Abstraction over levels


Abstraction is a process by which higher concepts are derived from the usage and classification of literal (“real” or “concrete”) concepts, first principles, or other methods. “An abstraction” is the product of this process – a concept that acts as a super-categorical noun for all subordinate concepts, and connects any related concepts as a group, field, or category.

Abstractions may be formed by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information that is relevant for a particular purpose. For example, abstracting a leather soccer ball to the more general idea of a ball retains only the information on general ball attributes and behaviour, eliminating the other characteristics of that particular ball.

Thinking in abstractions is considered to be one of the key traits in modern human behaviour, which is believed to have developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, probably before the modern human exodus from Africa. Its development is likely to have been closely connected with the development of human language, which (whether spoken or written) appears to both involve and facilitate abstract thinking.

The oldest known physical representations identified as symbols for abstract concepts are abstract engravings found on two pieces of ochre in Blombos Cave, South Africa, in 2001. These have been dated to about 77,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age.

In philosophical terminology, abstraction is the thought process wherein ideas are distanced from objects. Abstraction uses a strategy of simplification, wherein formerly concrete details are left ambiguous, vague, or undefined; thus effective communication about things in the abstract requires an intuitive or common experience between the communicator and the communication recipient. This is true for all verbal/abstract communication.

For example, many different things can be red. Likewise, many things sit on surfaces. The property of redness and the relation sitting-on are therefore abstractions of those objects. The delineation of abstract things from concrete things is somewhat ambiguous; this ambiguity or vagueness is characteristic of abstraction. Thus something as simple as a newspaper might be specified to six levels, as in Douglas Hofstadter’s illustration of that ambiguity, with a progression from abstract to concrete:

(1) a publication.

2) a newspaper.

(3) The San Francisco Chronicle.

(4) the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle.

(5) my copy of the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle.

(6) my copy of the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle as it was when I first picked it up (as contrasted with my copy as it was a few days later: in my fireplace, burning).

An abstraction can thus encapsulate each of these levels of detail with no loss of generality. But perhaps a detective or philosopher/scientist/engineer might seek to learn about something, at progressively deeper levels of detail, to solve a crime or a puzzle.

Moving on, typically abstraction is used in the arts as a synonym for abstract art in general. Strictly speaking, it refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world — it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world, or indeed, another work of art. Artwork that reshapes the natural world for expressive purposes is called abstract; that which derives from, but does not imitate a recognizable subject is called non-objective abstraction. In the 20th century the trend toward abstraction coincided with advances in science, technology, and changes in urban life, eventually reflecting an interest in psychoanalytic theory. Later still, abstraction was manifest in more purely formal terms, such as colour, freedom from objective context, and a reduction of form to basic geometric designs.

The Postmodern movement in anthropology started in the 1960s. The main issue Postmodernist anthropologist have with ethnographies are that they are open to bias and subjectivity. They argue that ethnographies are not actually science and shouldn’t be. Postmodernists want to emphasize the opinions of those people being studied and believe that anthropologists should take part in cultural activities to gain a sense of how those cultures operate. Also Postmodernists want ethnographies to be available to everyone, specifically those being studied.

“anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third ones to boot” -Clifford Geertz


The web of signifiers is the matrix that forms the medium of reality. Within this matrix, everything is always already encoded. The structure of the real is indistinguishable from the structure of the medium. In more familiar terms, the medium is not only the message but is nothing less than reality itself. When structures of signification become all-encompassing, the real disappears in a play of signs that is not grounded in anything beyond itself. Jean Baudrillard summarizes this point of view in his influential account of the simulacrum.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that engenders the territory—precession of simulacra.1


One could, of course, argue that this is nothing new, since the real has always been hyperreal even if it has not been recognized as such. Accordingly, postmodernism would involve an epistemological shift instead of an ontological change. To determine whether claims about the simulated character of the real are a matter of knowledge or being, it would be necessary to assume something like an Archimedean point from which to judge the relation of thought and things. But, as Kierkegaard long ago insisted, no such meta-perspective is available to us. It is, nevertheless, clear that one of the distinguishing features of simcult is the transformation of the structures that mediate so-called reality by an electronic network that is becoming ever more pervasive.

Situationist Guy Debord describes as “the society of spectacle.” Debord argues:

The spectacle, understood in its totality, is simultaneously the result and the project of the existing model of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, its added decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society. In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, advertisement or direct consumption of entertainments, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption. The form and the content of the spectacle are identically the total justification of the conditions and the ends of the existing system.2

As a committed Marxist, Debord struggles to maintain the distinction between the imaginary and the real. But his own admission that the spectacle “is not a supplement to the real world” subverts the opposition he attempts to reassert. With the shift from industrial to post-industrial capitalism, the means of production become the means of reproduction. Images are no longer fashioned to promote and facilitate the exchange of “real” goods but are themselves commodified. In simcult, the currency of exchange is image and what makes this currency flow is a current that is electronic. And as I have argued it is the users [regarding education read: ‘students’] that are the currency, not the technology or content or process.


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