Starting a Bad New Thing (For Real This Time)

I started this blog over a year ago with the intention of publishing short form experimental and critical pieces that didn’t quite fit into my burgeoning academic life, but might have been of interest to other academic types and general readers with interests similar to my own. It was a new intellectual space, one where I could actually engage “the public” as an intellectual, not as an academic.  I imagined it as a laboratory of sorts, a space in which I could put vague ideas into words that somebody might read and respond to, hopefully sharpening my thinking.  It was a chance to write in a different voice and for a different audience, a chance to write as an intellectual rather than an as academic. It was an exciting idea, though not necessarily a new one, as every established academic and graduate student seems to have such a blog these days.  Perhaps that’s why it was exciting:  it marked an opportunity to enter into conversations that had yet to settle down.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.  Writing is time consuming.  It takes commitment.  I didn’t have the time:  I was reading for my comprehensive exams and in all honestly, I registered the domain on a lark.  Oh well.

This blog’s title derives from Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Novel (not to be confused with his play The Threepenny Opera).  Brecht’s novel foregrounds the reflections of Macheath, criminal leader extraordinaire of the novel’s distorted Victorian London.  One stands out:  “The main thing is to learn coarse thinking – that is, the thinking of the great.”  Walter Benjamin singled this passage out, understanding it as illustrative of Brecht’s larger political and aesthetic project, one he agreed with much to the chagrin of his friend Theodor Adorno.  Benjamin writes in “Brecht’s Threepenny Novel,”

There are many who believe the dialectician an amateur of subtleties.  So it is uncommonly useful that Brecht puts his finger on the “coarse thinking” that dialectics produces as its antithesis, includes within itself, and needs.  Coarse thoughts have a special place in dialectical thinking because their soul function is to direct theory toward practice, not for it:  action can, of course, be as subtle as thought.  But a thought must be coarse to find its way into action.

For Brecht and Benjamin, the so-called “coarse” forms of thought the “masses” put into practice every day were just as important as those theories constructed by intellectuals and philosophers:  they were a crucial form of praxis, that unity of theory and practice that theorists often prattle on about but rarely engage in. “Coarse” forms (Benjamin cites the proverb) were the means through which individuals made sense of the world around them, critiqued it, and then later, hopefully, worked to change it.  I’ve always read their use of the term “coarse” as a brilliant satirical move, a great theoretical undercutting of intellectual pretension:  such forms were “coarse” only insofar they weren’t the purview of high theory.  They were “course” insofar as they emerged out the material lives of those that deployed them, what Marx described as the “realm of necessity,” a realm Western Marxists of the era were increasingly pessimistic about ever changing and became increasingly distant from.

Brecht and Benjamin’s ideas here anticipate he writings of C. L. R. James, Grace C. Lee, and Cornelius Castoriadis in Facing Reality:  The New Society:  Where to Look for It and How to Bring it Closer (1958), where they describe the ways “people all over the world, and particularly ordinary people in factories, mines, fields, and officers are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention.”  Arguing against traditional conceptions of the Marxist revolutionary organization, they write,

The proletariat, by the circumstances of its existence in modern life, develops forms of life, of action, of consciousness, of human relations, which are socialist, which constitute socialism, the one and only socialism.  Socialism is nothing other than the self-organization of the proletariat carried to its ultimate limit.  The proletariat of today tends to develop this self-organization in its day-to-day existence.

They mean that the working class generates its own modes of collectivity, its own institutions, and own theoretical concepts.  As they later argue, activists and intellectuals (and I would add scholars) need to listen to, record, and help make sense of such concepts.  Elsewhere in the text they suggest that those considered “most backward” by such groups who have been the “most audacious and “the most creative” in carrying the revolutionary movement “forward without faltering”:  they were the ones developing socialist “forms of life, of action, of human relations.”  This is what James referred to when he wrote that socialism already exists on the shop floor, a space we could easily describe as “coarse.” I think James, Lee, and Castoriadis were interested in the same things Brecht and Benjamin were:  vernacular forms of political praxis, creative but ignored or forgotten (for whatever reason) means of imagining and recreating the world of anew.  They sought to engage in such praxis themselves, taking their cues as critics, theorists, and revolutionaries from those “most backward” folks in hopes of accomplishing the same goals.

Such forms often appeared as vulgar, debased, absurd, ridiculous, and backward, all reasons for dismissing them but also the preconditions for their creativity and theoretical boldness.  I hope to explore such forms here at Coarse Thoughts, seriously writing about stupid shit and stupidly writing about serious shit with eyes and ears open to political possibility.

 …

I likely won’t adhere to this manifesto of sorts, as I suspect it may only serve to theoretically and politically justify my tendency to juxtapose curse words and high theory.  Nor is it likely that I’ll update this blog as often as I intend to.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing. At Coarse Thoughts, I have the luxury of letting my thoughts slowly creep onto the page in whatever “debased” form feels appropriate.

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