Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Father of Cultural Studies by Kate Crehan

An important source of subaltern* conceptions of the world is folklore [as are conspiracy theories today].  Gramsci’s attitude to folklore is often extremely critical, as is his scorn for the “little old woman who has inherited the lore of witches.” But he is by no means simply dismissive: he takes folklore extremely seriously. For Gramsci, who grew up in a peasant environment that was, in the words of one of his biographers, “riddled with witchcraft, spell-casting and belief in the supernatural, folklore could never be the quaint and picturesque remnants of a bygone age. The world of his childhood was one in which people had no doubt that living among them were women who transformed  themselves at night into creatures that “sucked the blood from babies,” and that “ghosts returned as Will-o’-he-wisps to squat on the breasts of sleeping people.” Daily life for the Gramsci families peasant neighbors involved constant vigilance against powerful, malignant forces, and it was these forces that people tended to blame for the various misfortunes that befell them: children or livestock dying or failing to thrive, crop failures, and any of a host of ills endemic to peasant communities. In Gramsci’s eyes, such folklore acts to blind people to the real sources of their oppression and exploitation. The reason to study folklore is so as to challenge it more effectively.

For the teacher, to know “folklore” means to know what other conceptions of the world and of life are actually in the intellectual and moral foundation of young people, in order to uproot them and replace them with conceptions which are deemed superior. The teaching of folklore to teachers should reinforce this systematic process even further. It is clear that, in order to achieve the desired end, the spirit of folklore studies should be changed, as well as deepened and extended. Folklore must not be considered an eccentricity, an oddity or a picturesque element, but as something very serious and is to be taken seriously. Only in this way will the teaching of folklore be more efficient and really bring about the birth of a new culture among the broad popular masses, so that the separation between modern culture and popular culture of folklore will disappear.

Just how seriously Gramsci took this cultural struggle is clear from the next sentence, with which he ends the note: “An activity of this kind, thoroughly carried out, would correspond on the intellectual plane to what the Reformation was in Protestant countries. For Gramsci, however, it was not simply a matter of progressive teachers bringing an already fully formed modern culture to the backward masses, but rather the bringing into being of a new culture that draws from the good sense embedded in folklore and common sense as a whole.

For Gramsci, we must say [though this is not without controversy among some scholars], common sense is a multi-stranded, entwined knot of, on the one hand, clear sightedness ( good sense), which is not fooled by the sophistry of spin doctors, but, on the other hand, blinkered shortsightedness clinging defensively to the comfortable and the familiar. Common sense is, as he puts it, “crudely neophobe and conservative”. But common sense is more than this; its nuggets of good sense also reflect ‘the creative spirit of the people.” Those in search of genuine social transformation need to begin with those nuggets. “ Is it possible that a “formally” new conception can present itself in a guise  other than the crude, unsophisticated version of the populace?”

True, the conceptions of the world to be found in folklore are necessarily incoherent:

 This (folkloric) conceptions of the world are not elaborated or systematic because, by definition, the people (the sum total of the instrumental and subaltern classes of every form of society that has so far existed) cannot possess conceptions which are elaborated, systematic and politically organized and centralized in their albeit contradictory development  [qua their oppressed and exploited position]. They are, rather, many-sided – not only because they include different and juxtaposed elements, but also because they are stratified, from the more crude to the less crude – if, indeed, one should not speak of a confused agglomerate of fragments of all the conceptions of the world and of life that have succeeded one another in history. In fact, it is only in folklore that one finds surviving evidence, adulterated and mutilated, of the majority of these conceptions.

And folklore is not confined to the traditional, as conveniently understood:

Philosophy and modern science are also contributing new elements to ‘modern folklore’ in that certain opinions and scientific notions, removed from their context and more or less distorted, constantly fall within the popular domain and are ‘inserted’ into the mosaic of tradition.  (La scoperta de L’America by C. Pascarella shows how notions about Christopher Columbus and about a whole set of scientific opinions, put about by school textbooks and ‘Popular Universities,’ can be strangely assimilated).

Every time and place has its own contradictory bundle of common sense and good sense notions containing not only notions carried over from the past, but newly minted ones. The focus should be on the relationship between specific threads of common sense and specific life-worlds. Gramsci takes to task various Italian authors of his own day who “lump together pell-mell all generic folklore motifs that in reality have very distinct temporal and spatial characteristics.”

For Gramsci, the basic structuring opposition in any society is not that between the traditional and the modern but, as the concept of subalternity itself indicates, that between the dominated and the dominant. His refusal to reify the traditional as the site of some kind of privileged authenticity helps explain his openness top popular culture in all its forms. The popular culture he had available to him in his prison cell was essentially limited to printed matter, the serial novels and other publications aimed at mass readership to be found in the prison library, mass-circulation newspapers, and so on. Nonetheless, given the right attitude, as he explains in one of his letters to Tatiana, a prisoner can find riches in even the meager and unscholarly resources of a prison library. The letter is a response to a request from the wife of a political prisoner for advice for her husband on how best to study in prison:

Many prisoners underestimate the prison library. Of course prison libraries in general are a jumble: the books have been gathered at random, from donations by charitable organizations that receive warehouse remainders from publishers, or from books left behind by released prisoners. Devotional books and third-rate novels abound. Nevertheless I believe that a political prisoner must squeezer blood even from stone. It is all a matter of setting a purpose for one’s reading and of knowing how to take notes (if one is permitted to write). I’ll give two examples: in Milan I read a certain number of books of all kinds, especially popular novels.  .  . Well I found even Sue, Montepin, Pionson du Terrial, etc, were sufficient when read from this point of view: why is this sort of literature almost always the most read and the most published? What need does it satisfy? What aspirations does it answer? What emotions and points of view are represented in these trashy books for them to be so popular?

His advice to the political prisoner makes it clear that Gramsci’s motivation in searching the jumble of the prison library was to discover shared subaltern concepts of the world. It is worth noting that Gramsci’s recognition of the value of popular literature makes no aesthetic claim for it”: these are ‘trashy books”. As for his own tastes, he was a man of high culture. The authors he responded to on an aesthetic level tended to be literary giants such as Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Pirandello. But these, too, he saw as not  existing outside political and economic realities, but as shaped by their particular historical moment. His insistence on this point is reflected in the note in which he discusses “utopias” and “so-called philosophical novels.” For him, “one of their most interesting aspects to consider is  such novels “unwitting reflection of the most elementary and profound aspirations of even the lowest subaltern social groups, albeit through the minds of intellectuals preoccupied with other concerns.”

Central to his reflections on popular culture is Gramsci’s challenge to the distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic”: popular culture, between work produced by ‘the people’ and those created for them. He homes in on Ermolao Rubieri, who had proposed a threefold classification for popular songs. According to Rubierei, there are “1) songs composed by the people for the people; 2) songs composed for the people but not by the people; 3) songs written neither by the people nor for the people, bit which the people have nevertheless adopted because they conform to their way of thinking and feeling. To which Gramsci responds : “It seems to me that all popular songs could and should be reduced to a third category, since what distinguishes popular song, within the framework of a nation and its culture, is not its artistic element or its historical origin, but its way of conceiving of the world and life, in contrast to official society.”

Gramsci clearly had a horror of sentimentality; his distaste for anything with even the slightest hint of the saccharin runs through his notebooks and the prison letters. But while he may have been a man of high culture with fastidious personal tastes, he also recognized the genuine emotion that lay behind common people’s love of trashy art and saw its value. One of the letters to Tatiana contains a remembrance of Giacomo Bernolfo, a man who had once been his bodyguard

I am very sorry and much aggrieved by Giacomo’ death; our friendship was much deeper and intense than you could have possibly realized, also because outwardly Giacomo was not very expansive and a man of few words. He was a rare person I assure you . . . When I met him right after the war, his strength was Herculean (he was a sergeant in the mountain artillery and used to carry cannon parts of great weight on his shoulders) and his courage was utterly fearless, though without boastfulness. And yet his emotional sensitivity was remarkably acute, even taking on melodramatic accents, which however were sincere, not affected. He knew a great number of verses by hearty, but all of them belonging to that third-rate romantic literature loved so much by simple people (along the lines of opera librettos, which are mostly written in a very peculiar baroque style with disgustingly pathetic mawkishness, which however seems to be astonishingly appealing), and he like to recite them, though he would blush like a child caught in error whenever I joined the audience to listen to him. This memory is the most vivid aspect of his character that insistently comes back to my mind: this gigantic man who with sincere passion declaims verses, in bad taste but that express robust and impetuous elementary passions, and who stops short and blushes when his listener is an “intellectual” even though a friend.

 In his notebooks and letters Gramsci is always concerned with what actually appeals to common people. He thought progressive intellectuals needed to pay serious attention to that which resonates with the subalterns they wish to reach.

Nowadays the study of popular culture along the lines suggested by Gramsci has become common in a number of disciplines, but in the 1920s and 30s  it was  a rare scholar who thought such stuff was worthy of study. Decades after his death, Gramsci would be a key figure in the development of what came to be called cultural studies. Antonia Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Hoare and Novell Smith (1971), for instance, would be a major influence on the research group at the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, who under Stuart Hall’s leadership established cultural studies as a distinct field in Britain.

*Subaltern, meaning 'of inferior rank', is a term adopted by Antonio Gramsci to refer to those groups in society who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. Subaltern classes may include peasants, workers and other groups denied access to 'hegemonic' power.

Gramsci’s Common Sense; Inequality and Its Narratives by Kate Crehan ( Duke Univ. Press, 2016)

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