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This Friday, I was interviewed along with University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies professor Michael McNally on the CJSR radio show “Shout for Libraries”. We were interviewed by Celine Gareau-Brennan and Lorisia Macleod, two SLIS students. We began by discussing the age-old question of library neutrality. Neither Michael nor I support the idea of library neutrality and, while I have met rank-and-file librarians who hold this position, I find it mostly part of the discourse and value system of library administrators. When Michael and I were asked why we think the idea of library neutrality continues to be so strongly held, we mentioned things like reification of social relations and hegemony. But the question made me start wanting to dig a little deeper into this: why has library neutrality continued to be a bone of contention ever since at least the 1970s debates around social responsibility and professionalism, if not before.

At the same time, I kept thinking about the lecture I gave a few weeks ago in SLIS about librarians’ complicity within the state structure, our role in maintaining the hegemony of the capitalist class. I realized - prompted by Michael’s recommendation to Shout listeners that they read Gramsci’s prison diaries - that I hadn’t mentioned Gramsci once in the entire lecture, despite his ideas about hegemony and intellectuals being a core part of that lecture’s argument.

I think these ideas - around the non-neutrality of libraries, hegemony, and the role of intellectuals - are are part of a single coherent theory in Gramsci, where I’ve taken them apart and tried to discuss them separately (a failure of dialectics!). This blog post goes some way to bring these ideas back into a single frame.

In his analysis of the intellectual classes in Italy in the early 20th century, Gramsci identifies two main types - there are organic intellectuals, who arise out of and accompany a given social class as its position in society changes, and there are traditional intellectuals, whose positions are historical; social classes find these intellectuals “always already” existing on the social scene. Organic intellectuals tend to be specific to the mode of production, so industrial engineers, for example, along with other industrial technicians, are the organic intellectuals of capitalism (i.e. they developed alongside the bourgeoisie, and help to maintain and reproduce bourgeois culture and ideology).

The classic example of a traditional intellectual is the priest: the church has existed for millennia, and across many changes of society, class, and mode of production. The rising class “takes command” of traditional intellectual organizations in order to use the social capital, the social power of the organization to further the goals of the rising class. Despite the fact that public - and even academic - libraries don’t have the lineage and prestige the church holds, I would argue that librarians belong to this class of traditional intellectuals. (I don’t think this is too big a stretch; Gramsci himself includes schools as a mechanism for producting intellectuals.)

The social purpose of intellectuals, according to Gramsci, is to promote and reproduce the ideology, and thus the hegemony, of the ruling class. Organic intellectuals arise along with the ruling class, but the realm of traditional intellectuals must be “conquered”:

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals. (Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 10).

Elsewhere, I’ve connected the changing form of the academic and public library with phases of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the form of the state. The liberal state required different things from the library than the welfare or neoliberal state. My argument in that case is more top-down rather than woven through the fortunes of the bourgeoisie. In Gramsci’s view, intellectual work begins prior to, and proceeds independently of, the conquest of state power. It is a function, in his terminology, of civil society just as much as political society.

How does this fit into the idea of library neutrality, and then into my proposal that librarians are in fact complicit with capitalist state power, the maintenance of hegemony, and the reproduction of ideology? Gramsci points out that, with respect to traditional intellectuals, whose institutions have long and storied histories,

since these various categories of traditional intellectuals experience through an “esprit de corps” [i.e. a profession] their uninterrupted historical continuity and their special qualification [i.e. the MLIS], they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group [i.e. as neutral]. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging impact. The whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position assumed by the social cmplex of intellectuals and be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which the intellectuals think of themselves as “independent”, autonomous, endowed with a character of their own, etc.” (SPN, 8).

In other words, hegemony is only possible if the class-nature of ideological reproduction remains hidden. And since intellectuals owe their position in society (prestige, etc), precisely to the power of the ruling class, it follows logically that the mystification, the obscuring of the class relationship between intellectuals and the ruling class must be maintained. In librarianship, as in other professions and classes of intellectuals, this is achieved by an insistence on “neutrality”. Intellectuals play an integral role in the conquest and maintenance of power by the ruling class. For Gramsci, civil society and political society (the state)

correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the state and “juridical” government. The functions in question are precisely organizational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. (SPN, 12)

In order to combat the dominance of capitalist ideology, library workers must be open and up-front about our orientation. We have to engage in “discursive battle” with every expression of bourgeois (capitalist, neoliberal) ideology. At the same time, we must be careful that we aren’t simply reproducing capitalist hegemony with a new face. And that, I think, is the trickiest part.

I’m not sure why Gramsci was absent from my SLIS lecture. Perhaps there was something Freudian in it. Perhaps, on the other hand, there is something here similar to Foucault’s use of Marx: “I quote Marx without saying so, without quotation marks [so] I am thought to be someone who doesn’t quote Marx” (Foucault, Power/Knowlege, 52)


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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