A Short History of Modernity: Abstraction and Automatic Society

Abstract art—painting and sculpture that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects—was born of an alliance of modernist aesthetics and occult doctrines…  Yet no sooner was this new artistic convention established as an influence on the European Avant garde than it was quickly appropriated by still another mode of thought—utopianism—

—Hilton Kramer, Abstraction and Utopia

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility:

During the last century, abstraction has been the main tendency of the general history of the world in the field of art, language and economics. Abstraction can be defined as the mental extraction of a concept from a series of real experiences, but it can be also defined as the separation of conceptual dynamics from bodily processes. Since the time Marx spoke of ‘abstract labour’ to refer to the working activity as separate from the useful production of concrete things, we know that abstraction is a powerful engine.

Thanks to abstraction, capitalism has detached the process of valorization from the material process of production. As productive labour turns into a process of info-production, abstraction becomes the main source of accumulation, and the condition of automation. Automation is the insertion of abstraction into the machinery of social life, and consequently it is the replacement of an action (physical and cognitive) with a technical engine.

Taking the view of cultural history, the first part of the twentieth century is marked by the emancipation of signs from a strictly referential function: this may be seen as the general trend of late modernity, the prevailing tendency in literature and art as in science and politics.

In the second part of the century, the monetary sign, however, reclaims its autonomy, and since Nixon’s decision, after a process of monetary deregulation, the arbitrary self-definition of monetary dynamics has been firmly established: money shifts from referential to self-referential signification. This is the condition for the automation of the monetary sphere, and for the submission of social life to this sphere of abstraction. Automation, which is electronic, does not represent physical work so much as programmed knowledge. As work is replaced by the sheer movement of information, money as a store of work merges with informational forms of credit.

Retracing the history of money, from exchange commodity to representative money to standard value to electronic abstraction, McLuhan writes:

The Gutenberg technology created a vast new republic of letters, and stirred great confusion about the boundaries between the realms of literature and life. Representative money, based on print technology, created new speedy dimensions of credit that were quite inconsistent with the inert mass of bullion and of commodity money.

Yet all efforts were bent to make the speedy new money behave like the slow bullion coach. J. M. Keynes stated this policy in A Treatise on Money:

Thus the long age of Commodity Money has at last passed finally away before the age of Representative Money. Gold has ceased to be a coin, a hoard, a tangible claim to wealth, of which the value cannot slip away so long as the hand of the individual clutches the material stuff. It has become a much more abstract thing – just a standard of value; and it only keeps this nominal status by being handed round from time to time in quite small quantities amongst a group of Central Banks.

Only when it is abstracted (that is, separated from the referent, and disembodied) can monetary dynamics be automated, submitted to the rules of a non-referential sphere of signification and the attribution of value. Information takes the place of things, and finance – which once used to be the sphere where productive projects could meet capital, and where capital could meet productive projects – emancipates itself from the constraints of physical production: the process of capital valorization (increase of money invested) no longer passes through the creation of use value. As the referent is cancelled and financial accumulation is enabled by the mere circulation of money, the production of goods becomes superfluous to financial expansion. The accumulation of abstract value depends on the subjugation of the population to debt, and on the predation of existing resources.

This emancipation of capital accumulation from the production of useful things results in a process of annihilation of social welfare. In the sphere of financial economy, the acceleration of circulation and valorization implies the elimination of the concrete usefulness of products because the faster information circulates, the faster value is accumulated. Purely financial information is the fastest of things, while the production and distribution of goods is slow. The process of the realization of capital, namely the exchange of goods with money, slows the pace of monetary accumulation. The same happens in the field of communication: the less meaning the message has the faster it moves, given that production and interpretation of meaning take time, while the circulation of pure information without meaning is instantaneous.

In the last twenty years, computers, electronic exchanges, dark pools, flash orders, multiple exchanges, alternative trading venues, direct access brokers, OTC derivatives and high-frequency traders have totally changed the financial landscape and particularly the relation between human operators and self-directing algorithmic automatons. The more you remove the reference to physical things, to physical resources and the body, the more you can accelerate the circulation of financial flows. This is why, at the end of this process of abstraction-acceleration, value does not emerge from a physical relationship between work and things, but rather from the infinite self-replication of virtual exchanges of nothing with nothing.

 

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