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Historical Materialism (1/4): Intro

I was recently asked to contribute a chapter on historical materialism for the Cambridge Companion to Literature in the Digital Age, edited by the inimitable1 Adam Hammond.

Given the topic, I worry about writing a theoretical piece that strays too far from actual material realities. Too often, a discussion on materialism in literary studies is inverted to privilege the “representation of,” and therefore, ultimately, ideology over things, economic inequities, or labor conditions. In the following several posts I would like to draft a cogent alternative.


The interpretation of texts is complicated by the fact that ideas take shape in matter. My words thus reach you within a specific medium—paper, audio file, or an electronic text—which serves as a conduit for the transmission of information. Aristotle, in his Poetics, similarly differentiated between the objects or content of art, its medium, and the mode of mimesis. Prose describing the way a bird sings, for example, finds its object of imitation in actual bird songs, further expressed in the medium of written language. Charlie Parker’s style of playing imitated birds musically, through his saxophone, where the American ornithologist John James Audubon painted his birds in watercolor.

Yet even this distinction between media fails to capture the difference in the modality of perception (and comprehension also). Of the mode Aristotle mentions only the contrast between an author “speaking in one’s own person” and speaking with “other people engaged” in mimesis. Consider, for example, a film actor turning to the camera to address their audience, thus shifting the interpretive perspective from an intra-diegetic vantage to an extra-diegetic one. Sit still, our actor says. The directive plays with the convention of theater-going. Contemplated in somber silence of an art house theater it gains philosophical significance, though I would prefer to watch it amongst the clamor of a local pub movie night.

Some of you might similarly prefer to read a novel in the comfort of your own home, while others enjoy the sense of a community and deep discussion that happens in book clubs, on online forums, or in class. However we read, texts in their abstract sense must pass into print to become reified objects—book things. They will take shape on paper or screen, and once again rarefy into thought by diffusion into their physiological and social contexts. At first, we simply wanted to read a book, but in practice, we now must discuss where and when it is to be understood. Where and when matter in a way that prevents us from talking about meaning without context.

The material conditions of a thought can often be disregarded in favor of its ideational content. When we refer to Zora Neale Hurston’s collection of African-American folklore published under the title Mules and Men in 1935, we denote equally the numerous editions of the work, published since 1935. This allocation usually implies neither her notes nor her manuscripts, available in parts at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress; at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; and in the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida. Once these documents come into view, they assert an inexorable pull on the content of the published work. Our awareness of the auto-ethnographic method at work in Hurston’s prose irrevocably changes our perception of the novel. Rather than seeing it as one thing, we can now perceive a number of related publications, notes, drafts, and manuscripts, which in their overlapping totality comprise the general field of the work. Matter asserts itself through the idea. We are reminded at once of its palpable effects on abstraction and of its shape-giving influence on the foundations of any thought.

As a matter of method, to become a materialist, and especially one of a historical ilk, one must insist on the often inconvenient intrusion of the physical world into the realm of the ideal. I would prefer to sit back in my armchair and just read Hurston, heeding neither Gainesville nor New Haven. I would rather forego the messiness of competing manuscripts, editorial interventions, international editions of the work which slightly alter Hurston’s lexicon, the Harlem Renaissance, her problematic stance toward it, her time at Columbia University spent with Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, her wealth and her literary patronage, her sometime poverty, the socio-economic realities of black publishing, or, in her own words, “what white publishers won’t print” (the title of an essay she published in the Negro Digest in 1950).

These things interfere with my physical complacency. They force me to stand and to travel. They fracture any hope for a unity of meaning. Where I presumed to interpret and to explain, instead I find a multiplicity of competing possibilities, errors, and emendations along with my own various limits and conditions, incommensurate to the lived experience of another. The materialist method entails hermeneutics so embedded and embodied. Embedded where? Across time, in the context of history. Embodied how? Within the shared sensation of pain and vulnerability. To think in one’s head is insufficient for understanding: we must also walk, touch, make, feel, and be discomforted.

1. See for example his “Distinguishing Voices in The Waste Land Using Computational Stylistics” in Linguistic Issues in Language Technology 12.2 (October 2015): 1-43, co-authored with Julian Brooke and Graeme Hirst.

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