not nearly far enough

Adam MortonAdam Morton continues the discussion prompted by my reading of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us. (See also his earlier post and my response.) Again, he’s less concerned to engage with my reading of Althusser per se than to give me a somewhat heavy-handed lecture on how to read in general. But I don’t find his purported distinction between “interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating a text” (outlined also here) particularly helpful. It sounds to me like one of those irregular verbs: I negotiate a text; You merely interpret it; He, she or it has the nerve to appropriate it. Except that it turns out that there’s another twist to the declension: Jon Beasley-Murray goes so far as to “importune” the text. Quelle horreur!

To put this another way: I don’t claim any particular purity to my own reading of Althusser. All readings are messy. They are inevitably interested in some way or another, and mine is clearly informed by my own interests. There are no doubt elements of appropriation (if you want to use these terms) as well as interpretation and negotiation. But I do try to read Machiavelli and Us, and also the various texts discussed in Posthegemony, with care and attention, alert particularly to their tensions, slippages, and contradictions. This is because all texts “say more than they do” (to use Morton’s own symptomatically awkward phrase) and I’m interested precisely in this excess. Again, though, I find it especially productive to think of Althusser’s book with such slippages in mind, in part because this is the tack that he himself takes in approaching Machiavelli. As Althusser notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4). In my terms: something always escapes. Which is why, in similar spirit, I make much of the revisions and changes that Machiavelli and Us underwent over time. Morton is apparently less concerned with such things; well, so be it.

Let me conclude with a word or two on Gramsci. Morton criticizes me for saying (in the prologue to Posthegemony) that for Gramsci “hegemony, in fact, is primary: [. . .] power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily’ (1). He tells me I “would have to be aware that coercion/consent [. . .] come as a couplet.” But I am of course quite aware of this fact. My point is that in any such couplet (including also the others indicated by Morton: “state/civil society,” and so on) there’s always a fundamental dissymmetry: one of the pair is primary; the other appears to be supplementary. More complications then ensue, but I was merely pointing out that for Gramsci it is hegemony (defined as “‘spontaneous’ consent”) that is primary. Coercion, then, is presented as a supplement: employed, Gramsci tells us, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed.”

A rather more interesting critique of Posthegemony is that I don’t in fact spend half as much time on Gramsci as I should. Rather I focus, at length and for reasons I outline in detail, on the work of Ernesto Laclau (and Chantal Mouffe). But in his review, ”Affective Hegemonies”, my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo upbraids me for what he calls my “masterful silencing of Gramsci.” By generally avoiding Gramsci’s work, concentrating instead on his neo-Gramscian avatars, he suggests I am ironically “perhaps paying oblique homage to the man who first thought about hegemony.” By contrast, then, Gordillo implies that it is time to “appropriate” Gramsci a little more thoroughly, to work harder at disrupting the banalities and superficial readings propagated as part of “the academic infatuation with Gramsci.” Indeed, Gordillo’s main criticism of Posthegemony (and it is a smart and attentive reading that he offers) is that it goes not nearly far enough in the task of “importuning Gramsci” for which Morton would otherwise condemn it.