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Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking

George Burchett – δημοκρατία (democracy), silkscreen print on hand-made Dò paper, 2014.

I chanced upon “crude thinking” while reading Bruce Cumings’ The Korean War. Here’s the quote from his book:

Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely,” Brecht once said. “Crude thinking is the thinking of great men.” So was the milieu of crisis in which he wrote, and Koreans fought: crude, illiberal, murderous.

It struck me and prompted me to find the original source of Bertolt Brecht’s quote, which I managed through Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin. In his Understanding Brecht, (written in 1933-1939, first published in 1966), Benjamin devotes a section to Crude Thinking while discussing Brecht’s Threepenny Novel. The original quote from the novel is:

The chief thing is to learn to think bluntly. Blunt thinking is great thinking. Politics is the pursuit of business by unbusiness-like methods. (Brecht, p. 169)

Benjamin writes, quoting Brecht paraphrasing himself:

‘The most important thing is to learn to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men.’

There are many people to whom a dialectician means a lover of subtleties. In this connection it is particularly useful when Brecht puts his finger on ‘crude thinking’ which produces dialectics as its opposite, contains it within itself, and has need of it. Crude thoughts belong to the household of dialectical thinking precisely because they represent nothing other than the application of theory to practice: its application to practice, not its dependence on practice. Action can, of course, be as subtle as thought. But a thought must be crude in order to come into its own in action. (Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 81 – my emphasis)

I was reminded of another quote, this time it was G.W. Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove talking to journalist Ron Suskind:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

— New York Times Magazine, Oct. 17, 2004

To use another famous quote, Shakespeare this time:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…

Karl Rove’s “we” – history’s actors – no doubt include those G.W. Bush called “the crazies in the basement”: the neo-cons, who scripted, produced and staged the disasters that are Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under Obama, they morphed into “humanitarian interventionists” (under the R2P label – Responsibility To Protect) and added Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, to the list of neo-con wars and ‘interventions’.

As Rove says, “we’re history’s actors and you” – that is the rest of us – can “study what we do.”

The question is then: are we content to just study the reality the ‘reality creators’ create for us, or can we do something about it and perhaps create another reality?

Theodor W. Adorno, one of the founders of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, who knew both Brecht and Benjamin, disapproved of “crude thinking” or, in German, plumpes Denken. He was also a composer/theoretician of classical avant-garde music, disapproved of jazz and popular music (and culture) in general, and theorized that art should remain “autonomous” – that is detached – from ‘capitalist’ reality. His preferred playwright and writer were Beckett and Kafka. Adorno was a pessimist. For him, post Work War II reality stemmed solely from Auschwitz. He famously said: “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Why only Auschwitz? Why not Hiroshima? Or the many “realities” created by Karl Rove’s “history’s actors” and their criminal predecessors?

On the contrary, there should be poetry, music, songs, theatre, visual art and other forms of creative resistance to combat neo-con and associated “reality creators.” It worked well against the war in Vietnam. Why shouldn’t it work against the current wars – ongoing and in-the-making?

For Brecht, and other revolutionary artists – Picasso, Mayakovski, Eisenstein, Chaplin, to name but a few – and to use a quote attributed to both Brecht and Mayakovski:

Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.

A hammer is a crude instrument, compared to sophisticated weapons of mass destruction (or targeted assassinations) operated by whiz kids with joysticks or high tech warriors in free-fire zones. But it’s a weapon. And so is the sickle.

Time to dust them off and creatively apply some of Brecht’s “crude thinking.”

The neo-con ‘reality creators’ and their many associates are extremely well organized, supported by the mightiest armies in the world, the best propaganda machine in human history, the best academic brains, most of the entertainment industry – in fact, the entire capitalist system.

So what? They don’t own people’s hearts and minds, only their pockets and parts of their brains, through fear, greed and 24/7 brainwashing.

I don’t think there is any point debating them in theoretical discourse, engaging in their history wars etc. That is exactly what they want. Rove: “We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do…”

I don’t want to study them or debate them. I want to hammer them, whenever I can. And I want to apply Brecht’s “crude thinking” as an effective weapon to that purpose.

Bruce Cuming’s quoted Brecht in reference to Korea’s resistance leader Kim Il Sung and his companions in their guerilla war against Japanese imperialist occupiers. To win, they had to practice “crude thinking,” because “crude thinking is the thinking of great men.” They had to rally the peasant masses and the people in general, to win. So did Mao, so did Lenin, so did Ho Chi Minh, so did Castro and others.

In every case, they succeeded against the greatest possible odds by applying revolutionary theory into revolutionary practice and rallying the masses to their cause.

How their revolutions evolved is a matter of debate…

I live in Ha Noi where the red flag with the hammer and the sickle still proudly flies and a statue of Lenin still stands and watches kids ride skateboards during the day and fancy electric cars for rent in the evening. I meet many people from many countries, and they all rave about Vietnam: how friendly, how beautiful, how interesting, how exciting… I also have Vietnamese friends who share Adorno’s pessimism and would be happy to see the red flag and Lenin replaced with… I don’t know. Abstract expressionism?

Vietnam’s independence and unity were the result of the “crude thinking” of Ho Chi Minh, General Giap and other revolutionary leaders.

They didn’t debate French colonialists and American imperialists, they took to the mountains and jungles and beat them, with crude weapons – compared to the most powerful and sophisticated armies in history.

They had the majority of their people behind them. And eventually, the majority of humanity. And they won. And inspired others to do the same.

And so can we, if we apply Brecht’s “crude thinking” and start kicking Rove’s “actors” where it hurts and where they have little power and defenses: the huge space left for progressive creative thought and action.

Look at it as a race: they run for war, we run for peace.

They have big egos and want us to be shocked & awed by their power and tremble and cow.

But we can laugh at them, we can ridicule them and show them in all their pathetic ugliness. Them and their lackeys in all spheres of life.

It can be done, with “crude thinking”, with humor, with faith in humanity and love for our dear little planet.

Brecht would approve. Adorno would shake his head disapprovingly. In 1969, he had to flee Frankfurt University after students booed him and put up a banner “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.” His pessimism didn’t inspire them, but Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung, Castro and Che Guevara did.

So let’s be optimistic and “crude” and start removing Rove’s “history’s actors” from the scene. The survival of our planet depends on it.

George Burchett is an artist who lives in Ha Noi. He is currently collaborating on a Brechtian play about Vietnam’s legendary revolutionary woman hero Ba Trieu.

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George Burchett is an artist who lives in Hanoi.

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