Friday, January 3, 2014

Literature Students Examine Forms of Criticism

The students in the course Theoretical Issues in Literary Studies, a course taught by Dr. Creighton Lindsay and required of all literature majors at Mount Angel Seminary, includes the study of Marxist and Cultural criticism.  Joseph P. Norton III, a college-three seminarian studying for the Archdiocese of Seattle, shares his essay on these two forms of criticism:

Is Barbie Our Friend or Our Enemy: An Application of Marxist and Cultural Criticism
by Joseph P. Norton III

With all of the different forms of literary criticism it is easy to get their different purposes mixed up or blended together. This is especially true for Marxist and Cultural criticism because they focus so much on economic and cultural situations and how these affect the literature they are examining. However, these two forms of literary criticism are very different in the conclusions that they make about literature and how they view society. This paper will examine a major difference between how a Marxist and Cultural critic would view Sandra Cisneros' Barbie-Q

The Marxist critic would view the consciousness of the little girls in Barbie-Q as a result of their economic and social status, revealing class struggle in a capitalist society and would make a claim on these economic and cultural challenges as good or bad. Contrary to this view, the Cultural critic would not make any claims about class struggle or a culture being good or bad, but would merely examine a part of the culture which is affecting the little girl’s consciousness, discovering reasons (but not an exhaustive list) why they act like they do. 

Ross C. Murfin, in his essay, "What is Marxist Criticism?" shows how a Marxist critic reads literature and interprets it. In his essay, Murfin points out a major tenant for Marxist critics when he tells the reader that consciousness is a society's "most important product" (Austen 459). For Marxist critics the whole human person and the literature that they write are results of economics. Further on in Murfin's essay he points out another theme that runs through Marxist criticism when he examines a Marxist criticism of Jane Austen's Emma. Murfin praises the critic for bringing out "political and economic issues based in class differences" (469). This last point is important as it shows that Marxist critics are not only concerned with the material conditions that caused a piece of literature but also how those influences reveal a deeper struggle in society. Once these struggles of class are brought out, the Marxist critic will judge them as something which is either good or bad for the advancement of society.

Though Cisneros' Barbie-Q is short, a Marxist critic would have a lot to say about it. For the Marxist critic the story reveals the materialism in American society during Cisneros' time. The little girls are obsessed with Barbies because in their society what the upper classes are wearing and how they are acting is exactly like what the Barbie girl represents. Everything down to their love for Ken is a product of their economics fed to them by society. Cisneros' story shows that the economic status the girls are in is maintained and enforced by their love for the Barbie dolls. Instead of being in a society where the girls are raised to believe they can be fancy and a part of the upper classes they are taught to idealize Barbie as a fantasy of the upper class girl they will never be, enforcing their current economic status. 

This point is evident when the girl narrating the story finally gets her new Barbie home and admits that they are not perfect but concludes "if you dress her in her new 'prom pinks'. . . who's to know?" (132). Here Cisneros shows that the girls have received the material stimulus they wanted and are happy to stay where they are in society, never thinking that life could be better. The Marxist critic views the class struggle between people like the little girls who only idealize Barbies and people in their same culture who actually live like Barbies as a hindrance to the advancement of man. These class struggles and economic statuses found in Barbie-Q (the Marxist critic tells us) are the result of American capitalist society which needs changing.

With this view of Marxist criticism in mind, comparing its differences to Cultural criticism is simple. Once again, Ross C. Murfin highlights some of the basic structures that make up Cultural criticism in his essay "What is Cultural Criticism?"  In the essay, Murfin makes it clear that Cultural critics do not take a stance toward literature as good or bad when he says that Cultural critics are more concerned with "relating than in rating cultural products and events" (490). The Cultural critic is more fascinated with how economics and cultural norms affect a given person’s consciousness, but different from Marxist critics, they are unwilling to make an ethical or moral claim about those effects (492). The Cultural critic focuses on a part of society in a given time and examines how that part of the culture influences the people living in it. 

Unlike the Marxist critic, the Cultural critic would view the influences of American materialism and the girl’s love for Barbies in Barbie-Q as just one influence among many other influences in their culture. For the Cultural critic the girl’s fascination with Barbies and their willingness to play with ones that even "smell like smoke" (132), no matter how much you wash them, could be explained by looking at the television commercials or magazine ads that were shown during that time. After looking at some of these materials, the Cultural critic could make a claim that the girls were influenced by all the ads that were circulating through their culture. The study of television and magazine ads would show a common cultural movement. The girls, like every other girl in their culture, were influenced to buy Barbies and did. The common influence and availability of Barbies in American culture during this time shows that there is no upper and lower class struggle; everyone likes Barbies. In this final analysis of Barbie-Q the Cultural critic stands out from the Marxist critic in that they have only examined influences on a culture but have not made any claims as to their worth in society. 

Both Marxist critics and Cultural critics examine literature in an empirical way. They look at a given work as a product of the economic and social conditions that surround it. However, it has been shown that the Marxist critic and the Cultural critic differ in the conclusions that they draw from these economic forces. The Marxist critic makes use of literature, examining class struggles and economic challenges, to make a final statement about the society that that literature comes from and its value for man as a whole. The Cultural critic also looks at economic forces and cultural norms to show their relationship to the given work of literature, but they never make any claims about its ultimate value for society. Both of these ways of digesting literature can open new doors of interpreting an author and their work, giving us a deeper understanding of the culture and economics that influenced its production.

Work Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. Print.

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