Sunday, June 11, 2006

Antonio Gramsci on Hegemony and Praxis Consciousness.

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Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), pp. 322-377 ("The Study of Philosophy").
Michael Walzer, "Antonio Gramsci," in The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 2002), pp. 80-101.
Richard Kearney, "Antonio Gramsci," in Modern Movements in European Philosophy: Phenomenology, Critical Theory, Structuralism (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 169-189.
Duncan Kennedy, "Antonio Gramsci and the Legal System," Vol. VI, ALSA Forum No. 1 (1979), also available at: http://duncankennedy.net
Duncan Kennedy, Sexy Dressing etc.: Essays on the Power and Politics of Cultural Identity (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 1-34.
Noam Chomsky, "The Manufacture of Consent," in The Chomsky Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 121-137.
Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 93-125.


One of my frustrations in political discussions is the lack of reading on the part of conversational partners, who are often very bright, but whose thinking and range of references as products of the American educational system is (to put it mildly) much too narrow. The range of acceptable opinions or what is deemed a "rational," "appropriate," or "educated" response to controversial issues -- especially in law school -- is homogenized to an extent that these young people cannot imagine. Hence, the standard complaint from the global community that Americans are all "stupid or shallow" becomes understandable. Young people are too often taught to be "narrow" and stupid by the educational system.

What if learning and scholarship are a kind of child-like playing? Suppose that it is best to encourage free thinking and creativity while providing structure, for young people? Are we confident that the American educational system is encouraging creativity and original thought?

Film producer Ishmael Merchant explained to an interviewer that Americans "are mindless at the movies. They want explosions, there is only a tiny number who come to our beautiful movies." James Ivory, his American partner and a director of many fine films, smiled and added: "We hope the number of Americans attracted to our films will not be tiny."

Meanwhile, these "stupid and shallow Americans" (like me?), are also accused of sinister plots to run the world. So make up your minds. We cannot be morons and evil geniuses at the same time, unless we've had a few drinks and have been taken to dinner. (I'll have the Diet Coke and grilled steak, also a single red rose please, then I am all yours.)

Problems associated with failures in the educational system produce unfortunate tendencies in popular culture.

Gore Vidal explains that "both teachers and taught" in American universities do their thinking within an ideology that excludes much of the most important contemporary scholarship in politics and humanities because it takes place outside the American context.

Noam Chomsky complains about government "manufacturing consent" in a media-saturated environment, where truth often cannot emerge amidst the hue and cry of our 24-hour televised carnival.

The philosopher who can help you to get a grasp on this predicament is Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Gramsci was born in Sardinia. He was an Italian Marxist, whose brave opposition to Fascist rule led to his arrest in 1926. Gramsci spent the final ten years of his life in prison, writing influential works that made him much more of a global influence than he would have been by placing bombs in post offices. His work is more applicable today than ever before.

Marxist theory, especially "Scientific Marxism" -- with its pretensions to deterministic readings of history and rigid dichotomy between base and superstructure in the analysis of culture and law -- is unacceptable to many readers, especially in the aftermath of the absurdities of our times. Materialistic Marxism is discredited and often associated with Marx's later works, especially Das Kapital.

"Humanistic" or "Critical" Marxism, on the other hand, is an idealistic and more fascinating theoretical tradition for many persons looking to make use of social theory to "comprehend our time in thought" (Hegel), while still struggling for greater social justice with individual freedom.

"The goal," as Engels should have said, if he didn't -- "is the unity of theory and praxis."

My suggestion is that you read Gramsci and Lukacs. But in the American context, you will also need Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Angela Davis and Cornel West. Here is my ultimate academic sin: You may wish to put those radical Leftist thinkers together with defenders of freedom in the Conservative American political tradition. You may be surprised how much philosophers from opposite ends of the political spectrum have in common and seem to agree about, once a slight change in terminology is made. Read Bloom, Buckley, Arkes -- even the much-dreaded Leo Strauss -- and take what you can use from them. Their books are meant to be used by YOU. So is everything that I (or anyone else) writes for publication. Take what you need. Help yourself to the ideas that you find attractive.

Also, some of the best political thinking in America is found among philosophers of law. Absence of legal training hinders European scholars seeking to grasp American political philosophy. You need to read Learned Hand, Brennan, Warren Court opinions, Fuller, Dworkin, Posner and Kennedy. Social theologians also come in handy: Thomas Merton and Paul Tillich (who taught in America), and Europeans on the edge of philosophy and theology like Simone Weil and Edith Stein.

For Gramsci, philosophy is a matter of right. It is a vital human need because it creates social reality in every time period or "historical bloc." (See "Why philosophy is for everybody.")

Gramsci was drawing on Hegel, by way of Benedetto Croce, without realizing to what extent the young Marx would have agreed with him and provided helpful materials. Marx's early writings were lost and were not widely available in the teens and twenties of the last century. Gramsci understands the importance of civil society in defining political possibilities, what he calls "hegemony." Gramsci defines "ideological hegemony" as ...

... a phenomenon whereby a dominant class contrives to retain political power by manipulating popular opinion (or what Gramsci refers to as "the popular consensus") in civil society rather than simply by the crude military intervention of the state. Gramsci argued that ideological hegemony is often most effectively sustained through the clever exploitation of religion, education, or popular national cultures. (Richard Kearney quoting Gramsci)

From another angle:

The real bastion of bourgeois power is ordinary life. It is in everyday actions and relations, and even more importantly in the ideas and attitudes that lie behind these, that the hegemony of a social class is revealed. The state cannot be seized until that hegemony has been decisively overcome. (Michael Walzer)

Finally,

Hegemony is very close to our concept of ideology. It is the notion of the exercise of dominion through political legitimacy, rather than through force. Hegemony is the notion of the acquisition [or theft?] of the consent of the governed. (Duncan Kennedy)

This leads to the realization that culture must become a locus of struggle, that is, if we are to have any hope of building a better society. It is not enough to storm the Bastille or toss the first brick at the Winter Palace. The oppression that you struggle against is inside you, not just externalized in some building or courtroom that you can storm. Thank you, Michel Foucault.

Fight to be heard in the public square, also in the classroom, at the dinner table, or at the next party that you attend.

You have already internalized many forms of oppression and control as, say, an African-American woman -- or any woman in U.S. society -- so that your body and self-perception also become places of struggle. A woman's body is an all-too literal "battleground," since efforts are underway to define what a woman may "do" with that body and how it must appear. I mean not just sexually, through cultural or religious pressures -- which would be nothing new -- but also through revisions in law that seek to turn back (or destroy!) the clock on abortion rights. Real women have curves and should not be shamed into life-threatening dieting.

Media images associating Latino masculinity with Desi Arnaz (puffy sleeves, conga drums) or lovers (Valentino to Banderas), reduce you -- as a Latino man -- to something not to be taken seriously. A Latino is someone to laugh at or dismiss as non-intellectual, unimportant, "too stupid to be a philosopher or even a student." Those words are still inside me. Aside from the charge that we are "great lovers" (when they're right, they're right!), there is an important political meaning to these demeaning images and classifications of persons like me.

Dehumanizing or stereotyping is a way of trivializing and marginalizing protests and opposition, a dismissal of people's anger or rage that will only produce pathologies. It is a way of not seeing us. Lurking under the surface of these offensive attitudes is a sexism that never sleeps. An attack on the masculinity of Latino men -- a masculinity which is feared, by the way, as is African-American masculinity, though for very different reasons -- is also an attack on Latina women's self-defined roles as lovers/females.

By being considerate lovers, on the occasions when they are, Latino men who value romance over wealth or power are somehow regarded as "crazy," "unfair," or "fools" by men from other ethnic groups. (See Don Juan De Marco.)

By the same token, African-Americans are traditionally attentive lovers and romantic or powerfully sexual persons, because sexuality is a form of liberation (including spiritual liberation) in sexist/racist society. (See "All You Need is Love.")

Sexual love is a great equalizer. Hence, it is feared. This is especially true when it comes to the sexuality of women. Latinos and African-Americans -- for very different reasons -- are deemed threats to white masculine domination in sexual competition. The solution is to deny masculinity or "feminize" Latinos or (worse) to Lynch African-Americans. Lynching is something which can be accomplished in many ways. African-Americans are still "Lynched" every day in the U.S., in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, in courtrooms and offices throughout the nation. ("America's Holocaust.")

The system promises the man with the most money and status (the whitest, richest male) the greatest sexual success (best looking women).

Annoying minority group members who frustrate or interfere with "delivery" on that promise must be dealt with severely. And they are.

Identity becomes a site of revolutionary struggle, then, because if you accept what the culture tells you that you are -- by not publishing your work, by dismissing you as stupid, by attacking your masculinity, by trivializing and dismissing your arguments in courts or legislatures, by (in the worst scenarios, in the most terrible places) torturing and humiliating you, as a Latino man, then you will destroy yourself.

If you destroy yourself, you solve the problems of the power-structure. Power wins if you accept its version of reality ("Your work is shit and you are shit," a torturer once said to me) and interpretation of your identity. Millions do, usually from sheer exhaustion, ending by destroying themselves through addictions or other pathological behavior reflective of what they are told they must be in American society.

The system of cultural hegemony is designed to produce the self-destruction of millions of human beings who do not fit the reigning social norms or who pose a potential threat to myths of normality and happiness essential to the power-structure's control of private life. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review.")

"Therapists" and other social scientists are part -- sometimes unknowingly, usually knowingly -- of the mechanisms of control or creation of "false consciousness," so is media imagery. "Join a gym and adjust," says your coopted therapist. (That's you, "Terry Tuchin" of Ridgewood, N.J.)

What is called "therapy" in America is often sugar-coated, pleasant (or not-so-pleasant) and subtle social control. But it is still control. It is always brutality with a smile.

Dr. Phil or John Gray's banalities will keep you away from people like Gramsci or Chomsky. Pointless action movies and mindless t.v. will distract you (as distinct from genuine art, like the Matrix films), as corporations pick your pockets and government taps your phone.

You are expected to be frustrated, like a child given ice cream as his toys and family members are taken away. ("'The Adjustment Bureau': A Movie Review.")

Oppressed people must generate organic intellectuals (people like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky or Angela Davis) to resist domination, thus creating alternative narratives of self-definition (Ricoeur), which is another term for "permanent cultural revolution." (See The Prison Notebooks, pp. 241-243.)

As the father of a daughter, I see what sexism and the commodification of feminine sexuality does to young women. This is different from the enjoyment by adults of frank sexual material that celebrates human erotic appetite, often created by women, which is not the state's business. I fight against sexism in my daughter's life. These evils -- all forms of sexism -- have damaged women that I love, for different reasons and in different ways. I think sexism also hurts men.

I try to think of how to use demeaning sexist images for purposes of ridicule and dismantling in order to get as free of them as possible. Reversal is a good technique. The challenge seems overwhelming if one forgets that one is never alone in resisting these means of control. ("Let's Hear it For the Boys" and "Thoughts of a Domestic Revolutionary.")

I cannot post images in this blog today, for example, yet I hope that people will go out of their way to read these posts anyway. I hope readers will find images for themselves -- since I am prevented from doing so -- to accompany the readings and help me to make these points accessible to young people, who are now accustomed to thinking primarily in images. I have also created an MSN group to provide images for these posts. http://www.Critique@groups.MSN.com (MSN Groups and, I am told, MSN have "closed.")

The weapons of class war [revolution] today are not just military and mechanical but perhaps more significantly cultural. ... We must begin with a program of counter-hegemonic consciousness transformation [so as to achieve Sartre's "praxis-consciousness"].

Moral and intellectual reform begins with inner hegemonic struggle, and the new culture is never [entirely] new; it is in large part a rearrangement of ideas already present in the old. Think, for example, of the place of equality in bourgeois and oppositional thought. Equality is a real but distinctly limited value in the hegemonic culture, but it also has larger "Utopian" meanings at least occasionally invoked by ruling intellectuals, if only as a concession to subordinate groups. So it is more generally available, a contested or contestable value -- and the war of position is the name of the contest. Why shouldn't Marxist intellectuals participate in this war as real comrades, democratic philosophers, identifying simultaneously with ideas that are "secondary and subordinate" in the cultural system and with men and women who are "secondary and subordinate" in the social structure? (Gramsci, Michael Sandel and compare Angela Davis.)


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