Putting “culture” into context

Issue: 122

Penny Howard

Kate Crehan, Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology (Pluto, 2002), £18.99

Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology is a welcome contribution to the revival of interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci. Kate Crehan’s clear and succinct book begins with a brief biographical summary, emphasising Gramsci’s engagement with revolutionary politics in Turin and his later imprisonment by Benito Mussolini. Refreshingly, Crehan emphasises that “to understand Gramsci’s project in the Prison Notebooks, it is important not to lose sight of either the political engagement out of which they emerged or the circumstances in which they were composed. They were above all an intervention, of the only kind possible for Gramsci in his prison cell, in what he saw as the fundamental struggle between the interests of capital and the interests of those oppressed by the dominant capitalist order” (p18).

She quotes extensively from the Notebooks to encourage the reader to engage directly with Gramsci’s writings, but she also emphasises their fragmentary nature by referring to them throughout as quotes from a “note” on particular subjects.

Crehan then turns to a critique of the anthropological use of the term “culture”, a usage which also underpins the popular understanding of “cultural differences” or “culture clash”. She criticises the assumption that cultures are “patterned” or “bounded” wholes with their own logics, and that there exists “a basic opposition between tradition and modernity” (p66). She shows that these assumptions continue even among writers who claim to criticise the concept themselves.

Crehan emphasises that Gramsci’s interest in culture stemmed from his interest in revolutionary change, because “how people see their world and how they live in it necessarily shapes their ability to imagine how it might be changed, and whether they see such changes as feasible or desirable” (p71).

Instead of seeing culture as a bounded whole explaining the behaviour of its individual members, Gramsci saw it as the continuously changing ways of living that are in “organic” relationship to economic and historical processes, especially class relations. This section contains useful and interesting discussions with extensive quotes from Gramsci on the relationship between culture and economic relations, hegemony, “subaltern” cultures, common sense and good sense, and the role of intellectuals. Crehan argues with conviction that there is much in Gramsci that should be of value to anthropologists.

The final section of the book traces and criticises the use of Gramsci within anthropology today, especially the concept of hegemony, which has been distorted in academic circles into what Crehan describes as “hegemony lite”. She traces most citations of Gramsci in anthropology to the interpretations by cultural historian Raymond Williams and the anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff. Unfortunately, in these cases Gramsci’s concept of hegemony was interpreted to be virtually synonymous with that of ideology. But Gramsci himself understood hegemony as the complex and practical ways in which power is exercised by the state and its various institutions in Western bourgeois democracies.

He also used it as a term to describe the process by which revolutionary parties could practically interact with working class movements to link struggles, generalise lessons learned, gain their confidence, and eventually provide the credible leadership necessary to transform society. For Gramsci, hegemony involves a complex mixture of social relations, practical activity, consent, force and ideas. Crehan then applies this critique to three well known anthropological works that draw on Gramsci, demonstrating the contribution a more rounded understanding could bring.

The book is indicative of the present tentative shift within the discipline of anthropology to go beyond its introspective “writing culture” phase, and return to a more materialist and political approach. For example, Gaston Gordillo’s Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentine Chaco explicitly draws on Gramsci and Georg Lukács to understand the effects of class exploitation and state violence on the lives of the indigenous Toba now living in Argentina. Gordillo’s book won a “first book award” from the influential American Ethnological Society.

The 2008 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), attended by over 6,000 people from all over the world, featured several packed meetings about the occupation of Iraq and the ethics of anthropological engagement with the US military. The AAA has now voted in favour of a change in its ethics code that specifically draws a line between legitimate anthropological research and spying for the military.

These debates are having a wider impact on the discipline. As anthropologist David Price argued to an AAA session debating the use of anthropology by the US Air Force and Marine Corps, “Anthropology is embedded in political economy whether it likes it or not. The postmodern rejection of meta-narratives that has been dominant in anthropology leaves us ill-equipped to understand what is happening in anthropology and the world today.”

Those at the AAA meetings who sought to justify the participation of anthropologists in US imperial projects emphasised the power of “cultural understanding” to save lives. Yet if there is one thing that we can take from Crehan’s reading of Gramsci, it is that, far from being a progressive force, a world understood in terms of discrete cultures can blinker us to much more important dynamics of class, history and power.