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  • Antonio Gramsci and Postcolonial Theory:"Southernism"1
  • Timothy Brennan (bio)
Timothy Brennan
University of Minnesota
Timothy Brennan

Timothy Brennan is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Minnesota and Director of its Humanities Institute. He is the author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Harvard UP, 1997) and Salman Rushdie and the Third World (Macmillan, 1989), and the editor and co-translator of Alejo Carpentier's La música en Cuba (U of Minnesota P, 2001). He has edited special issues of The Literary Review ("The Writings of Black Britain," Fall 1990) and of Modern Fiction Studies ("Narratives of Colonial Resistance," Spring 1989). Over fifty of his articles, book chapters, introductions, and reviews have appeared, among them "World Music Does Not Exist" (Discourse, 2001); "Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism" (New Left Review, 2001); "The Illusion of a Future: Orientalism as Traveling Theory" (Critical Inquiry, 2000); and "The Empire's New Clothes" (Critical Inquiry, 2002).


1. I would like to thank Keya Ganguly and Khachig Tölölyan for their help with this essay.

2. I understand "postcolonial studies," then, to be not so much a discrete subliterary field as a collection of attitudes and styles of inquiry arising in a variety of disciplines more or less simultaneously, including anthropology, geography, international studies, history, English, comparative literature, and music. What is typically called "theory"—post-structuralism, primarily—has nevertheless determined its orientation after the mid-1980s.

3. I will cite individual essays to illustrate my points below, but the views I attribute to "postcolonial studies" in a general sense can be found in recent overviews and anthologies. Some examples include Afzul-Khan and Seshadri-Crooks; Moore-Gilbert; Chambers and Curti; and Lowe and Lloyd.

4. An interesting exception is Radhakrishnan (32). His is one of the most independently minded essays on Gramsci in postcolonial studies.

5. There are severe limitations to the prevailing readings of these signature terms. Despite the fact that Gramsci, for example, held a ministerial position in the Italian parliament, the term "hegemony" in postcolonial studies is usually invoked to suggest the one-sidedly ideological element of rule in a specifically non-governmental power. The "subaltern," for its part, is meant to direct the theorist to an oppression distinct from class divisions, tending toward a racial, ethnic, or gendered subjectivity, despite Gramsci's emphasis on "corporatist" organization (which is to say, sectoralist belief-cultures based on flexible class identities). "Passive revolution" in postcolonial theory typically implies a condition of incomplete social transformation resulting from a colonial occupation that has bequeathed the promise (and curse) of modernity, even though Gramsci was positively invested in Fordist modernity. "Common sense," finally, intimates for the postcolonial theorist the innate, undervalued genius of subalternity: that which lies outside of, and above, the theoretical pretensions of Western "reason" (Patnaik 2-10), even though Gramsci sought a pedagogy to break the stranglehold of Church and bureaucracy over the peasantry; loathed Italian clerical reaction; and wrote disparaging comments on the "bookishness" (libresco) of the theoretical avant-garde (their "critical criticism," in his ironic words).

6. In the last ten years, major academic publishing houses in the United States have promised complete (or near complete) editions of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Antonio Gramsci (Stanford UP, Harvard UP, MIT P, Columbia UP). Fredric Jameson, meanwhile, published Brecht and Method (Verso, 1998), and the publications of Mikhail Bakhtin remain in print, and widely read, after the initial enthusiasm for Bakhtin in the 1980s, although now with attention paid to his anti-formalist, Christian socialism, developed in the circles of the Soviet anti-avant-garde to which he was enthusiastically favorable.

7. Nor was this early exegesis limited to Italy. It was the small activist circles of the international Communist movement that disseminated Gramsci's work prior to the 1960s.

8. After placing the manuscripts in a bank vault in Rome, Gramsci's sister-in-law, Tatiana Schucht, sent them to Moscow in 1938 after preparing a catalogue of their contents and numbering them. The exiled leaders of the PCI recognized the importance of the manuscripts even before publication. His friend and the co-organizer of the PCI, Palmiro Togliatti, had read portions...


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