Tony McKenna’s cultural essays show the rich possibilities of Marxist analysis for a range of art and literature, argues Sean Ledwith
Tony McKenna, Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Palgrave MacMillan 2015), ix, 215pp.
Marxist aesthetics has had a bad press in some quarters thanks to the crude propaganda produced by supposedly communist states such as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. In this volume, thankfully, McKenna comprehensively punctures the myth that Marxist cultural criticism has to be crassly deterministic in its anchoring of all forms of artistic output in the socio-economic foundations of society. He emphatically demonstrates, in an impressive range of essays, that a sophisticated Marxist aesthetic can be deployed that retains the artistic autonomy of the creative impulse, while retaining an awareness that cultural artefacts never exist in a vacuum. They always incorporate, however indirectly, traces of the social and political concerns of their age. As McKenna puts it, with characteristic elegance:
‘one must try to identify within the work of art the crystallisation of a broader historic necessity. But at the same time, we should be aware that those elements are manifested only in a fantastical, individualised and profoundly unconscious form which can never be read directly and mechanically from its historical basis’ (p.2).
The contradictions of Game of Thrones
Created by George R R Martin, Game of Thrones, for example, is ostensibly set in a quasi-mythical universe of dragons, magicians, shape-shifters and other assorted tropes of the fantasy genre. Seven Kingdoms of the realm of Westeros compete for hegemony in the form of the right to occupy the Iron Throne. The belligerent dynasties display recognisable elements of cultural stereotypes in the real world. The Starks of the North are gruff, plain-speaking warriors who are most at home when staring across a wind-swept waste land, wrapped in multiple layers of fur and muttering grimly, ‘Winter is coming’. The Lannisters of the South are carefree, self-indulgent aristocrats who bask in a sun-kissed metropolis and heap patronising scorn on the Northerners. Across the Narrow Sea to the east, a blonde Boudicca-like princess commandeers a Mongol-style people known as the Dothraki to assist her campaign to regain what she regards as her rightful inheritance of the Iron Throne.
Squeezed between these and other irredentist clans are an exponentially increasing cast of individuals, families and creatures who provide the narrative momentum that has, so far, filled six series and books of bloody entertainment, watched or read by millions. A giant wall of ice provides a northern perimeter that seals off the Seven Kingdoms from an intangible menace beyond it. Described as such, Game of Thrones may appear to be little more than a variation of The Lord of the Ringscycle, with additional nudity and graphic violence for an adult audience.
Clearly, such a response to the series would be wholly inadequate from a Marxist perspective that aspires to root its mode of analysis in contemporary social and political trends. McKenna does not deny that the series incorporates elements of a conservative and reactionary agenda. He alludes to the criticism directed at it by New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny that it perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes on a persistent basis. The author argues, in response, that characters or scenes that display such elements are the least interesting in dramatic terms and that the show's success is despite, rather than because, of them. He writes:
‘The depiction of Drogo and the Dothraki in the early stages of the series/novels lacks aesthetic power because it is drawn in line with a racist archetype … their characters are without nuance or ambiguity and their collective is not riven by any kind of discernible social contradiction; they are simply driven to conquer and kill by their genetic natures’ (p.4).
In contrast, McKenna posits, the key factor in the show's impact is the centrality of a number of characters who follow more unpredictable psychological trajectories that take them from situations of utter hopelessness to the brink of triumphant fulfilment (and sometimes back to the former state!). The character of Daenerys Targaryen is introduced as a passive child-bride bartered between brutish dynasts:
‘In the second and third series, however, the role of the Dothraki is increasingly transformed as is that of Daenerys Targareyn. She is no longer a passive consort but becomes a powerful leader in her own right. The Dothraki become an army which is intent on the liberation of slaves as well as conquest’ (p.5).
Game of Thrones provides ‘A Mirror into Our World’, as McKenna deftly puts it, because it skilfully creates characters who pursue revolutionary agendas when all hope for them appears lost. This dimension of the series sets it apart from what the author terms the ‘crude dichotomy' of Tolkien's universe. McKenna cites Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister as evidence of Martin’s ability to create characters that personify social contradictions. The former is a girl brought up in a fiercely patriarchal society who resists the persistent, and often violent pressure, to conform to expectations of female behaviour. The latter is a scion of an aristocratic elite who increasingly finds himself identifying with the oppressed for the fact of being a dwarf.
The sense of foreboding that is omnipresent throughout all six instalments can be related to the pessimism that has afflicted the Western capitalist economies since the onset of recession in 2008. The grip of baronial elites such as the Starks, Lannisters and Tyrells on the world of Westeros is not dissimilar to the manner in which bourgeois democracies have increasingly reverted to political families such as the Bushes, Clintons and Gandhis to sustain their faltering hegemony.
The zombie-like White Walkers who ominously encroach ever closer each series on the Seven Kingdoms could be decoded as either a representation of the fears of our elites regarding a global mass uprising against inequality; or perhaps, in even more apocalyptic terms, that capitalism is leading the entire species over the precipice thanks to its addiction to war or disregard for environmental degradation. The author spells out the feasible correlation between the visceral scenes of horror in the series and those we observe on the television news with depressing familiarity.
The crisis of twenty-first century capitalism, ‘appears to us in spectral terms, as something possessed of an artificial existence capable of impinging on our own, as an alien and external power with an independent momentum, imbued with its own ghostly life’ (p.7). If anything, it could be argued that GOTstruggles to keep pace with the scale of suffering in our world. Mass drownings in the Mediterranean, televised decapitations in the Middle East and random slaughter of civilians in European capitals matches the shocking manner with which the show like to frequently dispatch its leading characters. Watching an episode of the show and then watching the news can often generate a disturbing feeling of continuity between the two genres that does not bode well for the future of humanity.
Our 1% and The Hunger Games
The HungerGames books and movies have, even more explicitly than GOT, tuned into a global sense of declining faith in the status quo and rising awareness of an undefined existential crisis looming on the horizon. Created by Suzanne Collins between 2008 and 2010, the narrative centres on the adventures of a female teenager, Katniss Everdeen, in a future United States, renamed Panem, that has been ravaged by a thinly-sketched internal convulsion, leaving society polarised between a parasitical elite, residing in the opulent and fortified Capitol, and the mass of the population left to cower in tightly-controlled and poverty-stricken districts. Katniss evolves throughout the series from being a reluctant lone-wolf, concerned only to protect her immediate family, into the willing spearhead of a mass uprising against the cocooned ruling class. McKenna neatly describes the stories as ‘Art for the Occupy Era'. He identifies the most obvious parallels between the series and twenty-first century political trends:
Suzanne Collins' descriptions of Panem are saturated with contemporary insight; in quantitative terms, the opposition between the Capitol and the districts is very much the antagonism of the 1% against the 99% as articulated by the Occupy movements. But quantitatively, too, the nature of the current economic crisis is thrown into relief by the territorial dynamic of Panem’ (p.8).
The latter point is developed insightfully by the author into a comparison of the superficial and unproductive lifestyle of the elite denizens of Panem with the inflated and illusory property-bubbles within the Western states that triggered the global crash of the last decade. The much-debated process of financialisation that has characterised the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s has engendered a delusional mentality among the elite that steadily deteriorating growth and profit rates can be off-set by investment in what Marx refers to as fictitious capital. McKenna perceives a congealed version of this in the mind-set of the 1% featured in Collins' stories. The unproductive, exploiting and mask-wearing class who tyrannise the masses in the districts, reveal that ‘the superficiality, the luxury décor, the priceless jewels - all of which adorn the Capitol; where the wealthy citizens interact - do not form an appearance that belies a more fundamental reality. Rather, such externality provides, simultaneously, the absolute essence’ (p.9).
McKenna's lucid analyses of The Hunger Games universe not only provides an intriguing critique of the nature of twenty-first century capitalism but also offers a thoughtful perspective on how the forces of the left might strategise the means of overthrowing this system. The novels and films are premised on the existence on a ruling clique that has prevailed for decades by integrating a diet of reality television for the masses with a merciless deployment of extreme violence against the minority who reject its hegemony.
Anti-capitalism and The Hunger Games
The author cites Collins' own account of how she was inspired to write the stories when she was casually channel-hopping and found herself juxtaposing news footage of war in the Middle East with a ‘Big Brother'-style reality show. The concept occurred to her of an oppressive polity that cynically utilises mass manipulation of the media with lethal force. Katniss locates the weakness of this twin-track hierarchy by proving herself to be, paradoxically, both a darling of the media and an uncompromising warrior. The Panem elite ‘necessitated a totalised form, requiring the drawing together of both spheres, seeking to locate cultural and domestic forms of exploitation within the logic of a broader imperialism in and through the reality TV motif’ (p.10). The trilogy unconsciously echoes Marx's clarion call that capitalism calls forth its own gravedigger.
Referring to the Occupy movement, McKenna notes that its great advance in terms of political consciousness was the propagation of the holistic concept of ‘anti-capitalism’. The phrase emerged out of the Seattle protest against the WTO in 1999 and has now become a familiar trope on demonstrations and rallies around the world. In previous decades, resistance movements tended to be highly committed but also fatally fragmented by ‘identity politics’; the tendency to be self-limiting by an exclusively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic or environmental agenda.
The conjoining of mass protests against the Iraq War with the resistance to austerity in our time, however, means there has been a pooling, albeit uneven and incomplete, of these rivers of resistance. As the author puts it, ‘as a result of an intensification of wars across the world and a global economic collapse, the aspect of universality which underpinned capitalism and its crisis was rendered ever more visible’ (p.11). As the sinews that connect neoliberalism in core of the global system with imperialism throughout its periphery are exposed, the outlines of a global movement of opposition can be fleetingly glimpsed.
We are a long way from this developing a coherent organisational form, of course, but disruptions of the global order in this decade such as the Arab Spring revolutions, giant urban uprisings in Turkey and Brazil, and the meteoric rise of electoral formations such as Syriza and Podemos perhaps point to the stumbling emergence of a revitalised left. The iconic status of the figure of Katniss Everdeen might be seen as an unconscious expression of a collective longing for the acceleration of this process among the oppressed of the world. As Katniss comes to the realisation that the destruction of Panem is the only way to liberate the fragmented districts, the twenty-first-century left is, perhaps, finally recognising that capitalism itself has to be the ‘totalised’ focus of the myriad of resistance movements.
Alienation and the great detective
As well as seeking to provide materialist explanations for the impact of contemporary icons of popular culture such as Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter, McKenna also aspires to explain the curious resilience of Sherlock Holmes, a fictional hero from a bygone era. Doyle’s archetypal detective was created in the 1880s but has become arguably the most recognisable fictional character of all time. There have been peaks and troughs in his popularity throughout the last century, but each generation always seems to find some version of the character that speaks to its particular anxieties.
In the 1940s, Basil Rathbone’s version was often on the trail of Nazi moles in the US; Peter Cushing's iteration the following decade was in the style of the Hammer horror movies; and the 1970s brought us Holmes the recovering addict who collaborates with Sigmund Freud in an effort to access the secrets of his unconscious. This century has witnessed another startling Holmesian revival, most notably in the form of the Benedict Cumberbatch series on the BBC but also successful American-made versions starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jonny Lee Miller. There is clearly something about Doyle’s character that taps into shared, cross-generational concerns among huge numbers of readers and viewers.
McKenna's solution to the strange case of the re-appearing detective is, like his analysis of other cultural phenomena, original and compelling. Although Holmes is remarkably popular throughout the generations, and also across the globe, one feature unites all the societies in which his fans are located; the phenomenon of alienation intrinsic to capitalist economies. The deleterious effects of technology-based labour processes on the human personality all too often engender a traduced and dislocated sense of selfhood among the massed ranks of the global workforce. This fundamental feature of the capitalist workplace is obviously manifested in a huge variety of forms, from the suicide nets around China’s mobile phone factories, to the thousands of teachers in the UK opting out of an increasingly bureaucratised and test-driven profession.
In contrast, Sherlock Holmes, in all his multiple incarnations, operates as an unshackled intellectual force of nature, deploying his machine-like mind, not in the cause of generating profit or paperwork for a faceless organisation, but in the cause of justice and human need. As McKenna puts it:
‘In a time where the productive process manifests as a force set against ourselves, Holmesian reason represents, in a fantasy guide, the re appropriation of that force by a more rounded intellect; the scientific character of production loses its alien form and is exhibited as a property of a given individual in and through his labour activity’ (p.21).
Most commentators argue the character represents a nostalgic yearning for a lost era of greater certainty and lesser complexity. The author brilliantly inverts that notion and makes the case that the detective actually represents the future, not the past. Holmes is a fictionalised glimpse of how all human beings in a world that has banished alienation might unleash their creative and problem-solving powers in ways that currently seem improbable.
Although the author only references Trotsky a handful of times, the essays collected in this volume are very much in the dialectical spirit of the Russian revolutionary's writings on art and culture. In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky famously remarks that the higher cultural level of a socialist society would mean that potentially all its citizens could aspire to the achievements of Aristotle, Goethe or Marx (p.22). Perhaps it is time to update the sentiment and, thanks to the author, envisage a post-revolutionary world in which versions of Daenyrs Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen and Sherlock Holmes are commonplace. Many might view such a prospect as outlandish, but as McKenna helpfully reminds us, ‘art is the medium in which history dreams' (p.23).