Counterpoint #1: In defence of abstraction

Eutopos (c) Zali Krishna
Eutopos by Zali Krishna © 2013

North is in many ways a very partial book. I fully intended to include all the major caveats, alternate views, and complexities. But if there was one clear theme to the feedback I got from drafts, it was: ‘Find your through-line, and cut down on the caveats.’ I guess if you’re foolish enough to take on a history that starts in Africa 200,000 years ago and ends with the Apollo missions to the moon, you have to accept that you’re not going to be able to satisfy all your discursive urges.

So I thought it would be interesting to write a series of posts here balancing things out a bit. Compensating for the distortions created by emphatic rhetoric, and hopefully enriching the discourse around the book.

First up is something that’s perhaps an easy target: abstraction.

I’ve been fascinated by the perils of abstraction, and the apparent dwindling of concrete, sensual emphasis in modern life, since I started writing independently in my early twenties.1 I was heavily influenced by experiences with psychedelics, Reichian therapy, adventures travelling to sacred sites, and by Norman O. Brown’s body-conscious take on Freudian theory. I was rebelling against the emphasis on ‘spirit’ that pervaded the New Age scene – and against my own cerebral temperament.

This cerebrality deserves comment here. I was nearly always top of my class at school, and I excelled in maths, regularly getting 99% in tests. I didn’t pursue maths, however, being far more interested in literature and the arts. What’s always been a little odd for me is the lack of ‘background’ for this aptitude. I was the first person in my extended family to go to university – there’s little in my heritage to suggest any kind of inheritance going on. In my personal mythology, my intellect’s power was forged amid bodily trauma. In the epilogue to North I describe an accident when I was five years old, my wrist getting slashed open when my hands went through a glass door. I picture my sense of self retreating away from the now-shattered wholeness of myself as an organism, condensing to a point at the back of my skull, my energies busying themselves with the view from up there more than with my energetic interaction with the world. It’s a story I tell myself, of course; but at the same time I think there’s some sound psychological insight there. Placing it in at the end of the book creates a frame for the narrative (the prologue describes another, later traumatic incident which directly inspired the book’s research). Hopefully this frame acts to add nuance to the narrative rather than crassly undercutting it. The narrative – describing the historical trauma of the Agricultural and Copernican Revolutions, and the journey away from the body they catalysed – isn’t simply a projection of my own story onto history. At the same time, my own experience conditions my take on this history. It sensitises me to certain patterns in it – and inevitably occludes others.

I became aware of the problems with my conditioned view as I studied Steven Pinker’s work on the history of violence, for a slim book I wrote critiquing his take on violence among prehistoric and contemporary tribal peoples.2 My main contention was that Pinker’s reading of anthropology and archaeology was limited by his own narrative, and that the question of whether the origin of centralised power and civilisation curtailed the violence of Hobbesian savages was much more complex than he suggested. Often on this point Pinker’s perspective is alarmingly skewed. However, while his narrative arc – of generally decreasing violence and increasing morality throughout history – didn’t sit well with my own in terms of the early phases of human history, when it came to the more recent upheaval of the scientific Enlightenment and the birth of the modern world, I found it harder to argue with him. Despite the evolution of military technology and the rapid expansion of human populations, there have been many important advances in ethics, social justice, and quality of life in the past 500 years or so.

Now, there’s a perverse dynamic at work for many people rallying this perspective, which tries to mollify protests against contemporary atrocities by pointing out that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. If we can set this nonsense aside for now, we can appreciate that the modern world (more in relation to premodern civilisation than to pre-civilised foragers) has led to tangible ethical improvements. medieval-torturePinker catalogues stomach-churning examples of medieval torture,3 and declares that the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (he calls this the ‘Humanitarian Revolution’) were a key driver for the rapid curtailment of such barbaric practices – and for a raft of subsequent ethical advances.

Some of this progress – and if it isn’t progress, I don’t know what is – was propelled by ideas: by explicit arguments that institutionalized violence ought to be minimized or abolished. And some of it was propelled by a change in sensibilities. People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans, and were no longer indifferent to their suffering.4

As with any general account of history, we have to allow Pinker some leeway here, and accept that he isn’t arguing that no one before the Age of Reason sympathised with others enough to care that they were being sawn in half. Of course they did; but the cultural shift that did occur is real enough. In much of medieval Europe, torture – notably, of animals as much as people – was ‘woven into the fabric of public life’5 in a way that is now unthinkable in much of the world.6

A key factor in this shift (one of many in Pinker’s lengthy analysis) appears to be the rise of reason: ‘the ability to set aside immediate experience, detach oneself from a parochial vantage point, and frame one’s ideas in abstract, universal terms’.7 In my book I focus on the way in which this emphasis on detachment has impoverished experience. From animism to religion to secular modernity there seems to be clear atrophy of the personal and social capacity for sophisticated sensual engagement with nature, an alienation from the depths of bodily experience that surely underwrites much of our ennui. At the same time, the ability to abstract oneself from one’s own perspective, to use the imagination and intellect to embrace more than one’s immediate experience, obviously lies at the heart of any widening of the circle of empathy beyond the people one is close to.

Pinker sees it as no coincidence that his Humanitarian Revolution unfolded alongside the rise of the modern novel, and the popularisation of this literary form which weaves the reader’s imagination into the perspectives of strangers. Clearly this is not the simple idea of ‘abstraction’ – cold, formal, linear – at work. Imaginative engagement plays a major role. But still, we are dealing with flights away from immediate experience and detached negotiation with (rather than simple negation of) the impulses and sensual imperatives closest to us. This is an obvious and important qualification of my own focus on the alienating impacts of abstraction.

Just recently I came across another vivid example of the necessity of abstraction, which ties into a current economic debate whose importance is hard to overestimate. In an interview the ‘left-accelerationist‘ Nick Srnicek discusses his work with Alex Williams, and their concept of ‘folk politics’ as a dangerous limitation.

Folk politics is a neologism we coined to label a common mistake in many political ideas and actions today: the grounding of certain ideas and actions upon immediate perceptions and socially habitual actions, at the expense of abstract and complex strategic thinking. To give a few examples of folk politics, conservatives typically compare government debt to household debt and argue that just as households have to maintain a balanced budget, so too does the government. The argument is premised upon an immediate situation (the household budget) that’s intuitively appealing. What it misses is the complexity of government debt and how it is distinct from household debt (namely, the fact that the government is a currency-issuer not a currency-user, and that it can enforce liabilities on individuals in the form of taxes, whereas households cannot). Yet the idea of government debt having to be balanced is intuitively appealing and has gained widespread acceptance, despite being wrong. It’s successful though, precisely because it relies on appealing to folk politics.

This is a succinct analysis of how the political elite, serving the interests of corporations and the wealthy, have managed to leverage the ongoing economic crisis to inflict ‘austerity’ on many populations.8 This false perception of national economics has clear roots, in the UK, in the image fostered by Margaret Thatcher, who portrayed herself as the stern but fair housewife who was best placed to hold the purse strings. This blurring of the dynamics of household and national economics still clouds the minds of the majority today, often irrespective of education, enabling squalid governments to sell crazy policies as sensible measures.

Srnicek and Williams’ concept of folk politics has real problems, which responses to their new book Inventing the Future have highlighted. I hope to review this book here soon and say more. For now I’ll note that their generalised attack on folk politics – under which they lump together Occupy-style horizontalism, locally-oriented struggles in general, as well as naive misperceptions such as the above misunderstanding of large-scale economics – is highly polemical, with all the advantages for rhetorical power and disadvantages for clear understanding this entails.

But however much they overstate their case, Srnicek and William make the important point that we irrevocably live in a world in which abstraction plays an important positive as well as negative role – and that we must actively address it. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about some indigenous people living remotely in a small band, encountering a radio news report for the first time. When it was explained to them that the report spoke of some people who’d been injured in some accident or other, they started packing their stuff, ready to set off to help. When it was then explained to them that it’s pointless, the people were thousands of miles away, they took a while to take this on board, but finally gave up. I recall the variant of the story I heard including the coda that they eventually became less and less attentive to the sufferings of their fellows in their band as a result. The last bit seems like a bolted-on moral about modern alienation. In any case, the story is clearly not about hunter-gatherers. They are perfectly capable of abstraction, but their way of life requires much less abstraction to behave ethically. Living in a large-scale networked world, however, positively requires abstraction. Abstraction is our double-edged sword which binds us together as much as it holds us apart, and if it is only minimised as being inherently bad, we risk the darker images of life which pro-modern commentators can’t help but see whenever there’s the slightest whiff of ‘primitivism’ or ‘localism’.

The key, of course, is combining abstraction with immediacy. When we donate to a disaster relief fund, it is out of a relationship between our capacity for abstraction and our capacity for heartfelt sympathy. Pure abstraction wouldn’t care; immediate sympathy wouldn’t relate across such distance. As we witness rising levels of mental illnesses such as depersonalisation disorder, and other malaises rooted in deep alienation from immediate experience, critiques of the inheritance of Enlightenment reverence for abstraction continue to be urgently relevant. At the same time, the necessity of abstraction for collectively negotiating mass civilisation cannot be neglected. Indeed, ‘big histories’ such as North, charting the course of abstractive tendencies through the past, are themselves prime wielders of this thing they attack. Our stories of the past are useful (and contested) abstractions that orient, cushion, disfigure and refigure our sense of being in the present.