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Ambivalences of Abstraction

A Workshop on the Ambivalences of Abstraction

15-16 June 2017


GridIron Building - Pancras Square, 1 Pancras Road, London N1C 4AG

A workshop on the Ambivalences of Abstraction is being hosted by Celia Lury to mark the ending of her ESRC’s Professorial Fellowship entitled Order and Continuity: Methods for Change in a Topological Society. The workshop will take place on the 15 and 16 June at Warwick in London. Click here to access the programme. A few places are still available, if you would like to attend or for more details please contact

Writing in 1927, Siegfried Kracauer observed that ‘The current site of capitalist thinking is marked by abstractness’. While agreeing with those who suggested that this mode of thought was incapable of ‘grasping the actual substance of life’, he nevertheless identifies an ambivalence to the abstractness of contemporary thinking. Distinguishing reason from rationality he suggests that ‘present-day thinking is confronted with the question as to whether it should open itself up to reason or continue to push on against it’.

Almost a century later, abstraction continues to characterize our thinking. But its nature remains under-explored. Abstraction is not (only) a process that goes on in the mind or in discourse, a reduction of the complexity and richness of the empirical world, but something that galvanizes society. This workshop aims to examine the ambivalences of abstraction today. It aims to identify different occurrences of ambiguity and ask what possibilities its latencies afford. Papers might address practices of knowing or ways of acting on things that are specific to particular fields, such as architecture, security, health, marketing, media, design, or finance. Or attention may be paid to models of calculation, forms of (e)valuation and equivocation, techniques of sequencing, streaming or programming, coding, circulation, listing, perspective, prospecting, experiments in participation, measurement environments, modes of presentation and pointing, practices of coupling and comparison – the transmissable ‘hows’ that operate across fields. Rather than holding rationality apart from sensibility, the workshop also invites consideration of the (dis-)orders of contemporary abstraction, including, for example, (critical) paranoia, smartness, automation anxieties, optimization complexes, disturbances of avidity and agility, and the narcissism of self-referentiality. Kraucauer is concerned that the rationality that he observes does not ‘encompass man’. What are we to make then of the creation of cognitive and epistemic artefacts that are held to be part of a process of creating ‘real’ intelligence artificially and not the simulation of real ‘human’ intelligence.