Archive

Uncategorized

A quote to start the day:

As Harvey has laid out, capital wants to be abstract, the way a river wants to flow downhill. Imagine some investor smells a new market. He sinks his capital into a factory full of machines (or he buys up a bunch of land and slaves). Capital goes from abstract—symbols on a piece of paper, data in a computer—to concrete. For this to occur, actual physical stuff—human bodies, supplies—has to get fitted to capital’s abstract account-sheet needs, to produce X amount of a product in Y time, at Z cost. People become labor-power; human communities are reorganized around the rhythms of the factory; forests and mountains become raw materials. In the ensuing production process, capital cycles through various forms: from resources, through supplies, machinery, workers, into the product. Each of these is a holding cell, a trap for value. Only when the product is finally sold does the invested value (plus surplus) return to the capitalist, again in its more comfortable abstract form—money. This dynamic tension, between concretion and abstraction, liquidity and solidity, lies for Harvey at the heart of the capitalist process and produces capitalism’s propensity for crisis.

The above is from “Slave Capitalism” by Gabriel Winant over at N+1, a review of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams:  Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013).  I think it nicely summarizes processes associated with primitive accumulation (though, I prefer the term original accumulation) and the expansion of capital.  Johnson’s book, of course, is not about capitalism in an abstract sense, but is an exploration and analysis of the development of slavery within American capitalism and empire, which experienced/deployed the processes enumerated by Harvey.  Winant’s summary of how Johnson characterizes American slavery’s deployment of such processes is on point and wrenching:

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

According to Winant, one of the strengths of Johnson’s work in River of Dreams lays in the ways he highlights specific ties between two different eras:  that of the “cotton kingdom” and that of today, a continuity created via the persistence of liberal capitalism, the system slavery was intricately a part of, that it was a product and producer of.  As I think the above quotes suggests, its a continuity revealed through shared practices and habits of mind.

Typically, no one visits this website, but it seems that lately I’ve been getting actual visitors.  Given that, I figured I’d post a link to something I wrote a few months back that I thought was pretty on point.  I thus present you with a link to a brief account of the Resident Evil film franchise’s anti-corporate politics:  “Guarantee Me You’ll Bring This Corporation Down: Narrative Closure and Resident Evil’s Anti-Corporate Politics”

Check it out, and check out the rest of the website.  In Media Res is great, especially if you are interested in any aspect of media studies.

From John Hartigan’s Odd Tribes:  Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005):

For all the routinized scenes that are drawn from this city to illustrate the extreme effects of deindustrialization, Detroit also provides a glimpse of the emergent social forms still grasped only clumsily in the rhetoric of social scientists.  The physical nature of slums here is being reconfigured.  The key problem is no longer overcrowding, with its correlates of ill health and rampantly spread diseases.  Rather, those who remain living in the deteriorating housing stock in the blighted zones of this city are threatened primarily by collapsing infrastructure that can no longer support its extension over residential areas that have lost more than a million people in the past forty years.  When I began fieldwork in the Briggs neighborhood, the most striking aspect was the vast expanse of green fields that dominated the landscape.  On some blocks, only one or two houses remain standing, and there are no blocks that retain all of their structures.  In this neighborhood of 0.6 square miles there are more than 450 vacant, grass-covered lots (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990).  On summer days, the loudest sounds are from crickets, and pheasants hide in the tall grass.

Borrowing a metaphor from the corporate maneuvering that has transformed the world of work in the United States that has transformed the world of work in the United States, city ombudsman  Marie Farrell-Donaldson in March 1993 suggested that the city “began downsizing” its operations.  Because it has become too expensive for the city to provide basic services to neighborhoods that many residents have long since left, the downsizing plan call for relocating remaining residents in sparsely populated areas, preferably moving them into the seven thousand to twelve thousand vacant city-owned homes, razing whatever structures are still standing, then fencing off these zones and letting them go “back to  nature.”  The plan was dubiously received, but many Detroiters (60 percent in a Detroit Free Press poll) favored the idea as a beneficial solution to the problems arising from their increasing isolation in neighborhoods where vegetation is reclaiming sidewalks and illegal dumping is destroying streets.

Residents in these neighborhoods are ambivalent about the fields that now surround their homes, fields that symbolize the city’s inability to provide basic services that any urban dweller might expect.  In Briggs, people joked about bringing in cows to graze or running horses in the “meadows.”  Such an arrangement, they laughed, would crimp drug dealing in the area:  “You can’t sell crack to cows,” one old white man told me.  More practically though, they found numerous uses for these overgrown lots.  Large gardens of corn, tomatoes, greens, and other vegetables spread over lots that once held houses.  Another popular use is to turn empty corners into car repair sites.  Pickup trucks converted into homemade wreckers tow cars to and from these corners, as junkers are turned back into operating vehicles or are cannibalized for parts until they are sold for scrap.  These uses are an active means of countering one of the hazards that result from all this open space:  illegal dumping.  As in the city at large, the primary product dumped here is used tires.  By conservative estimates, over 2 million tires are illegally dumped in fields all across Detroit.  These piles house rats and occasional catch fire, burning and smoldering for days at a time” (172-173)

Danny Brown’s “Fields” from XXX (Fool’s Gold Records, 2011):

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.