MondrianIf there is one feature that characterises modern thought above all others, it is an inescapable tendency towards abstraction. Modern thought deals not with things themselves but with abstract concepts and the relationships between such concepts. All modern thought consists of abstracting away from the particular and analysing the resultant, universal ideas. Such abstraction is a key facet of human thought, some philosophers have claimed that it is what distinguishes human thought from that of other animals, but in modernism abstraction finds its most extreme expression. Modern thought is dominated by abstraction. This article is an example of such abstraction and analysis applied to modern thought itself.

The abstractive process is most obvious in the scientific method, which is a body of practices specifically designed to enforce abstraction, but it can be found in every identifiably modern cultural phenomenon.

The goal of modern physics is to discover mathematical laws that describe all natural phenomena. This is the epitome of modernist abstraction. Individual occurrences are transformed from unique and separate events into manifestations of universal principles. Subsequent developments are the result of mathematical deduction, subject to experimental confirmation.

Similarly, modern finance bears little relation to the practical trade of pre-modern times. Rather than mere wealth creation, we now deal with abstract financial packages, derivatives and arbitrary indices. The wealthiest people today are not buyers and sellers themselves but middlemen: self-appointed advisors and managers who amass fortunes by skimming a little off every transaction. The simple practice of trade, of physically conveying actual goods from one place to another, is overshadowed by the buying and selling of abstract financial instruments whose existence is measured only by numbers in a ledger (or, more likely, an abstraction of electrical currents interpreted as a digital representation of a ledger.)

Modern life itself is an exercise in abstraction. We increasingly live in cities, artificial constructs intended to fulfil some conception of human needs. Tasks traditionally left to family and society are now undertaken by the state: education, care of the elderly, even the instilling of morals. Communities no longer consist of people who live and work together, instead they are made up of people who share some generalised trait. We hear about the “financial community” or the “religious community” or the “gay community” – all abstractions.

The state is a bizarre, modern distortion of what used to be society. We are no longer defined by our personal relationships, we are defined by abstract attributes bestowed on us from on high. We are citizens of the European Union rather than Europeans; the UK government would like to define ‘British’ and to administer ‘Britishness’ tests; we no longer earn rights through participation in a reciprocal system of rights and duties embodied in an organic society, instead we are universally granted an enumerated list of abstract “human rights.”

The “branding” procedures of modern capitalism attempt to replace values with corporate slogans. Posters around the city command me to “Be more Nokia”; George Orwell would have had something to say about Apple’s putrid catchphrase: “Think Different.”

Even those who dislike this modern trend towards ever increasing abstraction make the same mistake in their own prescriptions. They analyse the modern world, break it down into a set of abstract principles, and then merely rearrange those principles to come up with the solution to our woes. This sort of abstract analysis is inherent in modernism and clearly cannot be used to create anything that is not itself modern.

In The Laws of Media, Eric and Marshall McLuhan trace the development of modern, abstract thought from the seeds planted by Plato to their fruition in the Enlightenment. The McLuhans link modes of thought to modes of perception; they assign abstraction to a visual bias, in contrast to the pre-modern emphasis on audio/tactile perception. Furthermore, they identify various technologies which they believe engender different modes of thought, from consonants to television. It’s an interesting read and a book which has some sentimental value for me.

However, in addition to the influence of technology, I see a clear development from Christianity to secular modernism. The idea that every person is a manifestation of a single, universal principle is evident both in monotheism and the doctrine of human rights. It stands in direct opposition to the pre-modern concept of kinship and organic society. Rather than beginning at the bottom, with the particular, and rising up through networks of personal relationships, monotheism begins at the top, with an overarching principle, and imposes its authority downwards. Monotheism, Humanism, the European Union, the Third Reich… it’s all the same.

Abstract art really sucks.

Published in: on December 28, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. > George Orwell would have had something to say about Apple’s putrid catchphrase: “Think Different.”

    Slogans like that are crafty. Although they seem like some ‘abstract’ motto that defines the pioneering spirit of the company, or some kind of aspirational, friendly advice, they could, if you look at them in a certain way, easily be perceived as a forceful command to conform and obey. “Just Do It” is another good example.

    > Monotheism, Humanism, the European Union, the Third Reich… it’s all the same.

    Yes, absolutely. Bastards one and all.

    > Abstract art really sucks.

    My precise thoughts when visiting the Guggenheim in Venice.

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