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E 341 (23)

Historical and Materialist Approaches

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E 341
Aparna Gollapudi

Take-Away Concepts Historical/Materialist Approaches: Marxism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism Marxist Criticism Focuses on play of socio-economic forces in a literary work as evidenced in the Plot and the Characters Are there any class conflicts in the works? And if so how do they turn out? If there are no major class conflicts, how do the different socio-economic classes interact with each other? Remember, basic idea of Marxism: our consciousness is determined by the material conditions of our existence. Where we live, work, what we eat, what our economic situation is fundamentally determines consciousness. Also, their theorization of the interaction between base and superstructure could be used to understand how the two spheres (world of art/culture/diplomacy/law/religion and world of labor/production/market) influence and interact with each other. In the opera: there are fairly clear class identities with different levels of privilege and power. There is the servant class – which includes all the servants (Pinkerton’s naval ‘servant’, Suzuki, cook etc.) Then there is a middling class of sorts (involved in buying and selling, users of consumer goods such as specific kinds of clothing, cosmetics etc.) that is constituted of the geishas and Goro. This class seems more fluid with movement possible upward or downward. Then there is the upper class who seem to have the most economic, political, and socio-cultural power: Pinkerton, Consul Sharpless, Yamadori, the Magistrate who officiates at Butterfly’s marriage to Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San’s uncle, the Priest Think of their socio-economic interactions: the play of power, of class aspirations etc. And also consider how the plot represents these various classes. In M. Butterfly, the movie, think of the class affiliations of the various characters and how it effects their interactions. There does seem to be a class hierarchy within the world of embassies that Gallimard inhabits and much of it has to do with economic and political power. Gallimard, as an accountant, has control over the inflow and outflow of cash, for instance. What signals do we get about Song’s class status? How are those relevant to her interaction with Gallimard? ‘China’ for Gallimard’s story is saturated with images of the sweating, toiling, laboring masses – this demographic is mostly just seen as contributing to the ‘atmosphere’, the creation of an authentic scene, primarily as the “background” of the more important story. But – foreground their world. Focus on them, their role, their experience, with Gallimard’s story set aside for a while. How does focusing on their class experience, their class aspiration, their economic hardship change the meaning of the main plot? The movie (and the play) are set in a very specific and important historical moment: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As Barry notes, Marxist criticism focuses on the “class struggle, progression of society through various historical stages such as from feudalism to industrial capitalism” or, in this case, socialism. Think about how that transition is represented in these works. In the play, Gallimard is clearly presented as cheap, upwardly mobile, quite concerned with finances. Think of his interactions with other characters (real and imaginary) in terms of his class status. (For instance, Marc’s father apparently has a vacation home with a swimming pool). In all these versions of Butterfly, how do representations of socio-economic status impact your response to these works? Do you instinctively trust/mistrust, condone/condemn certain characters because of their class? How do our sympathies with certain characters, our comfort-level with certain aspects of the plot, etc. reflect our own location in a specific socio-economic historical moment? According to Marxist idea of Base-Superstructure relationship, think of these literary/artistic works as part of the “superstructure” and analyze their relationship with the particular “base” they emerge from. A literary work is a commodity for a specific market and an author is a product of his or her economic situation – i.e. particular class configuration so all these things impact the nature of the work produced. Consider these works in this light. (You might have to research some of the historical/biographical information.) Specific genres as “speaking for” certain classes of people. Think of this as a way of looking at the various genres of Butterfly. Althusser’s notion of Ideology, ISAs, and Interpellation Characters such as Puccini’s Butterfly, Suzuki, and even Pinkerton’s wife seem to stay in situations that are not really to their benefit. How can we use Althusser’s notion of Ideology, Interpellation, and ISA to understand them as Ideologically interpellated subjects? Ideological interpellation is not singular and each subject inhabits a network of multiple (sometimes hostile) ISAs. Consider the various Ideologies that are embodied in the practices, rituals, actions, decisions of the characters. Gallimard (especially in the play), Puccini’s Butterfly, Song – all these characters are often crisscrossed with shifting Ideologies, which drive their conduct. Look at some of these characters as manifesting “false consciousness” or “imaginary relations to real conditions of their existence” that are more a layered, complex network rather than a simple, unproblematic belief system. As Barry says, ‘doing’ New Historicism involves “the juxtaposition of literary material with contemporary non-literary texts”. How do you find the appropriate “co-texts” with which you can place the literary work in an “archival continuum”? When dealing with any text, think of some of the primary themes, issues and concerns in that work. For instance, in the texts we are looking at, these might be identified as Western perception of Asian culture,
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