Historical materialism - Marxism

RELATED TERMS: History; Cultural Studies; Epic theatre - Brecht; Feminism - Material feminism; Method and methodology; Design of Narrative environments; Critical thinking; Lefebvre

Even though the crude teleological determinism, historicism and reductive economism of official communist ideology, or orthodox Marxism-Leninism, came to occupy the space of Marxist thinking, narrative environment design may yet still benefit from considering a particular understanding of historical materialism, as inflected by the ‘western’ Marxist tradition (Merleau-Ponty, 1973), with its recovery of subjectivity, agency and culture. How might this be possible?

Jason Edwards (2010: 282-284) proposes that there are two ways of approaching an understanding of historical materialism.

The first is as a positivist science based on a humanist philosophical anthropology, human nature as the subject of history, and a teleological conception of history embodying a form of economic or technological determinism, as the successive development of modes of production.

The second is as the complex totality (as assemblage, a non-totalising totality?) of the material practices that are required to reproduce the relations of production over time. Thus, Edwards (2000: 284) contends, historical materialism, as a broad analysis of diverse social formations, recognises the diversity of the forms of practice that are necessary for sustaining the relations of production in very different kinds of societies.

Material practices, in this context, are taken to be regular forms of behaviour that are norm-governed and which involve a person’s relation to their body and to other bodies, as well as to experiential phenomena.

This complex whole (non-totalitarian totality) is instantiated in the everyday lives of people and, in turn, the material practices of everyday life are implicated in the political and economic power of the state and the international political economic system.

Edwards suggests that historical materialism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, needs to shed its humanism, historicism, economism and teleological determinism. This means that a more de-centred and relational conception of the subject is required, perhaps through such notions as the intercorporeal and the intersubjective conceived in materialist terms. So also is a less teleological and deterministic conception of historical change and societal organisation required, as is available, for example, through notions articulated by complexity theory.

Historical materialism, in this case, would focus on the character of everyday life and lived space, as discussed by Henri Lefebvre, for example. This examination would include the penetration of everyday life by various media and technologies of communication, as discussed by Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer. Furthermore, this discussion would now be extended to include internet-based, potentially participative, multimedia technologies. The relationships by means of which such ‘mass’ media and digital technologies are woven into the everyday, and the everyday is incorporated into the ordering of cities, regions, states and the international political economy, breaching the boundaries of the conception of place, can thus be seen to be multi-layered, involving both social, material and media modes of existence.

In this context, as has been noted and as Edwards (2000: 290) insists, the work of Lefebvre is of particular importance. His analyses of the experience of everyday life and the production of space through the interconnecting manifold of material and representational practices are vital for developing a meaningful historical materialism which may prove useful for the design of narrative environments.

Historical materialism, then, as one way of understanding antagonistic struggles or dramatic conflicts, may be of value in thinking about the design of narrative environments, particularly how their material aspects might be said to act within the horizon of a complex, contingent, contextual arrangement (dispositif, apparatus, assemblage, rhizome).


Edwards, J. (2010). The materialism of historical materialism. In D. Coole and S. Frost, eds., New materialisms: ontology, agency, and politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 281–297.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1973) ‘“Western” Marxism’, in Bien, J. (tran.) Adventures in the dialectic. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, pp. 30–58.