Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity

by Carl Dyke

I just had what might have been a good moment on the Facebooks. Jim Livingstone posted on how the New York Times hasn’t gotten around to officially noticing the death of Stuart Hall yet (neither had Dead Voles, until now), and in that context I wrote this:

It’s interesting to me how Hall embodied the thesis [“the ‘dispersal of power’ from state to society, ca. 1870-1930, as Gramsci tracked and projected it in the Notebooks (trans., pp. 210-76), thereby explaining why a ‘war of position’ now superseded a ‘war of maneuver’. In effect, a brilliant manifesto for cultural politics,” Jim Livingstone]. He basically WAS Gramsci: layers of marginality radicalized by immersion in the center. But where for Gramsci the hot revolution still looked like a plannable endgame, for Hall it was off the table right from the start, precisely because of that decentering of power. But – given the catastrophes of communist centralism, I think it’s fair to wonder if power has ever not been decentralized, really, so that the whole hegemony thesis ends up looking like a really rough draft of an actual theory of complex systems.

Seconds later, I noticed that here at last was a handle that made me actually want to pick my old Gramsci dissertation / book back up. Until now, other than posting the most recent version here online, I’ve abandoned it to the gnawing of the rats, because I couldn’t figure out how it was anything but yet another idiosyncratic take on well-worn materials. I didn’t have to publish it anyway to get tenure, so I didn’t. Aren’t there enough of those books cluttering up the shelves?

But there’s this thread of analysis in the piece that I always quite liked, and didn’t really know what to do with. I argue that the theorists of the early 20th century really weren’t equipped to cope with the actual complexity of the world, and so they resorted to what I called ‘space maintainers’, sort of folded up theoretical napkins under the short empirical table legs. Constructs that weren’t nearly constructive enough. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony then looks like an attempt to actually theorize complexity rather than shortcutting it somehow. Still, not surprisingly, very shortcutty and so not a good candidate for adoption here and now, but in context quite the thing.

So in that Facebook comment on Hall and Gramsci I haven’t actually said anything new to me; I’m still gnawing on the same bone I always was. But what’s changed is how much I know about following theories of complexity, and how they’ve gradually begun to inform the human studies. All of our discussions on Deacon, Juarrero and so on, for example. Which means I’m now in a much better position to frame the Gramscian / Weberian / Durkheimian moment in the history of theories of complexity, for example by seeing Hall as what Gramsci looks like in a different moment of the intellectual-evolutionary process.

And since this feels like it was my insight and agenda all along, just come into a more satisfying unfolding, I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling I always had when I was trying to think of some way to graft something more interesting onto the stuff I know. Plus, the stuff I get to read to come up to publication speed on this version of the project, and the way I get to read it, actually feels interesting and valuable in its own right, and not just a bunch of legitimacy hoops to jump through.

All of which means I actually have a clear reason to apply for a sabbatical, which is long overdue. So now we get to see if this is a passing enthusiasm, or a project that actually has legs. Cheers!


5 Comments to “Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity”

  1. Love those “space maintainers.” Sound a lot like “objects” in object-oriented programming, or even “variables” in math.

  2. Hey – I obviously haven’t stopped by in a while, but I’m hoping the idea stayed burning for you.

    One bone I’ve been gnawing on for god knows how long is the thesis that the advancement of theories is largely made possible by the availability of concepts that can be used as metaphors/analogies. “Computation”, for example, had to grow and develop until it became a “basic” enough concept to be used as a metaphor in theories of cognition. “Mutation” had to develop to become useful in evolutionary theory, and evolution, in its turn has now become “basic” enough to be a metaphor in developing other theories.

    Anyway, I think complexity and its component concepts (emergence, autopoiesis/self-organization, non-linearity, process/system vs object/property framing, etc.) are reaching the point where they can be used metaphorically to think about other things. And it sounds like “complexity”, for you, has undergone the same sort of evolution that “mutation” has since Darwin’s time.

  3. Awesome. Yeah, I agree. Just reading this review now, and you can really see Lewontin and Fox Keller struggling with that metaphor lag.

  4. Ave. I’m gradually catching up with volings that I missed while otherwise occupied. This one is especially interesting. Your dissertation is a better read now than it was when you wrote it: largely because we both know more now than we did then. You imply as much for yourself, and I’m in the same boat. So important passages that, arguably, neither of us understood fully look very solid now. For instance, the geography summarized at the end of Chapter 1 looks obvious now, and even inevitable, given the terrain those guys were stuck in.
    So your proposed aggiornamento of Gramsci, as you say, now has a point to it. Interestingly, if you had a doppleganger who did the same job on Kropotkin, the same would be true, with obvious touching up. I keep twitting the Finns that all we ever do is update Kropotkin. Lies that make the truth possible.

  5. Ha, yeah, and thanks. Interestingly, I just missed the cut for a sabbatical to poke at this. I was ambivalent about it going in (and therefore did an offhand application that didn’t help me any) but now that I can’t have it, I see that actually I want it quite a bit, if nothing else as a break from thinking in fugues and fragments. So I’ll get it the next round, and meanwhile keep nursing the thought across my various attention zones.

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