as empowered warrior for justice gives way to the vigilante as “symptomatic of profound powerlessness” (133). Thus as well as developing a far more complex and interesting character, Taxi Driver comes far closer to representing the reality of vigilantism, something which McKenna demonstrates through comparison with real life racist vigilante George Zimmerman. Just like Bickle, in his law enforcement fantasies Zimmerman appears as a man trying to touch “in a fantasy form, an existence which remains unrealisable in reality”. Instead he is just “a miserable human being who exudes frustration, failure and powerlessness” (133).

There are certainly times when one wants to question these aesthetic judgements, and wonder whether the emphasis on unity and dialectical reconciliation is a little narrow. For example, one is left wondering whether the lack of reconciliation that leads Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea to be “unable to fulfil on its radical promise and, ultimately, remain sundered in the moment of disunity and loss, delivering to the reader a beautiful melancholy therein” (180) is really a weakness, rather than, well, the point! Nonetheless, McKenna’s confidence and clarity shine through, and his arguments are compelling even when not entirely convincing.

Finally, two essays in particular stand out as representing another variation of the Marxist perspective, somewhat distinct from the rest. In part, this is because they are the only essays to focus on music and painting, but they also employ a far wider angle. Rather than focusing on a particular work or cluster of works, they present an artist’s whole life in social context. The two subjects are the musician Tupac Shakur and the painter Vincent van Gogh, and both chapters are almost obituary like in their presentation of the significance of an entire life. Again, it is the more contemporary of these that really shines. Tupac is presented as a tragic product and representative of the defeat and decline of the black liberation movement in the USA. While Tupac’s mother was a former black panther and communist, the world in which he reached adulthood was one where the dominant conception of success was individualistic and acquisitive: “The historical conflict between the universal tenor of community struggle and the narrow horizon of personal acquisition was one that had been grafted onto Tupac’s artistic psyche” (77).

While this Marxist perspective gives this book its theoretical frame and focus, its strength lies not so much in the accuracy of any of its specific conclusions. Rather, it is McKenna’s enthusiasm and passion for the works themselves that really gives it its drive. For all the theoretical detail and clarity, McKenna writes like a fan, and thus speaks to the fan in all of us. As a result he has produced a work which should enrich our understanding of both popular culture and the Marxist tradition, and is almost as enjoyable as its subjects.

2 February 2016

One comment

  1. Thank you to the reviewer for such a generous, thoughtful and well-written review of my book. There is only one (small) detail I would seek to amend. Tupac’s mother Afeni was indeed a member of the Black Panther Party, however – to the best of my knowledge – she was never a communist. In fact it was Tupac himself who was active in the Young Communist League USA when he was a student at the Baltimore School of Arts.

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