Back in 2010 I was fortunate enough to be invited by Ian Bruff to present various papers at the Standing Group on International Relations (SGIR) 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference in Stockholm (7-9 September 2010). Amongst my presentations was my participation in a roundtable discussion on Antonio Gramsci along with various people, including Mark Rupert and Owen Worth. My intervention was entitled ‘Gramsci’s Method’ and it attempted to outline an approach to reading Gramsci by bouncing off some ideas drawn from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). I had been reading that book over the summer and it reminded me of various insights in the Prison Notebooks on issues of method and epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. As a snappy intervention that raised some specific questions about method and hermeneutic understanding in approaching the reading of texts, I thought it might be worthwhile to relay the content of that roundtable presentation here, not least as it links with some forthcoming publications of mine.

First, drawing from my Unravelling Gramsci (2007), I placed an emphasis on the search for the leitmotiv, or the rhythm of thought, in a thinker’s work rather than seeking isolated quotations to pin on this or that point. Drawing from Stuart Hall, rather than applying Gramsci to disparate contexts the key methodological distinction traced in my book is the significance of thinking in a Gramscian way about alternative historical and contemporary contexts. Gramsci does not hold the answers to present day problems – who does? – but he poses the right sort of questions about the origins, transformations, and challenges of capitalist modernity. Clearly, Gramsci is not exclusive in this regard but he is one essential resource to draw from within the canon of historical materialism.

My opening point was to advocate internalising the method of enquiry evident in the Prison Notebooks that will itself indicate how best to approach the notebooks themselves as well as inform our engagement with the social world. This is a major point in Chapter 2 of Unravelling Gramsci because all too often scholars make claims in the name of Gramsci but without any direct textual engagement, which results in the radical altering of the meaning of concepts. Obviating any strict adherence to an essential meaning, a more suitable method would be to demonstrate dialogue between author, text and context, which establishes exegetical rigour and accuracy, while acknowledging that certain elements are immanent in the text and need to be related to what Gramsci recognised as the changing ‘concrete terrain of history’.

Second, my attention then turned to the novel Moby Dick, which has a loom weaving together several central organising conditions shaping modernity:

  • a tentativeness and provisionality to human enquiry;
  • a reflection on the condition of modern identity and the questioning of origins;
  • an intertextuality to the construction of knowledge;
  • a central focus on racism and colonialism pivotal to the construction of the international;
  • a reminder of exploitation and class relations that are underpinned by law and the liberal state;
  • and the endless retracing of human knowledge, notably on the great Leviathan of the whale that is Moby Dick.

One of Herman Melville’s interventions was to correct the manifold mistakes in depictions of the whale. The Whale Hall at the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway, might be one such monument to humanity’s cruelty, regret and sentimentality linked to the whale, as detailed in the Guardian. For Melville, the responsibility lay at the doorstep of positivist scientific methods and specifically the great ‘scientific’ work of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). In criticising the scientific method, it is stated from this viewpoint in Moby Dick how:

the mere skeleton of the whale bears the same relation to the fully invested and padded animal as the insect does to the chrysalis that so roundingly envelops it.

This reminded me of Antonio Gramsci’s comment, written in 1929-1930 (Notebook 1, §26), under the title ‘Cuvier’s little bone’:

An observation to the preceding note. The Lombroso case. From the little bone of a mouse sometimes a sea serpent was reconstructed.

As Joseph Buttigieg wonderfully relays in his introduction to the Prison Notebooks, Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was a positivist criminologist that, along with Achille Loria (1857-1943), were manifestations of a certain type of Italian intellectual within the social sciences: crude positivists, opportunistic, and careless in scholarship. We might know many of them! Gramsci developed the neologism ‘Lorianism’ to group such intellectuals to capture his dislike for the positivist scientific method gone awry. Five features of Gramsci’s method emerged from this note and its wider connections to ‘Cuvier’s little bone’:

  • a focus on multi-directional, multi-perspectival complexity: what could be called the ‘looming’ of notes in accretive and allusive ways;
  • a genealogy of Italian social science as well as a historicising of its discursive formation within the political, social, and cultural history of Italy linking state and civil society;
  • a repudiation of cultural caricatures, stereotypes, and racially inferior images of subaltern social groups, replacing biological essentialism with a cultural, historical, and political account of domination;
  • a movement from the particular to the general where fragments lead to some generalising insight not to produce an overarching theory but a focus on conditions derived from specific social relations; and
  • a critique of an attachment to the scientific method within historical materialism, as evidenced in the criticisms of Nikolai Bukarin.

In a subsequent note, cited by Buttigieg, Gramsci then states: ‘Loria is not a teratological individual case: he is, rather, the most complete and perfect exemplar of a series of representatives of a certain intellectual stratum of a certain period; in general, of that stratum of positivist intellectuals’. Gramsci then continues to make the point that speaks to our present: ‘But it should be pointed out that every period has its own more or less accomplished and perfected Lorianism, and each country has its own’. Finally, in a prison letter dated 30 December 1929, Gramsci admits:

Perhaps, indeed most probably, some of my comments are exaggerated or indeed unjust. To reconstruct a megatherium or a mastodon from a tiny bone was Cuvier’s special gift, but it may also happen that from a piece of a mouse’s tail one might reconstruct a sea serpent.

Or, we can add, a Leviathan, or whale, such as Moby Dick. What this excursus hopefully reveals is the importance of avoiding vague and repetitious invocations of Gramsci to, instead, recognise the significance of engaging the notebooks in their challenging and complex whole. We need to heed the skilful counsel of Michael Burawoy for ‘too often the writings of Gramsci . . . have been ravaged like the carcasses of dead bodies – the most useful parts ripped from their meaning-giving integument and transplanted into ailing theories’.

A focus on internalising the method of historical materialism and situating Gramsci within this method as a Marxist is one approach to grasping the relevance of Gramsci today. As well as contributing to an enjoyable reading of Moby Dick on holiday.

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