Gramsci and explosions of consciousnesses


Recently Columbia University Press released a box set of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (which incidentally is cheaper than prior separate volumes). I have begun reading the set, which was unavailable to me before in its totality. One thing that strikes you is the way that rather profound passages are embedded in what is otherwise uninteresting discussions of Italian history of the period (no offense intended to Italian history buffs).

One such passage is merely a page in length in a long note seemingly on journalism, and then later on relations of urban to rural populations. It seems timely since it deals with the way in which consciousness develops, likely revolutionary consciousness though it is obscured in the passage. With the mobilizations and ruptures in the Midwest and the Near East occuring, it’s worth reflecting on these issues and to my surprise Gramsci has contributions that I was not aware of.

“One must keep in mind that in every region of Italy, given the very rich variety of local traditions, there exist groups of different sizes characterized by particular ideological and psychological elements: ‘each town has or has had its local saint, hence its own cult and its own chapel’. The unitary elaboration of a collective consciousness requires manifold conditions and initiatives. The diffusion from a homogeneous center of a homogeneous way of thinking and acting is the principal condition, but it must not and cannot be the only one. A very common error is that of thinking that every social stratum elaborates its consciousness and its culture in the same way, with the same methods, that is, with the methods of professional intellectuals. Even the intellectual is a “professional” who has his specialized “machines,” his “apprenticeship,” and his own Taylor system. It is illusory to attribute this “acquired,” and not innate , ability to everyone. It is illusory to think that a well propagated “clear idea” enters diverse consciousnesses with the same “organizing” effects of widespread clarity. It is an “enlightenment” error. The ability of the professional intellectual skillfully to combine induction and deduction, to generalize, to infer, to transport from one sphere to another a criterion of discrimination, adapting it to new conditions, etc. is a specialty,” it is not endowed by “common sense”. Therefore, the premise of an “organic diffusion from a homogeneous center of a homogeneous way of thinking and acting” is not sufficient. The same ray of light passes through different prisms and yields different refractions of light: in order to have the same refraction, one must make a whole series of adjustments to the individual prisms. Patient and systematic “repetition” is the fundamental methodological principle. But not a mechanical, material repetition: the adaptation of each basic concept to diverse peculiarities, presenting and representing it in all its positive aspects and in its traditional negations, always ordering each partial aspect in the totality. Finding the real identity underneath the apparent differentiation and contradiction and finding the substantial diversity underneath the apparent identity is the most essential quality of the critic of ideas and of the historian of social development. The educational-formative work that a homogeneous cultural center performs, the elaboration of a critical consciousness that it promotes and favors on a particular historical base which contains the material premises for this elaboration, cannot be limited to the simple theoretical enunciation of “clear” methodological principles, that would be a pure “enlightenment” action. The work required is complex and must be articulated and graduated: there has to be a combination of deduction and induction, identification and distinction, positive demonstration and the destruction of the old. Not in the abstract but concretely: on the basis of the real. But how does one know which errors are deeply rooted or most widespread? Obviously it is impossible to have “statistics” on ways of thinking and on single individuals opinions that would give an organic and systematic picture: the only thing possible is the review of the most widely circulated and most popular literature combined with the study and criticism of previous ideological currents, each of which “may” have left a deposit in various combinations with preceding or subsequent deposits.

A more general criterion becomes part of this same sequence of observations: changes in ways of thinking, in beliefs, in opinions do not come about through rapid and generalized “explosions,” they come about, for the most part, through “successive combinations” in accordance with the most disparate “formulas.” The illusion of “explosiveness” comes from the absence of a critical sense. Just as methods of traction did not pass directly from the animal-drawn stagecoach to modern electrical express trains but went through a series of “intermediate combinations” some of which still exist… Indeed, in the cultural sphere, “explosions” are even less frequent and less intense than in the technical sphere”

Gramsci, Antonio (edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg) (2010). Prison Notebooks: Volume 1. Columbia University Press, New York. Pages 128-129



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