(Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Kurt Newman continues his consideration of Gramsci that he began last week)
We concluded Part 1 with the question of Gramsci’s continuing utility for cultural and intellectual historians. I would like to pick up where we left off––with a moving passage from The Southern Question––and my proposal that it is in this text that Gramsci’s most useful theoretical legacies reside.
Let’s recall what happens in this passage. Gramsci provides an account of the sort of historical event that most historians do not know how to narrate; the sort of event that history books typically leave out. He tracks a subtle but powerful subjective transformation in a given collectivity: a perceptual change that rewires the sensibilities of a group’s members and opens up new possibilities for affiliation and alliance.
In this case, Gramsci is writing about of the Brigata Sassari, soldiers sent from the South to the North to quell a strike of tannery workers. The Italian state had long relied upon a certain historically constituted divide between North and South: the “divide and conquer” strategy so familiar from labor history. By convincing southern peasants that their interests were regional, and that northern proletarians were thus their natural enemies, Italian political elites created an ostensibly foolproof mechanism for heading off northern workers’ movements and a reliable bulwark against the formation of a proletarian-peasant class coalition.
Gramsci zeroes in on an encounter on the streets of Turin, between an émigré Sardinian tannery worker and one of these southern military officers. The former asks the latter why he has come to Turin. The soldier answers: “We have come to shoot the gentry who are on strike.” In this deft bit of dramaturgy, Gramsci sets up the analytic method that would come to be associated with his name.
Apprehending the striking northern worker, the soldier from the South literally sees a member of the gentry: his eyes do not deceive him; he is not suffering from “false consciousness.” Because all signs tend to mean many different things at once, how one sees depends on a given arrangement of the “visible” and “sayable” (this is Jacques Rancière’s frame: “le partage du sensible,” or “distribution of the sensible”).
There is nothing strange about the fact that, to the southern soldier, “collar and tie” + “an income of 50 lire a day” + “residence in Turin” = “a member of the gentry.” But this “given arrangement” is a function of a certain operation of power—an operation that Gramsci wishes to study in order to tell us how we might assume control of its gears.
What Gramsci wants to tell us is that there is a way to transform this algebra by means of conscious intervention in the field of culture. If the arrangement of the “visible” and the “sayable” is changed in a particular direction, then the math instead indicates: “collar and tie” + “an income of 50 lire a day” + “residence in Turin” = “a fellow member of the exploited classes.” If this operation takes hold––as Gramsci suggests it did––ruling elites begin to find that the Brigata Sassari is no longer so useful. Thus, it is split up, its members are asked to retire early, and sent to far-flung corners of Italy. What might seem like an ordinary bit of bureaucratic business––a brigade is moved from North to South, its members dispersed or discharged––signals, in fact, a political event of great moment. The most important moment of this class struggle may not have been the tannery strike (Gramsci does not tell us any more about it), but the quiet departure of the troops, who had been greeted by the northern bourgeoisie with great enthusiasm.
In Part One of this essay, I suggested that the scholars who best help us understand how to frame such Gramscian operations are Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, who in the 1970s and 1980s conjugated Gramsci with the new analytical tools of poststructuralism and deconstruction . In this second part, I hope to flesh out my presentation of this post-1970s Gramsci, focusing in particular on the notion of “articulation” (as opposed to “hegemony”) as Gramsci’s most valuable conceptual innovation.
Following this discussion of “articulation,” I will look at the fate of Gramsci’s far more famous keyword, “hegemony,” and––via the bridge provided by Kenneth Burke’s 1935 speech “Revolutionary Symbolism in America”––attempt to follow its fortunes in the United States, looking at the work of two key writers—Fredric Jameson and T.J. Jackson Lears.
I will consider the question of why Jameson mostly avoided Gramsci in his early work on Western Marxism (Jameson wrote far more frequently, for example, about the comparatively obscure Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro), and argue that for Jameson, Gramsci became a double of the American Marxist literary critic Kenneth Burke. This fusion of Gramsci/Burke allows Jameson to dismiss both (unfairly, I think) as “liberals.”
Then I will turn to the (polemically loaded) question of how and why Lears turned Gramsci into a “conservative” (in the aftermath of a 1970s ultra-Leftism that had became fixated on various formulations of the question of whether to embrace a “Left conservatism,” and just before the Generation X Left began to experience extensive and hysterical bafflement at the existence of the right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh, who, coincidentally, wrote quite a lot about Gramsci in his 1993 book See, I Told You So).
I conclude with the affirmation of the notion that if there is a “Gramsci, our contemporary” to be recovered, as we turn away from these strange, distorted wax museum effigies, it is a politically committed Gramsci, the theorist of “articulation,” whose writings still speak to transformative desires.
To appreciate the lasting impact of Gramsci’s vision of cultural work––figured as a science of intervention in the existing arrangement of the “visible” and “sayable”––it is necessarily to focus on “articulation” rather than “hegemony.” That has more to do with the attractions of former than any inherent defect of the latter: the issue is a pragmatic one having to do with changing usage.
As the Jamaican-born British Marxist intellectual Stuart Hall (one of the original founders of the British New Left and the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies) observed about American mis-interpreters of Gramsci in the 1980s: “People talk about ‘hegemony’… as the equivalent of ideological domination.” This was an interpretation of “hegemony,” Hall lamented, that he had been fighting for twenty years.*
“Articulation” is less loaded with semantic confusion than “hegemony.” Its many meanings complement each other, and orient the reader, I think, to a vision of politics less cramped or mechanical than that precipitated by some of the more worn-out terms of Marxist discourse.
Hall is without question the foremost interpreter of Gramsci on “articulation.” Hall’s conversation on the topic of “articulation” with Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg at the University of Illinois in 1985, later published in a variety of cultural studies anthologies, provides one of the clearest presentations of Gramsci’s theory of “articulation,” and of Hall’s renovation thereof.
“I always use the word ‘articulation,’” Hall tells his interviewers, “though I don’t know whether the meaning I attribute to it is perfectly understood.” In England, Hall points out, the term has “a nice double meaning”: to articulate means “to utter, to speak forth… It carries that sense of language-ing, of expressing, etc.” At the same time, Britons also speak of “an ‘articulated’ lorry (truck); a lorry where the front (cab) and back (trailer) can, but need not necessarily, be connected to one another.” The two parts of the truck, that is, are connected to each other “but through a specific linkage that can be broken.”
Hall also takes pains to acknowledge his conceptual debt, in regard to this rendition of “articulation,” to Ernesto Laclau’s Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1978). Hall mentions in particular Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory’s chapter on Latin American Populism (deeply informed by Laclau’s Argentinian background, long immersion in debates on Peronism, and both Laclau and Mouffe’s residency in Colombia in the late 1970s). For Hall, Laclau’s analysis of Argentina bears immediate implications for the ongoing politics of de-colonization of Jamaica, the “moral panics” surrounding Jamaican emigration to the British metropole, and the politics of Rastafarianism.
We can situate Hall’s interest in Jamaica and the Rastafarian subculture intellectual-historically (as well as biographically): a new perception of Rastafarianism-as-radicalism began to gain ground with the publication of Walter Rodney’s The Groundings With My Brothers (1969), the election of Michael Manley in 1972 with important support from reggae artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Max Romeo, and the important synthesis provided by Horace Campbell’s Rasta and Resistance (1985). Campbell, especially, seems a useful point of reference for thinking about Hall on “articulation”: Rasta and Resistance disaggregates the various symbolic materials articulated in Rastafarianism (holy writ, “Babylon,” Garveyism, Haile Selassie, dreadlocks, etc.), and considers the consequences of political exigencies, such as the push by Ethiopian Left activists in the 1970s to persuade Rastafarians that the real Selassie had long since turned reactionary.
With the politics of Rastafarianism and the 1970s-era struggles in the Global South in the immediate background, Hall underlines the political ground of the theory of “articulation.” In an article composed at about the same time, Hall remind readers of the need to always put Gramsci’s writings in context: “His principal preoccupation was with his native Italy; and, behind that, the problems of socialist construction in western and eastern Europe, the failure of revolutions to occur in the developed capitalist societies of ‘the West’, the threat posed by the rise of fascism in the inter-war period, the role of the party in the construction of hegemony.” Thus, the principal question of articulation was always “under what circumstances can a connection be forged or made?”
We should underline these nonnegotiables: for Hall, Gramsci is legible only if we recall that the immediate political subject is post-Risorgimento Italy, the temporal context is the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the “surprise” that animates his cultural analysis is the rise of fascism. As importantly, the entire theoretical edifice is pegged to the idea of some kind of Party (which I think is flexible enough to accommodate many varieties, including certain kinds of anti-Parties, but which ultimately comes down to some common project of which anyone and everyone could become a “card-carrying member”).
Post-structuralist innovations in the theorization of language are thus complementary to the Gramscian project to the degree they provide useful political materials. If the “unity” of a discourse really is “the articulation of different, distinct elements which can be rearticulated in different ways because they have no necessary ‘belonging-ness,’” then the Left could stop treating, for example, “Tea Party libertarianism” as a solid whole, and begin to look for the seams and cracks where the various component elements are glued together.
Interestingly, this analysis can proceed quite far without the need for the term ‘hegemony.” If there is the need for an additional item from Gramsci’s toolkit to make legible a reading of the politics of articulation (and the related processes of re- and dis-articulation), it is “conjuncture.” This is because Gramsci’s methodology remains a kind of historical materialism: some conceptual acknowledgement of the “diachronic” (or “change-over-time”) dimension of struggles of articulation is required for the project to avoid becoming a mutant stepchild of structural-functionalism.
A single snapshot of the aforementioned seams and cracks tells us nothing; we are directed instead to observe political reality along the lines of time-lapse photography. “Thus, a theory of articulation is both a way of understanding how ideological elements come, under certain conditions, to cohere together within a discourse,” Hall notes, “and a way of asking how they do or do not become articulated, at specific conjunctures, to certain political subjects.”
In our example of the Tea Party, we would learn little—perhaps nothing––at a single rally, or by reading a given text. We would have to attend to the phenomenon of the Tea Party’s articulation of various elements (the tri-corner hat, the Gadsden flag, the language of freedom and populist antistatism, focused hatred of a few politicians [Obama, Nancy Pelosi, John McCain, Arlen Specter], and a given set of economic grievances rooted in the perceived wealth and opportunity hoarding of both the super-rich and the entitled and government-coddled “takers”) over time, as a shifting balance of forces and alliances. In this frame, a temporary settlement of these forces and alliances, read against a broader understanding of changing political and economic trends, would point to a “conjuncture”––a new political moment pregnant with both hopeful possibilities and the potential for dreadful declensions.
From “Articulation” to “Revolutionary Symbolism” to Left Conservatism
In these conjunctures, a politics of “articulation” provides a certain itinerary for cultural workers (typically those who would have been called, in a prior moment, “committed artists” or “engagés”). If we see Gramsci’s cultural writings as primarily oriented towards offering guidance to such cultural workers in Italy, then it is seems apparent that Kenneth Burke, who took up a similar position in the League of American Writers in the 1930s, really was––at least for a moment––Gramsci’s doppelgänger (Michael Denning makes an argument along these lines in The Cultural Front).
Burke’s famous speech to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress (“Revolutionary Symbolism in America”) bears a careful re-reading on these terms.
Burke begins with a meditation on the sources of human cooperation: “When considering how people have cooperated, in either conservative or revolutionary movements of the past, we find that there is always some unifying principle about which their attachments as a group are polarized.” Here, Burke takes pains to clarify: he does not mean only “mere insignia” but rather, “the subtle complex of emotions and attitudes for which insignia are little more than merest labels.”
Burke’s argument reminds us of the later Laclau’s notion of the political efficacy of the “empty signifier.” What is good about the relatively empty and arbitrary symbols of collective attachment, Laclau will come to argue, is that they are empty and arbitrary. Like the sliding puzzle (the classic “15 puzzle” with 16 spaces and 15 pieces), politics seems to require an empty signifier to work (if the puzzle had 16 pieces it wouldn’t be a puzzle: the pieces would be immobile).
Thus, for Laclau, successful movements organize around “empty signifiers.” (The “Occupy Wall Street” movement gained something, I might argue, when it became “Occupy” and then when it became “OWS”; similarly, the activists in Quebec affiliated with CLASSE and the “casserole” protests against tuition hikes and state repression very cleverly chose “empty signifiers” like a “casserole dish” and “a piece or red cloth pinned to one’s shirt” to mobilize support).
“From a strictly materialistic point of view,” Burke pointed out to the assembled Left intelligentsia in 1935, “such symbols are pure nonsense.” But because they perform articulatory work, they are nonetheless real in a non-idealist sense: “a myth that works well is as real as food, tools, and shelter are…”
“However vital they are in promoting historic processes,” Burke continued, “they are ‘myths,’ quite as the gods of Homer were myths. To search for them critically is to dissolve them, while a few rudimentary ‘realities’ take their place. If you find a man attached to some cause, and keep pressing him with questions, he will not be able to point out the nature of his attachment in the way he might if you asked him to point to his house.”
“Myths” may be wrong, Burke acknowledges, or they may be used to bad ends. But they could not be dispensed with. “In the last analysis, they are our basic psychological tools for working together:
They are not ‘illusions,’ since they perform a very real and necessary social function in the organizing of the mind. But they may look illusory when they survive as fossils from the situations for which they were adapted into changed situations for which they are not adapted.
Burke proceeded to outline an analysis that resonate deeply with Gramsci’s premises:
Laswell holds that a revolutionary period is one in which the people drop their allegiance to one myth, or symbol, or shift to another in its place. However, when a symbol is in the process of losing its vitality as a device for polarizing social cooperation, there are apt to be many rival symbols competing to take its place. A symbol probably loses its vitality when the kinds of cooperation it promotes—and with which its destiny is united—have ceased to be serviceable. The symbol of bourgeois nationalism is in such a state of decay today, for instance—hence the attempt of Communists to put the symbol of class in its place.
The primary hitch with this work of “articulation,” Burke cautioned, was that the CP tended to focus its “scheme of allegiance” on “the symbol of the worker.”
Speaking, like Gramsci, “solely from the standpoint of propaganda,” Burke went on to push for the symbol of “the people” to replace “the worker” in revolutionary culture.
Following this turn in the argument––which allegedly provoked a near-riot in the New Masses corner of the convention––Burke’s argument becomes (with one final exception, to which we will attend, momentarily) a little less interesting for present purposes––it gets caught up in questions of connotation where it might have pushed further for a defense of the arbitrary and vacuous symbol as a revolutionary prerogative.
What I hope is clear is the extraordinary convergence of interests in Burke and Gramsci in the apparent absence of mutual knowledge (there is a slight possibility that through the agency of Gramsci’s friend Piero Sraffa in England, knowledge of Gramsci’s work might have made its way to someone who might have told someone else about it and in this roundabout way reached the ears of American intellectuals).
I mentioned that there was one final theme in Burke’s speech that demands emphasis: this is the extraordinarily crucial distinction between fascist and socialist modes of coping, symbolically, with antagonisms: a premise with which Ernst Bloch was working at the same time, and a prefiguration of Žižek’s work in political philosophy.
Both fascism and socialism begin with the same problem: the organization of antagonisms in a moment of crisis. They proceed with the same tools: symbolic operations, aestheticized politics. The difference lies in the specific totalization: the fascist seeks to prematurely “solve” the antagonisms by papering over the social field (via identification with the land, the volk, and against the foreigner or subversive who threatens the fragile “solution”), whereas the socialist attempts to keep the antagonisms open (providing a space and time for the public to clarify the problems and demand real reforms directed at the genuine sources of their immiseration) . (I present this in a “reformist” light, because that is where my own ethical investments lie; one could of course rephrase the socialist symbolic work as a “keeping of antagonisms open” in a much more classically revolutionary spirit).
Thus for Burke, “universalization” as an aesthetic prerogative, circa 1935, “would simply be the spiritual denial of an underlying economic disunity”—a de-emphasis of “the temporary antagonism.” As such, it would simply be the “aesthetic of fascism.” The wager he proposed was that an aesthetic and political organization around “the people” could avoid such a “universalizing” mission while rendering working class grievances so urgent that the characteristic fence sitting of the movement’s potential allies in the middle class would become increasingly impossible.
Burke’s response to his many critics at the Congress attempted to tie up the analytical loose ends (and further impresses the contemporary reader just how proximate Burke was to Gramsci):
I was not disappointed in the response I expected when bringing up this subject. But I wish that some one had discussed the issue from my point of attack, the problem of propaganda. I think we are all agreed that we are trying to defend a position in favor of the workers; that we are trying to enlist in the cause of the workers. There is no issue about that. The important thing is: how to make ourselves effective in this particular social structure? I am trying to point out that there is a first stage where the writer’s primary job is to disarm people. First you knock at the door… As for my use of the word myth, I was speaking technically before a group of literary experts, hence I felt justified in using the word in a special sense. A poet’s myths, I tried to make clear, are real, in the sense that they perform a necessary function. They so pattern the mind as to give it a grip upon reality. For the myth embodies a sense of relationships. As for the charge that I made Communism appear like a religion: It may be a weakness on my part, but I have never taken this matter very seriously. As the Latin religio signifies a binding together, I take religion and Communism to be alike insofar as both are systems for binding people together––and the main difference at the present time resides for me in the fact that Communistic vocabulary does the binding job much more accurately than the religious vocabulary. The fundamental thing that I want to emphasize again is my belief that there is a different problem confronting the propagandist from that which confronts the organizer. The propagandist’s main job is to disarm. In the course of disarming, he opens himself to certain dangers. He cannot draw a distinct line because if he did, he would not be able to advance into outlying areas. After getting these people into your party, you can give them a more accurate sense of what you are aiming at. But in the first stage, the propagandist must use certain terms which have a certain ambiguity, and which for that very reason give him entrance into other areas.
Jameson, Lears, and the Curious Case of (Liberal and Conservative)
This divagation brings us to Fredric Jameson and T.J. Jackson Lears, and their curious relationships with Gramsci. Together, Jameson and Lears map a significant portion of the development of the academic Left in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jameson, born in 1934, spent a good deal of time in France and Germany as a student in the 1950s, studied literature at Yale with Erich Auerbach, and began to renovate the Marxist study of literature in the United States in the early 1970s after the long counter-subversive torpor of New Criticism. He was well situated to become the key figure of the emergent continental Theory vogue of the 1970s. In the 1980s, Jameson started the journal Social Text (later to become infamous as the target of the Sokal hoax) with Stanley Aronowitz, and began teaching at Duke; he gained enormous attention with his pivotal work Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990).
The success of that work has perhaps overshadowed the broader continuities that tie together early writings on Sartre with more recent texts on Hegel and science fiction—a particular way of reading literature dialectically, guided by a political confidence in the radicalizing potentials of learning to understand the operation of ideology in narrative. If one wanted to understand Jameson, one could do worse than start with Marx’s On The Jewish Question (which provides the model of always trying to rescue a “utopian” wish from a degraded present practice), and then plan a weekend around reading Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974), watching Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation (1975), and concluding with Jameson’s 1979 essay on the political meanings of the differences between the two: “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” In that essay, Jameson works out the provocative notion of the “fantasy bribe” that popular culture offers audiences, a notion that includes, necessarily, an acknowledgment (at a minimum) that things are worse than they should be, and that things might be better if we knew how to articulate that diagnosis as a demand.
Lears, on the other hand, born in 1947, is almost a generation younger than Jameson. Unlike Jameson, who never felt entirely comfortable with the American New Left, Lears might well be the historian who has stayed truest to the imperatives of the Port Huron Statement. Lears’s vision is haunted by a deep concern with the dangers of modernity, guided by compassion for those who have apprehended the forces of consumer capitalism as terrifying displacements of traditional values, and an ecological concern for the effects of the accumulation process upon time and space. Like Jameson, Lears studied at Yale. Since the 1980s, Lears has taught at Rutgers, and he has steadily published a series of instant classics: No Place of Grace, Fables of Abundance, Something for Nothing, and Rebirth of a Nation.
Jameson and Lears seem like the appropriate subjects for these concluding reflections on the legacies of Gramsci because both argue that Gramsci’s ideological commitments are not as they seem. In the case of Jameson, this critique often has to be read through the lines.
What is curious about Jameson’s relationship with Gramsci is its very tenuousness; Jameson is famously expansive in his reading and absorption of Marxist theorists. Thus, his arms-length treatment of Gramsci registers as a glaring omission. In the interviews collected in the volume Jameson on Jameson, in fact, his interviewers cannot seem to help themselves from asking about it. Jameson is mostly circumspect. But in a 1978 article on, of all people, Kenneth Burke, Jameson seems to show his hand: if Burke, as he argues, is a liberal (and not a radical), then so must be Gramsci.
In “The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis,” Jameson writes of Burke’s “implicit faith in the harmonizing claims of liberal democracy and in the capacity of the system to reform itself from within.” In a strangely ahistorical and jumbled turn of phrase from a scholar so given to lament the historical amnesia regarding the 1930s, Jameson writes: “We are here after all in the thick of a New Deal and Deweyan rhetoric of liberal democracy and pluralism, federalism, the ‘Human Barnyard,’ the ‘competitive use of the cooperative, and the celebration of political conflict in terms of… the ‘purification of war’: from the nostalgic perspective of the present day, the perspective of a social system in full moral and civic dissolution, what seemed at the time a shrewd diagnosis of the cultural and ideological conflicts of the capitalist public sphere and an often damaging critique of the latter’s strategies of legitimation must now come to have implications of a somewhat different kind.”
I am not sure I understand all of this, but the imputation of a certain anathematizing New Deal liberal ideology to Burke seems to be the aim, and I see no reason why such a critique would not extend to Gramsci, as well. In several interviews, Jameson has hinted at such a view: the path for a non-Marxist Gramscianism was laid “when Gramsci, under the threat of censorship, out of concern that the prison authorities were reading his manuscripts, used a systematic series of euphemisms for Marxist problems.” A “later Gramscianism developed after the war, in which suddenly ‘hegemony’ replaces the older Marxist themes and sails off as a theory in its own right.”
In another interview, pressed again on the question of Gramsci (and the Welsh Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams), Jameson answers: “As for Williams and Gramsci, what holds me back a little is what is so admirable in both of them, namely, the commitment to the concrete situation in which they worked and struggled.” It is “precisely the primacy of the English or Welsh and the Italian or Sicilian situation that makes these theorists less useful for theorists of the superstate.” Jameson protests against Williams’s critique of the “base-superstructure distinction” (“an interpretive problem which is always with us”), and especially against the enthusiasm for “hegemony” as the gateway to “a specifically Gramscian philosophy.” I think that within these hints and cues we can strengthen our hypothesis that for Jameson, Gramsci, like Burke, is some sort of liberal, and that Marxist would do well to maintain more orthodox commitments.
Unlike Jameson, we need not hunt around for clues as to Lears’s take on Gramsci. Lears’s 1981 book, No Place of Grace, includes several pages of commentary on the notion of “cultural hegemony” and a strong argument for using Gramsci’s ideas as an aid for telling the story of bourgeois antimodernism. Lears followed this up with a famous 1985 article, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities” in The American Historical Review, an article that then became a staple of graduate seminars in US History and American Studies.
I do not think it is controversial to say that Lears is a conservative, or that his adaptation of Gramsci—following some of the turns in Genovese’s thought that we looked at in Part One––turns Gramsci into some sort of conservative.
This is not idiosyncratic on Lears’s part: a significant swath of the New Left had begun to circle around conservative commitments in the 1970s. (Jameson, though not a self-identified New Leftist, exemplifies this as well as anyone: consider the above-quoted “from the nostalgic perspective of the present day, the perspective of a social system in full moral and civic dissolution” and compare to any aristocratic lament about the end of the old order in Jerry Z. Muller’s conservative intellectual history anthology or Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime).
1970s environmentalism drew on deep conservative values, as did a wide variety of back-to-the-land and spiritual movements. Even some ultra-radicals, as Max Elbaum describes in Revolution In The Air, began to reify the “white working class male” as a traditionalist with whom the Left would have to express solidarity (thus Bob Avakian, for a spell, sided with the white parents in the Boston busing crisis). Historians like Lawrence Goodwyn were often read by New Leftists as advocates of a certain kind of Gemeinschaft social movement nostalgia. Under Goodwyn’s influence, William Greider wrote Secrets of the Temple, which drew many Leftists to one of the paleo-Right’s favorite slogans, “Abolish the Fed!” (To be fair, this was not Greider’s intention: but, at the same time, it must be said that the morality tale he wove about Populists against the Bank has continued to make rational discussion of national monetary policy on the Left very difficult).
A certain Left conservatism, then, was in the air as Lears constructed his conservative Gramsci. Then the Right actually discovered Gramsci, as the Left discovered the Right. In March 1994, Charlie Bertsch wrote “Gramsci Rush: Limbaugh on the ‘Culture War’” for a magazine called Bad Subjects that soon became the talk of the academic Left. Limbaugh, it turned out, had stumbled upon Gramsci, and used the Sardinian’s writings as the basis for his analysis of the Left’s victorious campaign in the “Culture War” in 1993’s See, I Told You So.
What is striking about Bertsch’s analysis is how irritated he is by the notion that the Left might be winning the “Culture War,” how disturbed he is to find that “hegemony” is a game that anyone can play (Gramsci appears to him, disturbingly, as a sellout, much like Nirvana after Nevermind—the example is his), and how perplexed he is that a right-wing loudmouth like Limbaugh somehow exists (as if Limbaugh is not among the most familiar types of all of the American history).
Somewhat more disturbingly, Bertsch seems to empathize with Limbaugh’s traditionalism, implying that if only the Left could stop being so crazy and narcissistic and permissive—if only it could embrace Limbaugh’s polemic minus the mendacity and thuggishness––then the Left might win. Such a perspective permeates also the writings of Thomas Frank from the same period. Like many who cut their teeth in the white punk and post-punk cultures of the Midwest, Frank is a writer with deeply conservative instincts.
Thus, it is not weird or unusual that Lears makes a conservative out of Gramsci. It is, however, as a technical matter, very difficult to make a conservative out of a radical. This lends to Lears’s writing on Gramsci a peculiar quality.
The oddness begins with early passages in the Introduction to No Place of Grace. Lears argues that “the most powerful critics of capitalism have often looked backward rather than forward, directing their fire at the bureaucratic ‘rationality’ common to all corporate systems, indicting capitalist progress for its corrosive impact on family, craft, community, or faith.” In our time, he alleges, “the most profound radicalism is often the most profound conservatism.”
In the first pages of Chapter One, Lears ties this (radical?) bourgeois conservatism to “cultural hegemony.” The term is “easily misconstrued as a mechanistic formula,” Lears writes, but it may be salvaged: “Handled with care, the concept of hegemony offers the best way to understand the role of culture in sustaining inequalities of wealth and power.” Hegemony, in this case, does not require any consciousness of hegemonic operations: “Indeed, (American bourgeois antimodernists) were often unaware of their hegemonic role.”
There is a good deal of confusion here between the various elements that are set in motion, and the kinds of chains of cause and effect that Lears wishes us to follow. That is not the point of this inquiry, however: we are merely trying to show that Lears makes Gramsci into a conservative, and I think these passages help make the case.
It is in the 1985 essay that Lears’s conservative Gramsci appears fully formed—Gramsci has become a thinker with whom one can empathetically process slave paternalism, upper-class antimodernism, agrarian hostility to market society and the city, and working-class “cultures of pathology.” (I choose this last term advisedly, and recommend that readers who think this is a step too far go back and re-read Lears’s essay).
Lears considers it a near-fatal flaw that Gramsci was, “after all, a revolutionary strategist.” Gramsci stands accused of not having committed to what Jameson jokingly calls the contemporary Marxist “New Year’s Resolution” (“I promise to extirpate from myself all traces of teleology, historicism, humanism, representational thought, etcetera, etcetera, but especially to denounce them whenever they are observed in other people”).
Thus, Gramsci did not “entirely exorcise the demon of false consciousness” while he did distinguish “invidiously” between “the existing cultural commitments of workers and those they would form in an imagined revolutionary future.” He believed “that the working class would somehow generate its own “organic intellectuals” who would acknowledge their class ties and cooperate with workers in transforming inchoate discontent into revolutionary proletarian consciousness.” He “still assumed that the need for power in the public sphere was more fundamental than needs fulfilled in the ‘so-called private’ sphere and that the social bonds of class were ultimately more genuine than those of family, community, and religion.” He was “hobbled by a rationalist psychology and a revolutionary teleology.” “He could not,” Lears writes, “approach workers’ discontent as historical evidence open to a variety of interpretations; he saw it as a sign of ‘embryonic’ class consciousness.”
Lears orients his essay towards skeptical readers—while he does not wish to turn Gramsci into “the Marxist you can take home to mother,” he suggests that one need not be a socialist to incorporate some of Gramsci’s “remarkably suggestive insights into the question of dominance and subordination in modern capitalist societies.” Gramsci’s work is not relevant “only to self-consciously Marxist scholars”: the Italian radical can “inspire fresh thought in historians from a variety of intellectual traditions.”
“Gramsci’s most interesting ideas cluster around the concept of cultural hegemony,” Lears argues, “which (Gramsci) used to address the relation between culture and power under capitalism.” “Cultural hegemony,” however, has no precise definition. It has something to do with “consent” and “domination” and the power of symbols: “Ruling groups do not maintain their hegemony merely by giving their domination an aura of moral authority through the creation and perpetuation of legitimating symbols; they must also seek to win the consent of subordinate groups to the existing social order.” (This is the best articulation, I think, of the standard issue/shorthand Gramsci we discussed last week).
Ultimately, Lears’s Gramsci begins to speak like this:
Less powerful people may be thoroughly disaffected. At times they may openly revolt through strikes, factory takeovers, mass movements, and perhaps the creation of a counterhegemony. But normally most people find it difficult, if not impossible, to translate the outlook implicit in their experience into a conception of the world that will directly challenge the hegemonic culture.
And like this:
To resort to the concept of cultural hegemony is to take a banal question––‘who has power?’––and deepen it at both ends. The ‘who’ includes parents, preachers, teachers, journalists, literati, “experts” of all sorts, as well as advertising executives, entertainment promoters, popular musicians, sports figures, and ‘celebrities’––all of whom are involved (albeit often unwittingly) in shaping the values and attitudes of a society (emphasis added).
And like this:
Unlike Marx’s epigones, Gramsci realized that a class interpretation of history does not entail a fixation on the struggle between oppressors and oppressed; rather, as Eugene Genovese has observed, “it may reveal a process by which a given ruling class successfully avoided such confrontations.” And the source of that success may well be in the realm of culture. The concept of cultural hegemony offers intellectual and cultural historians an opportunity to connect ideas with the “social matrix” that they are constantly being urged to locate, without reducing the ideas to mere epiphenomena.
And like this:
People indeed create their own symbolic universes… to make life understandable and tolerable, and those symbolic universes do come to have an apparently “objective” validity, particularly over generations as they spread from scattered individuals to broad social groups. But a given symbolic universe, if it becomes hegemonic, can serve the interests of some groups better than others. Subordinate groups may participate in maintaining a symbolic universe, even if it serves to legitimate their domination. In other words, they can share a kind of half-conscious complicity in their own victimization (emphasis added).
A Gramsci you can take home to the Heritage Foundation.
I suggested in Part One of this essay that this is a Gramsci we can happily discard. The same is certainly true of Jameson’s “liberal” Burke/Gramsci two-headed monster.
Having cleared away these bafflements and bewitchments—which may require a Gramscian theory less dependent on “hegemony” as a terminological focus––we can begin, I think, to think again about the rich analytical gains to be wrought from “articulation.” There is yet Gramscian work to be done, as the ghost of Kenneth Burke continues to remind us:
The complete propagandist, it seems to me, would take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic, and speculative fields as he can handle—and into this breadth of his concerns he would interweave a general attitude of sympathy for the oppressed and antipathy towards our oppressive institutions. In this way he would ally his attitudes with everything that is broadest and fullest in the world today. And he would argue for his political sympathies, not literally and directly, but by the intellectual company he keeps.
 Interestingly, in an analytic short-circuit that we might read as a sign of a certain excessive rigidity on the authors’ part, Laclau and Mouffe do not treat The Southern Question as a text inaugurating Gramsci’s theory of “articulation”––I should emphasize that this is my reading, not theirs. Waving away The Southern Question as a product of a “strictly Leninist approach” (the same could certainly be said of all of Gramsci’s more mature work), Laclau and Mouffe question the political implications of the following passage from Gramsci’s text: “The proletariat can become the leading and dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism, and the bourgeois State. In Italy, in the real class relation which exist there, this means to the extent that it succeeds in gaining the consent of the broad peasant masses.” Laclau and Mouffe question whether this is not still the of “preconstituted sectoral interests” and “class alliance” (66). I want to argue, instead, with Stuart Hall, that Gramsci’s theory “articulation,” as sketched out in The Southern Question, remains Gramsci’s most valuable theoretical legacy
 Some key Gramsci quotes on “articulation”:
The socialist state already exists potentially in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class. To link these institutions, co-ordinating and ordering them into a highly centralized hierarchy of competences and powers, while respecting the necessary autonomy and articulation of each, is to create a genuine workers’ democracy here and now -a workers’ democracy in effective and active opposition to the bourgeois state, and prepared to replace it here and now in all its essential functions of administering and controlling the national heritage (“Workers’ Democracy,” emphasis added)
“What is the meaning of the fact that the Italian people prefer to read foreign writers? It means that they undergo the moral and intellectual hegemony of foreign intellectuals, that they feel more closely related to foreign intellectuals than to ‘domestic’ ones, that there is no national intellectual and moral bloc, either hierarchical or, still less, egalitarian. The intellectuals do not come from the people, even if by accident some of them have origins among the people. They do not feel tied to them (rhetoric apart), they do not know and sense their needs, aspirations and feelings. In relation to the people, they are something detached, without foundation, a caste and not an articulation with organic functions of the people themselves (“Concept of National-Popular,” emphasis added).
“What matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected by the first representatives of the new historical phase. This criticism makes possible a process of differentiation and change in the relative weight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess. What was previously secondary and subordinate, or even incidental, is now taken to be primary––becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex. The old collective will dissolves into contradictory elements since the subordinate ones develop socially” (Selections From the Prison Notebooks, 178; also famously quoted in Stuart Hall’s “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’”).
 “Is political action (in the strict sense) necessary, for one to be able to speak of a “political party”? It is observable that in the modern world, in many countries, the organic and fundamental parties have been compelled by the exigencies of the struggle or for other reasons to split into fractions—each one of which calls itself a “party” and even an independent party. Hence the intellectual General Staff of the organic party often does not belong to any of these fractions, but operates as if it were a directive force standing on its own, above the parties, and sometimes is even believed to be such by the public. This function can be studied with greater precision if one starts from the point of view that a newspaper too (or group of newspapers), a review (or group of reviews), is a “party” or “fraction of a party” or “a function of a particular party” (Selections From the Prison Notebooks, 345).
 James Livingston has recently used this passage to great effect in his work on the obsolescence of the work ethic.
 Jodi Dean has argued that the division of “99% vs. 1%” was precisely such a socialist (Dean would likely say “communist”) hegemonic reorganization of meaning and perception around a new “master signifier” (in this case, a new framing of a political and economic antagonism). Along similar lines, consider recent efforts to publicize and “politicize”—that is render visible to the general public––the injuries of work, which the law has all but rendered complete private and non-tortious, about which Corey Robin has written some excellent essays.
* (An aside. Somehow Hall, the British Cultural Studies founder from Kingston, Jamaica, who eschewed many of the rewards of academic stardom to work in adult education and for UNESCO, became in the 1980s a common target of attacks from both right and left critics of the apparent excesses and bourgeois armchair radicalism of Cultural Studies.
This is only puzzling, of course, if we do not come to terms with the deeply reactionary character, perhaps more apparent in retrospect than at the time, of so many attacks on Theory. Can it be ignored that the The Baffler, the great enemy of “cult studs” in the 1990s, published few (if any) African American writers in its first run? That the briefly hot academic gossip magazine Lingua Franca’s privileged example of Theory-run-amok was the fact that some feminist young people had made a “Judith Butler zine,” as if that was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and not a kind of cool indication of the reach of Butler’s work as a remarkably brave lesbian and feminist public intellectual?
In any event, the sneering premise, common to many traditionalist critics of “fashionable nonsense,” that Theory was some sort of bourgeois conspiracy against the working class, or secret cartel of elite job hoarders, has not panned out. People in the humanities are, to a large extent, annoying; Theory often makes the annoying more annoying. As a tool, however, post-1968 thought has been crucial for just about every conceptual breakthrough in the critical understanding of race, class, gender, sexuality, poverty, war, labor, science and art of the past 30 years.
My guess is that attendees at the recent American Studies Association meeting would report that the people doing the riskiest work on the hardest and most urgent questions in race/class/gender/sexuality studies are also people who engage seriously with Theory. Conservatives might blame that on the perversity of the academic market, but this analysis fails on strict marginalist terms. If these poor souls are simply utility maximizers, suffering through Alain Badiou texts to get plum jobs, why do they not instead read the much easier books of conventional social science, and run regressions until they get tenure?)
Charlie Bertsch, Gramsci Rush: Limbaugh on the ‘Culture War.’ Bad Subjects. Issue 12, March 1994.
Ian Buchanan, ed. Jameson on Jameson: conversations on cultural Marxism. (Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2007).
Kenneth Burke, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” The First American Writers’ Congress. Ed. Henry Hart. (New York: International, 1935).
Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1985).
Michael Denning, The Cultural Front. (New York: Verso, 1996).
Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air (New York Verso, 2002).
Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question. Translated and Introduction by Pasquale Verdicchio (Boca Raton: Bordighera Press, 2005).
William Greider, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).
Stuart Hall “On postmodernism and articulation: an interview edited by Lawrence Grossberg,” in Communications Inquiry 10(2), 1986 (University of Iowa). Reprinted in
Kuan-Hsing Chen, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies.
“Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” In Chen, Stuart Hall.
Fredric R. Jameson “The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Spring, 1978), pp. 507-523.
Ernesto Laclau. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: capitalism, fascism, populism. (London: NLB, 1977).
“Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipation(s). (London: Verso, 1996)
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, “An Interview with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.” http://anselmocarranco.tripod.com/id68.html
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981).
“The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Jun., 1985), pp. 567-593
Rush Limbaugh. See, I Told You So. (New York: Pocket, 1994).
Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime (New York: Verso, 2010).
Jerry Z. Muller, Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Jacques Rancie?re, The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible (London: Continuum, 2004).
Walter Rodney, The Groundings With My Brothers. (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1969)