Bassam el Baroni / How To Do Things With Theory-seminar 2014-2015 / Before Art: the problem of abstraction and it's contradiction

tag: Arnhem

Participants: Aarti Sunder, Celia Shomal, Monique Hendriksen, Constanza Puente, Ben Burtenshaw, Jan Adriaans, Malina Suliman, Kaste Šeškeviciute, Laila Torres Mendieta, Katia Barrett, Miguel Angel Rego Robles, Mathilde Sauzet, Kristinn Guðmundsson and Peter Sattler.

Before Art: the problem of abstraction and its contradiction

With texts by: Louis Althusser, Matteo Pasquinelli, François Laruelle, Alberto Toscano, Alexander Galloway, Alexander Galloway & Jason LaRiviere, Benjamin Noys, Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, Amanda Beech, Thomas Metzinger, Patricia Reed and Mckenzie Wark.

The social activity of abstraction i.e. commodity exchange is now increasingly managed by lightning fast inhuman computerised algorithms, the result is a real abstraction that is immune, unhaunted, and disaknowledging of longstanding humanist perspectives and traditions, this is the absolutism of a new lean mean market machine that turns old humanist positions into little more than dust in the winds of abstraction. If as Marx, Alfred Sohn-Rethel and others have noted abstraction precedes thought, then any thought whether theoretical or artistic that attempts to think abstraction is already saturated with the same abstraction that it is trying to reflect upon. This is exactly what Sohn-Rethel calls the irreconcilable contradiction between thought and abstraction and here begins a whole conundrum played out across theory and art. Many art practices function based on a decision whereby the artist says "I am able to think of abstraction or grapple with it because somehow I am outside it". The problem with this way of thinking is that it is laden with contradictions to the abstractness that determines it. There is another way of thinking, thought based on the idea of non-contradiction to abstraction; this is when the artist says "I will speak from within abstraction itself because my thought is already saturated with it". The course will look at the problem of thought that is contradictory to abstraction and how the tendency over the past few years has been to avoid it or rather circumvent it. The result within the expanded field of art has not been a flight into forms of non-contradictory thought (thought that does not contradict the fact that it is saturated with the abstraction that precedes it) however. This is perhaps because of non-contradictory thought's perceived violence or danger. Rather, the result of circumventing the problem of contradiction to abstraction has been a gradual erasure of criticality in contemporary artistic discourse; a shift into what can be dubbed the post-critical by eliminating negativity from its spectrum. Can we think of an art that is non-contradictory to abstraction but that maintains a critical voice, albeit, in a modality that is different to the standard notion of critique, an art that is non-contradictory to abstraction but not the affirmative mouthpiece of capital?

Click here for a more detailed course introduction

Seminar May 18, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

Questions around Art, the Self, and, Information and Communications Technologies

In this seminar we will build on earlier excursions into selfhood, our sense of self and personal identity. The basic scientific understandings of the self as elaborated in the philosophies of Sellars and Metzinger will be taken into the terrain of information and communications technologies and the internet, expanding our investigation into a relationship matrix between the Self, the Internet, Information and Communications Technologies in general, and Art through a set of theoretical descriptors outlined in the two main texts we will discuss and use as platforms. The first text is Seibt’s and Nørskov’s ‘"Embodying” the Internet: Towards the Moral Self via Communication Robots?’ which thoroughly examines the commonly held assumption that the ‘disembodied’ nature of internet communication contributes to a less ethical self. The aim of the paper is not to refute such an assumption but to first “understand why direct personal (or embodied) communication engenders ethically sensitive constructions of self-understanding” then to consider how such understanding might be developed synthetically via forms of technological ‘embodiment’. Central to their argument is Martin Buber’s ‘theory of cognitive orientation’ which we will also focus on and work through together via possible linkages to artistic practice. In relation to the Seibt and Nørskov text we will discuss Post-Internet Art and how it relates to the notion of “disembodiment” and other ideas in the text, here its useful to bring Melissa Gronlund’s short text ‘Violence is Mine’ into the discussion as a general reference. Finally we will look to Andrew Osborne’s and Inigo Wilkins’s Laruelle inspired text ‘Catalysing Dissent’ which explores what might be called the subjectivity of the contemporary dissenter or rioter through very useful terminologies such as ‘Computational Immanence’ that can be further extended to discuss art.

Seminar April 20, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

Real Abstraction and Alienation: On the Reinvention of Old Terms

Every man, no doubt, has his “hell” readily available, connivance, control, conformism, domestication, schooling, alienation, extermination, exploitation, oppression, anxiety, etc. We have our little list that the Contemporaries established in the previous century in the same way one used to construct lists of virtues and vices or honors and wealth. They invented it for us without knowing it, for us-the-Futures who have as our responsibility to invent its use.
François Laruelle in Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy

In this seminar we will hop between a number of texts that present the idea of Real Abstraction and evoke new takes on the idea of Alienation. Is there a correlation between the increase in usage of these two predominately Marxist concepts and the increasing complexity of information and data flows and contemporary finance? How are they being revisited, reworked, and reinvented to enable thinking about the present day and the future? Why are they important to current debates on contemporary artistic practices?

Readings from:

- Pages 22 – 29 of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology, 1977, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
- Alberto Toscano, The Open Secret of Real Abstraction, 2008,Rethinking Marxism, Vol.20 No.2
- Mckenzie Wark, Capture All: SimCity, Gamespace, and Play, 2015, The Avery Review (online):
- Patricia Reed, Constructing Assemblies for Alienation, 2014, In Mould Issue #1

Seminar February 23, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

Introduction to the Debate on Accelerationism

Benjamin Noys. Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. 2014. Zero Books. Please Focus on: Preface, Pages 1 – 12 and Pages 83 - 104
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. 2013. (accessed: 1 February, 2015)
Ray Brassier. Wandering Abstraction. First Published 13 February 2014. Metamute. (accessed: 1 February, 2015)

In this seminar we will traverse three main texts: Benjamin Noys’s Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (2014), Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’s #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics (2013), and Ray Brassier’s Wandering Abstraction (2014). The aim of this traversal is to attempt to understand the political stakes of one of current theory’s most heated debates and the implications of these stakes on artistic practice. Noys originally coined the term accelerationism in his book The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory (2010) to describe what he identifies as the recurrent thematic in continental theory of “turning capitalism against itself” because “if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better.” Noys argues that accelerationism was originally a moment of “theoretical excess” in which a small group of French theorists in the 70s (Lyotard, Deleuze & Guattari, Baudrillard) succumb to a “paradoxical attempt to articulate a path beyond a capitalism that seems to have absorbed and recuperated all opposition.”[1] This moment in the recent history of theory is revived by Noys as the key which can unlock what he describes as the “the apocalyptic accelerationism of the post-2008 moment of crisis ...”[2]. Noys’s position is one of anti-accelerationism and on the opposite end of the spectrum we will discuss the polemical and iconic Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, taking it as an incomprehensive summary of accelerationism’s position. Ray Brassier’s position is an extremely nuanced one, although aligned with accelerationism he has pointed out a major lack in its argumentation. This lack is inherently correlated to the main topic for this year’s course; abstraction, or the “true identity” that according to Sohn-Rethel exists between “the formal elements of the social synthesis and the formal constituents of cognition.”[3] If we are to fully intellectually endorse Accelerationism’s call to radicalise capitalism and through this process work toward bringing about some sort of post-capitalist future then we need a rigorous “account of the way in which cognitive function supervenes on social practices. This is what neither accelerationism nor communisation currently provide.”[4] This is why, according to Brassier and others, it is important to assert abstraction as an ongoing research project.


[1] Noys, Benjamin. 2014. Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. 1977. Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
[4] Brassier, Ray. 2014. Wandering Abstraction. Metamute. (accessed: 1 February, 2015)

Seminar January 19, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

Reading: Compression in Philosophy Alexander R. Galloway and Jason R. LaRivière, 2014. (Unpublished text, used with permission of the authors – not to be distributed outside seminar)

In this yet to be published text Galloway and LaRivière use the term ‘compression’, culled in from the vocabulary of computation and the digital to describe how contemporary philosophy has dealt with the question of representation vis à vis ‘nature’. They make a distinction between two types of compression, the first being abstract compression “a philosophical position within theories of representation in which compression is an undesirable byproduct of the metaphysical contract.” The second is generic compression, in which compression is a “positive tactic of material indifference”.

The first is discussed through the work of various philosophers - with an emphasis on Bernard Stiegler - who assume that “real phenomena appear as selective deletions of a superlative nature”. On the opposite end of the spectrum the co-writers propose generic compression “which reveals the basic insufficiency and indistinction of the real phenomena of everyday life.” The paper interprets generic compression as being that of a non-standard philosophy or non-philosophy and thus introduces the thought of Françoise Laruelle as its epitome. In forthcoming seminars we will delve into Laruelle’s idea of the generic and consider what if anything it has to offer for artistic practice, furthermore we will discuss texts by other writers who disagree with Laruelle’s ideas.


Seminar December 8, 2014, 14:00 - 18:00

- Brassier, Ray.2013. Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom. Written for a performance with Mattin at Arika's festival episode 4 "Freedom is a Constant Struggle", 21 April 2013, Tramway, Glasgow. Available online at:
- Metzinger, Thomas. 2009. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books, Introduction pages 1 - 12

Building on our previous DAI week seminar on Althusser's distinct understanding of materialism and his early inclination to put social abstraction at the centre of what art should concern itself with, this seminar we will discuss two texts concurrently. The first is a short concentrated text by Ray Brassier titled: Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom in which Brassier describes rule-conforming behavior and pattern-governed behaviour, these behaviours are important to the understanding of what Althusser called 'knowledge of the laws of slavery'[1] which we discussed in detail during the previous seminar and will reiterate in an updated formulation this seminar. More importantly is the distinction Brassier makes between freedom and voluntarism. In line with Althusser, Brassier describes the voluntarist understanding of freedom as comprehending "freedom as the property of an act of will exercised by a self. In order for an act to qualify as free in the voluntarist sense, neither the self nor its act can be determined by antecedent causes." This points towards the idea that when art alludes to freedom it should not think of it as voluntarism, this would be anti-Althusserian in that it misunderstands freedom as something we can simply will to power disconnecting the concept of freedom from the determining conditions that bind us to both social and cognitive reality. But, how can we think of freedom otherwise, a more realist or materialist (Althusserian) freedom? This is what Brassier's text attempts to define. Brassier's emphasis on 'the self' brings us back to Thomas Metzinger's book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self which was mentioned briefly during the previous seminar. For this seminar we will go over his simple but important idea that 'the self is not a thing but a process' in more detail by reading the book's introduction.

[1] For Althusser great revolutionary thinkers are those who "understood that freedom of men is not achieved by the complacency of its ideological recognition, but by knowledge of the laws of their slavery, and that the 'realization' of their concrete individuality is achieved by the analysis and mastery of the abstract relations which govern them." (Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. 1971. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 229-242)

Seminar November 3, 2014

Reading: Louis Althusser, Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract (1966), from the essay collection Lenin and Philosophy pp.229-242

Writing about the work of his artist friend Leonardo Cremonini in 1966 in a text titled 'Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract' Louis Althusser describes the power that Cremonini's paintings produce as strictly anti-humanist and non-expressionist, this, despite the fact that most of Cremonini's paintings are populated with humans, non-human beings, and objects. For Althusser, his paintings do not depict objects, places, or moments but rather the abstract relations that bind these different elements under the rules of abstraction be it natural/cognitive abstraction or social/economic abstraction. Cremonini is not an abstract painter but a painter of the abstraction that determines us, and it is only by understanding and mastering the laws of abstraction that a realistically radical art is possible. Thus, this text introduces Althusser's influential take on materialism which is important to the notion of real abstraction that the course introduces and plants the seeds for the development of a critical thought and art that is in line with the concept of abstraction-non-contradiction stated in the introduction. The text will be discussed in detail and used to open up further debate introducing a number of ideas related to the course's trajectory.