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To conclude Real Abstraction: The Conference, we will be hosting a roundtable at 13h30 EST on Monday, August 9.  The roundtable will include Conrad Hamilton, Jaleh Mansoor, Alberto Toscano, Richard Seaford, Jason W Moore, Frank Engster, Maya Gonzalez and Paul Reynolds. It is the hope that attendees, including those familiar with Foreign Object Study groups, will reflect on the conference sessions and discuss the themes and issues that have arisen. The following questions can provide a guideline to how discussion might develop:

 

1. What are the limits of real abstraction as a means of analyzing developments under contemporary capitalism? For Sohn-Rethel, "commodity-producing societies" are epistemically governed to a greater or lesser degree by a principle of equivalence. This is to say that as "real abstraction" (or, to be more precise, "non-empirical abstraction") is structurally homologous with commodity-exchange, it manifests in quantitative commensuration. When we measure the weight of two things and conclude they both weigh three pounds, for instance, their qualitative differences are elided in favour of reduction to a principle of measure. Yet if one believes--as is common within post-operaismo--that the labour theory of value no longer holds within contemporary capitalism due to e.g. financialization and the extensive subsumption of free time, then it would seem that the thinking of "real abstraction" requires revision.

 

2. How viable is real abstraction as a method for investigating pre-capitalist societies / social formations? Sohn-Rethel's historical account of the way that that real abstraction emerges within Ancient Greece is today often subjected to derision. For if--to paraphrase Moishe Postone--the operationalization of the commodity-form is restricted to the domain of circulation rather than production in pre-capitalist societies, how can we treat it as definitive to these? One possibility response is to argue that Postone draws too sharp a line between pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production--that the logic of commodity production cannot be said to only acquire profound importance after the fifteenth century. Yet even if one did this, they would still be forced to reckon with the way that Sohn-Rethel's historical account proceeds along a narrowly "Western" (Greece, Rome, Western Europe) trajectory.

 

3. What is the future research agenda for real abstraction? Since the Speculative Realism workshop of 2007, mainstream continental philosophical discourses have been marked by a conspicuous interest in ontology. This ontological turn has been--ironically, considering he co-organized the '07 workshop--opposed by Alberto Toscano, who has argued that thinkers such as Graham Harman and Bruno Latour ignore the socio-material forces that structure reality (that is to say, they ignore real abstraction). In contrast to this stands the work of Jason Moore. For Moore, what is needed is not a dismissal of Latour and co. from the standpoint of real abstraction but a synthesis. The "Cartesian divide" of "Nature/Society," he contends, is a "real abstraction." But the rational kernel of actor-network theory can be seen in the way that--as we get beyond it--we can begin to grasp the monistic character of "world ecology."

 

4. What are the political implications of real abstraction? In recent years real abstraction, as well as value-form theory in general, have received considerably exposure due to their advocacy by the English-speaking ultra-left. But true love never did go smooth, and it's interesting that many thinkers associated with these ideas--from Sohn-Rethel to Postone to Toscano--have eschewed or even polemicized against the views of ultras. In a way this ambivalence can be traced back to Sohn-Rethel. For while his conception of the commodity-form as decisive not just to reality but to the structure of our thought may seem to invite a totalization of anti-capitalist practice, he stops short of calling for the wholesale jettisoning of "necessary false consciousness" (because he senses, it would seem, the impracticability of this proposition). Is it possible then to think a political programme worthy of real abstraction? One that commits itself to reconfiguring or dispensing with abstraction without lapsing into messianism?