Zombies and Spectres: Decaying bodies and the spirit of communism

In class we discussed briefly how Gramsci is far more concerned with culture and consciousness than with embodiment. By contrast, Foucault makes the body into a centerpiece of analysis. Building on this contrast, write an essay that compares and contrasts Gramscian versus Foucauldian perspectives on communication and culture.

Zombies and Spectres: Decaying bodies and the spirit of communism

Antonio Gramsci was a Marxist-Leninist Party leader and writer in Italy during the rise of Mussolini and Fascism. In the 1980s his concept of hegemony resurfaced in English cultural studies. Michel Foucault was a Marx-inspired historian of ideas and thought. He wrote in post-war and post-1968 France. His concept of biopower was influential in 1990s gender studies.

In this paper, taking issue with the apocalyptic vision of Barrett (1996), I try to show the continuous spirit that animates both Foucault and Gramsci’s thought. Why were Gramsci and Foucault concerned with anything at all? More specifically, what were they concerned for? I ask and try to answer these questions under the assumption that their concern is inspired by a common source, the spirit of communism. I start with a reading of Barrett and then move on develop a snapshot of Foucault’s thought.  The exercise of comparing and contrasting the Foucauldian and Gramscian perspectives on communication and culture is modified by this snapshot, and my limited reading of the two authors tends toward revealing a common cause.

The propositions of Foucault and Gramsci are surprisingly similar, considering the very different cultural and historical moments in which the two writers looked at communication and culture. This similarity can be related to their purpose, that of searching for a way to the new. Gramsci was preparing the way for Marx’s new society, and Foucault heralding Nietzsche’s new man. When comparing these approaches, their differences must not be seen as conflicting. Their differences must be seen as complementary; both writers belong to a line of emancipatory strategists. The Enlightenment thinkers, the creators of Man as we have known him, devised the subject as a strategy for emancipation. Marx, a child of the Enlightenment, used class as another such strategy for expanding the emancipatory project. Gramsci , in his time, considered the concept of Marxism to be new,  but very quickly after, and maybe as a result of the tumultuous epoch that killed Gramsci, Man has aged. Foucault warned of the subjects coming death and Barrett, brandishing Laclau and Mouffe, tells us Marxism is no longer a viable theory. What I want to present is a continuation, an evolution of a multi-linear emancipatory project. Foucault proposes a new consciousness. Gramsci was an author, as Foucault defined the term, in an emancipatory discourse. Comparing and contrasting the two authors can take place on the level of discourse. Where Barrett sees the end of Marxism in the limits of Gramsci, I will attempt to show, with a little help from Marx himself, a continuous spirit at play in changed conditions.

Apocalyptic Perspective
Something completely distasteful is happening in Barrett’s article . While she lauds the brilliance of Gramsci, she nonetheless delights in the limits of Marxism. Barrett presents favourably Laclau and Mouffe’s active deconstruction of Marxism, but complains that they are still too Marxist. Barrett prefers "The Foucault/Donzelot position of the historical emergence of ‘the social’" and "feminist insistence on the non-capitalist power relations at play in the world of the ‘private domain.’" (Barrett 1996 p.257) The insistence and position that she prefers need to be in play to understand the social, but her desire to obliterate the others is contrary to the spirit of deconstruction. I call Laclau and Mouffe’s method active deconstruction, to differentiate the method from the idea that deconstruction is always already in process. There’s an entropic quality to communication, of which theory is a part. Whether or not deconstruction is a direct descendant of cybernetic communication theory, as the awareness of entropy and probability theory enter science even the hard sciences begin to soften their statements. Words and labels are leaky containers, theory is a sinking ship and the maintenance of meaning is an active function of some power. Maintenance of meaning is a legitimating function of power. Active deconstruction is a process of delegitimating for an emancipatory movement. Barrett reads a positive function into deconstruction. For Barrett, the decentering of Marxist class analysis legitimates her preferred category of analysis. She doesn’t take it upon herself to center race and gender, and this inaction may be worse, what she wants is some God-like theorist to throw Marx and his class analysis into the fires of hell and then present us with a new object of analysis glowing like Jesus. This is about as far from Foucault’s thought as one can go before reaching the fixed pole of fascism.[1] What I will present, in the following pages, is an evolution of analysis, a present with history in play. What if Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida are Gramsci’s organic intellectuals? [2] The questions continue to be: What is happening? How is it happening? And how do we change it?

The unknowable unknown
There is an unknowable unknown within Foucault’s analysis of the ‘body politic.’  This idea that the body – my body, your body – has [3] a knowledge made possible through a power/knowledge process has, within the idea itself, a limit on the ability to think it through to a conclusion. I mention this as a form of explanation for my hesitancy to fix Foucault’s position and engage in a polemic exercise that does no justice to any of the thinkers involved. I am also flirting with the idea, which Foucault himself promoted, that Foucault is better understood as part of the collective discourse of his time. This power/knowledge process can be more deeply understood alongside other similar contemporaneous concepts. We can also use the image of thought as presented by Deleuze (1994) and Derrida’s (1997) exploration of the gift. These three concepts – power/knowledge, image of thought and the gift – all present an unknowable unknown, an outside force that cannot be thought. This latter notion of the unknowable unknown, and I hesitate to say that it didn’t exist for Gramsci, was in the post-war discourse of these three thinkers a major presence.

In post-war/post-1968 philosophy, the presuppositions differed radically from those of the pre-war era. This change in the image of thought, the new heritage, the entrance of a fascist power, the same that killed Gramsci, or more accurately, an awareness of that power, and as well, a rapidly changed and continuously changing scientific discourse, separated the epochs in which Gramsci and Foucault wrote by an enormous gap. Even with the drastic changes that took place, the shift in perspective between Gramsci and Foucault is slight. Both continue to work as strategists for emancipation. Barrett’s desire to end the Marxist(class)/Foucault(gender/race) debate differs greatly from Foucault’s shift in Marxist thinking.  Barrett does not adequately represent Foucault’s thought. Marx is still in play in the discursive field. Foucault’s thought interpenetrates an historical discursive field in which Marx is very much in play. I’d like to discuss this a bit before moving on to a comparison of Gramsci and Foucault.

What difference does it make who is speaking?
Marx invokes the spectre of communism. Would Marx himself have preferred the spectre of a philosophy of action or the zombified Marxism eating the brains of all classes where it held power and decomposing on the sidelines of political fields with strong markets? I wonder if the effectiveness of Gramsci’s thought, or at least the effective communication of it, might be due, in some part, to the unnamed source, to being freed from its source. Foucault deals with this concept of attribution in The Order of Things and in Gramsci’s prison notebooks, though under different circumstances, the concept of attribution is in play. Attaching a person, place and date to ideas has its didactic value, but these labels are also containers in which the dangerous ideas, dangerous to the status quo, can be kept. A very dismissable Marx becomes the semantic container for the spectre of communism. Attribution, assigning a subject/name to a selection of knowledge, also has a reifying and a commodifying function. These are functions of knowledge/power. In Barrett’s article the analysis is taking place at the level of attribution. This type of analysis is critiqued in Foucault’s article "What is an author?", where the author function perpetuates, among other social values, individualism and private property.

Conditions of thought
Marx’s writing comes out of conditions that make it possible, as does Gramsci’s and Foucault’s. A statement like this must be made in a certain spirit. [4] One does not resent Foucault’s brilliance by recognizing the given nature of the work, its contingency within a field of discourse. This field of discourse at once constitutes, and is constituted by named authors.  The very idea of a discourse removes the attribution from ideas, setting them into motion without the subject. The conditions of thought must be held in mind when comparing authors of different epochs. Barrett writes of the limits of Gramsci’s body of work, and by extension Marxism. I would like to consider the spirit of Marx and Gramsci’s body of work.

Dangerous Knowledge
It needs to be understood that both Foucault and especially Gramsci were writing to be understood  and used. What both Gramsci and Foucault provide is an analysis of their world with a desire to change it. Their positions were not fixed, but mobile. A good example, which shows both the mobility of their positions and the compatibility of their concepts, is their definitions of human nature. Gramsci defines human nature as "a complex of human relations" to include becoming and deny man in general (Gramsci. 1957. p.80).  Foucault wonders if human nature can be discovered "outside the human mind, in social forms, in the relations of production, in the class struggles, etc." (Foucault. 2006. p.29).  How could anyone deny that an unattributed Marxism is at play in Foucault’s thought? For Foucault, the Marxist label had been played out. The emphasis is on label. Foucault’s Order of Things is an attempt to free thought from attribution, to continue a communist project without Marx’s name. Even further, Foucault shows that thought is communal, and that power attributes thought and alienates us from the collective existence of thought.

Miscellaneous responses to fears of freedom and reality
Analyzing tactics of power is not necessarily to be in agreement with them. It may be a tactic to refuse to produce knowledge that reproduces society, to avoid feeding back into the system the representations in which we are represented. Whether knowledge is gained through creation itself or an analysis of our created selves, knowledge of the methods of production must be gained for an understanding, and understanding is necessary for change. What needs to be continually stated and restated is the notion of a disconnectedness, as opposed to advocacy, from expository statements. To describe the massification of the body through power, the creation of biopolitics, is not to say that the created body/mass is desirable. Seeing what you want to see, seeing a desired reality is to be insane. Desiring a classless society is not the same as living in a classless set of relationships. Gramsci deals with the problem of the reproductive power of representing reality for analysis in his essay on the Prince. Gramsci writes that developing a theory and techniques of politics will help both sides in the struggle, but will end up helping most the side that didn’t know.(Gramsci 1957 p.142)

There remains the problem of reconciling Foucault’s analysis of institutions of care with the perception that many of these institutions were concessions won by labour (the people). Institutions like health care and welfare are, according to Foucault’s analysis, conditioning biopower. These institutions, the same the Left is fighting for, are seen by Foucault as instruments and techniques of power. This problem exists in education as well. Education is another institution demanded by the Left. For Gramsci, education, the institution of an educational system, would replace the family as the primary socializing set of relationships. Gramsci plans to use education to overcome the hegemony of church and family. Today reading Gramsci, we shudder with horror at his suggestion of a 24 hour education system in the hands of the party. Who today could read this in the spirit of Gramsci’s intention?  To overcome this apparent dichotomy, we need to differentiate between the education of Gramsci’s intention and the state run education Foucault critiques. [5] This difference could possibly correlate to discursive fields. The common area of analysis is Catholicism in Gramsci and Confessional in Foucault. Foucault follows the dispersion of the political practice of the confession into the medical and psychoanalytical fields, both state run health and welfare. These are done to us, performed on us. Both Foucault and Gramsci are working toward a common objective, where we perform, do and know ourselves. But the social has changed. Recognition is power. The benefits of power are relative to who wields it.

Timely writers
Foucault and Gramsci were writing in a completely different epochs. This can’t be over emphasized. Foucault was not dealing with the dominance of a single cultural institution as Gramsci was. Foucault was writing in the nuclear age, (or the age of electronics, or the space age, etc.); an entirely new body of theory had entered intellectual consciousness. It is this theory and its complexity that separates Gramsci and Foucault. The complexity of Foucault’s theory doesn’t mean Gramsci’s is simple. But the world changed in the years between the two writers. The moment within which Foucault finds his perspective is almost the realization of Gramsci’s dream. After the war the universities swelled with a growing student body, a new society being birthed.  A new consciousness took on the political. When Foucault wrote The Order of Things in 1968, Man was world weary, reeling from a rapid fire growth. Marx’s emancipatory strategy had been played out. If Marx’s name wasn’t yet synonymous with the Gulag, it was soon to be; in 1968, the sense that Marxism was another mantrap was strong. Foucault’s histories of normalization, policing and care show a diffuse power that first individualized the human body and then cultured a mass of individuals. Through a discursive process humanity was both defined consciously and physically created.
Gramsci’s perspective is also historically situated. The bulk of his writing was done in a fascist prison. The dominant forces of his time, the forces Gramsci was writing to oppose, were different from the forces we face today. For him, culture was dominated by the Catholic Church.  Regardless of the ideology of the dominant culture, it was in culture that consciousness was constituted. Culture is a conception of the world imposed from the outside; this outside power dominates the consciousnesses that freely participate in these social groupings. Gramsci’s conception of society is specific to his society at the time of his writing. Powerful cultural institutions and the powerful state, which had locked him up, dominate in a theatrical mode. Through the theater he could still see that the diffuse political arm extended into cultural institutions which formed consciousness. It was this society, the society as Gramsci understood it, that he wrote to change. Gramsci was a Marxist, but Marxism is a powerful handle. Gramsci was thrown in prison for promoting the ideas. This kind of reaction is reinforcing: if my enemy is trying to silence me I must be saying something dangerous. Marxist philosophy with its state/labour (people) dualism was relevant.

Post-1968 dualism is not sufficient. Any form of reductionism is insufficient. New emancipatory theory takes on a precision of definition that complicates.

In this essay I tried to show the difference between a body of strategy and the spirit of communism. Marx’s body of work was contingent on the conditions of his historical moment, as was Gramsci’s and Foulcault’s. The exercise of showing their limits is worthwhile. Analysis and strategy will always be situational. A strategy devised outside a situation will always be only partially applicable, if at all. The viability of Marx and Gramsci, as well as Foucault, lives in their methods and their spirit. Through reading Gramsci: “It is essential to evolve a theory in which all these relationships are seen as active and in motion, establishing clearly that the source of this activity is man’s individual consciousness which knows, wills, strives, creates because he already knows, desires, strives, creates, etc. and conceives of himself not as an isolated individual but rich in the potentialities offered, by other men and by the society of things of which he must have some knowledge (because each man is a philosopher, a scientist, etc.) (Gramsci. 1957. p78-79) It is clear that the theory Gramsci proposes is not his own. When Barrett attributes the names of Gramsci and Marx to fixed theories, she does violence to the active and mobile theory (of liberation?) that Foucault, Gramsci and Marx propose.

End Notes
 [1] This colourful language might be objectionable. When Barret writes, “…it takes away what, with the other hand, Laclau had just given us: instead of allowing us to savour the full independence of the non-class elements of political ideology…”(p.242) the desire to savour an impossible gift is clear.

[2] I ask this in the sense that these thinkers are conscious of their connection and emergence from a class other than the ruling class.

[3] In this wording is the distinction between (1)a body/[spirit/mind] duality in which the [mind/spirit] has a body and (2) the notion that the body has a knowledge, the body as singular.

[4] By surgically extracting quotes from Marx “…the social consciousness of past ages, despite all multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within common forms, or general ideas…” (Communist Manifesto p.31) we find an idea very similar to Foucault.

[5] “The Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.” (Communist Manifesto p.28)

Barrett, Michèle. (1996) “Ideology, Politics, Hegemony: From Gramsci to Laclau and Mouffe. in Slavoj Zizek (ed,) Mapping Ideology, pp. 235-263. Verso Press USA

Deleuze, Gille. (1994). Difference and repetition. Trans. Paul
Patton. Columbia University Press: New York.

Derrida, Jacques. (1996). The politics of friendship. Verso. London.

Foucault, Michel. (1997). The Politics of Truth. Semiotext(e)

Foucault, Michel. (2006). The Chomsky-Foucault debate on human nature. The New Press. New York.

Gramsci, Antonio. (1957). The Modern Prince and other writings. Trans. Louis Marks. International Publishers. New York.

Marx, Karl. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Books. London.

"The assertion that Marxism is a new, independent original concept and a force in the development of world history is the assertion of the independence and originality of a new culture in birth which will develop with the development of social relations." The new Prince and other writings pp. 88-89

  "One would be concerned with the ‘body politic’ as a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communication routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge." Discipline and Punish p. 28

 “What if understanding were a complex, multiple, non-individual formation, not "subjected to the subject," which produced effects of truth?” (Society must be defended
  p. 17)

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