ENGL 308 A: Marxism and Literary Theory

Meeting Time: 
TTh 9:30am - 11:20am
* *
Alys Weinbaum
Alys Eve Weinbaum

Additional Details:

Winter 2021                                                                                                                English 308

Marxism and Marxist Theory                                                          Instructor:  Weinbaum, A

This course begins with a world changing text by Marx and his collaborator, Engels, and then proceeds to examine the debates that have emerged among Marxist thinkers who have taken up Marxist ideas and run with them.  These thinkers have expanded on Marx’s and Engels’s insights about class conflict and history, and have sought to understand how capitalism, racism, and sexism work together to create dominant systems of power, or hegemony. At the center of the course is therefore the question of how 19th century ideas about political economy (aka economics), history, and philosophy were taken up by 20th and 21st century scholars, and how a distinct tradition of interpreting literature, culture, and society from a Marxist perspective, using Marxist tools, has developed over time.

By contrast to other models of literary and cultural criticism which often seek to find in art and other cultural texts transcendent messages and universal meanings, Marxist thinkers have instead situated art and other cultural texts within their historical contexts of production and reception. In so doing, they have sought to understand how the power dynamics (including those informed by race, gender, and sexuality) create meaning, and how the conflicts that result from the imposition of power impact the meaning, message, genre, style, and form of literature and all other forms of art and cultural production.

Our study of Marxist theory will necessarily involve close, intensive reading of dense and often highly philosophical texts. Through engagement with these texts we will seek understand how a materialist method indebted to Marx and Engels emerged as dominant (if often unnamed or acknowledged) within contemporary literary and cultural studies scholarship, and how diverse critical practices (given labels such as “critical theory,” “feminist theory,” “critical race theory,” and “cultural studies”) sit within an expansive Marxist intellectual tradition. Over the course of the quarter we will treat several cultural texts, literary and filmic. We will consider how our understanding of each is shaped by the Marxist frameworks that the course introduces, and how each, in turn, may be used to reveal the possibilities and pitfalls of Marxist methodologies.

Course goals and learning objectives

  • To read and understand dense theoretical texts.
  • To write about them with clarity and nuance.
  • To write about a range of cultural texts by setting the theories examined in this course to work.
  • To understand how Marxist theory develops out of intensive dialogue among scholars.
  • To evaluate the usefulness of Marxist theory as a distinct critical practice.
  • To evaluate the limitations of Marxist approaches to art and cultural production more broadly.
  • To be able to talk in class about theoretical and cultural texts in informed and nuanced ways.

Course requirements.  Active, prepared, and informed participation in zoom-class meetings and small breakout groups.  A set of written analytical responses to course materials.  As discussed below, each student determines how many responses they will write based on their desired grade. 

All responses are due on Mondays (save #7, which is due on a Friday), as specified on the schedule of readings and assignments.  All responses MUST respond to the prompts that are included in the schedule of readings and assignments to be counted, and must account for any changes to these prompts that are discussed in class. 

Participation in its many forms.  This is largely a discussion based course.  For this reason, if synchronous participation is not possible for you, you should select a different course this quarter.  All students may miss up two zoom class meetings without penalty.  Beyond this, you are advised that it is not possible to do well in this course without regularly attending class and fully and thoughtfully completing the readings as they come due.  If you are unprepared for class or fall behind in the readings, it will be exceedingly difficult to submit written work that meets the basic requirements for this course and will adversely impact your grade.

Use of “discussions” and “chat” function is supplementary.  You are not required to post to discussion boards.  However,  if you find it difficult to jump into the zoom discussion while it is happening, you may use class discussion boards and the class chat function to participate.  I will check discussion posts by 9 am the day of class for questions and comments related to that days class and will engage these posts in my opening lectures.

Grades.  Your course grade is based on a combination of regular in-class participation, and submission of a set of responses that clearly demonstrates deep engagement with course materials, lectures, and group discussion of materials.  Response that meet the expectation of deep engagement will be counted toward you grade.  Responses that fail to meet this expectation will be marked down accordingly.

Deep engagement is demonstrated by

1) offering THOUGHTFUL ideas and asking RELEVANT questions about the assigned materials that clearly demonstrate that you have spent considerable time reading/viewing them in their entirety, taking reviewing them, and engaging with the ideas that have been presented in lectures and discussion about materials.  As the course proceeds, you responses will increasingly make connections across readings.

2) writing about the course materials in a DETAILED manner that ALWAYS makes reference to specific passages, scenes, etc… and thus demonstrates your deep engagement with the materials.  In other words, the more close reading you do the better!  Please see “Prof. Weinbaums’ guide to writing responses” for more information about how to approach responses.

3) submitting written work that is carefully prepared. In other words, all response should be organized, edited, and proof read to the best of your ability.  Sloppy work will result in partial credit for the response in question.

Your starting grade in this course is 3.4 or B+.  This grade will be given to all students who regularly participate in class and who complete 5 of 7 response assignments.   

Format.  All response are 3 pages exactly. Margins should be set at 1 inch all around.  Use Times New Roman, 12- point font.  Responses that do not meet this requirement will be marked down.

Each missing response below 5 will result in four numeral points (.4) off of your final grade.  For instance, the first missing response will drop your course grade to 3.0, the second to 2.6, the third to 2.2, the fourth to 1.8 etc… Note: the minimal grade required for this course to count toward the major is 2.0.

To receive a grad higher than 3.4 you must complete additional responses.  Those who complete 6 responses will receive a starting grade of 3.7 (or A-), and those who complete 7 responses will receive a starting grade between (3.8-4.0).  As with all responses, additional responses must demonstrate deep engagement (see above).

Please note that late responses will NEVER count toward your grade.  If you have missed the deadline for a response that you hoped to turn in, and suspect you will miss the subsequent response due to exceptional circumstances, please contact me by email prior to the second response due date so that we can work out a plan that addresses your situation.

Plagiarism.  You are not required to consult outside sources in writing responses. This noted, if you do consult websites, blogs, academic articles, discussion boards, etc… it is your responsibility to accurately and fully acknowledge these sources.  Any failure to do so amounts to plagiarism.  For instance, failure to provide citations for quoted or paraphrased formulations and ideas, and submission of a paragraph, sentence, phrase or concept conceived of by someone else without full attribution all constitute plagiarism. Work containing plagiarism, however minor, will be excluded from consideration toward your grade. All instances of plagiarism will be immediately reported to appropriate authorities.



All course readings are available on Canvas in the “files” section. One course text is also available through the University Bookstore:  Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (I will be using this edition, the Oxford edition, in class for pagination).

The following schedule is subject to revision. Revisions will first be discussed in class and/or sent out as announcements.  It is your responsibility to check your email daily and to stay abreast of all changes to readings and assignments (including changes in due dates).


Tuesday, January 5

Introduction to the course 

Thursday, January 7

Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848), sections I and II (pp. 1-26 Oxford edition)

Naomi Klein, Corona-Capitalism (Links to an external site.)



Response #1 due Monday January 11, 12-noon. 

This response must treat The Communist Manifesto.  It should include a summary of at least one first three sections of the text, and must raise a question about the argument that comes out of your treatment of a particular passage that you found either especially interesting, perplexing, or surprising. 

Tuesday, January 12

Final two sections of Communist Manifesto (pp.27-39) and the "Prefaces" to the English (1888), German (1890), and Polish (1892) editions.

Thursday, January 1

Karl Marx, “Theses Concerning Feuerbach” (1845)

Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”



Response #2 due Monday January 18, 12-noon.  This response must treat “Bartleby” in relation to The Communist Manifesto.  Choose a character in the story and explain how his in/action illuminates a particular idea or argument that you found important within The Communist Manifesto.  Consider if and how this short story offers a critique of capitalism.

Tuesday, January 19

Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism:  Universalism versus Racism and Sexism” and “Class Conflict in Capitalist World Economy.” 

Thursday, January 21

Nicole Hannah-Jones et al., The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine  

Read the introductory essay by Hannah-Jones and the second essay by Matthew Desmond





Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/?utm_source=atl&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share (Links to an external site.)

Nicole Hannah-Jones, “What is Owed”




Tuesday, January 26

Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”

Thursday, January 28

Boots Riley dir., Sorry to Bother You.

The film is available on Netflix and other platforms.  You are responsible for viewing the film prior to class, and taking viewing notes for reference during class discussion.

Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Rebellion Against Racial Capitalism”

Available on the Intercept as article or podcast: https://theintercept.com/2020/06/24/the-rebellion-against-racial-capitalism/


Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism”



Response #3 due Monday February 1, 12-noon.  This response must offer an analysis of a particular scene in Riley’s film. Use your analysis of this scene to meditate on a key insight that you have drawn from one of the readings on the relationship between racism and capitalism (Wallerstein, Coates, Jones, Taylor).  First elaborate the theoretical insight you have selected,  then set it to work through an analysis of the scene from the film.

Tuesday, February 2

Silvia Federici, "Wages Against Housework" and "Why Sexuality is Work" 

Thursday, February 4

Melissa Wright, “The Dialectics of a Still Life:  Murder, Women and Disposability”



Tuesday, February 9

Elizabeth Bernstein, “Bounded Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex”

Kimberly Kay Hoang, "Economies of Emotion, Familiarity, Fantasy, and Desire:  Emotional Labor in Ho Chi Minh City's Sex Industry"

Thursday, February 11

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”                     



Response #4 due Monday February 15, 12-noon.  This response must consider how Butler’s short story resonates with at least one of the preceding readings (Federici, Wright, Bernstein, Hoang) that theorize the relationship between sexism and capitalism.  As in the previous response, first elaborate on the theoretical insight, then set it to work in relation to a particular passage or scene from the story.

Tuesday, February 16

Marx, “The Fetishism of the Commodity”

Thursday, February 18

Althusser “Ideological State Apparatus” to page 177



Response #5 due on Monday February 22, 12-noon.  This response must explore one major idea you have taken from Althusser’s essay.  It must explore how this particular idea help you understand something about your own participation in “the family/school dyad.”

Tuesday, February 23

Althusser “ISA” completed

Althusser, “A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre”



Response # 6 due Monday March 1, 12-noon.  This response must make an argument for why one word that is in use today and we hear on regular basis counts as a keyword.  Be sure to offer a definition of “keyword” based on your reading of Williams before discussing how and why the word you have selected ought to be understood as keyword.

Tuesday, March 2

Raymond Williams, “Introduction” to Keywords and keyword entries: “Art,” “Class,” and “Literature”

[Possible alternative text: Banksy dir., “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”  Note:  If we do the film, the prompt for response #6 will change accordingly]

Thursday, March 4

Raymond Williams, Chapters 6, 8, 9 from Marxism and Literature



Tuesday, March 9

Bong Joon-Ho dir.  Parasite

The film is available on Netflix and other platforms.  It is your responsibility to view the film prior to class.  You should take viewing notes for reference during class discussion.

Thursday, March 11

Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society”

Response #7 is due on Friday March 12, 12-noon.  This final response must treat Parasite in relation to any two readings we have done this quarter.






Catalog Description: 
Introduces Marxist theory and methodology. Explores how and why Marx's writings, Marxist theory, and materialist methods became central to the study of literature and culture over the course of the twentieth century.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
February 1, 2021 - 10:50pm