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Coffee & Wisdom 02.46: Allow Me to Post This Epistle Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about writing from prison.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is Coffee and Wisdom.

This week we’re looking at epistles, letters, and prison documents in general–things that people write when they have the time to kick back in prison. Not always happily, of course, but let’s look at some things.

First off, I do want to do a little defining here. An epistle is a letter designed as a literary work rather than as a communication to an individual. But that term, epistle, is not much used nowadays. You know, it sounds like, well, something that Saint Paul would do. And so I suppose people think: I don’t want to try to live up to that. So I’ll just call it a letter today.

I want to look at Antonio Gramsci. There is a book called Letters from Prison, but he’s mostly known for something else that I’ll get to He was a founding member and leader of the Italian Communist Party, and he was, as you might imagine, imprisoned by Mussolini. He wrote a lot of notebooks during the time that he was incarcerated, more than 30 notebooks. They are numbered according to dates. So he wrote 30 notebooks, three thousand pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment period. Gramschi wrote: “History teaches, but it has no pupils.” He was in prison from 1926-1937, when he died in prison.

He never was a healthy person and prison life just was not what was good for him. But he was quite a prolific writer. Noam Chomsky wrote: “In the case of Antonio Gramsci, the fascist government agreed that he was a model intellectual in Edward Said sense, and for that reason determined in their words that we must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years.” So they had to put him away in prison. Gramsci said: “I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partizan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.”

So get on our side, says Antonio Gramsci. His ideas are still around. You can see him in various posters on the streets even today. A saying that appeared in New York City recently: “Qualities should be attributed to human beings and not to things.” From prison. Notebook Number One. This is a central idea of Gramsci. It does go back to Marxist thought. Quality should be attributed to human beings, not to things. He had this to say about the way he wanted to go about theorizing: “The philosophy of praxis does not aim at the peaceful resolution of existing conditions in his history and society, but is the very theory of these contradictions. It is not the instrument of government of the dominant groups in order to gain the consent and exercise hegemony over this subculture and classes. It is the expression of subculture and classes who want to educate themselves and the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all true of this, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the impossible deceptions of the upper class and even more, their own.”

A couple of catch phrases within this: praxis, of course, the philosophy of praxis. You’re going to do something that will have some effect on society. And we’ll get to the word “hegemony.” Gramsci formulated the term “cultural hegemony,” and he had this to say: “Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the folklore of philosophy. And like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental character is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential common sense.” And he’s going to lean on this idea of his–Hegemony and Common Sense as he works through how societies work. Alright, and he’s going to call it “the folklore of philosophy” because it’s just kind of in there. But where is it? On Coffee and Wisdom we have talked about common sense before.

It was a philosophical tradition that did develop in Scotland in the seventeen hundreds. But of course, the term floats around a whole lot–all that’s “common sense.” And so it has escaped its philosophical roots and is nowadays used for everything from the chicken crossing the road to death and taxes. But all of these things, Gramsci would argue, are actually not common sense, but “common sense” as a “chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions.” And one can find there anything that one likes. So if you wanted to call something common sense or say it’s not, you pretty well have free rein because who knows what it actually is. So it’s a tool. It’s a weapon that can be used when we are in social and political situations and discussions. That’s part of his idea.

There are lots and lots of books about Gramsci’s ideas: “Hegemony and Revolution,” “Antônio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory” His ideas really cross this linea between just pure political speculation into the cultural realm. And it really is the cultural realm in which Graem she has lasted through the time all the way since the Second World War period. Graem, she is common sense inequality and it’s narrative’s.

This becomes very important, as I’ll show you in a little bit. But the whole idea here is that inequality is based in ideas that are foisted upon the people who are unequal in the system. So here’s how it works. She said that we have society here and we have a base and then we have a superstructure. The base of society is its political economy, capitalism, socialism, feudalism, etc. And that base then permeates all of the institutions within society. So religions, education, work, environment, media, family, etc. So the baseline political economy permeates up and creates all of the assumptions, the common sense within society. Now, the term Jimminy, Hedgeman and leader it’s Greek was in use, but given its current meaning by Gramsci, if you say, Oh, that’s idiomatic. Yeah, you’re quoting Gramsci.

In that particular case, the values and norms of the ruling elite become the common sense of a culture. That’s the logic here. So the values and norms of the ruling elite become the common sense of a culture because the wealthy do it, so that must be the way it’s supposed to be done. All right. Everyone, particularly the poorest people, accept and attempt to perpetuate those common sense norms. Then the American dream and that kind of thing is something that is built into the culture, becomes the common sense of the culture. And then the poor in the culture, the subaltern classes within the culture, begin to take those and perpetuate them. Because they think, “that must be the way things are.” It becomes the norms and common sense of the culture. In this way, the poor subjugate themselves. This is really the center of his argument. The poor subjugate themselves.

Gramsci begins to use the term “status quo” in the way that we use it and throw it around today. It comes directly out of his Prison Notebooks. Status quo is maintained. That is the way things always are and always have been and have to be, because it just makes common sense that our society works in that way. So the status quo is maintained because the people who are are suppressed by those assumptions say “that has to be the way it is.” Brute force to maintain control is seldom needed in these situations because consent replaces coercion, the consent of the governed. Right. Consent replaces coercion. So you see how the the basic idea of cultural hegemony works. The values and norms of the ruling class become what must be true– common sense.

Then everyone within that culture, most people within that culture, begin to think, yeah, that has to be true. It’s always been this way, it always will be this way. And I have to live up to these norms in order to be normal in the culture. And then this becomes the status quo and people believe that this is the way things have to be in this way, Gramsci argues. Being a Marxist, he thinks that that the revolution never comes because people just assume that they have to be subjugated within the system.

Here is a cartoon from Oman: “I had enough of this. You only report the negative part and the reporters say because there’s no positive news to report.” Well, so within Oman culture, yes. Only the the ruling elite have it right. And those negative things. Oh, that’s just what the poor people are saying. But we must maintain the status quo.

Just today, big headline: “Unilever to remove ‘normal’ from its beauty personal care goods. More than half the respondents of a global poll said using ‘normal’ to describe hair or skin made them feel excluded.” This is directly out of Gramsci. He’s still alive and well today. In the cultures of the world, we’re saying no to ‘normal’ and yes to positive beauty, says Unilever, an international company of many, many different beauty products. This idea coming right out of Gramsci. The status quo was wrong. The idea of normal is wrong, and we must revolutionize beauty and personal care products. And we’re reading Gramsci right there–Gramsci has so sunk into our assumptions about how cultural norms work that nowadays we throw his ideas around without really even knowing where they came from.

Gramsci’s everywhere: organizing in education unions today. How can Gramsci help? You can read the book on how to organize a labor union within education. Again, he is everywhere. “Hegemony Culture War” says this little badge; this one, “the new invisible hand.” You probably remember that the invisible hand of capitalism is what controls the markets. Very, very old idea. Then Gramsci talks about the invisible hand being that thing that keeps people down within the status quo. And here we have Gramsci painted on a building in Iraq: “Outgrow the status quo: strike on May Day.” So, again, status quo being used within the concept that Gramsci made popular. So he is very much part of the revolutionary thinking to this day: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” said Gramsci.

He was looking, of course, at what was happening previous to the Second World War as fascism was taking over in Europe. But I would say his ideas are still true. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. How we imagine the new. Gramsci would argue, needs to be outside of that common sense and status quo.

He was a very unhealthy person. So prison life did not agree with him. And he died in his 40s in 1937. But as you see, Gramsci’s ideas are certainly still with us today, so much so that we don’t even know where. Quoting Gramsci when we use terms like status quo, etc..

So. There are a few of the prison ideas that Antonio Gramsci was able to get out into the world despite the prison walls. Thanks for listening today.

Bibles and Beer on Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm Central Standard Time. This week, I’ll be talking at about an episode, Paul’s epistle, Second Thessalonians, in which he takes it all back. He’s predicted the end of the world is nigh. But by golly, as often happens, the world didn’t end on the schedule that Paul had laid out. And so how do you take it back after the world doesn’t end?

Thanks for listening. And we’ll be back with more letters from prison tomorrow.

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