New York. Click for credits and to enlarge

While replying to Thomas Stazyk‘s comment on a post on Antonio Gramsci I realised it was more convenient to write a new blog post instead.

I usually reply to my readers one by one. Tomorrow it will be the others’ turn.

Explaining Paris Hilton

Thomas. Thank you for an interesting and insightful 795 words! For me, Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture. I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well, but the whole technology thing needs more thought. I’m worried that saying that social media (and reality TV) are vehicles of cultural domination might sound too much like a conspiracy theory. But they certainly do support Gramsci’s view that hegemony is achieved and maintained by consent of the subordinate class.

MoR. “Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture.”

You may refer to Gramsci’s study of Marx’s superstructure. Gramsci criticises the notion of a superstructure as simple ‘skin’ of a society, and of a socio-economic base, the ‘skeleton’, that is what really matters by determining the conscience etc.

“Women – Gramsci said – fall in love with the skin, not the skeleton”. Seduction, again, ie cultural hegemony.

[Update: ie people are ‘seduced’ by the ‘skin’ or cultural elements (superstructure) more than by the ‘skeleton’ – socio-economic class structure. It is a metaphorical way of stressing the importance of cultural hegemony, of men’s choices – free, non mechanically predetermined by the economical class structure – and of ‘intellectuals’ in history.]

I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well.

I’ll get to Facebook and Paris Hilton. But I’ve got to follow a long forgotten reasoning.

Since the core of Gramsci’s reflection is the superstructure – intellectuals being like the agents of it –, by analyzing both the high and the pop culture(s) of several countries he strongly advocates a blend of the two levels.

The intellectuals, he argues, should not be separated– as it always was the case of Italy – from the ‘elementary passions’ of the common people. A folk should be culturally united, as a tendency at least.

Greek Tragedy & Shakespeare

Such culture [update: of a high level, where the ‘intellectuals’ and the common people interact in a two way process] he calls ‘national-popular’ (complex notion to say the truth.) Among the best examples of it Gramsci indicates the Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan theatre, where the majority of the people were involved in a great experience. To him the only Italian example of such ‘artistic unity’ of the people [update: high-low interaction] is the Italian opera (I may possibly add, since I saw it with my eyes, the ‘popular’ love for Dante one can still experience in many parts of Tuscany and elsewhere.)

The Italian Renaissance to him, though sublime, was too elitist [update: ie no participation of the populace, no high-low interaction] and one cause in the end of the Italian decline. The protestant Reformation saw instead great popular participation (Renaissance-Reformation are to Gramsci also dialectic metaphors – in the Hegelian sense of thesis and antithesis – that he uses abstractly.)

Even if at first the Reformation – Gramsci argues – was like a return to the dark ages, it later liberated people’s energies by reaching higher levels of culture and contributing to the construction, among the rest, of the American nation.

US Cultural Hegemony

San Francisco Fire Department Engine 22 (1893). Click for credits and to enlarge

The first British immigrants to the New World were in fact an intellectual and especially moral elite – Gramsci argues. Defeated religiously in their fatherland but not humiliated, they brought to the New World great will, moral energy and “a certain stage of European historical evolution, which when transplanted by such men into the virgin soil of America, developed – and continues to develop – the forces implicit in its nature but with an incomparably more rapid rhythm than Old Europe”, where the relics of the past generated opposition giving to every initiative the equilibrium of mediocrity …

We all know what happened, how Europe went down and how the US have become the dominant power.

Following Gramsci’s reasoning, the United States exert yet today a cultural hegemony over the world, at both a high and a popular level of culture. Their universities are excellent in all fields (they even have among the best Dante’s specialists!) etc., intellectuals are not that detached from the people (they tend to ‘disseminate’ knowledge in their books, not like here in Italy although things are changing a bit – while France, a not at all bad ‘national-popular’ place in the 19th century – see 19th-century French literature! – is nowadays possibly even more elitist than we are, but I’m not sure.)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Not concluded. Tomorrow, Thomas and you folks. I am European, not American. And my dog Lilla is recovering but she is 15 years old.

ψ

See next installment:

Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

35 thoughts on ““America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci

  1. I’m worried that saying that social media (and reality TV) are vehicles of cultural domination might sound too much like a conspiracy theory…

    That’s exactly what it sounds like. What do we learn about society from such a statement? That is, do we learn anything, or do we merely “discover” more evidence to confirm what we already “know” to be true?

    I don’t think the “masses” are passive receptors of messages and indoctrination from on high. On the other hand, most people don’t think too critically about the media they “consume.” The situation is more complex than any one-way scenario allows.

    Finally, no regime rules without consent of the ruled. The consent might be “given” simply by passive acceptance, but that constitutes an assessment that it is good enough to accept, not bad enough to fight against. England ruled India with a few tens of thousands of British troops. That was only possible with India’s consent of some sort. The numbers were obviously against them, big time! The fact that the ruled have a choice, even when a gun is put to their heads, is shown by the fact that now and then people make the choice to risk getting shot just to rebel. Most of the time it just doesn’t seem worth it…a rational choice. Pascal understood this.

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    1. England ruled India with a few tens of thousands of British troops. That was only possible with India’s consent of some sort.

      I have been to India a few times. One cannot imagine how Victorian India still is in some way. This hegemony was possibly ‘selective’, ie related to the modern contribution the British had brought: modern laws, trains, a unifying language, organization, the creation of an Indian class of Indian cadres etc., and it didn’t modify much the core of Indian ancient culture.

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  2. Will someone kindly explain this business of women falling in love with the “skin?”

    That sounds about as intellectually astute as Otto Jespersen saying that Northern European languages (and by implication, Northern European societies) were more “masculine” because fewer of their words ended in vowels.

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    1. “I don’t think the “masses” are passive receptors of messages and indoctrination from on high. On the other hand, most people don’t think too critically about the media they “consume.” The situation is more complex than any one-way scenario allows.”

      And this is the flaw with Gramsci’s (and most other totalitarian theorist’s) ideas throughout history. He saw only one half of what is a duplex process of interaction between the ruler and the ruled. “The masses” are not passive receptors of hand-me-down ideas. Popular culture, individuals, interest groups all contribute and want to be heard and have their perceived needs fulfilled.

      “The fact that the ruled have a choice, even when a gun is put to their heads, is shown by the fact that now and then people make the choice to risk getting shot just to rebel.”

      Taking control of the organs of communications or the controls of government are indeed ways to establish powerful platforms from which to influence huge numbers of people, but by way of example for all of Nicolai Ceausescu’s accumulated power, his failure to listen and respond appropriately had fatal results for him. It is very much a two way street that needs to be recognized as such by democrats and tyrants both.

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      1. It is very much a two way street that needs to be recognized as such by democrats and tyrants both.

        I agree, but Gramsci, allow me, is for that two way thing. Pls read my reply below to you all.

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  3. @Lichanos
    @Sledpress
    @Zeus

    Hey, I didn’t even finish my post – my fault – and you start shooting at me?

    Gramsci is a Marxist, so the conquest of power by the working class is one of his aims. But today he is not read because of THAT I do believe.

    Cultural hegemony you more or less see it as concerted, premeditated, totalitarian, one-way cultural domination. It’s not that, or Gramsci wouldn’t have a reader after 1989. As I said, there must be reasons why he’s instead more popular than ever after communism debacle.

    I mean – and here we may have a problem of cultural mutual comprehension – the way you put it it’s like Pericles invited Socrates, Herodotus, Sophocles, Euripides, Phidias etc. to sit at a table over wine from Chios and said to them:

    “Ok, let’s now construct Athens’ 5th century cultural hegemony for the years to come – within Athens as a class dominance, without it as imperialism: so you write this, you sculpt that, and people 1) will obey us and 2) will sing Athens’ never-ending praises!”

    It’s NOT THAT, G’s cultural hegemony. Besides, who could carry out such ‘conspiracy’ on a world-wide scale, or at any scale? Not even the United States could carry that out, since real love cannot be bought, forced top-down. Seduction is a two-way process, and Sophocles etc., would he have been loved by Athens’s people if he didn’t express at a higher level their deep (‘elementary’, Gramsci calls them) feelings?

    Cultural hegemony seen that way (as propaganda from above etc.) is a cardboard concept good for nothing. G’s Hegemony is ‘seduction’ de facto [but it can be helped a bit, ok]. And the power of Gramsci’s ideas, according to critics – and to my more humble direct experience- – is that, despite his believing in a utopia, he’s pretty realistic, way beyond Marx, plus offering thousands of real-life examples that give flesh to his ‘tools’.

    Well, I love Gramsci, I’m not perfect, it’s my story :mrgreen:

    No easy author tho, being fragmentary – but a 1000-pages *Dizionario Gramsciano* published a few months ago by Carocci and the IGS (International Gramsci Society) is a good orientation tool.

    So, whether one likes it or not – I’m personally embarrassed the Italian culture is heralded today by a Marxist, it’s the measure of our decadence – people seem to find his works useful for grasping some of today’s complexities.
    __________

    Let’s face it, apart from historical interest (and small groups of die-hard morons), who the hell cares today about original communist ideas (like, undeniably, Marx’s are)? Not even the Chinese do!

    (I know Lichanos, you love Marx, nobody’s perfect even in the New World … 😉 )

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    1. I think the ideas of “hegemony” and “dominance” need a close analysis. They are shorthand for all sorts of partially formed notions. Everyone thinks they know what they mean, they are so simple, but in society, even ancient society, it is a very complex system. (Sort of like the relationship of CO2 and global climate – it seems simple, but it’s not.)

      Zeus’ comments are right on.

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      1. If you refer to G’s concepts, they seem easy, but are not, and Gramsci is not less complex than Kant or Hegel, since he sits on their shoulders. But, differently from them, he may provide today analysis tools for understanding whether at present America (and the entire West) – in a rapidly changing world, with powerful civilisations about to re-surface – are ‘seductive’ enough for the majority of the world population.

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        1. If you refer to G’s concepts…

          Haven’t read him, will eventually, was referring to those concepts in general. Didn’t mean to imply that his concepts were over simple.

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    2. Oh, I wasn’t attacking you, I was just puzzled by the comment attributed to Gramsci himself (about whose greater output I don’t feel informed enough yet to comment). One thinker after another makes me spit my beer, male scholars of all stripes, presenting an interesting, astute and well thought out argument and then injecting completely WEIRD remarks about women, as if no women were among his listeners, readers, or friends.

      I say things about men sometimes but not as a footnote to an intellectual position.

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      1. Sorry if I gave the impression to be upset. I was / am not. Should have added a laughing emoticon after the words “you start shooting at me”

        I understand what you mean. Gramsci was no man to insert weird remarks on women though. My translation possibly created a problem. I don’t know all possible connotations of the word ‘skin’ in English (Italian ‘pelle’).

        ‘Women’ to him was a metaphor for ‘the people’. ‘Skin’ for the Marxist notion of superstructure (ideas, policies, conscience, cultural stuff). ‘Skeleton’ (covered by the skin) for the Marxist notion of ‘base’, or economy.

        To Marx the ‘skin’ or superstructure (hence the conscience etc.) was totally determined by the ‘skeleton’ or socio-economic level (classess). But Gramsci, who preferred instead an interaction between the 2 elements, meant: People (women) are ‘seduced’ by the ‘skin’ – or cultural elements: superstructure – more than by the ‘skeleton’ – socio-economic class structure. It is a metaphorical way of stressing both the importance of cultural hegemony and of influence of men’s choices – free, non mechanically predetermined – and of intellectuals in history.

        That G preferred to invoke women in such a metaphor it is possibly because he was a man and it was more effective to him. Hormones count in thought too. And yes, at that time – Italy’s 30s – there were more chances his words to be read by a male population, although he would have never offended women. He was a ‘man without a father’ btw, ie he hated his father and totally adored his mother, the real big column of his family.

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        1. It’s funny how men seem to think of women as the more impressionable and pliant sex.

          In a world that is only gradually ceasing to treat women with hostility and suspicion, most acquire the intuitive survival skills of cornered rats.

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          1. I don’t know. Italian women arrived late in comparison with US women, but now they are strong, even tho Berlusconi has given them a bit of a blow (it will pass.) In my family ‘I’ sometimes feel an impressionable rat with 10 women cornering me with occult powers I’ll never have. I accept it, and they won’t eat me up, plus I have no cats. I mean, as a rat you risk more given your home feline population 🙂

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    3. Whoa! Easy MOR, we don’t shoot at people, especially not our gracious host. We leave that shooting guns business to the Bolsheviks.

      I cheerfully acknowledge Gramsci’s contributions. The man established a working vocabulary and a framework by which we can discuss and partly understand culture and classes and even group dynamics in a cultural “political conversation.” But like Plato, or Socrates, or Ceasar or Xenophon Gramsci was a believer in authoritarianism.

      He simply was, and his vast understanding of the complexity and interaction of the ruled and rulers was undermined, flawed is a good word indeed, by that pledge of his soul to totalitarian government (in his case communism) as the logically correct answer to the problems which he saw and I believe presented in a useful working theory. Ultimately, the right people get into power and the communications are one way. He probably never saw himself as an advocate of a system just as closed as Benito’s but then again the only working version of his system in power at the time was killing millions of people by starvation, forced labor, or vraiment d’être fusillé so he certainly couldn’t have been too naive about what it would take to achieve compliance with his ideology.

      We take the good, separate it from the bad, and make what use of the good that we can. We do so with caution because we know that the origins of these ideas or concepts were tainted and that there is a risk that comes with using ideas that came into being twinned with bad ideology or in the case of America the ideas of liberty that were paired with a ferocious defense of the institution of slavery.

      We must speak to the flaws honestly so that we are able to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” After all, Americans love our Founding Fathers, but we acknowledge that the institution of slavery polluted and stained our nation’s early years. I merely point out that we must do the same with Gramsci’s theories so that we take what is good from them while leaving the bad behind.

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      1. But it would be nice that other countries acknowledge their own role in the slave trade including European powers. America seems to be the only one facing its past to a fault on this front.

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    1. Heh! Here’s a challenge for you: who used the phrase “Jespersen on toast”?

      “Growth and Structure Of The English Language” is luscious despite gender bias.

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  4. OOh! I have to take a deep breath when I come here. First, I have to reduce the static and realign the frequencies just to see the picture you are all so cleverly painting. I’m joking! The arguments were cogent and impeccable. I had a tough time following them because I lack the basic knowledge of Signor Gramsci’s philosophy.

    I came to thank you, Giorgio, for your visit, your generous sprinkling of compliments, your erudite pelle!

    Frankly, if we reduce the argument to understanding the spread of ideas, then we can add our two bits.

    I can tell you that America is more about live and let live than any other place on earth. We basically listen to anyone who has a good proposition. We may not keep up with world news, or political theories, but we are hard core pragmatic. We’ll show up to vote only if something on the ballot irks us. We have some of the smallest turn out in the free world.

    If there is one thing that connects us all, is our common experiences that reward hard work and small town values. Our little town that graduates twentyfive students this June will hand out fifty thousand dollars of community dollars in scholarships. That’s a small town value we believe in.

    Just another perspective.

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    1. Thanks for being here Rosaria!

      We may not keep up with world news, or political theories, but we are hard core pragmatic.

      I think pragmatism to be a strength and a weakness. People in the Italian South – that you left at 20 – are stuck economically, and are all but pragmatic, but in a bar or a train they ready to speak about the big issues, no matter their culture. No idea what is better.

      If there is one thing that connects us all, is our common experiences that reward hard work and small town values.

      Small town values are the spine of every nation.

      Ciao!

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  5. MoR–Thank you for another thought provoking exploration! I look forward to the rest. You have added considerable richness to the initial discussion. I probably need to (but won’t) do a post to try to synthesize the interesting comments that your post has generated. Lichano, you are so right to say that these concepts and terms are complex and a one sided discussion in a blog comment doesn’t give the opportunity for follow up questions to tease out the nuances of how a person is using a term or emphasizing a specific aspect of an idea. With respect to my “conspiracy theory” about social media and reality TV being implements of cultural domination, I am attempting to consider how consumerism evolves as part of the superstructure in a hyper capitalistic society and that participation in the consumerism results in a self-circumscribing of cultural options/opportunities and the loss of artistic innovation in a way that reflects cultural domination–in this case self inflicted. I am also considering Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital.

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    1. I cannot much apply Gramsci to the US (I have been generic in my follow up post on Gramsci, and hope I have not offended Americans) since I’d need a much better knowledge of America and I should re-study Gramsci, whose ideas are like incorporated in my thought and often unsaid. in this new post on G I have tried to explain how Gramsci’s national-popular culture ideal could shed light on the present low cultural level of modern societies (Italy has Berlusconi, OMG)

      I am attempting to consider how consumerism evolves as part of the superstructure in a hyper capitalistic society and that … consumerism results in a self-circumscribing of cultural options/opportunities and the loss of artistic innovation in a way that reflects cultural domination–in this case self inflicted.

      I quite agree. Lack of innovation in movies, literature, any type of artistic expression.

      Bourdieu is quite interesting. He and the British and American ‘Cultural studies’ [the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)] have emphasized the possibility, by individuals, to be independent from factors like class, gender, economy (the base) and make their own free choices. A sort of superstructure’s revenge in which Gramsci has played a part. I had a look at Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of ‘cultural capital’ and ‘field’. Stimulating indeed.

      I don’t think writing a post on all this would be a bad idea. I continuously write posts on debates we make here or elsewhere

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  6. We also need to clarify whether we are talking about systems of government, economies or cultural/artistic activities. I’m limiting myself to cultural and artistic issues.

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    1. I’m limiting myself to cultural and artistic issues.

      I too, but in previous posts on Gramsci I have considered also aspects like democracy for example.

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  7. I’m late to the dance, as usual, but I want to address the title attributed to Gramsci. I agree with the sentiment but judging from what little I know of Gramsci I think he means it in a way completely different from how Americans view it.

    That is, being a Marxist he sees American “collectivism” as a sign that his theories can work if properly inputed with the right society.

    However, America’s greatness is rooted in the idea that the sovereign self forming that collectivity drives its greatness. Not the state or some other power. In other words, it’s the collective free will in a classical liberal construct that made America the greatest nation in human history.

    Of course, I am just assuming here.

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    1. Hi Commentator.

      I think we agree. The title referred to collectivism not in the sense, for example, of ‘soviet collectivism’, but in the sense of some organized central effort made by the founding Fathers who channelled the individual free efforts thus creating a constitution and a state.

      I agree – and Gramsci agrees – that such effort is something unheard of in human history. It remains to be seen whether such unique American conditions can go on forever or whether America is becoming more similar to other states, more ‘normal’.

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  8. @ALL

    I came back from my week end. To reply I need reflection. Thank you for all your feedback! I might comment tonight or tomorrow morning my time. See you.

    Like

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