So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.
I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.
Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.
There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.
Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.
The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.
From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.
I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).
So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.
To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.