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  • Violence and Abstraction
  • Brad Evans (bio) and Chantal Meza (bio)

Abstractions are everywhere. They fill the air. Abstractions can belong to the realm of the pure imagination. They can inspire wonderment. And yet they can also summon forth the most terrifying gods and empires of worldly destruction. Abstraction becomes apparent every single time an original thought is birthed. It is also apparent in the conceptual delivery of each and every philosophical claim. There are no metaphysical principles without the abstractions from which they emerge. We cannot think without them. They are the energy defining our existence. Without abstractions, we are reduced to the mere biological fact of being or sometimes in the darker moments of history even less so. Everything in these base-level terms is simplified and reduced to the question of pure survival. Hence, mindfully thwarting the attempted destruction of the human as abstractedly conceived, humanity has continually aspired to become worthy of the abstractions of its own devising. How often do we wish to live up to the expectations of our impossible dreams? And how often do we torment ourselves when the reality of the vision doesn't match expectations? We live through and are governed by the abstractions of our impositions and choosing. Belongings, borders, beliefs; they all appear as abstractions before they are consecrated in the corporeal realms of the symbolic real. Abstractions are in fact what purposefully separates us as humans. Only the human is capable of conceiving of the abstract in thought and deeds. It is the only life form we know that intentionally imagines beyond itself. That was what made us exceptional. That was until now.

Ever since Plato ventured into the dark and illusionary metaphorical cave, political philosophers have debated the distinction between the abstract and the real. Plato for his part actively mobilized the shadows, recruiting their phantoms in his scathing attack on artistic pursuits.1 Often separated in thinking, these concepts have given rise to fundamental debates between fiction and truth, imagination and science, madness and civility, chaos and security, along with deeper questions concerning absence and presence. But the abstract offers not only answers and permits imaginative explorations [End Page 333] at the same time; it is also capable of merging the internal and external complex processes of life we humans have been exploiting throughout our existence—processes which we call "creation." Moreover, despite a brief moment in history where European abstract expressionism was brought into directly conflict with the forces of historical fascism, there has been an overriding tendency to see the abstract as either some dangerous distraction or the hidden force that makes all violence and oppression possible. But the abstract is not something modern or fashionable, much less simple. We see this in earlier debates concerning the abstract nature of religion and its demands for sacrifice, onto the theorisations of Karl Marx (1857) who in the Grundrisse declared, "individuals are now ruled by abstractions whereas earlier they had depended on one another. The abstraction, or idea, however, is nothing more than the theoretical expression of those material relations which are their lord and master."2 A concern that would later be addressed specifically in the terms of "violence" and its relation to historical materialism.3 This concern with the abstract has more recently been picked up by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2002, 16) who defined racism as "a practice of abstraction, a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organize relations within and between the planet's sovereign political territories." We don't deny the abstract can be appropriated and turned back upon itself by the ever-changing mechanics of calculative thinking and its modalities of control. Nor do we deny the abstract can become a formidable mythical excess capable of totalising claims over life and the future. Afterall, everybody is abstract, and all power is abstracting. But what matters politically and philosophically is the type of abstraction we are concerned with? Not all abstractions are the same. Indeed, since the dawn of philosophical time there has been a continued battle taking place over the meaning and the mastery of the abstract, which is inseparable from how we understand the value of life. Or to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0627
Print ISSN
1069-0697
Pages
pp. 333-361
Launched on MUSE
2021-11-26
Open Access
No
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