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Real Abstraction: The Conference

6th – 9th August 2021


Hosted by Foreign Objekt:

Link to webinar:


Sepideh Majidi (Foreign Objekt)

Conrad Hamilton (Kapital Komrades) 

Paul Reynolds (Historical Materialism)

The publication of Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Intellectual and Manual Labour in 1970 heralded a remarkable possibility--a rupture with all hitherto existing epistemology. The essential idea of the book is simple: that what we have throughout the modern era called "epistemology" in fact derives its structure from the commodity-form explicated by Marx--a commodity-form that has discretely informed our metaphysics since at least the seventh century B.C., with the arrival of coinage in Ancient Greece. The thesis of a structural equivalence between epistemology and commodity-exchange--what Sohn-Rethel calls "real abstraction"--proved influential in the ensuing decades. But while Marxian thinkers in this period made use of real abstraction, many of them also tended to foreshorten Sohn-Rethel's ambitions, transforming his critique of epistemology into a modulated critique of political economy. That is until 2008, when the publication of Alberto Toscano's "The Open Secret of Real Abstraction" signalled the rise of a new wave of thinkers, who would apply it to explain social phenomena ranging from race to gender to our conception of the natural world. In this conference, we will address these developments, showing how taking real abstraction seriously doesn't require fettering its conceptual scope.

Conrad Hamilton

Staying With Sohn-Rethel: On the Embryosis of Capital:

Friday, August 6 --11am EST

Roberto Finelli

The abstraction of capital versus the abstraction of money: the hypothesis of a debate between K. Marx and A. Sohn-Rethel

Saturday, August 7 -- 11am EST

Frank Engster

The Blind Spot in Sohn-Rethel and in Marxist Critique: The Technique of Measurement

Sunday, August 8 -- 11am EST

Jaleh Mansoor

‘Universal Prostitution’ or Concrete Abstraction: Notes on Francis Picabia’s Diagnostic Dada Diagrams

Friday, August 6 -- 13:30 EST

Richard Seaford

Real Abstraction and Early Greek Philosophy

Saturday, August 7 -- 13:30 EST

Maya Gonzalez

Real Abstraction and the Logic of Gender

Sunday, August 8 -- 13:30 EST

Alberto Toscano

"A Phantom with Limbs of Steel": Fascism and Real Abstraction

Friday, August 6 --16:00 EST

Jason Moore

The Modern Dangerous Words: Man, Nature, and the Worldwide Class Struggle

Saturday, August 7 --16:00 EST

Paul Reynolds

Real Abstraction: Some Thoughts on Sexuality and Embodied Pleasure

Sunday, August 8 --16:00 EST

Essential readings:


Intellectual and Manual Labour (1970/translated to English in 1978)

by Alfred Sohn-Rethel


The one, the only, the irreplaceable. Deftly blending together critical theory, Althusserian epistemic rigor, and an Engelsian account of the role of value in pre-capitalist societies, Sohn-Rethel produced a work for the ages. The "Kantian categories a priori," he tells us early in the book, issue from the commodity-form,  which permits us to conceive of "strict causality"--for Sohn-Rethel, a reductio that relates to the way commodities are exchanged abstractly--as surely as it permits us to conceive of abstract space and time. But this metaphysical entrapment did not commence with Kant, nor with capitalism: rather, its origins can be traced back to at least seventh century B.C. Ancient Greece, when the "real abstraction" of commodity-exchange (the status of value-based exchanges as simultaneously real and abstract or calculative) manifested in the philosophic works of the Milesian school, who parlayed value into the thinking of substance.  Sohn-Rethel ends the book on an aspirational note: the mobilization of workers in America, he contends, as well as the Cultural Revolution, attest to the possibility of escaping real abstraction--or, at the very least, challenging the division of intellectual and manual labour which it calcified.


Below is the 1978 Humanities Press version; however, note that an updated translation including supplementary material has recently been published by Brill


The Open Secret of Real Abstraction (2008)

by Alberto Toscano


Toscano had already been moving in important philosophical circles before he published this piece--one that he's described in hindsight as a "literature review." Literature review or no, "Open Secret" is the moment when real abstraction was dusted off for a Marxist-theoretical context that drew renewed strength from the 2007-08 financial crisis. Althusser may have, for Toscano, raised the possibility of setting Marxism upon a sounder epistemological footing. Where he erred though was in neglecting to address "the relation between thought and capitalism." It is for this reason that the notion of real abstraction put forth by Sohn-Rethel--as well as the related work of Roberto Finelli, who charts Marx's turn away from the Feuerbachian notion of "real generic essence"--remain vital. This vitality is demonstrated by its appearance in the works of both Paolo Virno and Lorenzio Cillario, who argue that process of real abstraction indexes to “the cognitive and intellectual cooperation” of the general intellect in the context of late capitalism (but differ crucially over whether this same period has been marked by the “collapse of labor qua measure”).


"The Open Secret Real Abstraction" was first published in the journal Rethinking Marxism, and can be downloaded for free from ResearchGate at the URL below:


The Critique of Real Abstraction: from the Critical Theory of Society to the Critique of Political Economy and Back Again (2020) 

by Chris O'Kane 


While less iconic than The Open Secret, Chris O'Kane's "The Critique of Real Abstraction" is probably the most accessible and informative genealogy of real abstraction yet published in English. Not content just to stick with Sohn-Rethel, O'Kane offers us--after a prelim covering the "incomplete" writings of Marx on abstraction--a run-down of how real abstraction came to inform the work of Adorno and Lefebre, the former of whom retained its spirit while eschewing the enumeration of "analogous properties that exchange and the categories of the understanding possess" and the latter of whom (without seemingly being aware of Sohn-Rethel) integrated it into his notion of "spatial practice" according to which the commodity-form shapes the (often fraught) space it inhabits. From the promising beginnings however the discourse surrounding real abstraction took, for O'Kane, a reifying turn. Thinkers like Moishe Postone and Helmut Reichelt and even Toscano doubtlessly succeeded in relating real abstraction in innumerable ways to the "logic and ontology of accumulation and reproduction of capital." What they failed to do, in his eyes, is to do fully affirm its subjective dimension--a subjective dimension that, for O'Kane, has more recently been explored and expanded upon in texts by Werner Bonefeld and Christian Lotz.


"The Critique of Real Abstraction" was first published in the collection Marx and Contemporary Critical Theory: The Philosophy of Real Abstraction. The full text can be found at the URL below:

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