I welcome Jon Beasley-Murray’s reply, ‘A bit of a leap’, to my rejoinder ‘Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser and Us’ that is centred around his blog post ‘Machiavelli and Us’. Through these engagements clarity may come to the fore as well as new moments of rupture that can open up politics afresh. In response, my initial aim is to rectify certain errors in Beasley-Murray’s representation of the debate. More substantively, my aim is to reaffirm precisely how both Beasley-Murray’s reading of Althusser and Gramsci is problematic in his original blog post and in his book Posthegemony, which received an Honorable Mention for the Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize.

First, let us clear the desk with those errors of representation. Beasley-Murray is factually wrong to assert that my blog post was a ‘fairly lengthy’ reply to his ‘brief account’. To be precise, his original contribution was 870 words, my rejoinder was 1023 words, and his counter-reply is 925 words in length. Why therefore try and misrepresent the debate as one between my ‘fairly lengthy’ intervention versus his ‘brief account’? What significance is there to this construction of the debate and its individual contributions, which I find to be quite comparable in terms of length? One would have expected a little more attention to detail in summarising the debate from my interlocutor.

Second, let us get to some of the more substantive issues associated with reading texts that, again, I think one would expect a little more attention to detail on from a political theorist. There were at least two main punctual moments to my engagement with Beasley-Murray’s account of Louis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us: (1) that he lacked a self-reflexive emphasis on the reading of texts that led him to underplay his role in producing a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli; and (2) that in doing so he sidelined the way in which Althusser is working within a dispositif to question processes in the making of modern state formation in Italy.

In response, Beasley-Murray states that of course it is his reading doing the work but as my commentary made clear such authorial ownership was missing from the start. That is significant because one should be more self-reflexive about one’s engagement with specific texts and what practice is being articulated in terms of interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating a text. I find no substantive engagement with these interpretive questions and that silence (the something escaping) goes to the heart of my dissatisfaction with posthegemony theory. At most, Beasley-Murray seems to hold that all readings are “appropriations” given that he states my interest in Gramsci and Althusser is ‘no less an “appropriation” than [his] focus’. But, as I will argue shortly, this fails to engage with the interpretive categories that I outlined.

That problem then becomes compounded when Beasley-Murray signals that his reading was hopefully ‘attentive to some salient aspects of the text itself’, in relation to Machiavelli and Us. But that is my point. Highlighting ambiguities or elusive escaping elements might be regarded as significant but not if you overlook the dispositif shaping the text(s) in question. In this case, the space of political practice forming the modern Italian state and its situatedness within the context of the uneven development of early-modern Europe shaping the conjuncture. If this is so ‘pretty obvious’, according to Beasley-Murray, why not then mention the centrality of this dispositif in linking Machiavelli, Gramsci, and Althusser to us? There are problems of philological method here that run deep through posthegemony theory, linking blogging and book writing.

In the Prison Notebooks, in a note entitled ‘Past and present. “Importuning texts”’, Antonio Gramsci wrote the following (Q6§198):

In other words, when out of zealous attachment to a thesis, one makes texts say more than they really do. This error of philological method occurs also outside of philology, in studies and analyses of all aspects of life. In terms of criminal law, it is analogous to selling goods at lesser weight and of different quality than had been agreed upon, but it is not considered a crime unless the will to deceive is glaringly obvious. But don’t negligence and incompetence deserve to be sanctioned−if not a judicial sanction, at least an intellectual and moral sanction?

This quote was drawn to my attention by Marcus Green who has an outstanding essay forthcoming in Postcolonial Studies on different images of Gramsci that nevertheless should be rooted in his texts.

NLR100My point in using it is that Beasley-Murray’s posthegemony reading of Althusser and Gramsci is making the texts of these authors say more than they do which is resulting in philological problems. Permit me one example from Posthegemony in relation to Gramsci. In summarising the “fiction” of hegemony, that there is no hegemony, Beasley-Murray states that for others: ‘Hegemony, in fact, is primary: for Gramsci, power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily’ (1). But anybody familiar with the Prison Notebooks−never mind Perry Anderson’s (contested) commentary in New Left Review−would have to be aware that coercion/consent (just as state/civil society, hegemony/passive revolution, organic/traditional intellectuals, war of position/war of movement) come as a couplet. To cite the same passage in the Prison Notebooks that Beasley-Murray consults, the function of hegemony exercised throughout civil society and direct domination exercised through the state are, to quote Gramsci, ‘connective’ (Q12§1). Hegemony is not simply grounded in consent.

Finally, while one can applaud the intertextuality of Beasley-Murray’s reading of my texts there is nothing wrong in equating his emphasis on contingency with cognate endeavours elsewhere across the social sciences and using my previous work to do so. My joint article with Andreas Bieler in International Studies Quarterly on the deficits of discourse would also be relevant here. I am still concerned by the need to move beyond the logic of contingency pervading the social sciences whether that be in political economy, international relations, political theory, geography and/or Latin American studies. It is there in Beasley-Murray’s conclusion to his reply blog post: ‘it is its under-determination, its elements of contingency, that opens up a space for politics’. This and the other weaknesses noted above are just some of the deficits of posthegemony theory.

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