- Comrade Gramsci’s Progeny
No self-respecting piece of work on Antonio Gramsci can fail to mention his famous letter of March 19, 1927 to his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht, in which he announces his desire to “accomplish something fur ewig [for eternity]” Letters 79). If Gramsci had been able to peer into the future and see the kind of work being carried out in his name in the Anglo-American academy over sixty years later, one wonders whether he wouldn’t have had second thoughts about that phrase.
Although Gramsci thought that cultural change tended to take place gradually rather than through “explosions” Prison Notebooks 129), it is hard to imagine what other word to use when surveying the proliferation of material around the figure of Gramsci in the last few years. From so-called “radical democracy” to subaltern studies to cultural studies, Gramsci’s name is evoked, his writings are endlessly analyzed, his legacy is contested (see, for example, Laclau and Mouffe; Golding; Chatterjee; Hall, Hard Road; Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler). The sheer volume of work, and its engagement across a wide range of fields and disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, are no doubt testimony to the enduring relevance of Gramsci’s insights; they also suggest, however, that there is now a Gramsci industry—that within the academic market Gramsci represents significant currency, and writers (and publishers) are cashing in.
Given the institutional politics and economics governing the contemporary academy, these two observations (Gramsci as theoretical model, Gramsci as cultural capital) are inseparable; in this respect Gramsci is no different from other leading (dirigente, to use Gramsci’s own terminology) theorists: Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, and the rest. Attempts to isolate and distill the essence of the “real” Gramsci (that which transcends the brash commercialism of the academic marketplace) can never be innocent or disinterested. Indeed, to dismiss the institutional economy within which one operates serves only to consolidate its regulatory mechanisms, its hegemony (so to speak). What follows is an attempt to address not the question “Who or what is the real Gramsci?” but rather the question “Why and in what ways have Gramsci’s writings enabled and generated so much intellectual work, insightful and mediocre?” Such a question is itself, of course, partly an effect of the Gramsci industry.
The subtitle to Renate Holub’s book, Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism (in the Routledge “Critics of the Twentieth Century” series), indicates some of the reasons why Gramsci has so much political and cultural purchase in the contemporary academy. It also reveals some of the ideological choices involved in the business of reading Gramsci: the book would undoubtedly not have made it this far if it had been called “Antonio Gramsci: Dead Sardinian Communist Militant,” for instance. If we unpack some of the assumptions behind Holub’s title we will find that Gramsci can be mobilized to the extent that he seems to offer political solutions to the predicament of postmodernism (figured as decentering, arbitrary, “merely” discursive), while at the same time appearing to surpass vulgar Marxist economism and historicism. To put it crudely, he is sufficiently Marxist to challenge postmodernism, and sufficiently postmodernist to combat Marxism. Shuttling between the two, the Gramscian writer enjoys great flexibility and space for critique, innoculated against the “worst excesses” of both systems of thought; the question remains, however, whether, in this “interregnum,” Gramsci can be used in this way without “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear[ing]” (Gramsci, Selections 276).
Gramsci and “Us”
Holub’s book is another “Introduction to Gramsci,” and as such, in an already crowded field, it has to differentiate itself and be seen to be offering something new and creative. Thus, she proposes to study Gramsci in the “context of literary criticism, and in the context of Marxist aesthetics” (7). “Until recently,” she observes, “the Gramscian critical...