Politics exist essentially as the natural state of our living together; we exist, and must exist, in a society organized by laws and regulations in order that something approximating a just distribution of labor, resources and capital is established. Obviously our efforts towards justness, in this sense tend to falter. However our society, nevertheless, is one of mandates, codes, ordinances and restrictions which affect people’s quotidian experiences in countless disparate ways depending on factors such as race, gender, and class.
Politics, being as inexorably prevalent as water in a fish bowl, necessarily permeate the language and literature we consume. Every narrative unfolds in an environment formed by ideological thought, and every character is guided by the politics of their time and place. As critic Rex Gibson suggests, “Political perspectives assert that every aspect of human life is rooted in politics and power.” Any plausible framework for literary criticism should therefore maintain a highly political focus, emphasizing the historical and political contexts which underlay narrative, as well as prevailing social conditions and economic factors.
Language is fundamentally a democratic mode. With anyone free to write or say nearly anything — to create phrases and order words however they please — reality can be distorted to reveal social and political conditions or to imagine an emergent utopia. Because we create as political beings contained within a political climate, the politics of our language are inseparable from the stories we tell. Isolating a narrative within an apolitical vacuum for the purposes of critical analysis inherently strips the story of a crucial aspect of its character.
Maintaining gender, class and race — as well as historical and political context — as separate but interrelated foci elucidates important aspects of fiction which may be lost without a political approach to analysis.
The mid-twentieth century saw literary and poetic works detached from their pertinent political contexts and analyzed as fully self-referential objects in an effort to advance a supposedly objective critical methodology. This school, termed New Criticism by critic and essayist John Crowe Ransom, perpetuated a predominantly white male literary canon. Such a program divorces language of its socio-political function and undermines its capacity to reflect, advocate and criticize. Just as an archaeologist relays on spacial context when addressing an object’s function, provenance and value, a reader should consider the political and historical contexts in which a work was written in order to fully appreciate its implications.
The apolitical concept can only be realized theoretically; it is impossible to form in a tangible sense because politics permeate everything we touch and inform everything we say. The narrative form enables literature to reconcile with political thought in a digestible, familiar way. It frames political ideas in terms of life experiences that we recognize and understand. Just as dialogues in introductory philosophy courses introduce complicated philosophical theories by way of easily digested casual conversation, fiction grapples with intricately nuanced political thought in a conventional, understandable way.
A political understanding of a text can be arrived at by examining religious, economic and social aspects of a work. Furthermore, tensions arising from issues of class and power often drive fictive narratives and are crucial facets of a text’s political character. Considering the role of prevailing modes of political thought and historical circumstances, both in a novel’s own milieu and its fictive premise, further drive a political understanding of a work.
The political philosopher who so strongly championed the socio-political approach to literary and artistic criticism happens to be Karl Marx. Marxist aesthetics frequently consider the roles, forms and implications of ideology. Conceptions of family, work-ethics, religious life and morality often comprise a kind of “political unconscious” which characterizes our ideological perceptions of the world. By grappling with the interpolated ideas we hold about the world, literature serves as a means of social critique and as a form for envisioning an idyllic utopia. Accordingly, an awareness of the social and cultural implications of a work are necessary if one is to consider the full political value of literature.