The Temple of Abstraction

by Geoff Olson

pyramids of money• In the splendid 2015 Pixar film, Inside Out, the characters Joy and Sadness momentarily get trapped inside Abstract Thought, a building complex inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson. The panicking pair break down into blocky Picasso-like structures, and are reduced to simple geometric forms before a narrow escape pops them back into shape.

Abstract thinking has allowed human beings to make great discoveries, amazing machines, and astounding works of imagination – including computer-generated films like Inside Out.

Human beings, born utterly defenceless at birth, are the ultimate generalists. What we lack in biological specialization, we make up for in scientific specialization. We have become the Earth’s apex species through abstraction.

The base-10 mathematical system was abstracted from human hands, and “slipped from the fingers that described it, becoming applicable to anything… Substituting numbers for objects changed the world, for better or worse,” notes Daniel Tammet in his 2013 book, Thinking in Numbers.

Through observing and measuring, generations of scientists tore apart the claustrophobic heavens of medieval scholastics to reveal an unimaginably immense cosmos of great age. They discovered shape-shifting entities in the microworld – as bizarre as anything from the world of myth – and made them dance through logic gates in our consumer electronic devices.

In modern times, money is so thoroughly abstracted from any real-world referents – including precious metals that theoretically back its worth – that commercial banks regularly create electronic credit through mere keystrokes. And on the world’s stock exchanges, algorithms perform trades in microseconds, with valuation represented by a ghostly stream of electrons.

The word “abstract” is of Middle English origin, derived from Latin abstractus, literally meaning “drawn away.” It has a secondary meaning of “extract, isolate, separate, detach.” Is it any surprise that the nations of the industrialized west are now populated with abstracted, isolated workers hooked on antidepressants and electronic distractions? (Distract is a close etymological relative to abstract, from the Latin distract – “drawn apart.”)

“What is abstraction?” asks Adbusters publisher Kalle Lasn in his 2006 cinderblock of a book, Design Anarchy:

“The utopian realm of pure form
Universality of expression, of emotion, of thought
The hue of infinity
A glimpse into the spiritual structure of nature itself
The culmination of thousands of years
of human aesthetics

A fear of death
The loss of empathy
An escape from nature
A form of ecocide through wilful ignorance
The incestuous victory of the single-minded logic freak
The fatal flaw of Western civilization…”

All of the above, perhaps? Writing by the Yellow River in 1895, French philosopher Paul Valéry recorded an imaginary dialogue with an Eastern sage.

“You have neither the patience that weaves long lines nor a feeling for the irregular, nor a sense of the fittest place for a thing…For you intelligence is not one thing among many. You…worship it as if it were an omnipotent beast…You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.”

If there can be said to be a global fundamentalist religion in today’s world – and I think of fundamentalist religion as a body of superstitious beliefs safeguarded by emotional resistance – then it would be popular idea of science as the final guide to truth and progress.

Consider “big data” and its supposed promise of liberating human beings through numbers harvested from computers. The faithful believe that identifying previously unseen patterns in this Himalayan range of bytes will translate into greater health and prosperity for consumers, even while such quantification offers darker possibilities for the surveillance state.

I call it the ‘Temple of Abstraction.’ And as with all churches, membership has its privileges for those who have drunk the communion wine.

Consider, for example, the recent projections of the economic ‘worth’ of ecological services performed by the environment. Economists believe they can put a dollar number on watersheds, bogs, rivers and forests. The financial value of water filtration, pollination, the breakdown of vegetable matter into soil – pretty much anything nature does that benefits human beings – can be valued in millions to trillions of dollars, depending on the area and service examined.

These econometric studies might as well be elaborate jokes told by a drunken prof in a university pub. It’s the economy that is embedded in ecosystems, not the other way around. Such studies indicate how far we have become “isolated, separated, and detached” from the wilderness within and without.

On the charitable side, you could read this as progress of sorts, a retreat from interpreting nature as an easily ignorable “externality,” as defined by classical economists. Yet the ultimate value of the biosphere is literally incalculable – and this is without taking into consideration that other living creatures have the right to exist in and of themselves. The idea that the natural world might have a non-monetary value in which our needs are not factored is neither quantified nor quantifiable. It’s a concept that lies outside of the hairless ape’s numeracy and parochial ethics.

The assumption that science is a value-free guide into a rational future is just as questionable, as author Derrick Jensen observed in his book Dreams:

“The notion that science makes no ethical or moral claims is absurd, I’m surprised otherwise intelligent people so often accept this. First, the precepts of science – including the notion that universe is mechanistic, and including the emphasis placed on repeatability (which follows from and reinforces the notion that the universe is mechanistic, or not a wilful decision maker, or not filled with wilful decision-makers) – carry with them extraordinary moral weight, in that they lead to certain behaviours that carry with them moral consequences.”

In ancient world views, the world is alive with “wilful subjects with whom you can enter into relationships,” the author notes. But regarding these subjects as objects – that is, resources, cogs in the cosmic machinery, or lumps on insensate matter – doesn’t just make a pattern of exploitation and collapse possible, but inevitable.

“It’s easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we’re talking about so many tons of fish, so many board feet of timber, or so many boxcars of untermenschen,” Jensen concludes.

Abstract thinking has brought immense technical blessings to human beings, extending our lifespans through medicine and sanitation, while pushing the biosphere to its limits. It has allowed our technocratic priesthood to build and destroy with greater skill and at greater scales. As British novelist Aldous Huxley once observed, “Applied science is a conjuror, whose bottomless hat yields impartially the softest of Angora rabbits and the most petrifying of Medusas.”

But expect no commissions of enquiry, no truth and reconciliation reports, on the darker side of our ability to name and number, to sow and reap, and to give or take life. The scripture of the ‘Temple of Abstraction’ is embedded in textbooks, newspapers, television news, annual company reports – and hidden in plain sight in our hearts and minds.

photo © Radekdrewek

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