Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism

Cultural materialism is “a politicized form of historiography.”

-Graham Holderness

Raymond Williams coined the term Cultural Materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Allen Sinfield made current and defined Cultural materialism as “designating a critical method which has four characteristics:

  • Historical Context: what was happening at the time the text was written.

  • Theoretical Method: Incorporating older methods of theory—Structuralism, Post-structuralism etc.

  • Political Commitment: Incorporating non-conservative and non-Christian frameworks—such as Feminist and Marxist theory.

  • Textual Analysis: building on theoretical analysis of mainly canonical texts that have become “prominent cultural icons.”

Culture: What does this term mean in the context of Cultural Materialism?

Culture in this sense does not limit itself to “high culture” but includes all forms of culture like TV and pop music.

Materialism: What does this term mean in the context of Cultural Materialism?

Materialism is at odds with idealism. Idealists believe in the transcendent ability of ideas while materialist believe that culture cannot transcend its material trappings.

In this way, Cultural Materialism is an offshoot of Marxist criticism.

History, to a cultural materialist, is what has happened and what is happening now. In other words, Cultural Materialists not only create criticism of a text by contextualizing it with its own time period, but with successive generations including our own. Cultural Materialism bridges the gap between Marxism and Post-Modernism.

Some things that Cultural Materialist might look at when analyzing Shakespeare:

  • Elizabethan Drama during its own time period

  • The publishing history of Shakespeare through the ages

  • That weird movie version of Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo D. in it

  • The tourism and kitsch surrounding Shakespeare today

Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams added to the outlook of Cultural Materialism by employing “structures of feeling.” These are values that are changing and being formed as we live and react to the material world around us. They challenge dominant forms of ideology and imply that values are organic and non-stagnant.

Cultural Materialism embraces change and gives us different (changing) perspectives based on what we chose to suppress or reveal in readings from the past.

Shakespeare is one example of how Cultural Materialism can change our point of view, and even our values, in regard to past texts. Many Cultural Materialist have challenged the fetishistic relationship conservative Britain has with Shakespeare.


"Raymond William's term for the theory of culture he develops in the course of a long dialogue with Marxism, and which ascribes a central importance to the role of structures of feeling. Williams is critical of the base/structure model so often used by Marxists to analyze cultural phenomena on the grounds that it makes, for example, the literature dependent, secondary and superstructural, or subsumes it into the wider category of ideology. Cultural Materialism stresses that culture is a constitutive social process which actively creates different ways of life. Similarly, signification or the creation of meaning is viewed as a practical material activity which cannot be consigned to a secondary lever or explained in terms of a primary level of economic activity. Consciousness itself is not a reflection of a basic or more material level of existence, but an active mode of social being. Williams is also critical of the technological determinism of theorists such as Mcluhan who argues that communications media have independent properties that impose themselves automatically ('the medium is the message'). He does not deny that the function of the media is determined, but insists that its determination is social and always bound up with sociocultural practices."

--David Macey


"Britain's reply to new historicism was the rather different creed of cultural materialism, which-appropriately for a society with more vigorous socialist traditions-displayed a political cutting edge largely lacking in its transatlantic counterpart. The phrase “cultural materialism,” had been coined in the 1980s by Britain's premier socialist critic, Raymond Williams, to describe a form of analysis which examined culture less as a set of isolated artistic monuments then as a material formation, complete with its own modes of production, power-effects, social relation, identifiable audiences, historically conditioned thought forms. It was a way of bringing an unashamedly materialist analysis to bear on that realm of social existence-'culture'-which was thought by conventional criticism to be the very antithesis of the material; and its ambition was less to relate 'culture' to 'society,' in William's own earlier style, than to examine culture as always-already social and material in its roots. It could be seen either as an enrichment or a dilution of classical Marxism: enrichment, because it carried materialism boldly through to the 'spiritual' itself; dilution, because in doing so it blurred the distinction, vital to orthodox Marxism, between the economic and the cultural. The method was, so Williams himself announced, 'compactible' with Marxism, but it took issue with the kind of Marxism which had relegated culture to secondary, 'superstructural' status, and resembled the new historicist in its refusal to enforce such hierarchies. It also paralleled the new historicism on taking on board a whole range of topics-notably, sexuality, feminism, ethnic and post-colonial questions-to which Marxist criticism had traditionally given short shrift. To this extent, cultural materialism formed a kind of bridge between Marxism and postmodernism, radically revising the former while wary of the more modish, uncritical, unhistorical aspects of the latter. This, indeed, might be said to be roughly the stand to which most British left cultural critics nowadays take up."

--Terry Eagleton

5 comments:

रघुवंशमणि said...

From what book the article is taken. Kindly inform.
raghuvanshmani@yahoo.co.in

christine said...

just investigating cultural materialism for my PhD and finding this very helpful:)

Goldie said...



I find this useful because it helps me in my M.Phil dissertation. Thanks for all the insights.

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Lummerz said...

I am writing my dissertation on Cultural Materialism and would like to reference Graham Holderness quote on Cultural Materialism is a Politicised form of Historiography.
Could you advise where and when this was published please. Need to know by tomorrow Sat 18th April

Wazim Fazly said...

Thanks and i wish to build this up for further relevance and my career.