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Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937)

Related: Cultural Studies (precursor of) - cultural hegemony - Italy - Marxism

Various contemporaries: Sylvia Beach - Siegfried Kracauer - H.P. Lovecraft - Henry Miller - Walter Benjamin - Céline - Aldous Huxley - Paul Éluard - Antonin Artaud

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian communist politician and one of the first writers to perform a critique of popular culture. He coined the concept cultural hegemony which stated that in "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. [Jun 2006]

Gramsci based his analysis of popular tastes on serial novels, which he got to read from the prison library where he was incarcerated for some time:

Gramsci admits that early nineteenth-century serializers such as Eugene Sue, Alexandre Dumas, and George Sand still produced “literature”; presumably Dickens also would have been included in this select group. But he sees serial quality as declining over the course of the century, until by the 1900s, when the “modern serial novel begins,” it “nearly always has a most banal form and a stupid content. Now it is a lachrymose literature only suitable for stupefying the women, girls and youngsters who feed on it. It is also often a source of corruption. ... It may perhaps have influenced the increase in crime among adolescent loafers... In short, the serial novel has become a rather nauseating commodity (36).

And he goes on to assign responsibility for this decline across the entire cultural apparatus: to the audience, “which often has abominable tastes”; to “the authors, who for speculation open shops for novels as one would open a haberdasher's”; and to “the newspaper editors, full of prejudices and and eager to sell their papers at any cost. -- via Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (1997) - Jennifer Hayward


Antonio Gramsci (January 23, 1891 - April 27, 1937) was an Italian writer (Arbëreshë on his father's side) and a politician, a leader and theorist of Socialism, Communism and anti-Fascism. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci [Apr 2005]

Cultural hegemony

With cultural hegemony Gramsci developed an idea from Marxism into an acute analysis to explain why the "inevitable" revolution of the proletariat predicted by orthodox Marxism had not occurred by the early 20th century. Rather, capitalism seemed even more entrenched than ever. Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie became the "common sense" values of all. Thus a consensus culture developed in which people in the working class identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie, and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting. The working class needed to develop a "counter-hegemonic" culture, said Gramsci, firstly to overthrow the notion that bourgeois values represented "natural" or "normal" values for society, and ultimately to succeed in overthrowing capitalism. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci [2004]

Prison Notebooks (1947)

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist best known for his Prison Notebooks (first published as Lettere dal caracere in 1947), critiqued the very concept of literature and, beyond that, of culture in the old sense, stressing not only the importance of culture more broadly defined but the need for nurturing and developing proletarian, or working-class, culture. He suggested the need to view intellectuals politically--and the need for what he called "radical organic" intellectuals. Today's cultural critics calling for colleagues to "legitimate the notion of writing reviews and books for the general public," to "become involved in the political reading of popular culture," and, in general, to "repoliticize . . . scholarship" have often cited Gramsci as an early advocate of their views (Giroux 482).

Finally, and most important, Gramsci related literature to the ideologies of the culture that produced it and developed the concept of "hegemony," a term he used to describe the pervasive, weblike system of meanings and values--ideologies--that shapes the way things look, what they mean and, therefore, what reality is for the majority of people within a culture. Gramsci did not see people, even poor people, as the helpless victims of hegemony, as ideology's idiotic robots. Rather, he believed that people have the freedom and power to struggle against ideology, to alter hegemony. As Patrick Brantlinger has suggested in Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (1990), Gramsci's thought is unspoiled by the "intellectual arrogance that views the vast majority of people as deluded zombies, the victims or creatures of ideology" (100).

--Johanna Smith

Gramsci on popular literature

Gramsci had borrowed many commercially successful novels from the prison library during his thirteen-month period of incarceration in Milan in 1927-28, and in a letter to Tania of 22 April 1929 he explained that they became interesting

'if one looked at them from the following angle: why are these books always the most read and the most frequently published? What needs do they satisfy and what aspirations do they ful fill? What emotions and attitudes emerge in this squalid literature, to have such wide appeal? (LP, p. 145).


Thus a map of popular taste in Italy as a whole in the 1930s, such as Gramsci, writing in prison, could only tentatively sketch out in these notes, revealed different strata reflecting the intervention of different and discontinuous histories in different regional areas.

Gramsci's purpose in mapping popular taste in this way was not to produce a static descriptive picture but rather to explore the relations between dominant and subaltern cultural forms in dynamic terms, as they act upon each other historically.just as folklore contains the sediments of earlier dominant cultures that have seeped down into subaltern cultures, so Gramsci sees in the popular literature of rural areas residues of earlier dominant literary forms (like romances of chivalry) and scientific conceptions of the world. By a converse process, he sees popular cultural forms being 'raised' into the dominant 'artistic' literature. For instance Dostoyevsky 'passes through' popular serial fiction in order to draw materials for writing artistic fiction. This latter process interests Gramsci because of its bearing on the question of how a dominated class can become hegemonic. As he writes in the note on Paul Nizan (115), die essential task is to create a body of writers who can be to the serial novel what Dostoyevsky was to the popular fiction on which he drew. These writers would have to be linguistically accessible - in other words they would have to reject that elaborate Italian that currently passed for good style - and they would have to draw their audience from the existing popular reading public for serial fiction. Gramsci clearly has in mind, in some cases at least, writers of 'left books': he cites as models Giovagnoli's nineteenth - century novel about Spartacus and collections of social poetry. --http://www.arts.auckland.ac.nz/online/ITALIAN333/poplit.html [May 2006]

The term “hegemony” can be traced to the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, who used the term to mean “manufactured consent” – that is, a kind of social coercion exerted by one class over another via its cultural forms. Gramsci was particularly fascinated by the hegemonic culture forms of the 19th century – newspapers, serial novels, the theatre – those culture forms dependent upon widespread literacy and improvements in the technologies of mechanical reproduction.[2] These culture forms, developed largely by the bourgeois (middle classes), function to exert control over the “popular classes.” --http://chnm.gmu.edu/ematters/issue8/patterson/pt1pg1web.htm [May 2006]

See also: Eugéne Sue - Antonio Gramsci - popular fiction

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