The debate with Jon Beasley-Murray on the limits of posthegemony theory continues and has so far covered (1) his review of Louis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us; (2) my critique Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser and Us; (3) his rejoinder A bit of a leap; (4) my reply Importuning Gramsci; and (5) his counter-response Not nearly far enough. That is an overview of the past, now back to the present with my latest contribution.

Throughout the exchange I have stressed the positive elements embedded in any such debate and I still want to retain that ethos of the critique. Indeed, from the new social media of blogging, one future option might be a return to the old media of the past and wrap the debate as it stands into journal form, supplemented with additional extended essays from each of us. For the present, though, my aim is to take issue with a number of points raised in the last round contained within Beasley-Murray’s ‘Not nearly far enough’ post.

My purpose here, as previously, is not to launch an ad hominem against Beasley-Murray but to develop a contrapuntal approach that critiques his position as part of a wider set of issues that have much greater import.

Capital & Class 36(3), 2012First, a further layer of misrepresentation is evident. Beasley-Murray states about me that I am ‘less concerned to engage with [his] reading of Althusser per se than to give [him] a somewhat heavy-handed lecture on how to read in general’. The latter lecture is said to be conducted through ‘[my] purported distinction’ between interpreting, approaching, and negotiating texts. But let’s be careful here on a number of points. All my interventions have engaged directly with Beasley-Murray’s reading of Althusser to conclude that he has sidelined – indeed, failed to engage – the way in which Machiavelli and Us presents a dispositif to question processes in the making of modern state formation in Italy. This point was developed by drawing on the categories of interpretation, appropriation, and negotiation as presented in my earlier blog post ‘Reading Gramsci’ that summarises a review of mine from the journal Capital & Class.

But there is an error in asserting that these are my distinctions, which leaves me unconvinced that Beasley-Murray engages texts, as he claims, ‘with care and attention, alert particularly to their tensions, slippages, and contradictions’. I am very clear to stress in the post cited by Beasley-Murray and its associated journal article that the categories are those of Tony Burns’ as developed in his book Aristotle and Natural Law (2011). I think accurate attribution important in such issues. It would be wrong to assert that the distinctions are mine, despite my borrowing, but my view is that they are productive categories able to assist our reading of texts. Failure to note the provenance of ideas leads less to a focus on slippages (through the mantra that “something always escapes”) and more to simple slip ups or errors.

The Gramscian MomentSecond, there is a growing historical-philological approach within Gramsci studies that is raising serious concern about submitting Gramsci to an infinity of readings while annulling issues of contextual politics. Take here, for example, Joseph Buttigieg’s rejection, in his article in Boundary 2, of literature that misconstrues Gramsci’s core ideas on state/civil society; or Timothy Brennan’s position in his book Wars of Position that in postcolonial studies there are better and worse readings of Gramsci; or Peter Ives’ and Nicola Short’s textual analysis of Gramsci as a theorist of the international in their Review of International Studies article; or Peter Thomas’ position in his book The Gramscian Moment that the significance of Gramsci’s thought consists in its distinctive position in the development of the Marxist tradition.

One could pile example upon example, but there is no need to, for it should be clear that there is clearly something afoot within Gramsci studies about the uses and abuses of Gramsci. These commentators might find it surprising to discover Gramsci heralded as “the man who first thought about hegemony”, which is Beasley-Murray’s approving engagement with and citation of a fantastic essay by Gastón Gordillo. But anybody accustomed to the above literature, or familiar with Derek Boothman’s commentary on the sources of hegemony in Rethinking Marxism, or Benedetto Fontana’s argument in Hegemony and Power: On the Relation between Gramsci and Machiavelli, would know that the origins of thinking about hegemony have a much longer and varied lineage predating Gramsci. Again, failure to note these nuances leads less to a focus on slippages (and that mantra that “something always escapes”) and more to simple slips ups or errors.

Third, what about Beasley-Murray’s engagement with Gramsci? On my comment that Gramsci developed concepts as couplets Beasley-Murray retorts that he is ‘of course quite aware of this fact’ and ‘that in any such couplet (including also the others . . . “state/civil society”, and so on) there’s always a fundamental dissymmetry: one of the pair is primary; the other appears to be supplementary’. Really? Can we have some reference to Gramsci’s texts here please? I find it difficult to conclude that Gramsci treated concepts in a primary/secondary relationship of hierarchy. This comes close to viewing concepts as binary dualisms that would be anathema to the dialectical presentation of concepts characteristic of historical materialism.

By dialectical presentation of concepts I am referring to how concepts unfold from one another, neither as a succession nor alongside each other in a primary/secondary hierarchy, but in interrelationship. Let us turn to Gramsci. In Notebook 8, §142, entitled ‘Encyclopaedic notions and cultural topics. Individual initiative’, there is a generative understanding of ‘civil society’ not as a supplementary or secondary sphere in opposition to the ‘state’ but as an element in dialectical unity with ‘political society’. Gramsci quite clearly spells this out by formulating the issue around what he calls the ‘identity-distinction’ of civil society and political society within the space of the state. Concepts are held in contradiction, difference and identity – in their dialectical development – to produce something new. For Gramsci, in transcending ‘statolatry’, this came to be famously rendered as ‘State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’ (Q6§88).

To sum up, Gramsci deals with concepts dialectically, as connective, not as a primary/secondary relationship of hierarchy and, in line with my original claim, hegemony is not simply grounded in consent. To argue differently would be to produce not the “something that always escapes” but more slip ups or errors.

As the joke goes, every time the writer makes a slip up or a typo, the errorists win.

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