Class, Ideology, and Cultural Reforms Through the 21st Century Literature

We don’t exactly remember who said it or where we read it but the idea that the choices we make determine ‘who we are’ appeals to us as a piece of common sense. This seems hard to dispute since so much of how we define ourselves has to do with how we actively decide on a college degree, career, clothes, careers, movies, books, food, music, and sometimes, even, friendships. In fact, this practical knowledge informs what we understand by the concept of individuality. Essentially, individuality pertains to our ‘natural selves’, a set of qualities that distinguish us from other people. The following aphorisms validate this perspective.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

Mahatma Gandhi

“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”

Harvey Fierstein

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to yourself.”

Michel de Montaigne

No matter how compelling (and even factual-sounding) these claims and views strike us, none of them are ultimately self-evident. In fact, most of them are examples of ideology. But before we sample its definitions, let us examine the discussion in the first paragraph. The idea of accumulating certain objects, commodities that other people buy anyway, as an index of identity cannot but be ironic. Moreover, the availability of these products is subject to fads and trends, which are ultimately dictated by the market industry—which makes for another irony.

In the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestley rebukes Andy, her new assistant, when the latter scoffs at the idea that two blue belts can be very different. Miranda tells Her “…This…’stuff’? I see, you think this has nothing do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?… And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down to through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic corner casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

The quotes, which presumably express a general truth that applies to anybody at any time, are a trickier proposition since they possess a verbal or rhetorical presence. As an example of a universal ideal, ‘individuality,’ in the four aphorisms is hypothesized a problem-solution kind of a statement, a worldview where the self is threatened by society (e.g., other people’s opinions, social norms, and conventions). Compared to the previous scenario, these quotes are more persuasive and forceful since they offer profound ‘truths,’ which can depreciate or deflect what is inimical to our individuality, namely how society “thinks,” where we are on the social ladder, our class backgrounds, and other social determinants.

In their capacity to structure our thinking, e.g., about ourselves and the things which “really matter” (such as choice and individuality), these free-floating notions are ideologies. An ideology can be interpreted as a type of a “false consciousness,” but this in itself is a misperception since it assumes that there is a “true” consciousness out there that we only need to imbibe in order to get to the heart of reality. Moreover, the understanding of ideology as a “consciousness” belies how these statements operate as the most natural set of observations and, therefore, ‘real’. Whereas, these statements are not something we actively choose (the freedom of choice is itself an ideology); rather, ideology is made up of a set of already existing images, discourses, and ideas that allows us to imagine (our relationship with) reality.

The messages we get from movies, commercials, magazines, and other reading matter, which correspond to a certain ideal (e.g. looks, femininity, romantic relationship, family life, job, success, happiness), are examples of ideology. They reach us in their obviousness and their common sense logic—we should get married by a certain age because having your own family is the highest form of self-fulfillment or one only needs to work hard in order to reach one’s goals—are assumptions that we subconsciously assimilate as a set of givens.

Why are ‘labor’ and capital central concepts in Marxism? Why is social class significant in its worldview? How is capitalism a system of exploitation?

Form of Social Determination

One form of social determination that ideology deflects or wishes away is class, especially in a capitalist society such as ours. Recall our discussion of aphorisms in the previous section. In The German Ideology (1845), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ considered history from a materialist perspective as opposed to the idealist worldview propagated by Hegelian thought. Marx and Engel held that human lives are ultimately governed by their material conditions. In fact, men’s material existence defines every aspect of their lives, even how they think (e.g., their ambitions, their views on education, their reading preferences). ‘Material conditions’ pertain to the individual’s work or labor that allows the individual to produce his or her means of subsistence or survival. Here is a well-known passage from Marx’s A Critique of Political Economy (1859) which encapsulates the materialist view of history:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. 

Two important points emerge from this. First is that men, in order to maintain themselves, need to engage in some kind of work, which entails entering into socioeconomic relationships. For instance, people assume a certain role in the economic structure because of the nature of their work; landlord-tenant, capitalist-laborer, hotel owner-employee are examples of these relations. Forces of production, on the other hand, refer to work itself and the means of production such as land, tools, machinery, and technology. For Marx, work is a principle of activity since not only does it transform the nature (i.e., the external environment of the worker) as when land yields produce in a farm, but work also changes the worker in that he or she is able to actualize his propensity to create and build.

Secondly, the socioeconomic relations and productive forces of society at any given time constitute its mode of production (e.g., feudal, mercantilist, capitalist), which shapes the infrastructures (e.g., legal system, role of the state) and the superstructure (e.g., religion, culture, art, literature). The materialist account of history undermines the assumption that there is a ‘human nature’ that remains unchanged by our material circumstances. As opposed to any kind of belief that our intellect or mind can bend the world according to its designs, the material conditions of our existence make us who we are. As uncomfortable or nervous as it makes us, a shoe clerk is a different human being from someone who owns a shoe factory; a hotel bellhop is different from a suburban housewife. The factory worker might be more intelligent than the bank manager, but the former will not likely have the means at his disposal to develop this intelligence through a college education, which the latter has access to. We might be reading the same books, watching the same movies, and listening to the same music, but no book, philosophy or inspirational lyrics that we happen to be reading or studying at the moment can erase the fundamental reality of social class differences.

Social Class and Literary Genres

Given the determination of class and the social hierarchy it in-stalls, it is inevitable that literature cannot but assume the character of a political act or expression in the poems, novels, and everything in between is written from a certain class position. Literary works, in fact, are not autonomous objects but are mediations of the base on the level of the superstructure. In Ian Watt’s landmark study The Rise of the Novel: Realism and the Novel Form (1956), the author traces the emergence of realism and its exemplary form, the novel, to the rise of the middle class in 18th century England. In Watt’s account, capitalism as a mode of production made possible the burgeoning of prose narratives that evolved into the realistic novel. As a system of exchange and of exploitation, capitalism led, ironically, to a belief in the knowledge and experience of the individual whose consciousness can apprehend reality in its most circumstantial and everyday aspect.

The ideology of individuality, thus, is a direct result of the process of concealment and distortion which capitalism, in its capacity to substitute the value of one’s work for wages and the value of a product for its monetary value or price, perpetuates and renders innocuous and natural. The ideology we might say, directs our understanding of ourselves as subjects, an “I” who possesses free will and self-determination. Louis Althusser, a French critic who reworked the main ideas of Marx, coins the term interpellation to refer to the operation by which ideology as-signs to the individual human being an identity as a ‘subject.’ We are interpellated by ideology in that it addresses us and calls us into being as the origin of our actions, our thoughts, and our emotions. For Marx and Althusser, religion is an exemplary ideology in that it conditions people to recognize or see themselves in the Christian narrative about God, Christ, and eternal salvation.

Interpellating the Female

Two of the most popular genres that address the female reading public are romance novels and its more contemporary mutation, chick lit. In The Task of Cultural Critique, Marxist critic Teresa Ebert notes that romances are, conspicuously, narratives that operate on female fantasies about love, sex, and marriage. Romances, despite their formulaic plots that revolve around the spontaneous and combustive intimacy between men and women, are in fact, ideological discourses that interpellate the female reader to identify with the desire for wealth and comfort, which are the preoccupations of the middle class. In a number of romances like Harlequin, for instance, the male character whose smoldering gaze and sculpted body mesmerize the heroine is typically a rich, a spoiled businessman, a reluctant scion or an anti-social banker. The purchasing power and the sophisticated lifestyle of the hero suggests that love and lust can only thrive if the male, the only figure in the text and in society who can propose marriage is himself a double of the capitalist. In effect, the erotic energies of the story is so conjoined to the idea of affluence and property that the expression of passion between the hero and the heroine is sublimated as a desire for property represented by symbols like “gold, diamond, pearls, estates, and castles.” 

Although chick lit foregrounds the same female need for love, Ebert claims that the genre is more ironic than its predecessor in that it rejects the sentimental quality of romances. The female protagonists in chick lit are more brooding and cynical than their romance novel counterparts. Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary, for instance, gluts the novel, and the movie adaptation as well, with her nonstop paranoid thoughts about her figure, her vices, and her public image. Moreover, sexual scenes are less graphically described while the narrative focuses on the anguish caused by a one-night stand. Nevertheless, chick-lit prescribes the same economic alternative to the angst-ridden life of its heroine which is to shop—for the perfect shoes, the trendiest clothes, the smartest hair color, and the coolest guy.