Aesthetic Abstraction, Philosophical Foreplay

by W. F. Haug

3 Aesthetic abstraction, philosophical foreplay

Now we need to investigate more deeply the structure, effect, and dynamics of the capitalistic use of illusion. The abstraction of use-value, as a consequence of and precondition for the establishment of exchange-value and its standpoint, paves the way for corresponding abstractions, which will make them both theoretically and above all practically valorizable. The functional vacuum, that is to say the demand of the system, is there even before the capabilities needed to fill it exist.

One of these abstractions is fundamental to the natural sciences, Le the abstraction of use‑values into qualities, for example, detaching the mere spatial extension of objects so that they become just that—mere res extensae—reduced at the same time to comparable quantity relations. It seems logical that Descartes, the pioneer of this abstract theoretical thought, should introduce aesthetic abstraction into the technique of de-realizing the sensual reality of the world. He makes the assumption that there is an almighty god of manipulation who, by means of some omnipresent television programme for the gullible, deceives the whole sensual world. Here, all shapes, colours, sounds, and ‘all externals’, are only a delusion. ‘Myself,’ he writes, ‘I will regard as someone with neither hands nor eyes, neither flesh nor blood, nor any senses,’ [2] but merely as a consciousness deceived by a technique in every way superior to humankind.

Descartes also gives more prosaic examples which amount to the same thing. First, a figure of given shape and colour, when held close to the heat, begins to melt, changes form and hue, and proves to be wax or some such plastic material which can be moulded into all kinds of sensual forms. Second, someone in the street walks past the window and for all we know it could easily be an automaton disguised in human clothes. [3]

All these examples and assumptions are intended to introduce the doctrine, henceforth termed a science, that in the first place only one thing is certain: that the processes of consciousness themselves do exist, but that their content can be falsified. Thus people are reduced to these falsifiable processes of consciousness. But what of inanimate objects? They are reduced to something ‘extended in space, but flexible, and mutable’ (Extensum, quid flexibile, mutabile). [4]

This is not the moment to develop the involuntary dialectic in this kind of early bourgeois theory, which begins with the aim of emancipating the individual from deception (especially pre-bourgeois deception), and ends with mere domination on one side and deception on the other. Instead, it is crucial to consider within the mediating context of economic and technological developments, that process we have introduced as ‘aesthetic abstraction’.


2 ‘Putabo ... cunctaque externa nihil aliud esse quam ludificationes somniorum, quibus insidias credulitati meae tetendit: considerabo meipsum tanquam manus non habentem, non oculos, non carnem, non sanguinem, non aliquem sensum’ (Descartes ‘Meditatio Prima’ in Meditationes De Prima Philosophia, Amsterdam: 1642) p. 13 f.

3 Ibid., p. 24: ‘Nisi iam forte respexissem ex fenestra hominess in platea transeuntes, quos etiam ipsos non minus usitate quam ceram dico me videre: quid autem video praeter pileos & vestes, sub quibus latere possent automata.’

4 See Descartes’ second meditation, Meditationes, p. 23

SOURCE: Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society; translated by Robert Bock, introduction by Stuart Hall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), Chapter Two, section 3, pp. 48-49, 156.

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