Between the living and the dead: Gramsci, mummification and common sense

Robert Jackson


I examine the language of ‘life’ and its semantic field in Gramsci’s prison writings, exploring the relationship between Gramsci’s vision of the “constitutive social and political over-determination of la persona” (Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 2009, 450), and the theme of the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’ in his work. I concentrate on Bergsonian themes in Gramsci, as well as on apparently distant but related elements of his conceptual apparatus (mummification, culture, ideology). In particular, I will focus on the notions of a coherent person and of personality that are elaborated by Gramsci in these later writings, and the formation of a modus vivendi associated with the discordant layers of the composition of the consciousness of subaltern groups.

The paper investigates both the development and the discontinuities between this Bergsonian/Sorelian impulse and Gramsci’s conception of the mummification of culture that is employed in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci’s notion of mummification provides a way of describing the embalming process through which certain forms of culture, which were something positive and legitimate when created, become pejorative and degenerate through a process of repetition in changed circumstances (Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1975, Q8§28, 958). The paper argues that a study of the formation of these categories illuminates the relationship between philosophy and common sense in Gramsci’s thought. I further locate the obstructive consequences of the mummification of culture for the renovation of common sense, and the role of philosophy in the Prison Notebooks in overcoming this.

On this basis, the paper will evaluate some recent debates on the relationship between philosophy and ideology in the Prison Notebooks. In particular, I will consider the reading advanced by Jan Rehmann, who argues that Gramsci’s perspective of rendering common sense more coherent contains a strong ideologico-critical element (Jan Rehmann, "Philosophy of Praxis...", HM 22.2, 2014, 103). Contrasting this with Thomas’ argument that “ideology is conceived in a neutral sense” in its most significant formulation in the Notebooks (Thomas 2009, 281), this paper will consider the contribution that an examination of Gramsci’s conception of the mummification of culture might make to this discussion.

Gramsci - Ideology - Culture - Philosophy - common sense