How difficult it is...to refrain from replacing the thing with its sign, to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with the word.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What more might we achieve in this context by thinking about abstraction than we would by not thinking about it? From the outset, this is not clear to me as writer. Perhaps, for the reader, having submitted to tortuous textual stratagems, a sufficient gain will be revealed by the end. Perhaps not. But, if we have achieved nothing from these paragraphs, we will all at least agree that the principle, abstraction is a social process, has been maintained throughout the text.
So, rushing into the space created by that first proposition, both writer and reader may also agree that the text makes an assumption about how abstract process must be, if it not always intended, then in some manner, dependent on already established organisation – and then it is a small step to the observation that whatever bears the thumbprint of being organised may only appear in relation to consciousness - although, to take that back slightly, very often beneath the threshold of its reflexivity.
Already, we have three major assertions which will be argued (and maintained) throughout the text that we can convert into problems: i. how does abstraction function as a component of society? ii. what is the relation between abstraction and organisation? iii. why does abstraction require consciousness?
In thinking about the question of ‘social’ function, it seems that ‘the abstract’ has been a constant and necessary component throughout all historical existence (as this occurs with the appearance of social organisation, and the capacity for evaluative consciousness) but that it is not available directly to the senses - we can perceive the works of abstraction but not ‘abstraction’ itself.
However, if it were to appear as a thing under the literal gaze of man, then abstraction would, as a social component of organisation and consciousness, seem a type of musculoskeletal, hinge-like, or irrigational apparatus. From such metaphors, we can abduce that the abstract functions as an arrangement of rules that must be in place in order that other things occur - for example, both a transport infrastructure of rules and objects as well as an automotive industry is necessary before I am able to drive my car to Aberdeen, even though neither of these conditional factors are directly present (except abstractly) in my decision to take that journey... and of course, recursively, an entire matrix of other conditional factors (both historical and geographical) are necessary to facilitate the institutions of transport and automotive production. Thus, we perceive that the abstract is not absolute, but recedes recursively from the particularised instance: more specific rules (or limits) are thus set inside more general rules (or limits). Although, it is also true to say, that the most high abstraction also cleaves immediately to the instance and brutalises it with the gift of form.
Even so, it is convenient for the moment to argue that abstraction functions as a mechanism of access-restricted protocols comprising locks, gates, valves, channels, paths, routes, and flights which cannot be looked upon directly but which, when in operation, sets the direction for all looking. Thus, I abstractly present ‘the abstract’ as a metaphor in order to instrumentalise, or reduce to a theoretical question, that process which would ‘prefer’ to stay invisible and thereby operate more effectively in the instrumentalising and reducing of ‘its’ objects. In other words, abstraction is more efficient the less its place in facilitating the flow of social process is made apparent.
The more abstraction appears in the world as an object for consideration, the more likely it will be contested and interrupted. And, contrariwise, the less the process of abstraction appears in the world, the fewer impediments it will encounter in its production of objects. But even this formula may be rewritten... that is to say, the theoretical transformation of abstraction into an object (e.g. God (abstraction) is nothing but the projection (object) of ‘man) is inadequate as it inserts an object where a relation should be.
In other words, any particular abstraction must first be made an object before it is opened to contestation, but the process of contestation itself must recast the abstraction as an object in the form of a relation. If this does not happen, a reductive spiral of ‘truncated critique’ and conspiracy theory is set in motion where the ‘ruling class’ or ‘bankers’ and other such abstractions (appearing as nouns) are vilified without ever really appearing before consciousness. (We might play this expansive move within consciousness, after Marx, as A-O-A’ (i.e. the formula would go something like: i. hidden relation in the form of immediate abstraction ii. into object of critique iii. into abstraction in the form of immediate relation appearing before consciousness)).
Hidden process first appears in critique as an object but if critique is to genuinely engage the object it must be understood as a placeholder, representation, node, institution, synecdoche and so on for a generalised network of relations and determinations - it is in this latter form that the coding in ‘abstraction’ as process becomes potentially responsive to other commands. From this, we understand that abstraction cannot function entirely ‘abstractly’ (i.e. removed as a pure and absolute ideal). God and laws are not really insubstantial, but must appear embedded in actual relations in a given or revealed form (as institutions, as structures, as representations... a prison, a cathedral, a totem) which stand as warnings at the internal borders and crossroads of society’s behavioural apparatus.
Thus, in their revealed form as representations and structures, otherwise hidden corrective mechanisms operate upon instances of social intercourse, causing them to stay ‘within the law’. And thus, in their exposed or unveiled form as objects they are understood as indicating rules which serve ‘private’ or exclusive interests. Thus abstraction, even if it is abstract to all, turns out to be less abstract to some interests than it is to others.
Pictured something like a flow diagram, or endocrine-type system, abstraction feeds back into the social world as an organising or modelling principle even as it is extracted, in the form of a set of rules, from accumulating patterns of interaction. Thus again, it is eternally human, that is to say abstraction is present transhistorically - but not always to the same purpose. It is not the case that there is simply ‘more’ abstraction or ‘less’ abstraction in different societies but that there are different relations of abstraction to the particular. The abstract facilitates all history but is itself historical at a different rate - abstracts, although eternal, are also subject to transformations dependent upon the context in which they appear as objects. There have been many abstracts.
Abstraction, which is the process that reveals subsequently manipulable patterns in behaviour, can later be deployed strategically as a material object in the world - history is the deployment of abstraction as an historically available object in the reproduction of responsive social structures.
That is to say, historical being, or any existence that is set against nature, in the form of consciousness, is nothing but the inheritance of previously acquired characteristics experienced by those arriving later as organisational principles - or as ‘second nature. ‘
But then, that too is another way of saying there is no abstraction in nature. This is a topic that we may only very briefly address. It is true that there are natural phenomena which seem to require abstraction above and beyond simple adherence to natural ‘laws’ (e.g. cross-species interaction) - but this is only to observe at a higher level how human awareness is the discernment of recursive patterns, rules, organising principles in the world where laws too are subjected to the laws of laws, and so on. Whatever is found as a natural instance to be a case of conformity to a rule, is not inherent to the instance (or even to the instance’s relation to its environment) but is characteristic of the pattern making tendency of socialised consciousness (i.e. where these must appear historically in a context of there being a consciousness of consciousness).
Even so, a consideration of the mechanism of disclosure in the world of its own natural laws, illuminates somewhat the object of abstraction in general. The mechanics of abstraction involves a specific twofold process: i. the deliberate suppression of surplus information that occurs in order to ii. reveal underlying rules, tendencies, organising principles and so on. By the means of consciously filtering out what is extraneous so as to discover fundamental patterns, the human stuff of gods, matter, forces, principles, relations are revealed as types of objects that would otherwise not be present in social intercourse.
So it is shown that abstraction must be a mechanism as much as it is an event or object. That is to say, abstracting is a process within human consciousness which relates objects together, or keeps them apart (and often both at the same time) according to patterns which may well be comprehensible but that otherwise remain obdurately intangible. It follows that abstraction is subject to protocols of ownership... not only is the abstract a producer of different worlds, it is also their product. Access to the abstract has hitherto been preserved as a restricted privilege indicative of social status - but nobody has ever gained full access to all of the codes.
Abstracting is a learning activity, each of its instances is undertaken in response to past events with the purpose of securing a predicted later outcome. It is, in part, intentionally imposed as strategy or deliberate organisation, and, in part, it is driven by ongoing relations automatically (as an unintended consequence, as a surplus or by-product). Abstraction is the organisation of relations between things (objects, people, emotions, moments, places and relations (abstraction is nothing if it is not the relating of relations)) where the relation occurs as a category outside, above, beyond, or at least distinct from, the categorical level of that which is being related.
Where the process of abstraction dominates (manifested as a surfeit of regulation, organisation, planning, data harvesting) objects appear weighed, measured, assigned, fixed. Every product is allotted the fixed space and time necessary to develop to its optimal state. Every product is fitted into its specified dimensions, but no more. A factory farmed chicken is matured in 6 to 8 weeks. The train from London to Paris takes two hours 15 minutes. 8 to 10 hours are required to manufacture a car from its components. A child is fully educated by 18 years. Where abstraction dominates, every event is predicted to a high degree, and each instance is designed to conform to the general rule of its appearance.
In those societies where knowledge of operating principles is fixed as a predictive tool, and applied to a logistically quantified reproductive process, a specific hierarchical relation is instituted between abstract rule and materialised product. The product appears according to the rule, and conforms to the rule in its operation. The rule, the law, the organising principle, the truth, which has formed the object in the world is intractably not inherent to it. The revolutionist cannot disassemble a car and thereby hope to locate an abstraction within it.
They had no doubt that the new world was being built for the people. It did not trouble them that it was the people themselves- the workers, the peasants, the intelligentsia - who constituted the most insuperable obstacle to the building of this new world.
There is a categorical separation between the organisational procedure and the product - although it has been noted that in every commodity there is materialised around it concentric auras of melancholy and exuberance, rapid decay and flourishing, dependency and autonomy. But this phenomenon of separation is not simply confined to manufacture - it is inherent to consciousness itself. To illustrate this, we may return to an example from the natural world: where the taxonomic category of ‘butterfly’ is defined, we are immediately enabled to list the many different species which belong within it, but we might be puzzled that ‘butterfly’ itself is not a species - ‘butterfly’ cannot be either observed or pinned. It as a conceptual or classificatory category which functions above any particular butterfly that we might encounter. Similarly, no species of butterfly is the general category of butterfly. No species of butterfly is closer to the general category than any other.
In the taxonomic classification of butterflies, certain traits are perceived to be commonly reproduced abstractly amongst all members of the class. This abstract patterning is a property of human consciousness. It is the means or procedure by which consciousness discovers itself in the relations between all the objects of its attention - briefly, abstraction is consciousness of consciousness, or rather, it is the implemented procedure for setting out the historical constraints on consciousness.
In manufacture (and in history), abstract patterning refers to a relation (which is a proportion) between living and unique characteristics on one side and on the other, the forces and rules which are organising the appearance of characteristics in the world. (Of course, ‘living’ and ‘unique’ are also abstract categories).
Where there is a greater proportion of lived abstraction within actual social intercourse, interrelations tend more to resemble each other, we could say they are proportionally more replicated – that is to say, such relations would tend to conform more closely to the extrinsic organisational principle governing social interaction. However, where there is a smaller proportion of abstraction carried within the instances of social intercourse, particular interactions have a more particularised character – that is to say, such interrelations are more spontaneous and improvised, they are governed more directly by their own immediate circumstance and content. Certainly, we might modify this assertion by observing that the more deliberately particularised particular behaviours become, the more suspicious we might become of a mechanised principle of particularisation in operation - but that is to drift into what we might term a Rosen Industries problem.
A strong presence of abstraction in social organisation is manifested both in an exponentially increasing rate of interchangeability between component individuals, and a higher predictability in the replication of events of social process by which individuals are consumed. Clearly, abstraction also implies a categorical shift that is derived from an accumulated quantity, and results in the implementation of an effective quality or form (i.e. where more things of a particular type are amassed in the same place, the more likely they are to remain susceptible to the rules which govern their continued presence).
Abstraction is the result of 'blooming' or flourishing at one categorical level which produces the conditions for the organisation of another level in which a different order of objects appear. Gains made in war or by harvest, both the result of an already existing level of abstract planning, are transformed into a further order of incorporated abstraction manifested as rules designed to both defend such gains and to extend them territorially and/or to reproduce them through time. The strategic use of abstraction assumes an imposed uniformity in time and space.
Abstraction implies the conversion of distance into territory crossed at speed. The more quickly a message traverses a wider expanse of space the more abstracted the social relations defining the territory must be. Abstracted territory is the field in which abstracted relations are maintained, it is indicated by an infrastructure which reproduces abstract relations as a host environment. The infrastructure of our separation is indicated by palaces, schools, museums, barracks, supermarkets, hospitals, motorways and so on.
Abstracted territory is established through a forceful securing of quantities of materiality into one 'place' (implying the depletion of material from other 'places') creating unstable imbalances between them. Abstraction itself is the processive relation between imbalanced 'places' which reproduces, or at least feeds into, the continued amassing of materiality into one 'place'.
The infrastructure of abstraction indicates the traffic of material from places to ‘non-places’ (a palace, a hospital, a motorway service station are ‘non-places’ in comparison to naturally occurring spaces, a forest glade, a mountain scree, a desolate heath). ‘Non-places’ are archaeologically indicative of the presence of social organisation... Stone Henge, the Pyramids, The Parthenon. The translation of material into an embodied abstraction in the form of social infrastructure implies both that abstraction subsequently compensates for the impoverishment of materiality and that this traffic of compensation (the flow back of material from the institution into the world becomes the means by which the world is dominated by, and dependent on, the abstraction process).
Even so, some application of abstraction is necessary for any consciousness as it is for any set of organised and reproducible social relations - there is a necessary separation between categorical levels, not only so as to by-pass instinctual life through learning and transmissible memory but also in order to learn about learning. That is to say, if human social relations are not to be unconsciously dominated by extrinsic abstraction, a further level of abstract consciousness is required to gain access to the mechanisms of social reproduction, converting them into objects of consciousness and thus rendering them responsive to empathic commands issued from out of the realm of the particular (notwithstanding the problematic of the Rosen Industries’ Nexus 6 model).
How is the abstract to become empathic? Capitalism has already set itself this problem and has attempted to circumvent ‘repressive’ mechanisms and overt infrastructures of domination (the factory, the barracks, the palace) with a displaced infrastructure of exploitation and domestication (the internet, niche identities, safe spaces, flexibilisation). The transition from abstract repression to abstract exploitation indicates a shift of locus in the process of extracting ‘materiality’ from workers’ ‘activity’ (their labour) to their ‘being’. Capitalism has solved the problem of abstraction and its organising relation to ‘community’ by fusing work with existence and operating at a level before conscious awareness. The worker desires to produce material within the abstract space; or rather, the worker is designed, prompted and corrected to desire the production of its self within, and a little beyond, the parameters allotted to it.
The ‘positive work’ of capitalist relations can therefore be understood as an exhaustion of dead roads... every solution realised within capitalism (what, even those imagined?) is thus indicated as pathogenic to the human community in that with its every setting out of the relation between abstract and particular, the latter is reduced and compromised for the gain of the latter. In capitalism, the traffic and transformation of material from the place, from the actual, to the non-place, to the abstract, is a constant... whatever flows back into the world from the abstract is beholden to it.
Clearly, an other means of orienting the great reflecting dish of the abstract towards the actual is required for the formation of a truly human community. To put this another way: an entirely other abstract is necessary for the formation of the human community. It is probable that a humanising abstract would have to result from narratives of injury rather than from positive vision, principles and so on... perhaps it would take the form of a negative rather than corrective, prescriptive or repressive abstract. It is possible that the negative abstract would become possible only through the material accumulation in one place (that is a non-place) of all the injuries inflicted in history by abstraction (through repression, exploitation, correction) in the form of a law for those laws which must not be activated again.
The negative abstract would be a fully learnt structure, it would take its form (which is the form taken by the reproduction of social relations, i.e. the memory of past existences transmitted as a pattern for living in the present) only after incorporating the knowledge of the forms it has learnt it must not take, functioning something like a thief that has been set to catch a thief. This would seem to propose an anti-abstract abstraction, or a counter-abstraction, which would seek to constantly disrupt the centralising and autonomising tendencies inherent to pattern-making structures and thereby inhibit the drift of abstraction to pursue its own end at the expense of the particular (abstraction in runaway).
Evidently, what follows is a very broad, introductory and even abstract account of what the negative abstraction process might be, and how it might function. It takes the form of a summary of 5 points to be included for consideration when addressing the problematic of all dynamic systems that produce ‘particulars’ within ‘structures’:
1. Primarily, the human community (as we understand the term from Camatte) is constituted as that organisation which is directed towards the realisation of every human as an unviolable entity in itself, and even to the detriment of the autonomous functioning of that organisation.
2. We understand that ‘organisation’ primarily involves: i. the transformation of accumulated materials into memorised knowledge; ii. the return of this knowledge as the future oriented organisation of materials; iii. Specifically, that which is transmitted as memory across time is ‘pattern’, and pattern is the disclosed organisational arrangement between objects, subsequent to the specific objects themselves being removed or abstracted.
3. Therefore, we also perceive that the latent danger in the transmission of pattern recognition as the principle of conscious social organisation lies in the autonomisation of surplus pattern. This is where pattern is pursued and reproduced for its own sake, and at the expense of the autonomy of the individual human being (which under such conditions is reduced to a mere carrier in the reproduction of a specific patterning).
4. We perceive a step-change in the process of social reproduction from that territory where memory is abstracted from lived experience in order to inform later lived moments, to an other territory where later lives are slotted into materialised memory so as to serve it. The domination of the lived present by memory is in feudalism (at the level of ‘roles’: serf, lord, priest) as much as it is in capitalism (at the level of commodification) but whilst the former relies on a reproductive mechanism of repressive ‘tutelage’, the latter is embedded into ‘enabling’ or ‘enlightened’ techniques of manipulation and exploitation.
5. Thus, it would seem, the human community (i.e. where the tendency to abstract memorisation is constrained to the end that living beings assign to it) must be organised at a moment before abstraction enters into its autonomous phase. Presumably, the danger of autonomisation is constant, therefore the simple reproduction of rules of organisation has to be continuously challenged by experiment and disrupted by dissent at the level of lived particularisation - this would indicate a relatively reduced presence of those vestibular social institutions in social life which mediate between the particular and abstract.
6. The human community is not simply a different organisation of society, it is the lived engagement with the process of organisation itself which places disorganisation (where the particular asserts its primacy) at its centre. The human community must regulate itself by persistently decommissioning, or dumping from a wooden causeway that extends deep into marshland, the constantly accumulating pathogenic by-products of social life (e.g. over-extended command chains; unquestioned procedures of representation; centralising procedures; autonomised symbolic repertoires; discourses of efficiency; revered figures of authority; over-reliance on planning; logistics; shortcuts through the woods). The paradox of anti-abstracting abstraction, of setting thieves to catch thieves, of rules set against rules, of remembering not to remember, of learning not to learn, of organising against organisation may only be realised in a society where an awareness of levels of signification, representation and abstraction is widely applied without having succumbed to the seductions inherent to the occult removals of consciousness.
7. In short, where negative abstraction is instituted as the principle mechanism of social reproduction, the inviolable human instance is remembered within the pattern, and remembered as inextricable from it, and not abstracted from it. It is probable that this would involve something akin to the complex, nuanced (if intuitive) awareness that is found in ‘primitive’ and even religious social structures rather than in the simplistic totalisations of positivist-realism located in the ‘scientific method’.
8. However, the negative abstract would not simply map onto the terrain where positive abstraction reigns and deny everything. If the negative abstract functions primarily to inhibit autonomising tendencies within positive abstractions, it has an other relation to the particular. It would engender a different relation between structure, memory and the lived present. In practice, it is likely that negative abstraction would turn out to consist of a multiplicity of positive abstractions, each transposed over the other in the same space. This overlaying of commands and representational procedures would facilitate a complex and nuanced world lived appropriately at the level of the living, and would be comprised of (what Gregory Bateson calls) ‘doubled descriptions’ of the particular.
9. There would be instituted a coping mechanism of relinquishment directed against the tendency to accumulate (and repeat the same patterns) as a means to aid in the dispersal of trauma.
10. There would be instituted a return (of course, always a return to the same form on different terms) at last to memory, abstraction, organisation, but now explicitly with sensitivity to the death of things rather than directed towards the eternal. Where the ancestors and all that is ancient persist in the human community, it will be for reason of awareness of the passing nature of all things now living, and to contemplate whatever poignant images the living may glimpse of those no longer present.
‘And now it’s as if those people never lived. But the village had seen all kinds of things. There had been love. Wives leaving husbands, and daughters getting married. People had drunken fights, and they had had friends and family to stay. They had baked bread. And how they had worked! They had sung songs. Their children had gone to school. Sometimes the mobile cinema had come, and everyone - even the old folks - had gone to see a film. And nothing remains of all that. Where can that life have gone? And that suffering, that terrible suffering? Can there really be nothing left? Is it really true that no one will be held to account for it all? That it will all just be forgotten without a trace?’
Clearly, there are other approaches to ‘the abstract’... I am aware of some of these, and below are some texts and influences through which these other approaches may be accessed: