Some rough thoughts on Gramsci and Discourse

I’m fascinated by discourse: the power it can have in society, how it is created, how it is (re)produced, and the effects it can have. However, I’ve always found myself in an interesting position regarding it. For the ease of argument, I’m a critical realist (whether or not I actually am is still up for debate as far as I’m concerned – I think there’s more we can say about the ideational and material – there’s probably a blog post in there somewhere, but my brain is far too fried for that right now). And though discourse analysis (particularly critical discourse analysis) is comfortably compatible with this position, it becomes harder when you delve further in to discourse theory.

Essentially, you cannot seem to pull away from its ideational nature. Obviously for a lot of scholars this is the point of it. An engagement with Foucault for example renders your position firmly in the realm of discourse, which transcends the material. Yet, I cannot get away from the idea that there needs to be a meaningful connection with the material realm. In this respect, with my use of discourse analysis I feel caught between two worlds. Can discourse be used as a bridge in this sense? I think possibly so.

As you will have picked up from this blog so far, my main theoretical preoccupation at the moment is with Gramsci. I find Gramsci and his works almost have an answer for everything (hyperbole warning!), depending on how you read him. One of the reasons Gramsci has been taken up by so many people (in politics, IR, cultural studies, media studies, communications, sociology etc.) is because of the versatility of his work. Of course, there are plenty of people who will disregard any reading they do not consider to be the ‘true’ reading (whatever that might be. Gramsci is, after all, dead; it’s not like we can ask him). Yet if we do not move past such a position, how are we supposed to create new knowledge? That being said, one cannot agree with every reading of a scholar/theorist out there; eventually you will end up assuming contradictory positions, and that can’t last.

One famous development of Gramsci’s work (and by and large the only real foray into discourse analysis) is through Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I have to say I do not accord with their overall argument. I, like many Gramscians, feel that they have divorced Gramsci too radically from his roots and his own socio-political and theoretical positions. However, we can still take from Laclau and Mouffe. I use Laclau in my thesis to begin tying Gramsci to discourse, through taking some of Laclau’s theoretical frames in order to understand how discourse works and develops. Laclau for example talks of logics in a ‘language game’: these logics make up the ‘grammar’ of talk and text, and essentially define the limits of the possible. As an example, a logic of the free market shuts down debates concerning public ownership of the railways. Currently it’s simply not possible to have such a debate in public and have those ideas and discussions seen as rational, in a general sense.

This links somewhat to my view of Gramsci and discourse. His work is so powerful because it takes in to account state formation and maintenance, and what is needed to achieve this: in a nutshell – spontaneous consent. This consent is developed through hegemony – in terms of discourse, this is the universalising of socio-political and cultural values and norms. Here, there is a strong connection to the material: the development of universal norms effectively limit what is acceptable and unacceptable in society – it is the material outcome of the ideational struggle (such as the ‘language game’). If one steps outside of these norms, there will be consequences. Look to those on welfare. Current discourses dictate that those on welfare are essentially the victims of their own dysfunction (this is somewhat paradoxically reinforced by discourses that the ‘majority of people on welfare want to work’). These people are on welfare because they have not respected these norms. They can then be treated outside these norms. A gainful employee of a company would rightly refuse to work for nothing but expenses; current JSA recipients have no such choice in the matter. They have forfeited their right to be treated within such cultural and value norms.

Furthermore, Gramsci trained originally as a linguist. He was heavily interested in and influenced by linguistics and language. Once you know what you are looking for, it is incredibly easy to spot. Think of how Gramsci talks of coercion and consent within hegemony. Hegemony itself is a great example: it is not simply dominance through the use of force, but through the construction of a socio-political unity in whose creation citizens feel directly responsible for. They have resisted some changes and accepted others. Therefore they ‘won’ their battles and will accept the system as a whole. How much of this resistance took place on the streets, or in direct conflict with other groups? An essential element in developing hegemony is the construction of identity, and the construction of identity is the direct result of the interaction between ideational and material forces.

Hegemony relies on the surreptitious and the clandestine – people must voluntarily submit to authority. Revolutions breed counter revolutions, whilst fighting and violence can breed instability. Yet alter the culture, and you alter people’s reactions and beliefs; they can do the hard work for you. And this has undoubted material effects: if we raise taxes the rich will leave and the economy will collapse = low corporation tax. We can’t afford to pay people decent wages because the economy will collapse = 6% cut in wages in real terms. Why don’t people rebel? It’s pointless, it’s not British, we’d only hurt ourselves in the long run. Conversely this throws in to sharp question for me the role of revolutions in the first place. There needs to be fertile ground for any change to take place. That involves building the right conditions. Those conditions cannot be built if they are antithetical to the cultural and socio-political norms in place. Therefore, one must fight hegemony with hegemony.

There is certainly fertile ground to develop an explicitly Gramscian approach to discourse analysis. It’s something I am looking forward to having a go at!

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9 Comments

  1. “There needs to be fertile ground for any change to take place. That involves building the right conditions. Those conditions cannot be built if they are antithetical to the cultural and socio-political norms in place. Therefore, one must fight hegemony with hegemony.”

    Ah, the old manoeuvre vs position dichotomy.

  2. I’m not sure how dichotomous it actually is. The ‘fight hegemony with hegemony’ idea is essentially referring to counter-hegemony – so in that respect, the war of position/manoeuvre idea is correct. But there’s an inherent relationship between using the values within particular historical moments to build and develop new subaltern movements. So I don’t think its main feature should be thought of in a ‘vs’ paradigm…

    …unless I’ve misunderstood you?

  3. “Of course, there are plenty of people who will disregard any reading they do not consider to be the ‘true’ reading (whatever that might be. Gramsci is, after all, dead; it’s not like we can ask him). Yet if we do not move past such a position, how are we supposed to create new knowledge?”

    “I find Gramsci and his works almost have an answer for everything (hyperbole warning!), depending on how you read him”.

    That strikes me as being bibliomancy or an argument for bibliomancy. After reading your post I was reminded of one of Plato’s dialogues called Ion. Ion is a rhapsode who specialises in reciting the works of Homer and on the basis of being able to recite Homer he claims to be a competent general and would have claimed much more “knowledge” had Socrates not cut him off. I’m sure that Ion would have said “Homer has an answer for almost anything, depending on how you read him” since Homer wrote widely enough to provide enough material to comment on just about everything. Can you really say on the basis of reading Gramsci, or others, that you can create new knowledge simply from the reading? Where does this knowledge come from?

    1. You’ve brought up a really interesting point/question here.

      Regards reading Gramsci, the point I’m making is that the knowledge created is subjective to the reader. In this respect, I am certainly more relativist/interpretivist than others. Yet I think with Gramsci this is even more important, and even more the case.

      Gramsci’s writings are famously cryptic and unorganised, due to the context within which he was writing. The 71 version of the prison notebooks are just an editor’s arrangement of the notes. So when we read, we have to bear this in mind. Also because of this, when we take Gramsci’s ideas we cannot just import them; we have to appropriate them – take a concept, draw out as much of the context as we can, and build up the position through deliberation and the dialectic. So on that basis, we can never leave an argument simply as ‘Gramsci said this, Gramsci said that’ (See my NLP piece, and the blog piece on Gove vs Gramsci for an example).

      One cannot necessarily create new knowledge simply from reading a text. The reading element is laying the foundations for the creation of knowledge through the appropriation, implementation and adaptation of already-existing knowledge. I am certainly not arguing that if you read Gramsci you come to ‘the truth’ and can answer every question. In fact, Gramsci himself would have derided this position, as it is entirely ignorant of the historical moment, and the fact that language (and therefore text) is a product of spontaneous grammars developed through material relations (class, production etc.).

      This seems to stand at odds with my ‘Gramsci almost has an answer for everything point’. Hyperbole aside (as this is an obvious exaggeration), I think the point still stands that Gramsci can be as diverse as his readership. We don’t have to look far to see this: far left activist groups take one particular view of him, cultural theorists/sociologists etc take another view, poststrcuturalists (like Laclau and Mouffe) take yet another view. Neo-Gramscians in IR take a further distinct view.

      I think that with an appreciation of the context, and an acknowledgement that to an extent concepts may have to be reconfigured to suit new contexts/historical moments, the ambiguity of some of Gramsci’s writings makes him a very flexible thinker.

      1. I find this problematic; again, it still strikes me as being bibliomancy. That a writer is ambiguous is not a sign of their flexibility; it’s a sign that their writing, for what ever reason, is poor or their ideas not fully fleshed out. Again, that that many people can interpret a text to suit themselves is not evidence of the validity of the ideas, or skill of the writing in that text, anymore than the fact that horoscopes are so vague that anyone can read into them what they will is evidence that astrology is correct or that astrologers are skilled writers.

        In fact I’d argue that if it’s the case that a writer presents their ideas in such an ambiguous manner that they are capable of very flexible interpretations then actually the ideas themselves cease to have primary importance. What comes to the fore is the ideas that the reader is able, because of the ambiguity, to project onto that writer, much in the same way that a hexagram from the I Ching is largely devoid of meaning except what the mind of the reader projects onto it from their personal context.

        It strikes me that Gramsci’s value is not what he said, nobody really knows what he said after all, but what people can project onto him now and make him appear to say. It is not that Gramsci has an answer for everything, it’s that his readers have an answer for everything. It’s not that Gramsci is flexible, it’s that his work is vauge and his readership diverse. He himself, and his ideas, are effectively lost and so largely irrelevant to present discourse and all that matters is what is divined from his text as Ion divines military knowledge from Homer.

        I think I can perhaps also invoke Meno’s paradox here, or a variant of it, in that if the correct interpretation of Gramsci is unknown, by which I of course mean Gramsci’s interpretation, how can any interpretation or answer be credited to Gramsci? In this situation it cannot be reasonably be said that Gramsci is flexible or that Gramsci has answers for everything because we cannot be sure the Gramsci is flexible or does have all the answers.

        Gramsci is therefore, it would seem, just a useful reference, a veiled argument from authority for his readers own ideas just as Ion’s ideas on generalship are not Homer’s, but his own.

      2. Hi Alex,

        I’m going on holiday today and won’t be near a computer, and I certainly won’t do your comment justice if I reply hastily to it now. If you don’t mind, I’ll reply in a week or so. In fact, this might need an article of its own!

  4. The position that “It strikes me that Gramsci’s value is not what he said, nobody really knows what he said after all, but what people can project onto him now and make him appear to say” accords far too much emphasis to how the reader receives Gramsci without any consideration for his text and context. I think, if I may say, that Chapter 2 of *Unravelling Gramsci* provides some rather crucial pointers to the interpretative controversies of reading texts. Further, my article in the latest issue of Historical Materialism – http://bit.ly/15ySOhp – gets beyond the notion that “all that matters is what is divined from his text”. This is a ludicrous approach to the history of ideas. That’s a polite way of saying that this position is, quite frankly, a load of old bull! In my recent HM article I relay issues about establishing meaning by 1) interpretation; 2) appropriation; or 3) negotiation; drawing these insights from my colleague Tony Burns. According all the ground to the reader is interpreting by appropriation. Establishing meaning by interpretation upholds the dubious view of seeking the ‘truth’ in texts, clearly to be rejected. Negotiation travels between text and reader. Gramsci’s approach to reading Shakespeare, for example, is on the terrain of negotiation; and his insights here are crucial – covered in the above chapter of Unravelling Gramsci. We should negotiate with Gramsci, not run with him how we please. Different readers can generate alternative readings of text (notably in different places and times) but there is still the text itself. That Macbeth murders King Duncan in the eponymous tragedy and not in Romeo and Juliet is significant, or one would have thought so…

    1. “The position that “It strikes me that Gramsci’s value is not what he said, nobody really knows what he said after all, but what people can project onto him now and make him appear to say” accords far too much emphasis to how the reader receives Gramsci without any consideration for his text and context.”

      Not in the context of

      “I think the point still stands that Gramsci can be as diverse as his readership. We don’t have to look far to see this: far left activist groups take one particular view of him, cultural theorists/sociologists etc take another view, poststrcuturalists (like Laclau and Mouffe) take yet another view. Neo-Gramscians in IR take a further distinct view.”

      And

      “I think that with an appreciation of the context, and an acknowledgement that to an extent concepts may have to be reconfigured to suit new contexts/historical moments, the ambiguity of some of Gramsci’s writings makes him a very flexible thinker.”

      And

      “Of course, there are plenty of people who will disregard any reading they do not consider to be the ‘true’ reading (whatever that might be. Gramsci is, after all, dead; it’s not like we can ask him). Yet if we do not move past such a position, how are we supposed to create new knowledge?”

      There were a few others but that would be labouring the point. The OP is of the opinion that there isn’t a true reading of Gramsci but there are multiple interpretations of him, depending on the viewpoint of the reader. In that case the value of Gramsci is patently not his true reading, but that he is able to be interpreted in many ways and perhaps if there was a definitive interpretation, a true and indisputable, reading, that Gramsci’s work might be considerably less popular because his flexibility would be impaired.

      The other thing I was commenting on is the idea that interpretation is knowledge, which is why I brought in Ion. It may be the case that none of the interpretations of Gramsci would constitute knowledge or only some would constitute knowledge and the rest would be well referenced opinion. The only thing that can be said for definite is that not all of the interpretations can be knowledge.

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