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Cultural materialism (cultural studies)

Cultural materialism in literary theory and cultural studies traces its origin to the work of the left-wing literary critic Raymond Williams. Cultural materialism makes analysis based in critical theory, in the tradition of the Frankfurt School.

It emerged as a theoretical movement in the early 1980s along with new historicism, an American approach to early modern literature, with which it shares much common ground. The term was coined by Williams, who used it to describe a theoretical blending of leftist culturalism and Marxist analysis. Cultural materialists deal with specific historical documents and attempt to analyze and recreate the zeitgeist of a particular moment in history.

Williams viewed culture as a "productive process", part of the means of production, and cultural materialism often identifies what he called "residual", "emergent" and "oppositional" cultural elements. Following in the tradition of Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci and others, cultural materialists extend the class-based analysis of traditional Marxism (Neo-Marxism) by means of an additional focus on the marginalized.

Cultural materialists analyze the processes by which hegemonic forces in society appropriate canonical and historically important texts, such as Shakespeare and Austen, and utilize them in an attempt to validate or inscribe certain values on the cultural imaginary. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, authors of Political Shakespeare, have had considerable influence in the development of this movement and their book is considered to be a seminal text. They have identified four defining characteristics of cultural materialism as a theoretical device:

  • Historical context
  • Close textual analysis
  • Political commitment
  • Theoretical method
  • Barry, P. 2003. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Brannigan, J. 1998. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield. 1985. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. 2nd Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
  • Milner, A and Browitt, J. 2002. Contemporary Cultural Theory. 3rd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Milner, A. 2002. Re-Imagining Cultural Studies: The Promise of Cultural Materialism. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage.
  • Milligan, Don, Raymond Williams: Hope and Defeat in the Struggle for Socialism, 2007.
  • Parvini, N. 2012. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. New York and London: Bloomsbury.
  • Price, B. 1982. "Cultural Materialism". American Antiquity 47.4: 639-653.
  • Rivkin, J and Ryan, M. 1998. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Ryan, K. 1996. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: a Reader. New York: St. Martin’s Press.


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