Cultural Materialism is founded on Marxist assumptions and therefore considers criticism to be a form of political resistance, both in condemning the past and “challenging” the present. It is not dissimilar to New Historicism and is influenced by the same theorists (Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams and Clifford Geertz), but focused more in the present than in the past. It is defined by two of its exponents as “a combination of historical context, theoretical method, political commitment and textual analysis”.
TEXTS ARE EXAMINED AS PLACES WHERE IDEOLOGICAL POWER AND ILLUSION IS CONSOLIDATED, SUBVERTED OR CONTAINED. THIS IS EVIDENT IN THE HUNT FOR “MARGINALIZED VOICES” — MINORITY GROUPS CONSIDERED SUBVERSIVE AT THE TIME WHO ARE LIKELY TO HAVE BEEN EXCLUDED FROM THE HISTORICAL RECORD.
Again, all this is designed to dismantle the universality of Shakespeare. Yet Cultural Materialism considers itself to be a universal system. If not as monumental as Marxism, it is at least as comprehensive as Foucault’s theories, and preoccupied with the same questions of identity and power relations.
Cultural Materialism has literally very little to do with criticism, except by enlisting it in political battles over the current teaching of literature. Everything is either reduced to politics or ignored. For Cultural Materialists, literature is either an emancipation from social oppression or it is collusive with power.
THE CLAIM TO BE EXCAVATING “MYSTIFIED IDEOLOGIES” COLLAPSES WHEN ONE RECOGNIZES THE OVERT CENSORSHIP EXERCISED BY THE MASTER OF THE REVELS. I LICENSED PLAYS AND REMOVED FIFTY EXPLETIVES FROM THE QUARTO TEXT OF OTHELLO!
Rulers too had few qualms about stating precisely their policies of control. In his Book of Sports (1618), James I declared that energetic games and festivals were one way of defusing popular unrest. Not much mystification there, then.