The project of cultural materialism is to examine the political implications of cultural artifacts, particularly their subversive potential. The critic attempts to reconstruct the social, political, and economic context that contributed to the formation of the art work, his or her intention being to examine how the artifact interacts with other cultural processes. Both cultural materialists and new historicists maintain that the art work enjoys a dynamic relationship of mutual exchange with the society that generated it (Greenblatt, "Poetics" 12).
The French philosopher Michel Foucault's theories of power were influential in the formation of the political theory that is the trademark of the new historicist/cultural materialist movement. Foucault argues that power in a given society is not centralized in the oppressive actions of a single individual or a ruling class, but instead emanates from all of its cultural practices (Holstun 200). The society's ideological apparatus conditions the individual, teaching him how to be an obedient social subject. This apparatus includes the legal, political, economic, and educational institutions as well as social structures such as the family.
Cultural materialists suggest that the individual, once shaped by social institutions, is unable to extricate him/herself sufficiently from the ideological predispositions of his/her age to challenge the dominant culture: "... if we come to consciousness within a language that is continuous with the power structures that sustain the social order, how can we conceive, let alone organize, resistance?" (Sinfield 35). This question has led to the "subversion/containment debate." The contending factions within this exchange disagree on the extent to which subversion is possible within the power structure. Stephen Greenblatt maintains that the individual is "remarkably unfree, the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society" (Renaissance 256-57). In this model, subversion is effectively contained by the dominant power structure. Potentially seditious actions and ideas are shown to reinforce the dominant values of the society or are instrumental in providing an occasion for the state apparatus to employ its instruments of suppression and thus exert its authority in a dramatic display of its own invulnerability. On the other hand, Louis Montrose contends that the artist can achieve a "relative autonomy" in order to affect cultural change (5-11), "fashioning and refashioning consciousness, defining possibilities of action, shaping identities, [and] shaping visions of justice and order" (Fox-Genovese 222). This position is further reinforced by the recent work of cultural materialists who argue that subversive potential is facilitated by the inherent contradictions that are a part of the political mythology the dominant culture perpetuates in order to justify its own ascendancy, albeit these contradictions are normally effaced by the ideological apparatus of the society.(1)
These insights are especially relevant to an understanding of Claude McKay's protest sonnets, in which the contrast between form and content has long been observed. The poet chose to contain his politically volatile subject matter within a verse form that signifies the aristocratic European literary tradition. It is my contention that the ideological contradiction manifest in the practice of joining tradition and dissent is functional, that through this poetic compromise McKay was attempting to create a space in which to challenge white America's claim to cultural superiority. In order to ameliorate the social injustice experienced by African Americans in the early twentieth century, the poet had to appeal to the same group whose power he challenged in the poems' content, namely the European cultural apparatus in America. He did this by observing the ideological paradoxes manifest in America's treatment of minorities and by adopting Western literary traditions, and thus he gains a voice among those whose project of subjugation has been to efface the native cultural heritage of African-Americans and to silence the discourse of dissent. …