Literature as a Basis for Social Change



In my book project on whether literature can change the course of history, I’ve been thinking about a Marxist thinker who influenced me greatly during my college days. Antonio Gramsci believes that common people have an “unconscious philosophy” that activists can harness as they seek to create a better society. I would add that people also have an unconscious grasp of literature that can be similarly harnessed.

Before I explain, here’s some background. Gramsci was an Italian labor organizer who opposed Mussolini and died as the result of his long imprisonment. During his prison years, however, he wrote essays about the special role that “organic intellectuals” have to play in historical progress.

Organic intellectuals are, essentially, laborers with college degrees. Or to be more specific, laborers who use up-to-date historical theory to understand what they, as a class, can contribute to establishing a classless society.

So what do they have to contribute? As Gramsci saw it, in the coming to power of society’s laboring class is implied the liberation of all men and women. Therefore, if laborers are able to consciously see the historical possibilities that they represent, they will have a firm foundation for revolutionary action.

Gramsci contrasts organic intellectuals with progressive intellectuals who, because they lack work experience, often formulate airy abstractions that are out of touch with reality. Pure theory is sterile when it is cut off from the real life concerns of working men and women.

Even if you’re not interested in revolutionary theory, you can see how this applies to current day politics. Too many of our politicians and our political pundits live in a bubble and, as a result, lose touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. Those candidates who rely on wealthy billionaires can get away with paying only lip service to their constituents. They proclaim their concern about social “wedge” issues–abortion, same sex marriage, Black Lives Matter—but then focus their legislative efforts on tax cuts for the wealthy.

I’ll talk in a moment about how literature can help rectify this imbalance, but let’s first look at what Gramsci has to say about unconscious philosophy. As he sees it, all people are instinctive philosophers and have theories about how the world works, how to negotiate it, and how to find meaning in their lives. Once we acknowledge this, Gramsci says, then we

pass to the second stage, the stage of criticism and awareness. We pass to the question: is it preferable to “think” without having critical awareness, in a disjointed and irregular way, in other words to “participate” in a conception of the world “imposed” mechanically by external environment, that is, by one of the many groups in which everyone is automatically involved from the time he enters the conscious world…; or is it preferable to work out one’s own conception of the world consciously and critically, and so out of this work of one’s own brain to choose one’s own sphere of activity, to participate actively in making the history of the world, and not simply to accept passively and without care the imprint of one’s own personality from outside?

You may instinctively feel that the reigning powers are not serving you, but if you lack critical awareness, your conception of the world may be imposed by Fox News or Rush Limbaugh and you may be drawn to demagogues like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. On the other hand, if you figure out where your real interests lie, then you can become a “cultural movement” that will lead to “practical activity and volition.” As Gramsci saw it, progressive intellectuals and laborers need each other since, apart, one possesses a dry and arid philosophy while the other thrashes around and lashes out.

While Gramsci is focused on the working class, his observations can be extended to other groups whose experiences have been ignored, such a women, people of color, colonial subjects, LGBTQ people, and the like. Any vision of human potential that does not include all groups will be defective.

Now to literature. Just as everyone is an unconscious philosopher, so is everyone an unconscious poet and storyteller. We all know, at some elemental level, that powerful configurations of language allow us to engage in substantive ways with reality. But what Gramsci says about unconscious philosophy is also true of unconscious literary taste. If we do not become aware of why we are drawn to poetry and stories, we will have our tastes imposed mechanically by the external environment. Poetic configurations of words may be used to sell us things or get us to follow certain politicians. We can be suckered by narratives that offer cheap satisfaction rather than genuine wisdom.

The literature teacher and the literary scholar therefore can contribute to the process of liberation. We can help people see how literature offers deep self-knowledge and points the way to freedom. But as with Gramsci’s intellectuals, literary experts cannot fully appreciate literature’s liberating potential without listening closely to society’s unconscious poets and storytellers. We must pay attention to the narratives that attract them and to the images that seize their minds. There must be a back and forth relationship.

To cite a dramatic instance where this occurred, the study of literature was rejuvenated in the 1970s when scholars began listening to previously marginalized groups. New writers were brought into the canon, certain reading experiences were acknowledged for the first time, and so on. These developments in turn changed the way that traditional white male authors were seen.

On a more local level, I have learned much about the deep longings of my students by listening to them closely as they respond to literary works. My students have also prompted me to change what I teach and I have added certain works while dropping others. These young men and women are often astounded that certain works know them better than they know themselves and, because of my expertise, I can help them consolidate insights and live deliberate lives. But I long ago learned that I can’t impose upon them my own literary opinions. They unconsciously know what they need and my job is to get them to critical awareness.

Of course, literature is not a cure-all, and it doesn’t give all of them the strength to resist the Faustian bargains that their capitalist society has in store. But at least it gives them a fighting chance.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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