Ian Anderson | 23 January 2017.
This Christmas, the mystical cerebral alchemy induced by 10-yr-old Macallan, cheese, and endless well-loved films on TV (invariably already 20 minutes in; nonetheless, you just know you’re going to watch them anyway) threw up a connection between Good Will Hunting (1997) and the ‘wicked smart’ stuff I read up at the university; namely Antonio Gramsci, whose theories have some light to shed on an ostensibly ‘working-class drama’. Allow me to explain.
Okay, nutshell Gramsci. ‘Hegemony’: ideologies achieve a universality which society tacitly endorses (‘domination by consent’) when the culture disseminated by the dominant class via institutions like education, family, and the media is so pervasive that other conceptions of reality are hard to imagine. According to Gramsci, hegemony’s stranglehold derives from linguistic and cultural expressions loaded with norms and narratives that condition us to think in certain ways.
So what’s a prole to do? Well, the brainy vanguard thrown up by the working class – what Gramsci terms ‘organic intellectuals’ – can resist by propagating ‘organic ideology’ that can challenge/replace the orthodoxies of the dominant class. However, to do so effectively, organic intellectuals must retain a connection to their native class, otherwise the gravitational pull towards embourgeoisement inevitably results in their acceptance and repetition of hegemonic cultural narratives.
So yeah – it’s these concepts I found reflected in Good Will Hunting. Stay with me.
The organic intellectual I reckon Gramsci himself would approve of is Sean Maguire, Will’s unkempt therapist. From working-class South Boston, he is also a teacher at Bunker Hill Community College. In a climactic argument, Professor Lambeau, Maguire’s former college roommate and now highfalutin MIT professor, accuses Maguire of being angry with him “for being successful, for being what you could have been”; his imputation implying that Maguire was sufficiently intellectually exceptional to have transcended his discordantly modest position. Maguire’s response is defiant:
You think I’m a failure! I know who I am. And I’m proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice! I didn’t ‘fuck up’!
That ‘conscious choice’ is indeed the choice that organic intellectuals face: forgo the (supposed) cultural and social enrichment offered to exceptional escapees from the working-class, because it also conveniently neuters their ability to effect change within their own milieu (what Gramsci called ‘the compromise equilibrium’). Maguire can inspire and advance his own class more effectively at Bunker Hill than he can at MIT.
However, the film’s resolution cannot resist ultimately recuperating Maguire with a ‘class escape’ narrative just a teensy bit. He is suddenly freed to leave the college and pursue a quasi-‘Grand Tour’ to India and China (and Baltimore), to ‘maybe write’ and presumably free the dormant potential that could not possibly be fully realized in ‘Southie’ or Bunker Hill Community College. God forbid he simply carry on teaching – no, no, noooo.
The film’s other obvious example of an organic intellectual is of course Will Hunting himself, an autodidact prodigy, also from ‘Southie’. As they stand chewing the fat on the construction site where they work, Will is challenged by best friend Chuckie to translate his extraordinary gift into a better job, prompting Will to explicitly wrestle with his compromised class position:
It’s a way outta here.
What do I want a way outta here for? I’m gonna fuckin’ live here the rest of my life. You know, be neighbors, you know, have little kids, fuckin’ take ‘em to little league together up Foley Field?
Indeed – a way out of what, exactly? Chuckie is quite right in one sense – Will’s resistance to fulfilling his intellectual potential is indeed the equivalent of “sitting on a winning lottery ticket and [being] too much of a pussy to cash it in”. However, Chuckie further berates Will: “It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years,” an implication that goes further than the construction site. Apparently, Chuckie’s self-effacing dream is for childhood pal Will to wordlessly abandon him and Southie altogether and nobly become what Noreen Golfman calls ‘a symbol of success for the vicariously happy working-stiffs left behind’ (324).
This is not simply geography – embedded here is the same ‘class escape’ narrative, endorsed here even by working-class Chuckie, and ultimately fully realized by Will: suitably chastened, he heads west to California and what Golfman archly calls ‘Any Job He Wants’ in a more suitable reality ‘where the sun always shines and the class struggle is irrelevant’ (326). For organic intellectuals, the film affirms, achieving success, destiny, or self-actualization without first escaping their milieu is clearly not. an. option; a hegemonic cultural narrative Gramsci clearly recognized.
Some final literary questions, then, triggered by what can become an increasingly suffocating ubiquity of identity politics, cultural appropriation and the like. The writers of Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, are not working-class boys from Southie themselves, but are demonstrably conversant with the milieu. Nevertheless, some would assert that this should preclude them from imaginatively representing such a lived experience – presumably, then, we should denigrate Dickens, Eliot, and Orwell on similar grounds, despite their works facilitating the cultural terrain on which other ‘authentic’ working-class literature emerged? Challenging their relative pre-eminence in terms of literary value, or indeed political bias, is surely not the same thing as obviating theirs or similar future works altogether? Such a criterion reduces the scope of imaginative work to little more than dramatized memoir. Furthermore, isn’t the hegemonic narrative I identify in Good Will Hunting illuminatingly revealed precisely because Damon and Affleck (probably unconsciously) cannot help but invoke it in the course of their imaginative efforts? In doing so, I reckon they provide much to enlighten both sides of an increasingly porous and ambiguous class divide.
I don’t know much. But I know that.
I am an absurdly unlikely PhD candidate, driven mainly by the hazy but nonetheless firm conviction that certain largely overlooked proletarian works of the 1930s retain wider relevance today. I am also unable to resist defacing these works with sententious marginalia and Stabilo Boss highlighters, for which I make no apology.
Article edited by Amadeus Chen, Erden Goktepe, and Chantal Bertalanffy.
Golfman, Noreen. “Getting Ahead of the Class: Reflections on “Good Will Hunting”.” Labour/Le Travail 42 (1998): 323-27. JSTOR. Web. 5 Jan. 2017.
 For want of a better word – essentially, when the working-class embrace the lifestyle and individualistic values of the bourgeois, which entails an erosion of the commitment to their own class’s advancement.
 If this stuff floats your boat, see David Forgacs, ed. A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935. Gotta love Gramsci.