Hayden Explains #2: Gramsci and Leo’s Big Question

NOTE: There will be no serious spoilers in this post. It should be fine for anyone to read even if they haven’t seen the movie; most of the discussion centers on a quotation that is seen in a preview.

I love movie previews. I find the best of them thrilling, while I scorn and laugh at the worst of them. If I’m getting tired of work, I need only watch a couple trailers to perk up. Earlier this year, Prometheus held my attention hostage for several months with tantalizing trailers. Later on, I came to love the Django Unchained trailers, which I first saw in Walnut Creek while getting ready to see The Master (which, incidentally, was probably my favorite movie of 2012).

I seized upon this trailer immediately not only because it showcased Tarantino’s potent mix of impeccably soundtracked dark humor and bloody action. Not just because it was obvious that the movie would be a delight (if an edgy and precarious one), full of badassery, play with the film canon, and witty one-liners. The thing that caught me, funnily enough, appealed not to the fan of cinema but to the recent graduate in anthropology. To wit, I’m referring to the quotation from this slice (if you already opened the trailer, go to about 1:25 and wait for Leo).

“I spent my whole life surrounded by black faces.

I only had one question. Why don’t they rise up and kill the whites?”

I’m calling this “Leo’s Big Question.” Of course, the irony in the film is that Django is constantly on the verge of killing Candie (Leo’s character, the owner of a huge plantation of slaves, including Django’s wife). But I had only just seen the preview, and yet the question stood out immediately to me.

It’s an obviously provocative question. For many people, the judgment about Django Unchained has centered around its depictions of race and slavery. And for most people, the provocative part of that question is its invocation of race.

Without disregarding race altogether, I’d say there’s another question inherent in Leo’s Big Question. And this question is foundational to the social sciences, sociology and anthropology in particular. That question is,

How do the few rule the many?

What other positive sociological questions are there, except those that are subordinate to this one? In the case of the film, we see many black slaves on Candie’s plantation, and a few white overseers, with Candie at the top of the pyramid. However, the same structure–the pyramid of inequality–applies in many other cases. Sometimes the pyramid is primarily conceptualized on the basis of caste or class. But the question is the same: how do the few rule the many?

Force or power are obvious answers. We’ll take Candieland as an example. The whites have the money and the guns. They consistently exercise power over the slaves, doing everything from telling them to sleep with visitors to murder them when they do not comply with orders. And yet, from Candie’s vantage, there is something else. In Leo’s Big Question, there is a hint that Candie believes that the blacks have far more power than they use; he thinks it is possible for them to “rise up and kill all the whites.” Django’s exploits aside, and I seriously do not mean to trivialize the risk of such a venture, but it would be possible for them to do so. In one scene, set in Candie’s lavish town home, Candie casually orders one slave to fight another to the death while the two owners watch. The two slaves could have beaten their owners to a pulp instead of one another, then enjoyed the delights of the home, if only until the police were called. Candie is literally surrounded by those he oppresses. He is right in suggesting that the blacks could kill him. And yet they have not.

There are a couple of really big sociological/theoretical explanations for this phenomenon. Broadly, there are two ways the pyramid can be reinforced:

  1. Force from above
  2. Acceptance from below

Small at the top, big at the bottom.

The nature of force from above is none too mysterious, and is on terrible display at several points during Django Unchained, as one would expect of a movie about slavery.

Nay, it is the second tack that now interests us. Acceptance from below is a frightening idea–why would we accept a situation that is unjust to us? However–it happens. In the film, this finds its ugly manifestation in Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, an insidious cousin to Uncle Tom. In my reading, I know this phenomenon as one Antonio Gramsci would be familiar with.

Dig the spectacles.

Gramsci was an Italian journalist, activist, and socialist, whose letters and writings from prison became leading texts for students of anthropology, cultural studies, political science, and sociology. As one-time leader of the Communist Party in Italy and astute Marxist, Gramsci was curious about why there hadn’t yet been a revolution in Western Europe, when the conditions were apparent: the proletariat were in chains, but those chains seemed to be invisible to them.

In order to explain this, he came up with his theory of cultural hegemony. Hegemony is the domination of one group over another, maintained by means of domination (force) and leadership (intellectual and moral). Domination is bloody, costly, and messy, so the hegemon would rather lead than dominate, if possible.

This is accomplished through the process of cultural hegemony, in which force from above and consent from below balance one another reciprocally; hegemony is not absolute but rather the result of compromise between the ruling class and its allies. Gramsci believed that this hegemony maintained the state, which was a powerful institution of the ruling class, an instrument which one class uses to secure its rule and enforce its preferred. In getting individuals to focus on the day-to-day, private negotiation of their individual status, the source of inequality–and potential sources for deliverance from inequality–are forgotten.

The concept at the bottom of this is false consciousness. Through the false equation of the good of the ruling class with the good of the nation as a whole (working classes included), the pyramid can stay in place. Hegemony, then, is “ethical-political in operation, but economic in origin.” Government is by consent of the governed–that’s democracy. But Gramsci argues that that consent is often invalid, because it is “educated” by a private cultural sector that instills false consciousness in the working classes, such that they act in the interests of the ruling classes rather than their own. In this way the state/ruling classes make “rational” behavior that might not really be self-interested, insinuating a new kind of logic into the fabric of daily life. The cultural logic of whole is in service to the economic interest of the rulers. (As a Marxist, Gramsci was always going to end up with economics at the bottom, but you can substitute plain old “power” if you like.)

Looping back to Django, which is set more than a half-century before Gramsci was sent to prison, we can see such false consciousness in action. Stephen–who, as valet, has much power amongst the slaves–prattles on and on with hateful epithets about the inferiority of black folk, echoing Candie’s every remark on the psychological deficiencies of African descendants with a “Yes, sir” or something more colorful. This is false consciousness in action: Stephen has adopted as his own worldview one that is antithetical to his own position as an African descendant.

Before I prattle on too long, I’d like to loop back to my original fascination with the question. It caught me not only because it was situated in the explosive milieu of race in America in the 19th century, but also because I believe Leo’s Big Question is applicable today.

Yes, this is real.

I think you know where this is going. Let’s go there together.
NOTE: I am not saying the current situation is the same as slavery. I am also not saying that false consciousness is the only thing that prevented slave rebellions (which did, of course, happen from time to time).
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