‘In The Mind But Not From There: Real Abstraction and Contemporary Art’ by Gean Moreno (ed) reviewed by John Thompson

Reviewed by John Thompson

About the reviewer

John Thompson is working on a PhD on conceptual art and materialism investigating what it means to …


According to the book’s editor, curator Gean Moreno, In The Mind But Not From There tracks an ‘emergent trend’ where ‘[i]ncreasingly, the notion of “real abstraction” is being applied to cultural discussions in an effort to salvage critical artistic production from being fully lost to capitalist logic and relations. The authors in this book share, if not a last vestige of hope, then certainly the call to attend to the disintegration of art’s promises with proper rigor.’ (323) The book is situated within a moment where the claim of art to be an un-alienated sphere holds no water, where it is always already bound to a logic of accumulation. One aspect of the bind contemporary art finds itself in is financialization, digitization another. It is in these specific conditions that the concept of ‘real abstraction’ comes to be a necessary critical concept.

The concept of real abstraction is Marxist in origin. Though not explicitly formulated in Karl Marx’s own writing, it is implied in a variety of passages especially from the Grundrisse on. The ‘classic’ understanding of real abstraction comes in fact from the German Marxist Alfred Sohn-Rethel and consists of a reading of the origin of money as a material embodiment of the notion of the general equivalent of value and hence as a real abstraction. Sohn-Rethel’s point, as is Marx’s in Capital, is that in order for two products to exchange for one another an abstraction must take place in the act of exchange, the material particularities of the products must be discounted or set aside in favour of foregrounding some common abstract measure of value. This highlights the fact that in specific, yet crucial instances, we do abstraction before we think abstraction. Abstraction thus traverses both the social and the mental though first arising in our activity. Abstraction precedes thought (31). Sohn-Rethel investigated the notion up to the point of arguing that all the categories of the Kantian rational subject were deducible from the abstraction inherent to exchange. He thus saw his work as offering a materialist critique of epistemology.

Comprising fourteen essays and an introduction by Moreno, the entries in this collection can be broken down into three broad categories: 1.) larger framing essays analyzing the theory and reality of real abstraction today (the essays of Alberto Toscano and Leigh Claire La Berge); 2.) more specific pieces plotting the link between real abstraction and contemporary art and the responses art takes to this contemporary scenario; and 3.) contributions by artists (Mark Curran, John Miller, João Enxuto and Erica Love).

Toscano’s opening essay, ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction’, offers a summary of four ways of thinking real abstraction through the work of Italian Marxist Roberto Finelli, Sohn-Rethel, Paolo Virno and Lorenzo Cillario. Finelli’s specific innovation is to develop Marx’s methodological comments on the movement of exposition from the abstract to the concrete, from the famous 1857 ‘Introduction’, in an ontological direction (41) He does this by pointing to the dual ontology of capitalism – its arising from a specific set of determinations and affirming reality as a ‘specific articulation of differences’ but itself having no specific cultural or historic content per se (the abstraction at the heart of capital) (23). Virno, influenced by Italian workerist thought, focuses on the category of the ‘general intellect’ underlining the point that the separation of intellectual from manual labour leads to the concrete development of abstract thought with today’s general intellect, a ‘directly politicized form of abstraction.’ (36) Cillario theorizes cognitive capitalism and analyzes the phenomena of abstractions working upon abstractions inherent to financial and digital innovation (38). Finally, Virno’s take on the concept is the most problematic as it seems to backtrack from the materialist embedding of abstraction as prior to thought in favour of a quick route to a hopeful situation reliant on the powers of the general intellect. This marks an important point to be borne in mind when weighing up political perspectives derivable from the usage of the concept of real abstraction.

La Berge examines abstraction specifically in relation to what she observes as a burgeoning discourse of finance, from ‘critical finance studies’ to popular ‘finance print culture’ (i.e. mainly journalistic accounts of finance). She notes a feature in the discourse on finance, both scholarly and popular, which leaves abstraction quite undefined, sustaining it as an ambiguous though loaded term, one that slides between signifying complexity in one use and simplification in another (45-46). Later essays are attentive to the simplicity-complexity dialectic at play in abstraction thus the essay does well to situate further contributions.

Marina Vischmidt’s reading of the formal similarities between how art and finance operate in the contemporary world struck me as probably one of the more pessimistic pieces in the volume. While not in direct dialogue with Victoria Ivanova’s preceding essay that distinguishes between an art about systems (systems aesthetics) and art that interrogates systematicity itself (systems art), it adds to her appraisal of financialization of art while not having the aesthetic strategy of systems art as an avenue for practice.

Nathan Brown’s essay ‘The Distribution of the Insensible’ functions well both as a critique of Jacques Rancière and as evocative art writing on the work of Nicolas Baier, black-and-white exhibition shots of whose works are included in the essay. Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible refers to ‘the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.’ (122) The problem with this notion for Brown is in its empiricism which, demonstrated through Brown’s exegesis of the valorization process of capital, leaves much out of the equation, namely the entire valorization process of capital itself which is not encompassed within the range of ‘self-evident facts of sense perception’ that is the aim of Rancière’s analysis. Brown effortlessly recounts complexities from Marx’s Capital to build up his concept of the ‘distribution of the insensible’, a notion with the process of abstraction included at its very core, to finish with a neat appraisal of Nicholas Baier’s work Vanitas (2012). Rancière receives further criticism, again for silence on questions of capital, along with Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou in Benjamin Noys contribution and appraisal of the dominant communist intellectual positions on the powers of contemporary art.

The artist entries here when taken together are unified by a strategy of documentation, whether in the rigorous manner of a research project or in the methodic repetition of an action. Interestingly, this is an under-investigated topic in the essays on art themselves. Selections from Mark Curran’s project THE MARKET (2010-) – a documentation of meetings with personnel from the world of finance from Ireland, London, Holland and Ethiopia – are included here in the form of quotes from his interviewees, as well as photographs of sites of financial transactions and portraits of participants in his project. John Miller’s essay on diaries and their specific mode of marking-time, how they exist beyond work and leisure time, is accompanied, on each page opposing the text, by a selection from his photographic series Middle of the Day, where the artist has been taking a picture each day at lunch time since 1994. Miller discusses theory and literature – Baudelaire, Walser and Benjamin – but his style is more relaxed than other entries in the volume. João Enxuto and Erica Love provide an account of their correspondence with ArtAdviser co-founder Hugo Liu, detailing dialogues that discussed the datafication of the artworld, with sites like the now defunct ArtRank which offered paradoxically in-depth graphs of the art market based on questionable metrics aimed at helping dealers ‘collect smarter’. Unfortunately the graphs reproduced in the volume are printed too small to be legible.

At the level of ideas however Enxuto and Love’s entry concretely deals with an aspect of the General Abstract Image (GAI), a phenomena defined by Diann Bauer, Suhail Malik and Natalia Zuluaga in their essay as representational imaging that depicts a reality but not one empirically encountered or, borrowing from Wilfred Sellars, one based on a ‘scientific’ instead of ‘manifest’ image of the world. Concretely the GAI would encompass phenomena from statistical flow-charts to the mapping of networks that become a noticeable part of the image world produced by contemporary artists since the 1960s (the works of Mark Lombardi stand out as one instance of this). Aesthetically the GAI works against the aesthetics of the technosublime – while the former aims at graspability through abstraction, the latter revels in un-graspable complexity (207). The GAI is a simplification of complexity pictured through processes of ordering and abstraction that itself becomes a part of the mesh of complexity (207). This category will quite possibly have importance for the future study of art history, marking as it does a new means of realist image making notably specific to the contemporary era. Jaleh Mansoor’s short essay on line and context adds a further art historical perspective on the need to deal with the topic of abstraction as she notes a turn from the contour to the diagram in artistic practice, as the notion of context itself shifts with neo-liberalism and globalization (180, 187).

Two writers associated with the online art platform e-flux, Sven Lütticken and Brian Kuan Wood, are featured with individual essays though a common style emerges, one which crosses much intellectual terrain in limited space, brimming, perhaps over-full, with ideas. However, amidst the ideas some of the most concrete illustrations arise as when Lütticken pinpoints how the use of medical technoscience leads to a view of the patient as ‘neither abstract nor concrete, but a concrete-abstract singularity whose specific qualities can be mapped using datasets.’ (170) Similarly Kuan Wood’s discussion of number is necessary in any volume seeking to deal with aspects of the nature and ontology of abstraction.

In the final essay in the volume Sianne Ngai offers a remarkably thorough engagement with the scholarship on Marx’s theory of abstract labour (covering commentaries by the likes of Chris Arthur, James Kincaid, Moishe Postone and Ernst Mandel in her extensive footnotes). She does this in aid of analyzing cathecresis in the poet Rob Halpern’s 2012 volume Music for Porn, which is in dialogue with the stylistics and concepts of Marx’s Capital. For Ngai Marx’s stylistics and turns of phrase when describing the movement from the abstract to the concrete relies on cathecresis, the intentional misuse of terms, such as in the example of the ‘congealment of liquid labour.’ Here in a context of fluidity and abstraction the gelatinous appears. Ngai’s conclusion that cathecresis is a necessary stylistic device in presenting real abstraction is a conclusion that can be tested against the stylistics of the volume as a whole.

The variety of issues ‘real abstraction’ encounters in In The Mind But Not From There range from technology, digitization, the general intellect, finance, exchange, labour and the art market. These different stresses lead to the employment of differing versions of the concept constructed via different paths. Some readers may disagree and find this a weakness of the volume but this diversity can also be interpreted to mark the vitality and relevance of the collection. At the moment we must judge the book in terms of an emergent trend and not in terms of a school of thought. Yes, this leads to a certain frustration when all the pieces do not seem to cohere, when there seems to be a brevity of analysis, or when one concept is reduced to another without due elaboration (for instance reducing real abstraction to reification), but these features of the volume are overcome by the productiveness of the articles in clarifying the problematic that contemporary art finds itself in.

Further we must situate this trend in relation to the prevalent strain of vitalist materialism and a privileging of particularity that has emerged as perhaps the dominant materialist approach in both contemporary scholarly and artistic practice. In contrast and yet while not excluding particularity this volume stresses the necessity to think through the process of abstraction today as constitutive of our social reality. It is here that the political stakes of the volume can be weighed and we may want to think of its affinity with other literature that renews investigation into notions such as the universal and the generic (for example, the work of Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean). The concerns of this volume will be of interest to anyone wishing to develop these lines of thought as well as to those interested in the type of abstraction Marx both analyses and applies with his methodology.

3 April 2020

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