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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 24, June 10, 2023

Reading Gramsci Ethnographically | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 9 June 2023


In his introduction to the Gramsci Reader edited by David Forgacs (New York University Press, 2000), the eminent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm argued that Gramsci was “par excellence the philosopher of political praxis”.
A recent study by Kate Crehan (‘Antonio Gramsci: Towards an ethnographic Marxism’, ANUAC, DICEMBRE 2018) has located ethnographic foundations of Gramsci’s political imagination in Prison Notebooks. In the context of his reading of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Crehan argued that anglophone anthropologists “have tended to overlook the profound ethnographic sensibility of the notebooks.” He emphasized that “Gramsci’s interest in subaltern culture and subaltern narratives stems from his commitment to the struggle for political and social transformation.”

Crehan located the contradictory nature of subaltern consciousness in his reading of Gramsci: “Subalterns can never find a space completely outside the earshot of the powerholders; those powerholders have, as it were, taken up residence inside their heads. This is an important part of what hegemony means. At the same time, hegemony is never complete. The contradictions between the official narratives of the dominant and the actual experience of subalterns bubble up to the surface and find expression, albeit in embryonic form. Subaltern good sense is not to be found in separate spaces but rather in the interstices and cracks of the existing hegemony.” He situated in this context Gramsci’s reading of popular culture in Prison Notebooks: “This tension between Gramsci’s personal distaste for much popular culture and his conviction that it contained the seeds of a new, progressive, revolutionary culture runs through the notebooks.”

 Crehan argued that Gramsci did not subscribe to the following Leninist concept of vanguard intellectuals:

 All too often progressive intellectuals assume they know what subalterns think. If those actually experiencing inequality and oppression see things differently, then they are suffering from “false consciousness” and it is the intellectuals’ task to enlighten them.

Kate Crehan’s seminal ethnographic reading of Gramsci suggests pathways for non-hierarchical political imagination and political praxis.

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