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On ‘Heroic Fury’ and questions of method in Antonio Gramsci

by Elizabeth Humphrys and Ihab Shalbak on November 12, 2018
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In 2015 a one-day graduate workshop was held at the University of Sydney, on questions of method in Antonio Gramsci. Anchored by keynote presentations from two leading scholars — Adam David Morton and Peter Thomas — the workshop bought together research students working with Gramsci’s writings and conceptual tools. For a number of participants, the workshop was the culmination of 18 months of working with Gramsci’s ideas in two reading groups.

The year before the workshop, in 2014, Adam arrived at the university to take up a Professorship and chair of the Department of Political Economy. He and Elizabeth initiated the Past & Present Reading Group — which commenced by reading Peter’s book The Gramscian Moment. The reading group brought together staff and students, and those from within the university and outside it. There was great interest in the book given it had won the Premio internazionale Giuseppe Sormani, awarded for the best book on Gramsci between 2007 and 2011. Some members were encountering the book for the first time and others were returning to it in a group setting. At the conclusion of the book, a smaller group set out to make their way through the critical English edition of the Prison Notebooks. This group met weekly and changed its composition over time in that long (and ultimately multi-year) interlocution.

Gramsci’s notion of eroico furore (heroic fury) was at the centre of both these groups and served as the focus of the graduate workshop and in its wake the papers were published in a recent special issue of Thesis Eleven. The papers in the special issue are products of an intellectual conversation on the contribution of Antonio Gramsci to critical thought and method that largely evolved out of close readings of Gramsci’s notes. Gramsci’s eroico furore served as a leitmotif that brought together established and emerging researchers to discuss the relevance of Gramsci to their own intellectual concerns and research programs.

As we note in the introduction to the special issue:

In note Q16 §2 of the Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci introduces us to truth seeking as eroico furore, as an active striving not simply to attain a particular form of knowledge but to form a conception of the world. Eroico furore, for Gramsci, is about the development of a sensibility and the forming of personality. As Gramsci puts it, ‘any new theory studied with “heroic fury” [eroico furore] (that is, studied not out of mere external curiosity but for reasons of deep interest) for a certain period, especially if one is young, attracts the student of its own accord and takes possession of his whole personality’ (Gramsci 1971: 383; Q 16, §2). For Gramsci, this deeply rooted drive in one’s own biography sustains intellectual undertaking ‘until such a time as a critical equilibrium is created and one learns to study deeply but without succumbing to the fascination of the system and the author under study’ (ibid). Eroico furore, then, denotes a dialectical movement, a scholarly journey and a transformation, that yields an individuated and unique beginning. This beginning, as a point of departure, incorporates the particular and the immediate while aspiring to rise beyond them in its striving to form its own adequate conception of the world. Defying established authorities and existing systems of thought is an intrinsic feature of this form of endeavour.

There are five key contributions in the special issue. Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton work with Gramsci’s theorisation of capitalist state formation, to draw out the internal relationship between the structuring condition of uneven and combined development and the class agency of passive revolution.

Elizabeth Humphrys employs Gramsci’s meditation on the state-civil society relationship to argue that Gramsci’s theorisation of the ‘integral state’ can help us understand the contemporary breakdown of political rule as expressed in the phenomenon known as ‘anti-politics.’

Ihab Shalbak traces the appropriation of Gramsci in the United Kingdom since the early 1970s. His paper is concerned with the deployment and the transformation of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the purpose it served during the fight against Thatcherism.

Philip Roberts traces the profound influence that Gramsci’s writing had in Brazil and aims to show the creative translation of Gramsci’s concepts in novel situations and to evaluate the viability of travelling with Gramsci’s method.

Finally, Peter Thomas considers Gramsci’s most fundamental and abiding heroic fury in Machiavelli and argues that Gramsci’s reading of The Prince leads to significant developments in the Prison Notebooks. Not simply the redevelopment of Machiavelli’s Prince, or the innovation of a new constituted category, Thomas argues that the modern Prince is the refoundation of Gramsci’s entire endeavours after 1932.

The next step in this journey for the authors, is a roundtable at the upcoming Historical Materialism conference in Sydney, on December 13 and 14. The roundtable — with Andreas Bieler, Adam David Morton, Ihab Shalbak and Elizabeth Humphrys — will discuss the question of heroic fury and method in Gramsci, posing questions to each other and those present on the ways in which Gramsci can offer paths to understanding the dynamics of the contemporary period.

For us, this project has been part of a wider (global) moment where scholars and activists have sought to ‘retrieve the potentials Gramsci’s work offers against a general back ground of domesticating, taming and institutionalising of radical thought’. Therefore, the special issue offers not only an examination of Gramsci and questions of method, but new ways of thinking, being and acting in the world today.

Elizabeth Humphrys and Ihab Shalbak
Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist at the University of Technology Sydney, with a focus on work, trade unions and social movements. Her latest research projects are on: labour and neoliberalism; climate related heat stress events and work; and and the events surrounding the West Gate Bridge in 1970 when 35 workers were killed. Her book How Labour Built Neoliberalism (2018) is out with Brill’s Studies in Critical Social Sciences series. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work, at The Australia Institute. Ihab Shalbak is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney. He works at the intersection of intellectual history, the sociology of knowledge and political theory. His research examines the relation between dominant forms of knowledge and politics, and interrogates the politics of institutional knowledge production. Along these lines, he has written on think tanks, human rights NGOs, and on the development of American Pragmatism.

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