Into Ruins

post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking

From Our Own Correspondent: Dispatches from the ‘British Spring’


a preliminary remark or introduction, as to a speech; the foreword to a book or treatise. — prolegomenary,prolegomenousadj.


payitbackpayitback pay it all back pay it all back who who who could I pay hearing a gravelling voice like Eliot wanting to be Eliot drifting acrosss London Bridge falling down down paying back life emergency light meter payitback brink of nothing payitback brink of payitback

what is real abstraction?  What is real, what is abstraction?  Whatispoint.

cave in and use word instead, there’s no alienation from your own words in this abstracted realm          hahaha

I have confidence as an aouther – ‘thisiswhatconfidencelookslike’ the rhythm of that chant thisiswhatdemocracylookslike is so ugly but perhaps that’s part of the point.  The slogan is a representation of democracy, it is a visual simile, it lookslike, is not is.  Beckett?

– prolegomenon ends –

What is real abstraction?  What is abstraction – this doesn’t help.

The term “real abstraction” is closely associated with Sohn-Rethel, who is attempting to wrestle with whether it might be possible to understand certain kinds of abstraction as being more than just mental constructs, but as instead things that we enact in collective social practice[i]

Not concrete, something that is not – physical, but money is physical; not observable, it is observable.  Sohn-Rethel has profound thought experiences at Whitechapel market, exchanging his coins for okra and cheap pashminas.  Thatisarepresentation.  There it is, Sohn-Rethel buying a pashmina.  What colour would it be?  He’s not just in his head, he really offers real coins to a real person, they look at his real coins and really understand them to be the thing in the amount in the quantity that is owed for the object, everything is in order. All is not as it seems.

I very much like the concept of a real abstraction – and I think this concept latches on to something important in Marx’s work.[ii]

Me too, me too.

I’m less enamoured of the specific example to which analyses of real abstraction return, again and again, in Frankfurt-associated theory. For Sohn-Rethel – but also for Lukács, for Adorno, and arguably for more recent theorists like Postone – the quintessential “real abstraction” is the abstraction from use-value that takes place in the process of exchange.[iii]

Alfred decides against the pashmina – whatispoint? Ihateit! – and leaves the market.

Exchange is therefore a social practice that enacts a “real” abstraction, rather than a purely conceptual one. We don’t sit around imagining what sort of commonality objects might possess, deep down, if we were to disregard their evident qualitative characteristics. Instead, we exchange them and, in doing so, collectively assert their practical interchangeability. We demonstrate, in practice, that there must be some sense in which two otherwise very different objects can be treated as somehow equivalent to one another. We enact an abstract equality of certain objects through the social act of exchange.[iv]

Alfred lies beneath his window frame[v], cowering against the flying bullets and the glass that leaps away from the British Spring outside, as crocuses burst upwards and artillery pounds the streets of east London.  He places his thoughts elsewhere[vi] and looks across his spartan room at his desk covered with printouts of Nicole Pepperell’s blog.  The familiar sink of envy briefly zooms through his belly and he returns his mind to the market stall and its grubby pashminas and hijabed pinkandwhite mannequin faces seated in a row, wondering about the way in which he had treated the pashmina as being interchangeable with his coin, his possiblycounterfeit £1 coin, and the way that that had asserted the practical interchangeability of those two objects.  He thinks about whether Marxist analysis has kept up with the changes of society we have witnessed since the two World Wars[vii], since the bomb and the fall and coming in from the cold and T-Day, when everyone in the world tweeted the same thing at the same time and broke Twitter and the economies of the banks and then the nation states started to collapse in a hitherto-unanticipated domino effect, leading directly to the cowering taking place under the window frame as the TA clashes with the black bloc ultravegans in Whitechapel High Street.  Alfred thinks about how the reservists with their union flag facepaint and the ultravegans with their charcoal blackface should be more Marxist in their thinking, that they leave important areas unexplored.[viii]

In societies based on commod production the social synthesis is centred on the functions of money as the ‘universal equivalent’, to use Marx’s expression.  In this capacity money must be vested with an abstractness of the highest level to enable it to serve as the equivalent to every kind of commod that may appear on the market[ix] fingers of okra and watercress-coloured scarves.  This abstractness of money does not appear as such and cannot be expected to ‘appear’ as is consists of nothing but form[x] – pure abstract form arising from the disregard of the use-value of the commods operated by the act of exchange equating the commods as values.  This is what I wrote yesterday, Alfred thinks, and at the time it seemed very inspired – but the artillery had been going since 5am and admittedly he had felt rather unwell at the time.  His thoughts drift toward his favoured quiet dream of doing stand-up one day, of talking about Marx with all the sarcasm and wry knowingness that would cut through the bullshit and speak to the people on their level, open their eyes and make them see the ringing clarity of Marx’s message! – but the counter-nugget of self-hatred glares back at his moment of fantasy and he feels ashamed, again, always, and the sirens start up again outside and reality is so pressing.  Whitechapel was in the clear zone yesterday but the reservists are making a push for Aldgate, spurred on by the closeness of the skyline and the thought of regaining their old offices at Winning Securities Development Ltd, sitting once more at their charred boardroom table and gathering for a debrief around the smouldering water cooler.

So far, so intuitive. Sohn-Rethel and others go on to suggest that this sort of practical process is actually what underlies more “conceptual” abstractions, of the sort one finds in Western philosophy – they suggest that certain sorts of philosophical abstraction are primed by the practical experience of the social process of exchange. I’m very interested in the ways in which forms of embodiment and shared practical experiences tend to prime or spark particular conceptual insights – how changes in what we do on an everyday basis make it easier or more difficult to attain certain kinds of insights – so I’m broadly sympathetic with trying to make connections between collective practices and forms of thought.[xi]

Isn’t it exactly this, thinks Alfred, these things we do every day and that we cannot see for what they are, it is to these practices that we must look for illumination, surely?  We will then be able to see clearly that commodity exchange owes its socially synthetic function to an abstraction which it originates; we will be able to see that this abstraction is not of one piece but is a composite of several elements[xii] (ooh I must write this stuff down); we’ll be able to see that these elementary parts of the abstraction can be separately defined, and naturally if I can get it down, if I can define the separate elements of the exchange abstraction in enough detail, then we’ll all see that the elements constituting the exchange abstraction are remarkably similar to the elements that make up the cognitive faculty in us, the very cognitive faculty that emerged as commod production grew and became established as the norm.  Exchange is at the root of the commod abstraction’s socially synthetic function.

If I can get it down.  If the artillery would let up.  If my iPhone weren’t stuck in this preposterous font, that makes me look and sound ridiculous and outmoded.

I’ve cowered under a fucking broken window for this.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, Macmillan Press, London and Basingstoke, 1978, p.xii

[vi]  Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day

[vii] Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour, p.1

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid. p.6

[x] Stewart Lee

[xii] Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour, p.6


3 comments on “From Our Own Correspondent: Dispatches from the ‘British Spring’

  1. Bis
    3 March 2012

    I am convinced your dogged pursuit of the trail of real abstraction through the thickets of contemporary dislocation will yield significant and far-reaching results – keep up the good work Claire! xx 😉

  2. john hutnyk
    16 April 2012

    The Okra and Pashmina stuff here is great. Okra are also Ladyfingers. And indeed the whole word horde, accumulation, style of working things out. And best of all your Commod(e) abstraction – an unintentionally ? funny abbreviation with endless possibilities here. Marx too writes like this, also with abbreviations. See
    But it would lead me to Burroughs and Artaud probably, eg – “My works are only waste matter, once they leave my body they cannot stand up by themselves” – Artaud. This much discussed by Derrida in Writing and Diffecesance.

    • Claire Reddleman
      24 April 2012

      Thanks John, yes, ladyfingers reference was deliberate, and commod I did think was slightly amusing as well as a bit Orwellish, the brusqueness of newspeak rather than its sinisterness (although sinisterness is ever-present). Perhaps I should return to using commod more generally, it seems it dropped off when I broke off writing on the Grundrisse. The Artaud ref makes me think of Eliot, ‘These fragments (turds?) I have shored against my ruins’. Thanks for the link.

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This entry was posted on 25 February 2012 by .
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