Gramsci, Discourse (and Language) Cont’d.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece outlining some nascent thoughts concerned with using a Gramscian theoretical frame to structure discourse analysis. These thoughts came from my PhD work, where I use Gramsci to inform Critical Discourse Analysis, but also from thoughts on the possibility of moving from a discourse analysis informed by Gramsci to a Gramscian discourse analysis.

It was certainly useful for me to get some ideas out of my head and see what shape they took when I started writing about them. One of the things I love about writing this blog is that, proper articles aside, the pieces are not overly planned out beforehand; I have a core idea, and sections I (may) want to include, but I then let myself write what I feel, going back to edit if necessary. This is of course a double-edged sword in many ways: on the one hand it lets me see what I’m really thinking and feeling about a subject before it goes through the needed structuring, scrutiny and possibly sanitising. On the other hand it has the potential to put me in a slightly compromising position – publishing thoughts-in-progress can lead to lots of holes in the argument, or indeed the collapse of the entire premise. Yet, applying these thoughts to scrutiny is perhaps more useful than publicising fully formed, polished pieces – it’s like a work in progress session to which every one is invited.

The piece generated a good bit of discussion on Twitter, as well as comments on this blog. I was provided with a number of things to think about – enough to warrant a blog piece of its own. In this piece I will try to answer the questions – or at least outline my current thinking on the problems contained within them.

The first question comes via Twitter from Adam Morton:

Could your framing still be on the terrain of a binary dualism i.e. ideational and material? In that you are referring to “the interaction between ideational and material forces”. What about the internal relation of the “material structure of ideology” (Gramsci, Q3§49)?

Thinking about it, the most straightforward answer I can give here is: yes. Although it is not my overall intention to see it this way; this would obviously be at odds with a lot of critical theory and Gramscian thought that I have used. When I use these terms in my thesis for example, I do discuss ‘relationships’ but I discuss them within the context of the hermeneutic circle – where one cannot understand the whole without observing its parts and vice versa. In my mind there is a relationship between these individual parts, and between the parts and the whole, but they can of course lose some or all of their meaning without one another. They are also, to an extent, one and the same. So for me the material structure of ideology can be separated in to two things for the purposes of analysis, but cannot be understood properly unless they are in their combined state.

However, the biggest problem for me is that through doing this I run the risk of presenting positions that look to treat them as entirely separate, which is not particularly useful for my understanding of them. If I were to visualise what I’m talking about, the closest I could probably come is to talk of an exploded diagram:

I suppose this would be fig 1.

So, without all of these parts, this engine won’t work. To get philosophical for a moment, without all the parts, can it even really be called an engine? What is art? This is how I imagine the hermeneutic circle in my head, which is what I use to make sense of concepts and the context within which they operate. The material and ideational are, to some extent, different sides of the same coin (which we could call ideology – hence the ability to have a discussion about the material structure of ideology). Yet when discussing discourse, the tendency is to (over)privilege the ideational – particularly if one goes as far as to say all things are discourse. Though I am not yet fully convinced that I know where I stand regards the existence and stability of ‘truth’, I am convinced that materialism is still important, as it is one’s reference to the ‘real’ world – the world they interact with and know. It may be interpreted through language – which of course gives discourse and the ideational more generally immense power – but again these interpretations are based on what we know of the world around us.

This does quite a good job of explaining the importance of the relationship – we cannot describe a church unless we know what a church is. When we describe it, we can either describe its architecture, the image of what is inside it, or its purpose. But we need to have interacted with it in the first place, on whatever level, to be able to interpret, and subsequently explain/describe it.

The other problem I have when I start discussing the ‘relationship’ between the ideational and material, and how they are also two sides of the same coin, is that I get trapped in circular discussion and logic. This is what I think I’m doing now, so I will leave the discussion of the first question here.

Tom Brock, also on Twitter, asked:

What “shape” does hegemony take? How is it transmitted?

On a first reading of this question, I was stumped. How is it transmitted? My first thought – and indeed my fallback position – is covered by this:

‘I think you need to be more explicit here in step two’

Thinking about the question properly, I think it links quite nicely with Adam’s question regarding treating the ideational and material as a binary. Hegemony itself isn’t transmitted – it is built through struggle and political strategy. Yet a key  element of such struggle and strategy is found in language. Language in the form of discourse can condition people in to legitimising certain actions and taking on board certain values. The language of ‘community/ies’ in the UK’s community cohesion policy is a good example of this: asking ‘communities’ to behave in a certain way, in a framework of rights and responsibilities effectively conditions migrant ‘communities’ to behave in a particular way that is more acceptable to the ‘host’ community. Similar things can be seen in the language of welfare policy – particularly thanks to the proliferation of discourses of (un)deserving and dysfunction, accelerated by New Labour and maintained by the coalition.

In other words, I see the transmission of hegemonic language and discourses as central to the construction of a hegemonic state/culture/project/group etc. Yet certain conditions have to be in existence for this to happen. For example, it is much easier for a powerful group to disseminate hegemonic language than it is for a subaltern group (though subvertising is a good example of how linguistic and discursive counter-hegemony can be developed). The material conditions have to be right. This brings us back to the ‘relationship’ between the ideational and material.

There are a few more questions I still need to answer, but as this post is getting a tad on the long (and wordy) side, I will stop this one for now, and leave more answers to a second post. If people want, I could probably expand on my answer to Tom about the transmission of hegemony. I will also discuss Alex’s questions, left in the comments of the previous article, on ‘bibliomania’ and particularist readings of texts.

I hope this goes some way to answering the questions above!



  1. Great blog post, Matt. I would add a few immediate thoughts by way of quick response. I like your emphasis on “a relationship between these individual parts, and between the parts and the whole”. Perhaps Bertell Ollman’s book *Alienation* would ground this? This was the main inspiration behind the ISQ article I wrote with Andreas Bieler. Subsequent to that being published I came across David Harvey’s use of the philosophy of internal relations (Ollman) in *Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference*. So both Ollman and Harvey usefully plough the dialectic of internal relations. Methodologically, Philip McMichael’s method of incorporated comparison is also part of this line of thinking.

    Seeing the material and the ideational as “two sides of the same coin”, as you put it, still reminds me too much of a dualism, in the style of Anthony Giddens’ approach to the agent-structure debate.

    Also, on how to interpret a church and its architecture, how about this as a starting position?:

    “an architect can be judged a great artist on the basis of his plans even without having materially built anything. The relation between the project and the material building is the same as that between the ‘manuscript’ and the printed book. The building is the social objectification of the art, its ‘diffusion’, the chance given to the public to participate in its beauty (when it is such), just like the printed book . . .[but] the architect does not need the building to ‘remember’, but the plan’ (Gramsci, Q3Note155).

    Ideas, one could sum up, are material. Not sure if this is bibliomania! I’ll look that up in relation to your previous post.

    Let’s keep the dialogue going!

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for the post. I am sorry it has taken so long to reply. I have been at work on my own post, which will soon be ready and links in nicely with what you are addressing.

    Let me get something out of the way. I am a critical realist, so when I think about discourse, hegemony, or language, I think in terms of what the conditions of possibility might be for each of these. This often leads me to think about the how social life is organised through the ‘relationship’ between agency, structure and history.

    I would like to suggest that ‘relational emergentism’ is what links the ideational and material. Where the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is based on the theory of supervenience: that lower-level entities (people) and their own unique powers (e.g. the cognitive capacity to form language) give rise to higher-level entities (social structures) and the organisation of social life (which I would argue also includes hegemonic power). Thus, I don’t see the ideational and material as ‘two sides of the same coin’, rather, I would argue that the ideational products to emerge from social interactions are material in their effects. So ideas about resource allocation, for example, are material when actualised through austerity measures. Of course, such ideas are only powerful because of the organisation of social life at the meso level – the markets, hierarchies and networks that provide us with the conditions of possibility for enablement and constraint. With this in mind, I believe that reasons can be causes and, as such, any archive of knowledge that exists – e.g. Thatcherism – can provide ‘the material structure of ideology’ (Gramsci, see above). Though such archives must provide stable principles in order to bring social actors into line with a particular world view.

    The point about the transmission of hegemony – co-optation through coercion+consent – was to spark a question about ontological rigour in social research. How is it that hegemony is transmitted? Or, more precisely, how must the social world be organised for me to have an expectation of what I think is conceivable in terms of my own networks and moral communities? This is where I think hegemony begins, as a reflexive consideration of the normative environments that we encounter daily. Indeed, my expectation of the social world is shaped in terms of my own networks, and I even consent into things that I find contradictory and block my autonomy (e.g. working excessive hour weeks). I think a description of the conditions of possibility for this process is something I am really interested in seeking out.

    Certainly, I would like to know more about what hegemonic language looks like; I can see how ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) might provide a good candidate for creating the conditions of consent for austerity programmes that continue to harm the most vulnerable sectors of society. However, such intentional language has many unintended consequences and I wonder if language itself can be hegemonic, rather than the social conditions within which we exist.

    Thanks again for this. Great timing for me now that I am back to my own research.

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