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Inside Abstraction


Writing in the German weekly Die Zeit, a novelist and entrepreneur diagnosed the Occupy protests as a “revolt against abstraction,” a revolt that he considered irrational and misguided precisely to the extent that it aimed at abstraction as such.1 But is it really, fundamentally? It is true that the dizzying complexity of contemporary financial “products” and transactions creates a craving for tools to understand and attack this rarefied sphere. A brochure called Demystifying the Financial Sector: A Nuts and Bolts Guide illustrates the longing for concretion with a drawing of a screw and a bolt on the cover.2 However, while some subscribe to a fundamental critique of money as agent of abstraction and alienation, what is more dominant is surely the critique of the financial sector as driving force (or it just enabler?) of a debt-driven economy.

What is under attack, therefore, is a very specific form of financial abstraction, weighed heavily against “ordinary consumers” and small businesses. And this abstract system obviously has very concrete consequences; if on the one hand it appears Byzantinely abstract, at the same time it can be all too concrete. Paul Chan has reminisced about his local McDonald’s in the crisis of the early 1990s: “The McDonald’s where I went now and then closed toward the tail end of the ‘91 recession; so did other businesses in the area. At the time I didn’t think much of it, and if I did, I thought it strange.” The place seemed to do good business, since the neighborhood didn’t have a grocery store or any kind of community center, so it doubled for those. Chan remarks that he was “too young and naive to know” much about the causes of the depression, and economic lingo was “as abstract and remote to me as the actual reasons behind the appearance of a recession are in reality.”3

During this period, “Survival had nothing to do with measuring the rise and fall of economic indicators, but the cunning of living between these inhuman quantifications, and finding novel ways to be unmoved and unmoored by their movements, in any direction. Progress was not chasing profit, but standing firm where you happened to have found yourself, against the forces that bull or bear either way.”4 But how do these inhuman quantifications actually shape the in-between spaces that we traverse or doggedly occupy? As the case of Chan’s local McDonald’s shows, abstract quantifications have a habit of becoming seemingly concrete qualities.

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