Along with notion of hegemony, the organic intellectual is probably Gramsci’s best-known concept. It has become a standard facet of the “theory” curriculum, with an especially marked influence in the world of cultural studies, especially in the age of new media where thinking of every kind is happening more and more often outside the parameters of traditional cultural institutions. I’m a little too cynical to think that new media will destroy traditional sites of intellectual activity, but I definitely think that the challenge they represent is radical enough to demand thoroughly thinking through the conceptual differences between old and new sites of intellectual activity.
So first things first – as always, we start with a text. Like most of Gramsci’s ideas, his work on intellectuals does not consist of a single definitive text. Rather, it’s a series of individual notes, some extensive and some very brief, scattered throughout the Prison Notebooks, the epic, hodge-podge masterwork that occupied most of Gramsci’s time in his later years, while he languished in the the Fascists’ jail cells. And like Nietzsche’s notebooks, Gramsci’s contain many instances of extremely similar texts copied from notebook to notebook but revised, edited, or extended in the process (to take a random example, compare the notes on “the sexual question” in Q1§62 and Q22§3 – the “Q” is short for “quaderno,” Italian for “notebook,” and the notation corresponds to the number of the notebook and the note within it). Two of the most important sources for Gramsci’s notes on intellectuals are Q12§1-3 and Q4§49) . Probably the best-known version of Gramsci’s work on intellectuals is the text in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, translated by Hoare and Nowell-Smith, cobbled together from various fragments and often anthologized as if it was, in fact, a single definitive text. SPN is a very problematic text, as far as critical bibliography is concerned. Joseph Buttigieg is currently working on a full translation of the entire Prison Notebooks, of which the first three volumes have appeared, containing Notebooks 1-8, as well as an incredibly thorough introduction and critical apparatus; this text is amazing, and I email Columbia University Press at least once a year to bug them about when the next volume is coming out. In the meantime, your best one-stop shop for Gramsci is David Forgacs’ excellent Antonio Gramsci Reader, which also contains texts written before his imprisonment as well as really useful explanatory notes. Anyway.
So…what is an intellectual? That’s the basic question. “Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group,” Gramsci asks, “or does every social group have its own particular specialized category of intellectuals?” (Q12§1). Or as Deleuze & Guattari might put it, “One or many ‘intellectuals’?” Gramsci approaches the question by making one of the most famous distinctions in his entire corpus, that between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual.
“The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist” (Q12§3) – the Edmund Wilsons and Walter Paters of the world. But this group is not limited to critics or academics; those categories haven’t always existed, and there’s an argument to be made that they didn’t exist at all before the 19th century. More importantly, Gramsci asserts that to some extent every human activity requires a measure of reflexive thought (this is one of the places where I see a proximity between Gramsci’s ideas and those of Bergson, another of my favorite philosophers). “When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals…This means that, although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist” (Q12§3). The fundamental fallacy, Gramsci writes, is that of designating intellectuals by their activity rather than by their social relations: “The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having [determined who is an intellectual] in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities…have their place within the general complex of social relations” (Q12§1). Just as a worker is not proletarian because he labors but rather because he labors in a particular relation to the economic structure and means of production, so the intellectual is not an intellectual just because he thinks, but rather because his labor of thought takes place “within the general complex of social relations.”
The brilliance of Gramsci’s concept is his recognition, in answer to his own question, that “traditional intellectuals” are not a specific group of people but rather a specific socio-cultural function. While public intellectuals as we know them today have not always existed, there has always existed in society a group of people who have held the same role that public intellectuals hold today – that of explaining society to itself. What makes these intellectuals “traditional” is not that they have always existed as a consistent group but that they present their own social position as existing in a continuous, unbroken tradition. The idea of the “canon” is an product of this ideological narrative, as is the concept of “Western philosophy”: when we look closely at the history of philosophy, it quickly becomes apparent that there really isn’t anything remotely resembling a continuous tradition of thought that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Whitehead’s famous statement that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, like Derrida’s idea of a continuous “logocentrism” from Plato to the present are quickly revealed as spurious in the face of the realization that between late antiquity and the Renaissance Plato was virtually unknown in Europe.
The ideological essence of traditional intellectual activity is to represent itself as a continuity that transcends political and economic changes. Gramsci writes that these intellectuals “experience through an ‘esprit de corps’ their uninterrupted historical continuity and their special qualifications [and] thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group.” This positioning of one’s own intellectual labors as somehow above or outside the immediate ideological or political concerns of contemporary hegemonic formation – the idea of the political autonomy of intellectual activity – is, as Gramsci points out, itself an ideological move: Always de-historicize! This is because the traditional intellectual function is not simply to explain, but to explain in a way that naturalizes existing social relations and helps manufacture the kind of consent that Gramsci considered crucial for socio-political hegemony. For Gramsci, this ideologically-motivated, de-historicized self-conception marks a kind of devil’s pact between the traditional intellectual class and dominant hegemonic forces. “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies,’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government” (Q12§1).
The ideological pretense of the absence of ideology in intellectual activity – the illusion of disinterested thought and the restriction of the definition of “intellectual” – hides the fact that the constitution of this category of traditional intellectuals is always deeply embedded in contemporary relations of force: that’s why for Gramsci, the prototypical traditional intellectual is not the university professor or the cultural critic but the clergyman: “The most typical of these categories of intellectuals is that of the ecclesiastics, who for a long time monopolized a number of important services” (Q4§49). In many societies and for much of history, joining the clergy (or a society’s functional equivalent) was one of the only ways for a member of the subaltern classes to improve their condition. Until the rise of the university in the later medieval period, for example, monasteries and canon schools were the only source of written education in Europe. But the precarious socio-economic reality of their access to privilege then pressures these traditional intellectuals to think against the interests of their own class, since this means of escape from subalternity is predicated on the existence of the subaltern classes who need ecclesiastical “shepherding”; in the earlier Middle Ages, nobody was more excited about the concept of the Three Estates than the clergy, and the hegemonic value of that idea was the reason that Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis was considered such a dangerous text that the Pope excommunicated him. In modern times we call that “leaning in.” Ahem.
The traditional intellectual masks real relations of force and supports hegemonic cultural formations by presenting intellectual labor as a de-politicized, de-historicized activity. The simplest way to describe the function of the organic intellectual, then, is in opposition – the organic intellectual reveals and thinks through the very historical links and relations of force that the traditional intellectual function works to make invisible. But the nature of the organic intellectual is a bit more complex than this. As the example of the clergy shows, the traditional intellectual doesn’t support hegemonic power relations simply by being a member of the dominant group; quite the opposite, the traditional intellectual function is often fulfilled by individuals who are not initially members of the dominant group, but who gain access to a dominant group’s power and privilege precisely because their intellectual labor serves to reinforce that group’s dominance. A more subtle aspect of the traditional intellectual’s ideological function is to naturalize existing forms and sites of intellectual activity. A perfect example of this is the contemporary academic shitshow we call “peer review,” in which very traditional academics relentlessly scratch each other’s back in the interest of a rarified quasi-public exposure. You only get to teach at a traditional university if you’ve been stamped with the approval of peer review, and the rarified process serves both to safeguard the hollow hallowed halls of academia from outsiders and to delegitimize knowledge that is produced elsewhere.
So a more adequate definition of the organic intellectual is not simply that they are the opposite of the traditional intellectual, but that they think and act elsewhere and in other ways than the traditional intellectual. From a revolutionary perspective, the organic intellectual creates the conditions by which secondary or subaltern social groups can become conscious of their material conditions of existence, the reality of which is obfuscated by the ideology of hegemonic discourses. “Workers of the world unite – don’t you know you’re being oppressed?” But Gramsci’s organic intellectual is precisely not the bourgeois Marxist determined to go raise consciousness among “the proletariat”; the “organic” part of the equation is the idea that the organic intellectual function comes into existence alongside or from within a particular social group to elaborate its lived conditions of existence to itself. Hence one of Gramsci’s most famous statements: “Every social group coming into existence on the primal basis of an essential function in the world of economic production creates together with itself, organically, a rank or several ranks of intellectuals, who give it homogeneity and a consciousness of its own function in the economic sphere” (Q4§49). To put a Deleuzian spin on the idea, the function of the organic intellectual is to produce an image of thought that corresponds to the real existence of the social group of which they are a part and from which they have emerged. Every revolutionary is an intellectual, in this sense, but not every intellectual is a revolutionary. But every intellectual – and all intellectual activity – reveals a world. The question – the difference between the traditional and the organic intellectual – is whose world is being revealed, and why.