In Defense of Profanity

I curse. And I curse when I teach. I've been told by a superior of mine, a well-respected and so-called radical, that my cursing "offends the moral and religious beliefs of my students."

That may be the case. But I retort twice:

1. So what? The ideas of my class surely offend their moral and religious beliefs. Is that a bad thing? I was told this by a theorist who certainly proffers beliefs, and a lifestyle, that offends most moral and religious beliefs.

2. And: Why? What is so wrong with profanity?

Every semester, I encounter some student of religious upbringing who tells me that he or she was taught that cursing is for those who lack vocabulary, that it's lazy: I curse because I can't find a better word.

Let's assess this claim. One, it assumes that language is always referential, that its first if not sole task is to mean something, refer to something. But, as I teach, meaning is only one function of words. Words, and communication, are affective; they effect people's emotions. A well placed "fuck," an aptly turned "asshole," can resonate in people's minds, hearts, and bodies and move them, persuade them. Just as ee cummings can move us to tears with nonsense, grammar thrown by the wayside, a well placed "motherfucker" can bring down the house.

In fact, I'd argue that cursing—and cursing well—is pedagogically effective; it wakes the little assholes up—just as you woke up when you read that. Cursing in the classroom affords me the opportunity to seize their attention, if only for a moment.

Now let me address the matter of laziness. First, if laziness is the crime, not cursing, then let us condemn all laziness. Let us condemn the lazy students who don't try to understand what I'm saying; let us condemn the academics who churn out the same, tired, familiar shit article after article, book after book, lecture after lecture. When I teach, I give my fucking heart and soul, all my vitality, to that hour and a half so my students can see, and experience, live thought. What about those lazy professors who deliver the same dry lecture, year after year? If laziness is the accusation, let us please purge the halls of academia of laziness.

And, second, a curse may or may not be lazy but it is by no means sufficient grounds to establish laziness. For cursing well—with the proper timing and the proper placing of syllabic emphasis—is as difficult and demanding as any creative effort. Certainly, there are those who curse lazily just as there are those who pray lazily or preach lazily or live lazily. But let us not condemn cursing just because of a few poor profaners.


Cuyler Ballenger said...

The Mess is in the Moment
I thought I might try to turn out a quick "lick" on how I understand the class through considering a few films, rather than exhausting _The Life Aquatic_ (although it deserves to be exhausted!). In thinking about the heuristics of thinking about movies, I think it best to consider our unique (at least for me) presentations; presentations completely uncoordinated with others, on a scene/shot/sequence, in under five minutes - then heavily interrogated by Coffeen and co. Guilty of this myself, I saw a trend in "finding" a didactic moment in each film, and using that moment as a way to see that movie. Ultimately, that kind of reading becomes just as uninteresting as summarizing what Connery did in _Goldfinger_. When _Faces_, _Band of Outsiders_ & _Life Aquatic_ are reduced to those sequences when the directors are 'telling' us how to encounter their film, the experience of encountering these movies evaporates.

What became apparent as the course progressed is that it didnt matter what moment in the film was chosen, every single scene in every single movie could be, in a sense, read through Bergson as read by Deleuze as translated to (us) by Coffeen. So in the end, the presentations enthusiastically being applauded (by class) were the best impersonations of what they thought Coffeen would sound like reading that movie. This way of watching films is not what was taught though. Consider Wenders' final thought, "Stories are impossible, but it's impossible to live without them. That's the mess I'm in." Considering film as philosophy as life is a mess to crawl through, but with a smile. The joy, the education comes at the risk of getting dirty. There's always going to be a clear path if you follow one step behind your guide (DC). This class was all about gettin' out there, Coffeen's performance was just as essential as the performances in the film. Get excited! "Be alive to each moment!" We read that the cliche is a sort of death and each of the assigned films confronted that notion, creating 'clicheless' stories, in effect creating more philosophy and more life.

Last night I saw _Pierrot le Fou_ for the first time and I thought about the reading of Godard offered in class and I realized seeing _Pierrot_ through _Band_ is a proliferation of the cliche. Yes, they have TONS of similarities (from actresses, to movement, to politics) but they are "going" in different directions. _Pierrot_ understands that relationships (of any kind) can't ever be stagnant, the movement must be constant or love will die. Ferdinand (Belmondo) wants to leave his marriage because it is "boring." Marrianne (Karina) leaves Ferdinand at the end for a guy on a boat where the destination is never explicitly stated. Both Ferd and Mari change their outfits (without explanation) in every new sequence, showing that change in appearance is just as important as change in narrative. Its a movie about taking risks, about getting out there, but having fun doing it. _Band_ is more concerned with the possibilities of play within Paris, within confined circumstances; there are goals, yes, steal the money, fuck the girl, but there aren't rules. _Pierrot_ takes the idea of "play" to an entirely new realm. The colors burst, from the intense reds, blues and greens early on at the party to the cracked blue face paint Ferdinand wears before he blows himself up. The film leaves Paris almost immediately, it wont be confined, it has to keep moving, going back to Paris is never an option. Marianne leaves by boat, Ferdinand explodes, this movie cannot be contained if love is to persist. It offers a new philosophy of the relationship, a new way to live together; we have to take risks to love, we must jump off things, fall, run around, dance, drink, smoke to learn. Looking for that didactic moment in a film to exploit is like looking for it in Coffeen. Maybe it's there once, but looking for it again is death, dont go back to Paris, sail to Morocco.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Fuckin a! Now we're talking, man.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on Dan. Justifying cursing. Of all things. If you ever got out of the rarefied air of San Franscisco... Still, I am glad you are joyful. I miss you, even after so many years. You were a friend.

roberto echeverría said...

it is absolutly refreshing to hear a fuck a shit a motherfucker used in the right way.

Kevin said...

Let’s twist our lens in a bit to get a slightly wider angle view on the problem. There is a group of words commonly identified as “swearing” Just to the side (or even overlapping a bit) there is equally another set of words called “hate speech”. What is your opinion on this latter category? Is nigger a swear word? What about cunt? Doesn’t “hate speech” take skill to employ creatively and wouldn’t the occasional well-placed “dirty kike” also serve as the perfect tool to wake up uninterested students? Now perhaps you are against the banning of hate speech too; pointing this out would have made your arguments more powerful.

To break this down to the banal political level, what we have is one tribe (the left) banning certain words (hate speech) often used by the other group (the right). Now in return (surprise, surprise) we have the right demanding the same privilege to ban words they don’t like.

I suppose you see where this stifling balance of mutually assured intolerance leads. Banning both hate speech and swearing is totalitarian.

Pointing out the similarities between these two urges to ban is not to profer a causal relationship however. The right have been trying to ban swear words since well before hate speech was conceived. The point is that it is much easier to defend against banning generally than ii is to defend the particular banning of some categories of words but to attack the banning of others.

(By the way I really am enriched by your lectures I downloaded from iTunes. I have them loaded on my BlackBerry and listen to them as often as possible.)

Big Phil said...


I know I'm a bit late to the party. But I believe the difference is intent.

In what context could hate-speech ever be useful?

When speaking from a historical standpoint at times such as in Huckleberry Finn and the recent removal of nigger from that book I think is a shame. The use of the word in that book was historical as well as the author having no racist intent.

Using the words motherfucker, shit, or damn can be directed or undirected at a person or group. So this allows for some flexibility in the use of the word and the intent.

In general, racial slurs I find are meant to demean, demoralize, and dehumanize.

Words only have as much power as we give them. If we start allowing words to get in the way of the message when the message itself is clear then we have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

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