Kill Your Idols IX: Starting an Argument With an Image, Composing, 21/08/2017

Perry Anderson’s essay “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” evokes a sad and beautiful image to me. If you meditate on this image a little – like a photograph, a painting, or a line from a poem – it can lead you to the basic idea of a complex and important concept for how philosophy develops across years.

An image like that can start an illuminating philosophical exploration. But Anderson’s essay already did that, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it.

Antonio Gramsci sits in Mussolini’s prison. In his desperation to hang on to any hope for his dream of a just society, he examines the minds of his defeated comrades to find out what they may have done wrong.

Can I objectify a man murdered by fascism? Is that okay for a minute?
Because when I look into steely eyes like that, I get the distinct feeling
that, hunch and height aside, Antonio Gramsci was a foxy man.
How do you examine the minds of dead people? You work through how they thought – their ideologies – their theories. Why they did what they did. Why you did it too, Antonio.

That’s another draw to the Prison Notebooks – how deadly personal it all was to Gramsci. Boethius had his meditation on fate, and Gramsci had his on revolution.

Gramsci examined the philosophical and psychological perspective of his own revolutionaries, but he did the same for anti-revolutionaries. Not the reactionaries and oligarchs who put him in prison, but the ordinary folks who couldn’t be bothered either way. Why did they desire their slavery as if it were their freedom?

The answer was in a cultural hegemony. People grew accustomed to thinking of particular ideas and moral principles being right, never asking a critical question. Of course, a business owner should pay workers whatever the market value for the job is – that’s more important than whether they have enough for food and shelter.

One example, of course. Weirdly perennial, just in different contexts.

So Gramsci identified how most people’s education, as well as continual messages from the state along different media – newspapers, pamphlets, radio – affected their beliefs. What philosophical ideas they found intuitively sensitive – how our intuitions were trained.

It's almost as though I desperately want to avoid talking about Noam
Chomsky. As if even recognizing his limited legitimacy will bite
into my own growing contempt of the man. I want to nurture that
contempt, caress it, learn to love it, as Chomsky ages into a
growing irrelevance, continuing to rail (deservedly) against the
hypocritical United States government and ruling class, while giving
a total pass to a nationalist dictator increasingly dedicated to
achieving the dream of a white supremacist Eurasian empire.
You could extrapolate the principles into their core concepts. Philosophy, in this application, is about retro-engineering the lesson plan of ideologies. If someone had actually sat down and made a plan for how a state would guide its people,* the philosopher’s analysis would write it.

* We’re talking about human politics and social endeavours. No one can ever plan any of this shit.

Gramsci only got so far with this work for many reasons, one of them being his death. But his work was remarkable. Gramsci had a wonderful analysis of the fundamental concepts of what ideologies are, how they work, and how state and society interacted to develop and express them.

Gramsci also explored how state organs can take control of this mechanism – how they can pressure the natural processes of conformity. How they can not only encourage consent, but manufacture it.

Now I’ve ended with the same joke I did on Friday. Talk about multiple takes.

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