TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Gramsci and the Politics of Literary Criticism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Matt Applegate looks at Arshi Pipa’s “Gramsci as a (Non) Literary Critic” from Telos 57 (Fall 1983).

Arshi Pipa’s “Gramsci as a (Non) Literary Critic” is more than a short biography and description of Antonio Gramsci’s inquiries into literary criticism. It also provokes the reader to meditate on the political conditions of literary criticism as an intellectual practice. Gramsci is a controversial figure in the history of literary criticism for at least two reasons, according to Pipa. First, his political work remains more prominent than his literary criticism. When one thinks of Gramsci as a writer and historical figure, his literary criticism might not even register, given his political writing and influence. Second, Gramsci’s politics serve as the impetus for his intellectual projects, thus also providing potential grounds to dismiss or ignore his aesthetic analyses. To be sure, Gramsci is a controversial political figure. In 1921 Gramsci co-founded and led the Communist Party of Italy in opposition to fascism, and was later arrested by fascist police under Mussolini, ultimately dying in prison in 1937. Perhaps his most famous collection of writings, Prison Notebooks, was completed while he was incarcerated between 1926 and 1937. Yet, it is precisely Gramsci’s controversial style and political will that draw Pipa to his work and allow him to question literary criticism as an enduring intellectual practice.

For Pipa, Gramsci embodies two personas that must be reconciled: the political writer and the literary critic. Pipa, however, is clear on the terms of this reconciliation: “To say that he wanted literature to serve only political purposes, thus denying him an appreciation of literature as art, is unfair. On the other hand, to say that he viewed literature, and art in general, as autonomous is false” (85). Here, it is through the coarticulation of political and aesthetic inquiry that Gramsci’s work, and indeed Gramsci himself, is to be understood. Yet, neither politics nor aesthetics can be subsumed one into the other as Gramsci’s intellectual biography is outlined and his intellectual work broadly situated. Stated more generally, Pipa argues that politics and aesthetics are not discrete areas of inquiry for Gramsci; they are inextricably linked for the critic and the criticism he levels.

To claim that politics and aesthetics are inextricably linked, however, poses several problems for Gramsci’s intellectual status and inclusion into the history of literary criticism. On the one hand, Pipa discusses the reception of Gramsci’s work among Italian literary scholars, claiming that figures like Salinari, Petronio, and others, found the roots of “a Marxist theory of aesthetics and a Marxist theory of literature” in his Prison Notebooks and “Theater Chronicles,” but ultimately dismissed this line of inquiry, allowing his political to work to take center stage (83). For more contemporary Gramsci scholars at the time of Pipa’s article, Gramsci’s imprisonment is cited as a justification for the dismissal of his literary criticism, the argument being that his incarceration somehow allowed him to forget a basic Marxist tenet: “that art, a superstructural product, is dependent on the structure” (84). On the other hand, Gramsci’s own fractious relationship with professional academics makes his work controversial. According to Pipa, Gramsci often thought of academics as inhabiting the lowest stage of political consciousness, likening literary critics and the academic institutions that house them to corporations, or geldra, simply protecting and furthering their own interests (85–86). In this way, academics are situated in Gramsci’s work as a kind of petit bourgeoisie, politically and intellectually indistinguishable from the reigning fascist regime.

In a more substantive mode of critique, however, Pipa accounts for a typological difference developed by Gramsci that further distinguishes him from other literary critics. Here Gramsci identifies a difference between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals: “the traditional intellectual is loosely tied to his class, a consequence of his serving any class or group holding power. The organic intellectual, an offshoot of his class, serves solely the latter” (86). Gramsci thought of himself as an organic intellectual, representing and furthering the proletarian project of communist revolution in thought and deed. And in this way, for Pipa, “Gramsci’s refusal to write literary criticism [like a traditional intellectual] is a logical consequence of his philosophy of praxis” (88). Not only is Gramsci politically divided from many career intellectuals; his imprisonment prevented him from writing in the style and form of popular literary criticism. His “notes” are a sign that he could not afford or was prevented from writing long-form texts, thus marking a difference in style and content from his peers.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, Gramsci’s fraught relationship with the literary critics of his day, Pipa draws out broader and more thought-provoking questions than that of situating Gramsci within the history of literary criticism. For instance, rather than dismissing Gramsci’s attempt to distinguish himself from career intellectuals as a petty ideological battle, Pipa takes Gramsci’s antagonism as an opportunity to question the ground and practice of literary criticism. For instance, Pipa orients his article toward its conclusion by proffering a practical question concerning the limits of politics and aesthetics’ coarticulation: “Could a person who wanted to change the world identify with literary critics, who are not even interpreters of the world, but merely interpreters of texts?” (89). Stated another way, Pipa seems to be asking if literary criticism is inherently opposed to the production of political goals. Further, Pipa inquires into the practical function of literary criticism here, wondering if a politically motivated scholar can identify with scholars who do not theorize their class status as part of their intellectual practice.

Indeed, while these questions extend a hand of affirmation to Gramsci’s politics, they ring true in the present. Can a literary critic who is politically motivated identify oneself as such? Are there practical demands that the discipline must address if it is to combat corporate culture and its influence on higher education? What forms of hegemony exist within the discipline of literary criticism that prevent it from questioning its own limits and uses? The profound import of Pipa’s article thus rests on the kinds of questions it provokes, and certainly how a thinker like Gramsci might prefigure these debates in his work. As such, Pipa’s interest in Gramsci manifests an enduring concern for the study of literature, allowing future critics to meditate on their own place and impact on the discipline as such.

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