Blind Thought. Fugues on Abstraction

Written by Peter J. Amdam


The writer, daytime insomniac.

Maurice Blanchot

 

When Astrup Fearnley Museet approached me to write this text I am writing right now—and this will be a text that potentially could be about nothing in the guise of everything or a text virtually about everything in the guise of nothing—the deal was not to write on any of the featured artists. In fact, the artist list wasn’t disclosed until much later. What might have come across as opaque secrecy had its more concrete reasons. The assignment was to say something about abstraction “in general” or abstraction as some kind of a “broader phenomenon.” separately from factual artwork and to further broaden the viewer’s understanding of what abstraction might be. In a way, an assignment this broad will hurl any text into some sort of abstraction as its conception is abstracted before the fact.  Then again, as we shall see, it might be a question of a tweaking of several sets of sensing “abstraction,” a tweaking that is more and more pertinent to whatever abstraction (truth be told I do not buy the concept abstraction at all) is today. It moves around in substrates so determined by rapid diffusion that any attempt to narrow it down will appear as “moving all over the place.” 

Put differently: the main trait of abstraction as an abstracted tomorrow, as an attempt to think and to conceptualize something so broad, wide, and generic that it eventually enters this weird territory that conflates layers of space, time, agency, representation, actuality, and potentiality. If it’s possible to do away with indexicality. Or if one should. The following are some fugal movements that will transverse some of the substrates hinted at above and attempt to reach for a high definition, high resolution, narrow diffusion. They are trying to steer away from the idea that abstraction is not abstraction of something—representation of a set of ideas or narratives—but rather push for a tweaking of the coordinates altogether so that what one thinks if abstraction is rather just a flicking through channels, scrolling through images, embodying a different perspective and agency.

*

Several have pointed out before me that an increasing amount of art writing today deals with work that has yet to be produced, that has yet to come into being, that still belongs to the realm of the future. This is both because of how exhibitions are organized (including budgets, production deadlines, printing time of catalogues), and their dissemination—images, words, documentations, discussions—are accelerating through networks of so-called virtual space, and, according to some, renders such a thing as the catalogue essay obsolete. This obviously has practical and de-motivational consequences for the ones often considered to be at the bottom of the art world food chain—the writers.[1] But, from a broader, and indeed abstract, point of view it brings forth a certain critical and complicated condition of abstraction as “abstraction after abstraction.” That is, not in the sense of periodization—abstraction after the historical reign of abstraction understood in the traditional art historical sense, but as abstraction as instructed by, or told by, abstraction. When abstraction has turned into hybrid sets of materiality, representation, and technology.
If this very text grapples with the somewhat abstract nature of its commission—“abstraction in general”—then this act of grappling could be said to perform an excessively abstract divination about its own destination and an abstract future.
In a certain sense this text is not yet written.
But let us try to concretize a little: this is going to be a hazardous experiment, a tuning of a radio through the noise of whatever abstraction “in general” could be. It will instinctively (and barely) touch a few thinkers—Maurice Blanchot, Quentin Meillassoux, Elie Ayache, and François Laruelle—close its eyes and hope that a wide spread could pay off dividends in the said future. Some kind of an integral cognitive hazard that also puts forth an ethical dimension of pure, synthetic scam. The throw of the dice is the analytical tool of an abstracted non-probalistic future. That this tuning through radio noise tend to fall in and out of channels for abstraction in art and in aesthetic theory (which is kind of a different matter) will probably add further confusion and an obfuscated sense of abstraction.

And the thing is that the future itself is becoming more and more abstract. If one is to imagine the future one will now perhaps have to imagine it without familiar points of reference or coordination as those get dragged to sea.[2] The presentation of it will then appear increasingly abstract as traditional human agency is giving way to several composites of technical and post-human agencies.        
The future, “as we know it,” is disappearing, and yet this future is simultaneously what the present is hedged against. The always-looming threat of extinction is growing stronger and more intense, and not the just extinction of us humans or our communities, but life, organic and inorganic, as well. Visions of environmental and financial catastrophe looms large on a shattering horizon. The current “critical” climate change propels everything into a state of emergency that cognitively both erases and conflates the present and its pendant, the future.

Perhaps no other area is more marked with a abstraction and dislocation than finance. The pit is intensified abstraction. The real world is lived out abstraction on multiple scales. Molar and molecular. The architecture of the 2008 credit collapse, and its recurrent repetition scares, indexes and projects virtually abstract megadebts into a deferred future. A future reportedly drained and devoid of reserves and resources. There is a certain necro-finance going on that more or less speculates on death and on the de-administration of life; from irreversible global heating to calculation of megadroughts, resource wars, depression, epidemics and pandemics, terror, and horrible CO2 havoc. Wars involve an intensification of suffering, civilian targets, bio-genetically modified pests, mass movements of refugees, unaccounted for bare life in camps, etc etc simultaneously as drones, robotics, computational strategy increasingly removes the notion of the human out of war’s equation. Even the ethical decisions that need to be taken during a drone attack now to a larger and larger extent relies on computer programs.[3]

This post-theoretical landscape of diminishing futures and diminishing horizons has also engendered an aspiration to go beyond the future so to speak, to return to philosophical realism, albeit in the manner of a scientific “fiction” trying map out future events. This is not the time or place to discuss philosophical movements or trends such as Speculative Realism, but Quentin Meillassoux’ attempts to establish an ontology founded on mathematics is worth mentioning in our context—to the extent that art and abstraction is a context— here. Meillassoux is after scientific discourse’s ability to describe and conceptualize a world that is absolutely without us. “The Great Outdoors,” as he poetically coins it, the world totally outside of any human mediation, of any correlation to the human mind. A world after—or before, this would seem to be two sides of the same coin—the diminishing horizons of extinction as discussed above. Anterior and posterior to human experience and understanding. The “abstract” non-language of mathematics seems to be the key to this gridding of this absolute backcountry. “This,” writes Meillassoux, “is the enigma which we must confront: mathematics’ ability to discourse about the great outdoors; to discourse about a past where both humanity and life are absent.”[4]
Furthermore; absolute contingency seems to be the name of the game that directs this discourse for Meillassoux. No wonder he later has turned to radically deciphering the numerology of Stéphane Mallarmé.

One could—and probably should—think of abstraction as just another subset of representation.[5] And come to terms—but on what kind of terms—with a somewhat all-encompassing abstraction and an all-encompassing representation of it. The univocity of representation is one level intense abstraction, but on a more deeper, more fundamental, one, it is fundamentally the undoing of abstraction altogether.
Perhaps no form and instance of contemporary abstraction is felt more acutely than that which emanates from the world of finance. Globalized and automated, categories of value, work, capital, money, network, price, calculation, speculation, and so on takes on abstraction of epic proportions. It is admittedly a problematic venture to try and calculate this atomized abstraction-representation. Like this very piece of writing that tries to pin down abstraction and its current trajectory. This abstraction may just as well be mere abstraction, a mere curvature of space or time. To graft Elie Ayache’s—Ayache himself spent many years working as a derivates trader and is an expert on the complexities of futures markets and speculative options—recent Meillassoux inspired definition of writing onto the very words that are being written right now:  “Writing is something we produce without previous knowledge or prevision or prediction. Writing is quicker than thought and vision. It is a material process, when vision and prevision are only conceptual.”[6] The risk is, of course, that one does away with reference altogether. If the aim of Ayache’s book, The Blank Swan, is to rethink, or re-write, both derivative pricing and the market, and the aim of this piece of writing is to trace some trajectories of the contemporary abstraction then what one risks is both implosion and a radical subtraction or void—and not full on immanence. Ayache writes: “Price traverses the intensity of the pit, not the extensity of the space of possibilities,” and continues, “[t]ry to derive the value of the contingent claim to possibility or its abstract or “reciprocal” states of the world and you will be inflicted with the redundancy of the contingent claim: in other words you will deny it a market of its own.”[7]

Could anything be wrought out of this and applied to certain modes of contemporary art production it would be how these technologies of abstraction relies on systemic contingencies. It’s not necessarily the visuals that are abstract but rather that agency itself, in its many variations and modulations, has become “abstract.” This could also to a certain extent explain why so much of the present day critique of so called “new abstraction” (that’s an euphemism for the more common term “crapstraction” as espoused by Jerry Saltz et. al.) seem to misfire or at least be inadequate to describe what’s going on. It is not that painting and its putative corruption and degeneration into an unidentifiable gooey mass of turped-out canvases that somewhere down the road have turned into paddle-waving tissue wipes for speculation. The canvas is just another plug-in of a different sort and agency that traverses it, or whatever medium it comes up against, itself has become abstracted. There is reason to believe that the more serious, earnest, and conscientious instances—if there are any—of what could be written off as rehashed abstraction is not just a matter of repetitious exercises in the purity of form.
Artists working with “abstraction” today is plunged, and plugged, into very different processes and networks of mediatic erosion than those of the classical, “good,” and unpolluted from almost a century ago.
Lived abstraction boils down the dichotomy between technology and life as atomized, abstracted, and diffused throughout the world, the body, or rather through the mass of bodies of the world. One should take serious any ambition to overrun the dichotomy between the real and the imaginary, between passive materiality and active life. Active materiality could possibly be radically more real.
These systemic contingencies form the Real (in a post-Lacanian sense) out of missed mediatic encounters and conditions. Think of contemporary art’s persistent obsession with obsolete technology, due partly to the latter’s obvious seductive powers. Dysfunction works. Unworking works. One needs to look no further than to the practice of a Wade Guyton. “Blindness is for the technical malfunctions that both produce and disturb the images of Guyton.”; “A jammed inkjet printer printing out its own dysfunction,”; “The contemporary artist doesn’t just produce and present objects and images; he produces production itself, presentation itself … images and ideas that are at the same time (like it or not) ethical propositions.” All quotes culled from a randomly—these are the tactics of the hazardous scam writer—chosen example of one of Kelsey’s rich texts on Guyton.[8]  

There is this very short text by Maurice Blanchot called “The Name Berlin”[9] from 1961 that seemingly forever keeps reemerging in my head, as some sort of an abstracted murmur, the sound of one pitch in  a foreign tone, from another time, yet at all times, every time the word abstraction comes along. Whether how one chooses to asses—I am not qualified—the short text’s historical valence or precision when it comes to describing the very specific historical event that prompted its coming into being: The Berlin Wall. As is well-known, some historians, and especially art historians here, like to have the period of what we call “the contemporary” to start at the end of the last world war, and that would have to be geographically in Berlin. Or at the onset of the cold war, the erection of the Berlin wall will have to be the emblematic event in this regard, or, as most often is thought today, at the end of the Cold War, when the wall came tumbling down. In 1961 Blanchot is committed to write fragmentarily. That is, if one (a “painful” fact for everyone that thinks, not just Berliners or Germans,”[10] he says) wants to formulate fracture, “in its complete reality.” The fragment is complete, it is reality, and it is painful. Just like the present-future-abstraction conflation. Blanchot clings, albeit in a violently dissolving fashion, to a language and ambition of dialectic synthesis: the deliberate choice of the fragment does not mean that one can no longer be bothered to attempt a complete synthesis (though this could be the case) but it is rater a method of inquiry that is both patient and impatient, mobile and immobile, and the affirmation […] is always still to come, […] a pure becoming and a pure future of enquiry. . [A]ll fragmentary reflection require[s] infinite repetition and variation.”[11]

All fragmentary reflection plunges into repetition and variation. Just as Blanchot says the wall “plunges into abstraction the unity of a great city,”[12] that it succeded in “abstractly concretizing division.” The fugue is a possible “line of flight” to overcome the fissure that haunts Blanchot and the split that Meillassoux seeks to get away with. Fugue can also mean loss of awareness and a metastasizing movement out of one’s usual environment. Meillassoux seeks to “achieve a total purgation of thought from being in order thereby to clear the way for his own absolute rationalism.”[13]
In the work of François Laruelle things get a lot weirder. Laruelle totally embraces complete reality, the generic real, the One, the radically immanent, “the One”. His thought takes aim to truly enter the realm of the unthought, not just outside of language, but outside of thought, outside of vision. Laruelle’s strange writing seems all the more strange because it appears to be totally and absolutely abstract and difficult, but at the same time aims to close in on and encompass everything—everything as in everything—at the wholly opposite of the abstract. Its aim is extreme concretization. A thought that is radically democratic.
Alain Badiou, in his sometimes outright malign book on Deleuze presents his antagonist as a master-thinker of the One, possibly reminiscent at times of a certain Laruelle. He quotes Deleuze tracing the topology of the outside. This might seem as a detour but if we want to follow abstraction to its representational end, outside the aporetic limit between the real and the imaginary, concrete and abstract: “the specific limit that separates each one is also the common limit that links one to the other, a limit with two irregular faces, a blind word and a mute vision.”[14] And continues: “if the One is given as a disjunctive limit or as the tracing of a limit on the space of the outside, do we not still have to distinguish between the topology of the space, the One of the topology, and what is inscribed there according to lines of force that Deleuze sometimes describes as “floating”—that is, mobile and abandoned to space, but nevertheless, as results that can be inscribed on this surface, distinct from the outside itself?”[15]
Let’s do a totally criminally dilettantish experiment and suppose the two quotes above also speaks of “art” their ambition to formulate abstraction in its “complete reality.” In reality you would be hard pressed to distinguish something completely concrete or something completely abstract. Liminal space becomes an absolute entity in its own right and one steps out, at least for a little while, of the dichotomies of real and virtual space, mind and matter, being and thought. Laruelle calls it “blind thought,” “irreflective thought.” A some sort of total absorption that is up to pace with the extensity and intensity of the real/imaginary. Consider the paintings of the young American artist Michael Manning who, by the way, is often explicitly put in relation to a tradition of American abstraction. His “paintings” are made with a painting program called ArtRage, then printed on canvases and then prepared to even more intensely appear as “real”, “traditional” paintings. But it involves a semblance so weird and simultaneously realized in the immediacy of experience that it is not really any “representation” of something outside of itself. Its technology becomes it inorganic life, so to speak. Even though these objects of Manning, these “paintings”, may appear banal they occupy some strange kind of liminal space. They are resting on some kind of constitutive fissure that makes the distinction between abstract and concrete obsolete not the technology off which it feeds (back). They are “producing presentation,” mere presentation, one might add, deterritorialized into a generic vision of sorts.    
“The Universe is not reflected in another universe, and yet the Remote is accessible to us at each of it points,”[16] writes Laruelle in one of his most cryptic and enigmatic texts. “The black universe […] simplifies color in order to bring out the witness of understanding in its essence of non-pictorial reflection.”[17] “See black rather than believe “unconscious,”” he tells us, “[a]nd think white rather than believe “conscious.”[18]
When abstraction is fully fledged, without deciding between the concrete and its abstract manifestation, like particles perpetuated through solid mass, one meets the whited out pure phosphorescence of representation out-represented.

 



[1] A timely, eloquent, and humorous lament on this can be found in Jennifer Allen’s ”Futures Trading”, Frieze Magazine, no.126, October 2009

[2] ”Erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” as the infamous ending of Michel Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things goes.

[3] See the special issue of the weekly magazine The Economist (2 June 2012, p. 13). This article is discussed by Rosi Braidotti in her book The Posthuman, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013,  pp. 124-130

[4] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (trans. Ray Brassier), (London:Continuum, 2009), 26

[5] I have argued for this, in a very different setting, in my ”Anacoluthic Interpellation”.  In Tone Hansen (ed.) Saskia Holmkvist: In Translation  (Høvikodden: Revolver, 2012), 19-35  

[6] Elie Ayache, The Blank Swan. The End of Probabilty, (West Sussex:Wiley, 2010), xvi  

[7] Ibid., p. 51.

[8] Printed as ”Decaptialism”, in John Kelsey, Rich Texts: Selected Writings for Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010) 65-77

[9] Maurice Blanchot ”The Name Berlin.” In The Blanchot Reader, edited by Michael Holland (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995). Originally published as ”Il nome Berlino”, Il Menabò, 7 (1964) 

[10] Ibid., p. 267.

[11] Ibid., p. 267.

[12] Ibid., p. 268.

[13] Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 123

[14] Alain Badiou, Deleuze. The Clamor of Being (trans. Louise Burchill), (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press,  2000), 87

[15] Ibid., p. 87

[16] François Laruelle, ”On The Black Universe. In the Human Foundations of Color”, in Eugene Thacker (ed.) Dark Nights of The Universe, (New York: Name Publications, 2013), 103. The original French essay, titled ”Du noir univers: dans les fondations humaines de la coloeur,” was published in La Décision Philosophique 5 (April 1988), 107-112.   

[17] Ibid., p.108.

[18] Ibid., p. 110. 


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