Librarians as Organic Intellectuals: A Gramscian Approach to Blind Spots and Tunnel Vision

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Raber, D. (2003). Librarians as organic intellectuals: A Gramscian approach to blind spots and tunnel vision. The Library Quarterly, 73(1), 33–53.

In a blind spot of my own, I’ve never studied economics, let alone critical economic theories. Thus, the terminology used in Marxist theories (proletariat and bourgeois, base and superstructure, etc), is foreign to me. Even so, I found Raber’s presentation clear and Gramsci’s theories impressive in their analytical insightfulness. His illustrations of the tensions between base and superstructure and the potential for localized action to impact broader hegemonic forces are absolutely fascinating, inspiring even. I have often contemplated how I fit into these broader social constructs and how my individual actions have broader implications based on the cultural and social environments in which I operate. It makes me question how one cannot think of the world this way and be content go through the motions, satisficing individual needs, desires, and goals while completely ignoring the broader socio-cultural environments in which they operate and the implications of their individual actions on said environments. This forced ignorance maybe human nature, which is what Gramsci and more critical theorists allude to, but I appreciate a more nuanced approach. Those who have the leisure to contemplate their roles have more power and privilege than those who do not. Even those who choose to exercise voice would be dismissed as less legitimate due to the lack of social and economic capital.

This, of course, reminds me of my own position and the interplay between my actions and my environments. On a local level, I straddle these positions, moving between base and superstructure, and attempt to exert influence both up and down the hierarchy to achieve positive social transformation. On a systematic level, I have very little power, given the individualized nature of my approach, external constraints of a role that is valued so little and that I grant little opportunity to nurture alliances within. The last factor would require an investment of time and energy that I cannot spare, nor would it necessarily be safe for me to do so, as my position mirrors the precarity Gramsci discusses. On a societal level, I have more privilege than I sometimes know what to do with. In becoming an organic intellectual, I’ll gain even more. There is always the option of assuming the role of a traditional intellectual, an appealing notion that I find both exciting and terrifying at the same time. I don’t believe I’m strong enough to obtain that position yet, lest I lose myself to the oppressive system that I would, ideally, actively resist. For now, I am content with the playing the role of an organic intellectual, fully aware of the potential to fall into the trap of supporting oppressive social forces. I already have, in certain instances, which I hope to avoid moving forward.

In attempting to discern how Gramsci’s theories apply to my professional career, I’m reminded of the students I taught a few weeks ago. They are participants in a system marked with educational privilege, although they were still considered marginalized by said system, designated as at-risk of educational struggle or not ready to adapt to the perceived heightened expectations of the system. In turn, this system was active in providing additional support so they would be equipped to become scholars. I’ll place my critique of those markers and socially defined labels aside for now and instead focus on how one can approach this situation.  One can view this as conditioning “intellectuals” to be complicit agents of capitalist hegemony, or what Gramsci would call the historic bloc. One can also view this as an opportunity to exercise the art of politics by influencing both the student base and institutional superstructure. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “fighting in the trenches,” although it can be messy and require the expenditure of affective capital, the latter is surely more difficult to address than the former. Then again, I wouldn’t find such satisfaction in approaching situations without first problematizing them. It’s what I find most rewarding. In the process of conducting some informational interviews last summer, I asked a professional how they function in a hierarchical and oppressive academic institution. Their advice: “Don’t spend all your time up in the trees. Get down in the dirt and know that you can and are having a positive impact. Don’t forget that the trees are there, but remember that it’s easier to nurture new growth than it is to clear a forest.” I think I want to nurture… I just need to find a patch where the trees aren’t so thick that they block the sun. I want to nurture base from within the superstructure.