Antonio Gramsci and Communication
Summary and Keywords
The strong affinity between the work of Antonio Gramsci and communication is based on several Gramscian communication-related themes and particular modes of his thought that significantly resonate with this field of studies. They include his drawing on the rhetorical tradition inspired by Vico, his assumptions of the constitutive role of language in creating an intersubjective reality that shapes common sense, and the fact that language provides the conditions of possibility for a hegemonic project. The strong tie between communication and Gramsci’s thought creates a vantage point for understanding both how Gramsci developed his political theories based on communication concerns and how those theories in turn advanced the field of communication.
On the one hand, Gramsci by his intellectual formation, as well as via life experiences, became extremely receptive of theories that linked language, culture, and society. Those theories can help illuminate Gramsci’s key ideas, such as hegemony, common sense, national popular, the strategic concept of translation, and the relational nature of concepts. On the other hand, Gramsci’s own reflection on the nexus between language and history significantly contributes to a theorization of language as a cultural practice resisting hypostases, an important qualification of Saussurian structural linguistics, and finally can offer the basis for a materialist approach to communication. Thus, the common denominator of a Gramscian perspective on communication must be found in the consistent use of dialectical thinking, which mediates binarisms like diachronic–synchronic, stability–change, individual–collective, unity–diversity, and symbolic–material. This article discusses the above-mentioned connection between Gramsci and communication in more detail. First, it explicates the ways in which Gramsci’s work was influenced by communication concerns, and then it analyzes how Gramsci’s work influences the realm of human communication today.
Communication and Gramsci
Scholarly interest in the connection between Gramsci and communication was initially developed by a handful of scholars, such as Rossiello (1959, 1969), Gerratana (1975), and Lo Piparo (1979). Especially after the reception of the seminal work of Lo Piparo on Gramsci and linguistics, authors like De Mauro (1995), Salamini (1981), Helsloot (1989), Frosini and Liguori (2004), Ives (1997, 2004), and Boothman (2004, 2010) helped to develop the subfield. Most of the scholars mentioned above tend to focus on one of two perspectives: either persuading Gramscian scholarship of the need to adequately recognize Gramsci’s language-related concerns or casting light on Gramscian contributions to linguistic studies.
Thus, with regard to the existing literature, it is important to acknowledge the productive tension of both aspects, especially when considering the shift of focus from linguistics to the broader perspective of communication. While bearing in mind the natural overlap of linguistics and communication studies, the cultural turn of communication that was propelled by cultural studies, compared to linguistics’ general orientation toward social science, can cast light on the paradigm shift proposed by Gramsci, from a consideration of language as the subject matter of natural science to its being the object of study in social, cultural, and political history.
Therefore, despite the specific biases that cultural studies may have imported in general interpretation of Gramsci in communication studies, they have expanded the field of inquiry to the much wider framework of human signification as expressed in literature, social texts, and everyday practices. Thus, while a traditional approach to linguistics tends to concentrate on one specific mode of communication (i.e., language), communication, as a field of studies, allows the exploration of Gramsci’s concepts from a multidimensional perspective that assumes that the production of meaning and the exchange of information go beyond language and encompass the whole spectrum of social intercourse phenomena.
“Communicative Gramsci”: How Communication Concerns Speak through Gramsci
According to De Mauro (2010), a communicative perspective is particularly valuable in making sense of Gramsci’s thought because many of his life experiences are in fact related to it: for instance, he navigated different linguistic environments, such as Sardinian dialect and the more “hegemonic” way of speaking Italian in Turin; his passion for theater and literature led him to develop critical tools to examine the relationship between discourse and culture and the link between elite or literary and vernacular discourse; his experience as a politically involved journalist quickly taught him about rhetoric as a powerful political instrument; and, finally, he studied glottology and philology at the university of Turin, which gave him the chance to inquire about the tight link between language and power in historical social formations.
Gramsci the Linguist and the Marxist
As already mentioned, Lo Piparo notably contributed to establishing the scholarly interest in Gramsci and the problems of language. The central tenet of his arguments can be summarized as: “The primitive matrix of [Gramsci’s] philosophy should not be searched for in Marx or Lenin or in any other Marxist, but in the science of language” (Lo Piparo, 2010, p. 21). The parallelism between the way political and economic leadership and the idea of linguistic allure function seems to indicate to Lo Piparo (1979) that Gramscian hegemony does not derive from Marx or Lenin’s ideas, but from linguistics. According to Lo Piparo, Gramsci drew heavily from scholars of language like Bartoli and Ascoli and their theories of language and power relations among linguistic communities.
Lo Piparo suggested that, in order to understand Gramscian concerns with communication practices and structures of power, one must look at the work Gramsci did with his adviser Bartoli during his university years. Professor Bartoli, a scholar of linguistics, developed the idea of fascino (allure), which describes the cultural and symbolic prestige that a dominant group exerts via language over dominated groups. Bartoli suggested that language and communication are practices developing as social, cultural, and political struggle.
According to Lo Piparo, Bartoli’s explanation of social and cultural prestige exerted through language offered Gramsci a tenable account of the process that allows the formation and maintenance of a collective will and therefore the achievement of social cohesion out of a socially, culturally, and geographically fragmented reality. Thus, for Gramsci, linguistic change equaled historical change, which was marked by political antagonism among social groups.
Informed by those ideas, Gramsci developed a kind of critical philology according to which he combined the study of language with history, political science, and literary criticism. From such a perspective, he criticized the linguistic–political project of Esperanto, i.e., an ahistorical and artificial language that would presumably unite different nations and cultures, which had nourished debates on language and politics, especially among the revolutionary Left. Gramsci considered Esperanto an attempt to impose a political project from above, rather than considering how the free social energies of people and a concrete historical process would shape a given way to act via communication. For Lo Piparo, by the same reasoning, Gramsci reproached Italian 19th-century Risorgimento intellectuals for not having been able to exert cultural hegemony on the masses, who, being culturally and linguistically separated by provincialisms, were never able to overcome regionalism and become a people-nation, thus preventing the formation of a solid Italian state.
Consequently, as Paggi (1970) put it, “It’s Gramsci’s interest in the political nature of grammar and linguistics that led him to study intellectuals and the communicability of their ideas and actions” (p. 76), because, as Gramsci (1975, p. 33) claims:
Every new social stratum, which comes into history, organizes itself for a struggle, infuses a language with new currents and new usages and breaks up the fixed schemes which grammarians established for practical and opportunistic reasons.
However, while Lo Piparo’s general thesis of a profound influence of linguistics and philology on Gramsci’s political theory has received considerable credit (Ives & La Corte, 2010), not all scholars accepted the further and provocative implication of the author, according to which Gramsci’s originality derives from a linguistic background rather than drawing on Marxism. For instance, Rossiello (2010) responded to Lo Piparo by claiming that Marxism was not incompatible with a historicist approach to linguistics. Thus, Rossiello claimed that Gramsci looked in Bartoli and Ascoli for a historicist approach to linguistics that could work with the Marxist framework, not the other way around.
Along the same line, Ambrosoli (1960) reported that Gramsci considered language a functional product of political economic interests of a specific social group:
Languages have never determined national formations. Nations were formed because of political economic necessities of one class: the language has only been one of the visible documents needed for propaganda, which bourgeois writers used to promote consensus among people and the ideologies.
The link between ideology and language proposed by Ambrosoli may also explain why Gramsci was so receptive to Bartoli’s attempt to transform the study of language into a historical discipline. In fact, similar to Voloshinov’s (1973) thesis in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Gramsci used his study of language and ideology as a way to provide arguments to intervene in Marxist debates, such as the one that tries to define Marxism beyond absolute materialism and absolute idealism.
In the end, as per Volosinov, Gramsci interprets communication practices through a materialist framework by considering the linguistic confrontation between different social groups placed in different structural positions within social organization of production in capitalist society. Ultimately, it is such a positioning in the social organization of production and labor that explains linguistic prestige, not the other way around. In other words, in line with historical materialism, the generation of prestige by a given social group and its organic intellectuals depends on the social relations in which the groups move.
Gramsci and Common Sense
Gramsci’s understanding of common sense reveals another important way in which the communication perspective informs his thought. His conceptualization of common sense appears to make constant but indirect allusion to the philosopher Giambattista Vico (1710) and his preoccupation with the rhetorical constitution of societies in terms of collectively shared beliefs, values, and ideas.
As Schaeffer (1990) points out, Vico understands sensus communis as a collective consent about meanings and values. Vico concentrated on sensus communis, understood as the cultural wealth of a given community. In the New Science, Vico (1944) provides several definitions of sensus communis: it “makes human choice certain with respect to needs and utilities” (p. 141), it also validates “judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation, or the entire human race” (p. 142). In other words, sensus communis provides “a common ground of truth” (p. 144), a level of uniformity and social bonds across a particular community. Vico believed that this common ground of truth penetrated language practices, which in turn helped to reinforce it. Therefore, through language, sensus communis worked as an organizing principle of society, providing a mental map and a reservoir for the fundamental values that created a sense of community.
Consequently, Gramsci considers common sense a way to approach practical aspects of consciousness because it indicates the concrete, unorganized, and contradictory way in which people understand and act upon the world. Such a worldview is reproduced through communication, which represents for Gramsci the terrain in which mental and practical activity most clearly show their indissoluble union.
Deriving from this complex synthesis of the collective and individual, mental and practical nature of common sense, Gramsci reaches a dialectical understanding of common sense. On the one hand, common sense is considered to be “uncritical and largely unconscious, dogmatic” (1971, p. 435), “conservative” (p. 423), a “chaotic aggregate of different conceptions” (p. 422), and a “primitive historical acquisition” (p. 199). On the other hand, common sense can crystallize in powerful ways. In fact, one of the reasons why Gramsci was interested in this notion has to do with the concept of “organic ideology,” understood as a spontaneous mobilization of a determinate group’s desire that meets social needs. However, the level of organicity of common sense needs to be “educated, depurated” (1971, p. 357), needs to be communicated, and needs to be effectively expressed into new good sense, a new language.
Based on these principles, Gramsci considers common sense to be both a producer and a product of language, which, in every epoch, created a relative level of historical truths concerning basic dynamics of social life: political principles, decorum, politeness, aesthetics, and family values. Thus, Gramsci treats senso comune as an intersubjective phenomenon that, through exchange of meanings, values, or practices, explains and regulates social intercourse.
Accordingly, senso comune, from the perspective of a “communicative Gramsci,” tries to explain how language can act as a factor of socialization, aggregation, and social organization; how language creates a contradictory unity between an individual’s embrace of the common values and collective structural unity. Thus, what fascinates Gramsci about senso comune is its functioning as a framework capable of conciliating the binarism that seems to characterize the historical materialist understanding of social reality: the relationship between individual consciousness and dominant ideology. As Gramsci claims, the amazing question about language is about its capability “of attaining a single cultural climate” (1971, p. 349).
Such a cultural climate consists of an interior and exterior environment that provides the framework on which individual idiosyncrasies can develop with a relative sense of independence and freedom and, at the same time, cannot avoid making reference to a basis provided by senso comune. The process that constitutes this climate may be described as the dynamic of production of cultural hegemony, and the relatively stable product of such a singular cultural climate materializes as common sense.
Therefore, common sense, as understood by Gramsci drawing on Vico, becomes a concept tied to ideology and hegemony. On the one hand, in a given social formation there are as many common senses as there are ideologies corresponding to class-specific (or class-factions-specific) worldviews. However, at the same time, in particular social and historical conditions, and by virtue of their preeminent position in the productive social organization (e.g., bourgeois class or proletariat), some groups can become potentially able to universalize their particular vision of the world, thus extending it to the rest of society:
The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates new ideological terrain, determine[s] a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge … when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole philosophy.
(Gramsci, 1971, p. 192)
In fact, while the bourgeois class can achieve that role thanks to the ownership and control of most means of economic and cultural production, the proletariat can achieve it by being able to develop a critical consciousness that may resonate with the emancipatory goals of all classes.
The perspective of commonality implied by common sense, as understood by Vico and successively developed by Gramsci, marks hegemony with a level of necessity that incorporates power as a way to organize and coordinate people in society. In other words, the expansion of a political project that aspires to become homogeneously extended across society is, in many ways, understood as being functional. Thus, the instrumentality of hegemony goes beyond the securing of the vested interests of the dominant class, as it becomes purposeful to subaltern groups as well. In fact, by incorporating ideas belonging to the dominant group, the subaltern may expand its worldviews and, therefore, paradoxically enough, enjoy the relatively emancipatory side of it.
The idea of sensus communis seems to have consolidated Gramsci’s nexus between language and politics because it is through the sharing of a practical consciousness such as language that a collective will is created. In this sense, the quasi obsession of Gramsci with a national dimension has to do with the goal of coordinating across an entire community—defined as those who share “common” things, such as sense, language, consciousness, and ideology—a political project.
In this sense, Gramsci considered journalism and popular literature as social spheres in which the ideological struggle for an alternative common sense in a given national community became particularly crucial. As a journalist, Gramsci argued for a particular kind of press that could expose oppression on every front, including those that did not directly concern the working class. However, changing common sense required more than reporting; it also required an “integral” kind of journalism. Integral journalism represented a tool for social, cultural, and political policy, which sought to satisfy the needs of its audience as well as to develop them in pedagogical terms in order to broaden their scope into a full-blown worldview.
As a journalist, Gramsci was a steady collaborator with socialist newspapers like Il grido del Popolo and Avanti. While he wrote articles concerned with a variety of subjects, particularly telling for his attention to common sense were his pieces on theater and popular literature, which, from the perspective of integral journalism, were considered organizing agents of culture and of the intellectual life of a people in a given period.
Gramsci also tried to materialize his politically engaged understanding of journalism through the founding in 1919 of Ordine Nuovo together with other Turin-based intellectuals, such as Togliatti, Tasca, and Terracini. Ordine Nuovo was a weekly magazine that played a crucial role during the so-called two red years, 1919–1920, when Turin’s industrial workers occupied the manufacturing plant and establish factory councils.
Translation or Political Action
As seen in the review of Gramsci’s interests in Vico and in journalism, language, for Gramsci, consists of a social practice that contributes to shared meaning across a social group and, when becoming hegemonic, across an entire social formation. The idea that a word or a gesture may go beyond its original linguistic and ideological community or given historical circumstances leads us to the question of translation. For Gramsci, translation must be understood as a political achievement, the overcoming of the problem of translability (i.e., translatability, the condition of possibility of translation), because its meaning goes beyond the literal sense of finding an equivalent word across two languages and becomes the problem of understanding the significance of a practice in different historically determined contexts (Briziarelli & Martínez Guillem, 2016).
In this sense, the possibility of translation, or translability, represents one important way in which communicative concepts inform Gramsci’s work because it provides him with a framework for understanding and converting practices and pondering their reproducibility. The historically determined practice of communicating and the possibility of determining meaning in different geographical and historical contexts, for Gramsci, exemplify the possibility for people to make history under the relative (but still significant) conditions of people’s making, i.e. historically stratified human praxis, intelligible but also how collective meanings are created. Therefore, the problem of translation can occur even intralinguistically inside the same nation, because a national language must deal with the theoretical and political question of how infinite immanent grammars (i.e., how each individual idiosyncratically approaches a given language) come to acquire meaning for an entire community.
Gramsci (FSPN) defines translability as the equivalence between two different national cultures:
Translability presupposes that a given stage of civilization has a basically identical cultural expression, even if its language is historically different, being determined by the particular tradition of each national culture and each philosophical system, by the prevalence of an intellectual and practical activity.
As Mansfield (1984) observed, the “ontological” ground for Gramsci to argue for a translability among elements consists in assuming a reality characterized by a dialectical unity, in which elements are highly interrelated and therefore there is always a mediating aspect that can translate “quality” into “quantity,” freedom into social determination, particular into general, and “French political culture” (e.g., Jacobinism) into “German philosophical tradition” (e.g., idealism).
The classic example that Gramsci uses to exemplify his reasoning is the equivalence, in 19th-century Europe, of French political ideas informing the French Revolution, and German idealism, possibly the most preponderant philosophical tradition of that epoch. Thus, the fact that French Jacobinism could be translated into German idealism reveals Gramsci’s main preoccupation with a conceptual kind of translation that allows a better understanding of societies and therefore more efficacious intervention in them:
Philosophy-politics-economics. If these are constitutive elements of a single conception of the world, there must be, in the theoretical principal, convertibility from one to others, a reciprocal translation into specific language of constitutive part: each element is constitutive of the others and all of them together form an homogenous circle.
(1971, p. 196)
As previously suggested, the implication of translability synthesizes an important general tension in Gramsci’s work that utilizes linguistic translation as a generalizable historicist method. For instance, on the one hand, Gramsci sees the pedagogical value of classic training involving classic Latin and Greek translation because it provides students with a chance to learn how to historicize a given understanding of the world. On the other hand, one has to learn to recognize similar patterns in history, and to be able to evaluate phenomena below the surface. Accordingly, translating Aesop’s fables or Cicero’s oratories must at the same time involve historicization and they must be analyzed for the important historical lessons they can offer for contemporary life.
Thus, translability is about not just the discovery of (historical) “difference,” but also the discovery of “unity” above apparently different circumstances. Failing to do so, for Gramsci, leads to the situation where “two scientists who owe their cultural formation to the same background think they are upholding different truths because they employ a different scientific language” (FSPN, p. 308). For this reason, as Lichtner (2010) noticed, “translability has to do with the relationship between the concrete-abstract and abstract-concrete,” (p. 195) or unity beyond difference and the difference beyond unity that guides our reasoning when we act, because abstract discourse is the translation of a historical reality and, in turn, is re-translated into praxis, mainly in historical political action.
According to Boothman (2010), translability as understood by Gramsci has to be interpreted in historical materialist terms as the effort to find equivalent elements across two communicative practices taking place in two distinct social formations, across their historically determined superstructures and bases. From this point of view, translability consists of finding structural parallelism between different historically determined social formations and their respective expressions at the level of cultural practices.
According to Frosini (2010), the most important translating objective was to translate philosophy into politics, a new common sense. Frosini argues that the Gramscian concept of “catharsis” represents a key idea in terms of translation as it indicates the translation from the purely economic to the ethical political moment. This is a hegemonic translation. Similarly, Badaloni (1988) believes that the concept of immanence represents Gramsci’s way to navigate through traditional idealism and traditional materialism as well as to translate their positive intuition in elements of philosophy of praxis.
As already mentioned, conceptual translation implies the transfer of a theoretical category from one context to another, from an epoch to another, from a social formation to another. However, bearing in mind Gramsci’s objective of establishing a Socialist hegemony in Italy, his reflections aim at something more specific: a politics of translation that ultimately entails a translation of politics (Frosini, 2010). Such a political project leads to the following translations: from philosophy to political praxis, from common sense to good sense, from economic to ethical political moment the (cathartic moment), from different dialects to national language, from a corporative moment to national popular, and, in the end, the concrete empirical practical experience into consciousness and vice versa.
Finally, translation as a political project entails raising consciousness through effective communication across social, cultural, and historical boundaries, which leads us to examine the figure of the intellectual. In fact, for Gramsci, one of the main functions of intellectuals is to act as permanent translators because the intellectual can more easily translate “philosophy” into “politics.” As Green and Ives (2009) noticed, while the classic intellectual enters from outside the reality of exploitation and injustice of the masses, Gramsci’s normative emphasis on the organicity of intellectuals focuses on the necessity for the intellectual to speak the same “idiom” of the subaltern in order to be able to translate meanings out of, and in, that environment.
Making reference to Gramsci’s own life experience, the intellectual needs to be able to translate discourse, such as that of the Sardinian peasantry into that of the Turin manufacturing workers, for several reasons: first, because for both of them, their “local dialect”—in other words, the language bounded to the immediate social circumstance of their lives—needs to be expanded in order to increase their understanding of the world from “regional” to “national.” Second, because when one is capable of finding a dimension of translability between different social and historical circumstances and groups, one can find common points for alliance building, such as the one sought by Gramsci between peasantries and urban working classes.
Thus, translation from a political point of view also means mediating between the “spontaneism” of any group in developing discourses concerning their own restricted reality and strategic political thinking that tries to act above those realities. This is how Gramsci puts it:
If it is true that every language contains the elements of a conception of the world and of a culture, it could also be true that from anyone’s language one can assess the greater or lesser complexity of his conception of the world. Someone who only speaks dialect, or understands the standard language incompletely, necessarily has an intuition of the world which is more or less limited and provincial, which is fossilized and anachronistic in relation to the major currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be limited, more or less corporate or economistic, not universal. While it is not always possible to learn a number of foreign languages in order to put oneself in contact with other cultural lives, it is at the least necessary to learn the national language properly. A great culture can be translated into the language of another great culture, that is to say a great national language with historic richness and complexity, and it can translate any other great culture and can be a worldwide means of expression. But a dialect cannot do this.
(1971, p. 326)
Gramsci’s interest in language goes beyond the linguistic content andt approaches the semblance of a historicist method that can start with the translability of meaning across languages but quickly broadens up to the evaluation of equivalence of concepts from one context to another, from one theoretical framework to another. As Sanguineti (2010) remarked, Gramsci, like Lucien Goldmann (1975), by the idea of homology, is interested in structural parallelism between different languages and conceptions of the world in order to map how individuals and social groups interact in complex social formations.
Gramscian Communication: The Way Gramsci Informs and Advances How We Understand Communication
While, the examination of a “communicative Gramsci” implies contextualizing indirectly his receptiveness to communication in the social and cultural scenario in which he lived; exploring a “Gramscian communication” point of view entails acknowledging from a communication perspective how Gramsci, in many ways, reacted to such an intellectual and cultural context.
Accordingly, the following section concentrates on a Gramscian understanding of communication founded on one main principle that seems to articulate all the others: dialectics. In fact, dialectical thinking constitutes, for Gramsci, the best weapon to fight hypostasis in order to preserve the fluidity, the contradictory nature, and the overdetermined character of human existence. Keeping in mind this Gramscian attitude, generally characterized by an aversion to theoretical reductionism of concrete social phenomena, one can examine how Gramsci goes beyond the Neogrammarians’ abstractions, Croce’s subjectivism, and the ahistorical aspect of structural linguistics.
Gramsci’s materialist understanding of communication places the act of signification between the constraining limits of a given social organization of production and the possibility of trespassing those boundaries, between the possibility of unity in collective meaning and signifying diversity, and between the idiosyncrasies of infinite immanent grammar and the tyrannical power of normative grammar.
Communication and Dialectics
The scholarly context in which Gramsci moved during the first decades of the 20th century was dominated by the Neogrammarian school, which was centered on the principle of sound laws without exceptions, according to which the most observable linguistic phenomenon in a given language is how it sounds. This aspect of language was considered by Neogrammarians as an autonomous level, independent from semantics and syntax, which changed according to accidental mutations occurring inside the language system.
While the positivist tendency of Neogrammarians aspired to treat language as a domain of social science, abstractable from human affairs, Bartoli considered language a historical science (Salamini, 1981). Bartoli had developed a “spatial” analysis of language that sought to understand how in a given geographical area one linguistic community could export its communication practice to contiguous communities. As Gramsci reports in Quaderni, his mentor expected him to become an academic, the archangel avenging linguistics against Neogrammarians. Yet, because of Gramsci’s increasing political involvement and his subsequent imprisonment, those prospects remained unfulfilled. Nevertheless, Gramsci’s historical materialist approach to language uses dialectics as a way to navigate through several reductionist tendencies that characterize the field: unity and diversity of linguistic practices, individual acts and structural constraints, historical changes and historical institutionalizations of discourse.
Gramsci’s intervention was not purely scholastic, but also was motivated by the important political implications of a competing conceptualization of language. For instance, his criticism of such a tradition was centered on the Neogrammarians’ denial of considering language both as a historical document of the vicissitudes of people as well as a practical way in which those lived experiences are acted upon.
Gramsci used similar arguments to criticize Croce’s theorization of language. While appreciating his reaction against positivism, Gramsci rejected Croce’s (1922) subjectivist and romantic position, according to which language is individual, free, and standing as an expressive production, like a work of art. That is because while the positivism of Neogrammarians negated human history via abstractions, Croce reduced it to individual idiosyncrasy, which implied the negation of collectively shared meanings. Conversely, for Gramsci, the idea that language could play a fundamental role in the construction of senso commune was fundamental in order to be able to explain a variety of phenomena, such as power relations and organic ideology.
For Gramsci, communicative practices should be understood as an unsolidified historical process that produces equally fluid historically determined meanings, which derive from material circumstances and the concrete existence of people. Thus, through productive practices like working, socializing, and producing cultural artifacts, a given social group, operating in a given set of social relations, produces and practices a language. Those specific concrete productive activities, collectively categorizable in terms of class, produce, reproduce, and modify a vision of the world that is at the same time expressed and shaped by language.
There are some important implications to those basic assumptions. To say that meaning is derived from the specific experiences of a social group implies that meaning expressed through communication is always ideological because it reflects and operationalizes the worldview of that group. Second, this entails that, in a given social formation, there are competing languages and competing ideologies that enter into contact in conflictive ways, as they express equally conflictive material interests. Thus, the recurrent preoccupation, for Gramsci, with a national language should be considered a complex framework of analysis articulated at two main levels: by social time and social space.
From the diachronic perspective of social time, a given language, a given epoch, carries simultaneously old and new meanings, old and new conceptions of the world. As Williams (1977) noted, in this dimension residual, dominant, and emergent meanings and worldviews meet each other and combine with each other in new ways. Second, from the point of view of social space (in other words, how a national language penetrates a given social structure at different levels), if it is true that language presents a class characterization, in the same language there are also competing understandings of the world. Moreover, geographically, local or regional dialects compete with one another to assert their own vision of the world.
Dialectics also represent the way in which Gramsci, without necessarily making direct reference to it, provides an interesting re-elaboration of Saussure’s structural linguistics, by signaling a possible way to resolve its binarism. While in Saussure there is an unresolved tension between the synchronic and the diachronic planes, langue and parole, and the static and dynamic model (Rossiello, 1970), Gramsci provides a perspective that, without rejecting the assumption of certain stability of language, returns linguistic practice to historical change.
There is certainly an affinity between Gramsci and Saussure. When Gramsci claims that language is always metaphorical, he in many ways reflects a way of thinking about language that closely resembles Saussure’s structural linguistics because he assumes that metaphors, like signs, are meanings standing for other meanings. Metaphors always defer meaning outside their literal content, thus implying that in order to understand a given utterance one has to necessarily establish a system of relations with other words or metaphors or signs. Moreover, such a metaphorical meaning changes through time, and thus is historically determined.
In Gramsci, as in Saussure, there is a level of stability that guarantees communicability beyond the specific communication practice of each individual. In this sense, when Gramsci compares language to a photograph, it means that it is possible to grasp a determinate phase of national (collective) language, historically shaped in continuous development. Language according to Gramsci possesses an enormous inertial nature, being simultaneously in movement and moved by historical processes.
As Carlucci noticed (2013), on the one hand, like Saussure, Gramsci believes that in order to have a panoramic idea of language, one requires a single vantage point that provides a synchronic photograph of a complex scenario. On the other hand, this representation, while reproducing adequately the inertial and static aspect of language, must be combined with the assumption that human communication is subject to life, to history: the whole language is a continuous process of metaphor, and the history of semantics is an aspect of the history of culture; “Language is simultaneously a living thing and a museum of fossils of life and civilizations” (1971, p. 450).
However, what distinguishes the two authors is the tendency to lean toward one of those two poles between the subjective speech act and the objective structural constancy. For Gramsci, the relationship between the collectively shared, relatively static structure of language and the constantly moving is inherently dialectical: while the daily usages of language sediments into a system that serves as a basis for any immanent use, any immanent practice, as a daily translation of the language system, de facto denies and violates the system in terms of grammar, syntax, and jargon.
Consequently, Gramsci distinguished between linguaggio and lingua, according to which the former describes the arbitrary linguistic practices—confused, heterogeneous but not necessarily subjective—and the latter more organized, more coherent but not necessarily objective, but rather historical. Thus, in comparison to Saussure’s langue and parole, Gramsci’s lingua and linguaggio become relative gradients of the coherence and organization of language. Lingua is necessary for social organization, in order to coordinate people and to avoid potential disorganization of multiple linguaggios.
Thus, both lingua and linguaggio move inside a history, which implies that, for Gramsci, “necessity” in language is always a historical necessity, thus circumstantial, particular, and conditional (Mansfield, 1984). Accordingly, the relative degree of coherence of language as “multiplicity of fact” (1971, p. 349) is never guaranteed and is not necessary. The so-called conformism (1975, p. 324) is what provides consistency and unity to a linguistic community: “In acquiring one’s conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting” (p. 324).
Nevertheless, the dialectic between lingua and linguaggio does not necessarily mean Gramsci does not privilege one side of the equation. According to Saussure (1959), people share a common knowledge of the linguistic system, i.e., langue, which is then materialized in its individual usages as parole. On the other hand, compared to other thinkers (e.g., Volosinov), who are concerned with the linguistic production of otherness and diversity, Gramsci, like Saussure, was more preoccupied with the capability of a collective to create a stable, functional linguistic unity.
The way in which Gramsci tries to capture this dialectical tension between stability and continuous change, the collectively shared and the individually expressed, is through the perspective provided by linguistic grammar. Grammar, for Gramsci, represents a historical document of human activity. There is an inherent grammar that everyone, in different ways, applies; immanent grammar.The second kind of grammar, a normative one, derives from a reciprocal teaching, control, and censorship: It is the result of a “whole complex of actions and reactions, to establish norms, and standards of correctness or incorrectness” (1975b, p. 29).
Therefore, normative grammar functions to create conformity and uniformity at a national and regional level. It is a result of a cultural and political policy, in other words, a political project to communicatively coordinate a given society. Normative grammars constitute, at the same time, the basis for hegemony as well as the basis for the masses to emancipate themselves from it. Normative grammar “is always an act of cultural national policy” (QC29, 2) that works both ways to dominate and to elevate the masses (i.e., socially organize them).
In sum, while sharing many important assumptions with Saussure, Gramsci considers language an eminently historically mediated tool that allows people to undertsand the world and share some understanding. Like Saussure, Gramsci recognizes a tension in language between “unity” and “diversity,” which in Gramscian terms assume different vestiges, such as hegemony and ideology, normative and immanent grammar, national and local language, and organic and molecular processes.
A Materialist Theory of Communication
In the same communication-driven tension between “unity” and “difference” in determining social phenomena Gramsci found two key Marxist objects of analysis. The first one is ideology as embedded in language, which is founded on the previously mentioned assumption that language is a social-group-bounded action that changes according to different linguistic or social strata. A second important object of study of his materialist inquiry is tied to a conceptualization of communication as a mode of action rather than symbolic expression of action. He assumes that communication can only be thought about through its practices, as the conditions of communicability are only in parts preceding the communicative act.
First of all, ideology and linguistic practices are considered to be two indissolubly intertwined dimensions. Language, for Gramsci, resembles a semiotic system of signs that, due to their relational and matephorical production of meanings, cannot be studied and evaluated apart from ideologies. However, as already mentioned, such a system is being continuously changed by history, i.e., human praxis. Gramsci considers language to be tied, but not necessarily always anchored, to the infrastructure, so that its development can parallel the infrastructure but also diverge from it. Language, like ideology, is not a mere reflection of the infrastructure because “no new historical situation, however radical the change that has brought about it, completely transforms language, at least in its external formal aspect” (1975, p. 453).
The nature of this view is due to the fact that, in a given society, different social groups, involved in different productive activities, develop different conceptions of the world and different linguistic environments, which in turn shape both practices and the ideologies associated with them. Thus, even when a determinate class comes to power, the subaltern linguistic environment keeps developing, keeps being subaltern, and finally keeps affecting the dominant idiom. As he noted, “A new ruling class brings about alterations as a ‘mass,’ but the jargons of various professions, of specific societies, innovate in a molecular way” (1985, p. 1780).
Thus, a social structure, even when shaped according to a hegemonic principle, does not cancel those subaltern “jargons,” but simply organizes them in homological ways in which the ruling group coordinates and mobilizes the ruled groups. Consequently, on the one hand, the dominant language is reproduced through institutional channels, such as schools, media, and elite political rhetoric; on the other, there are persistent peripheral conceptions of the world that persist as linguistic and cultural folklore, which can provide worldviews that are alternatives to, and even in opposition to, the dominant one.
As previously noted, for Gramsci, in contemporary societies, by virtue of their position in the social structure and productive organization, there are groups (such as bourgeoisie and proletariat) that can develop a more coherent discourse or worldview. In this sense, a Gramscian understanding of language assumes that the ability of the social movement’s rhetoric to be more or less effective depends on the social relations in which the discourse takes place.
The work of Antonio Gramsci cannot be overemphasized in communication studies as a field. Especially in critical communication studies, Gramsci’s work on hegemony has been central to the analysis and critique of issues ranging from identity formation, organizational norms and behavior, media representations, and the construction and practice of social and cultural spaces.
For several decades, scholarship within the subdiscipline of organizational communication has, in diverse ways, employed the use of the concept of hegemony to explicate the influence of discursive forms on the construction of knowledge about specific organizational phenomena. In Mumby’s (1987) work, for instance, he discussed the ideological influence of narratives in producing, maintaining, and reproducing power structures in organizations. He suggested that adopting a political reading of organizational narratives allows for an analysis of the ways in which certain perspectives of the world are privileged over others. Hegemony, therefore, becomes the means by which the privileging of some views over others is legitimized and normalized in organizational practices. Other scholars, such as Clair (1993), have also employed Gramsci’s hegemony in uncovering avenues by which subjugated groups “actively participate in their production and reproduction of dominant organizational ideology” (p. 133).
In another example, Ashcraft (2000) critiqued male hegemonic discourse that influence the “traditional” organization, which contributed significantly to research about hegemonic masculinity by showing how male heterosexuality “symbolically represents and legitimates the bureaucratic model of ‘power over’ that obligates subordinate to please superior” (p. 356).
Ganesh et al. (2005) critiqued the predominance of organizational communication scholarship that situates organizational discourse at the micro level and advocated for more theorizing to be done beyond the boundaries of specific organizations. This, they stated, would require a look at the Gramscian notions of hegemony and counterhegemony to acknowledge the coercive power of ideological processes and to explore the communicative options available for transformative resistance as a collective act.
In critical studies in media and communication, scholarship has also focused on Gramscian hegemony as a way to understand mass and new media representations of various social groups and issues. For instance, Condit (1994) critiqued the use, in communication studies, of old assumptions about dominant ideologies that in turn reaffirm those same ideologies. She used the concept of hegemony as a conduit through which to offer a more relevant view of social critique. Using an example of mass media placement of reproductive technologies (like IVF, surrogacy, and hormone therapy), Condit argued that, unlike the old assumptions of dominant ideology theories, Gramscian hegemony allows for theorists to consider the active role of multiple parties in the institution of control.
Evans (2002) also analyzed the heterogeneous stances taken by different media organizations in their relationship with hegemonic forces. He noted that, due to the advancement of technology, which has enabled the proliferation of media outlets, different media organizations support or resist hegemony in different ways. There is some freedom offered by the discursive options available to such media outlets but regardless of their positioning, “hegemonic pressures work to limit, to differential degrees, the options open to individual groups” (p. 311). Hegemony, in this instance is seen as the phenomenon that produces control through a constant process of negotiation and accommodation.
Similarly, Briziarelli (2014) analyzed neoliberalism in the Italian media system by extending Gramsci’s theories on the role of the state. Contrary to neoliberal assumptions about state decline, Briziarelli used Gramsci and Marxian understandings to illuminate the systemic ways in which the “integral state” (p. 206) is able to exercise hegemonic control over its citizens. Another example is the work of Lewis (1992). Lewis was of the view that the interpretive paradigm in media and mass communication lacked recognition of political and economic social structures that are important to the construction of social reality. Using Stuart Hall’s concept of hegemony—which, as Lewis noted, was a hybrid form of Marxist theory culled from Gramsci and Althusser—Lewis tracked the empirical path of hegemony as a way of developing a grounded theory useful for qualitative work in media and mass communication.
Several other scholars over the years have employed the use of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in media and mass communication to explore a myriad of issues and concerns. Examples include: Cloud (2006), on the narratives of the Matrix trilogy as a means through which human agency is analyzed in contemporary critical theory; Denton and Kuypers (2007), on media hegemony and political communication in the United States; Carey (2008), on the hegemonic influence of media narratives in shaping culture and society; Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli (2012) on hegemonic processes in CNN’s “Latino in America” documentary; Block (2013), on the mediatization of politics from a culturalist perspective; and Freedman (2015), who used Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony and consciousness to discuss consensus, chaos, control, and contradiction as four paradigms necessary in conceptualizing media power.
Antonio Gramsci and his concept of hegemony are, yet again, keywords in most critical and cultural studies and critical intercultural communication scholarship. Mendoza, Halualani, and Drzewiecka (2002) investigated identity as a cultural concept. They critiqued theories of identity in intercultural communication and proposed a re-imagining of the concept because identity formation is not a neutral space, as is suggested by much intercultural communication scholarship. They, therefore, used Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to explain the means by which identity formation is constrained by differential power relations. Also, Martínez Guillem (2013) used Gramscian hegemony to approach the challenge of rethinking power relations in critical cultural studies in communication. For her, Gramsci—as well as scholars like Foucault, Althusser, Laclau, and Hall—are seminal to revisiting and challenging traditional notions of resistance and subversion.
Gramsci’s ideas have found use not only in Euro-American research on culture and communication, but also in postcolonialism and subaltern studies analyzing issues on a global scale. For instance, in their postcolonial critique of cultural intelligence (CQ), Dutta and Dutta (2013) bemoaned the discursive means through which CQ is presented as an advantageous tool for global competitiveness. They critiqued neoliberalism as the vessel for the dissemination of transnational hegemony. In their paper, Dutta and Dutta explain transnational hegemony as the process that allows transnational corporations (TNCs) to “exercise control in (neo)colonies and operate in global markets” (p. 244). Other scholarship in critical cultural studies and intercultural communication have often used hegemony and hegemonic relations as a lens through which issues of cultural identity formation (Sorrells, 2012), critical communication theorizing (Halualani, Mendoza, & Drzewiecka, 2009), and language and global intercultural communication (Jack, 2004) are theorized.
Scholars of rhetoric—particularly, critical rhetoric—have also significantly applied Gramsci’s thoughts on the state, consciousness, and hegemonic control in their perusal of various issues. Zompetti (1997) argued for the work of Gramsci to be fully utilized in communication research because, for him, it makes valuable practical and theoretical contributions to critical rhetoric in particular. He contended that many communication scholars have equated Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, for instance, to ideology, and therefore have reduced it. Zompetti explored Gramsci’s commitment to telos and concluded that the latter offers communication scholars a pathway to a meaningful and sustained attention to the ideological.
In another example, Arthos (2013) analyzed the ethical dilemma of using the “master tools” of strategic communication as counterhegemonic materials to fight the institutionalized violence of the corporate state. He viewed hegemony as a subtle but powerful phenomenon that organizes public discourse to the detriment of real dialogue. In Arthos’ work, communication is the vernacular of resistance; thus, “The canny skills of strategic communication must be harnessed to undermine the corruptions of hegemony” (p. 596).
Gibson and Heyse (2014) also employed the use of hegemony to explore how in Sarah Palin’s best-selling book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, she draws upon the “mythology of the American frontier in ‘The Rise of the Mama Grizzlies’ in order to legitimate a conservative feminism” (p. 97). Gibson and Heyse implicitly drew on Gramsci to argue that Sarah Palin’s narrative reaffirms and recenters hegemonic masculinity in the context of American frontier feminism.
Other significant work in rhetoric and communication that uses Gramscian thought include Shome’s (1996) study on the rhetorical strategies used to institute Whiteness “in relation to the non-White natives of the third world” (p. 502). Shome used the Hollywood film City of Joy as a case to illuminate the politics in which non-White cultures are marginalized while simultaneously centering and legitimizing White Western cultures. Additionally, Livesay (2002) used ExxonMobil’s published texts on climate change and the concept of hegemony to explore how rhetorical analysis and discourse analysis could both be useful in business communication. Lastly, Enck-Wanzer (2011) investigated the racist ideology of the Tea Party vis-à-vis President Obama’s (non)response, which he argued, reinforces racial neoliberalism—a hegemonic discourse of racism in U.S. politics.
Less direct but still significant is how Gramsci informed the literature on communication and social movements. Given that social movements mostly describe situations of subalternity and unfavorable asymmetries in terms of available means for a given social group to assert or defend its own interests vis-à-vis a stronger or dominant group or a state, the (mis-)perception of hegemony being mainly constructed through cultural practices made communication a crucial terrain of struggle for counter- or alternative hegemony (Aune, 2000).
This was the case for the literature of the so-called new social movements (Day, 2005), which aimed at challenging existing institutions through what Gramsci defines as a war of position, a strategic approach spanning successive conjunctures and shifting the balance of forces through interventions at various social locations/spheres, particularly within the intellectual and cultural realms of civil society. Historically, social movements sought to challenge hegemony through the establishment of alternative media practices (Downing, 2001).
While Gramsci is mostly known for his conceptualization of hegemony, the notion has consistently produced debates about its significance with communication-related implications. Rhetorical scholars like Cloud (1996) have pointed to the persuasive communicative character of hegemony, as well of the role of language to deconstruct hegemonic apparati (Gunn & Treat, 2005). When it comes to hegemony, rhetoric scholars have also debated the relationship between discourse and materiality and whether its realization relied more on force or on consent (Martínez Guillem, 2013). Equally important was whether hegemony as a discursively constructed social order could go beyond Marxism and dialectical materialism or even beyond its own historical ideological framework (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). In the context of communication, it is important to consider the perspective of media hegemony, which relies on the idea of both hegemony reproduced in media text as well as in everyday practices (Williams, 1977), and which represents an effective framework to explore the intersection between political economic power and race and gender (Hall, 1986).
While all authors should be ideally read in their original language—because there is no real substitute for the first-hand idiomatic expressions of a given thinker—in the case of Gramsci, this is particularly important because of the way he idiosyncratically conveyed his thought through his tone, syntax, and particular wording. In Italian, students and scholars will find a rich and diversified edition of his writings. Among them are good representative publications that can provide a solid first understanding of Gramsci: Gerratana’s edition of Quaderni dal Carcere (1975); the letters Gramsci wrote from prison to friends and family (Gramsci, 1965); a recompilation of his newspaper articles when he was the director of the socialist newspaper Ordine Nuovo, Ordine Nuovo 1919–1920 (Gramsci, 1954); and, finally, a recompilation of his political writings preceding his imprisonment, Scritti rivoluzionari. Dal biennio rosso al Congresso di Lione (1919–1926) (Gramsci, 2008).
While the English translations are not as complete as the primary sources in the original language, English-speaking scholars can count on fairly exhaustive publications of Gramsci’s works: Buttigieg’s translation of Prison Notebooks (2011) in three volumes, Hoare and Nowell-Smith’s Selection of Prison Notebooks (Gramsci, 1971), Forgacs, Nowell-Smith, and Boelhower’s (2012) Selection on Cultural Writings, and a translation of Gramsci’s pre-prison writings (Gramsci, Bellamy, & Cox, 1994).
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