Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Violent Geographical Abstractions

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Violent Geographical Abstractions

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper historicises the emergence (and subsequent power) of geographical abstractions. Following Karl Marx in the Grundrisse, I argue that one of the central features of modern capitalist society is rule by abstractions. As both Derek Sayer and Henri Lefebvre argue, such abstractions enact forms of violence within the societies subjected to their rule. The three geographical abstractions I consider are space, nature, and scale. Whilst I argue that some forms of abstraction are transhistorical, my interest is more in how these transhistorical abstractions rub up against new forms specific to capitalist societies. In particular, following Alfred Sohn-Rethel, I am interested in the role played by the exchange abstraction in producing distinctive spatial relations, a commoditised nature, and new forms of scalar hierarchy. The paper sheds light on the utility of a historical-geographical materialist approach for situating the production of violent geographical abstractions and envisaging a world free from their domination.

Keywords: abstraction, Marx, Grundrisse


"Marx spoke of the violence of things; the violence of abstractions can be equally devastating."

Derek Sayer (1987, page 144)

"there is a violence intrinsic to abstraction, and to abstraction's practical (social) use."

Henri Lefebvre (1991, page 289, emphasis in original)

"individuals are now ruled by abstractions."

Karl Marx (1973 [1857], page 164, emphasis in original)

It is difficult to overestimate the violence generated by processes of abstraction. This violence operates on a range of different scales, from the disciplinary practices of the workplace to the child dying of dysentery as she lacks the universal equivalent needed to pay for water. The mediating role of the exchange abstraction, in particular, has produced a perverted reality in which things--money, socially necessary labour time, buildings, wages, and infrastructures-- dominate people. These examples are not, however, simple testimonies to the fetish of the market, rather they attest to a much deeper process--the production of an inverted reality, a reality produced, in Marx's terms, in a one-sided manner. The process of abstraction, in short, produces a world stripped of qualities: nature becomes a provider of easily quantifiable ecosystem services [in Neil Smith's (1984) terms a price tag comes to determine nature's fate]; space is produced as land titles to be speculated on for future gain; and the home becomes a revenue stream, fed by infrastructures servicing the demands of sovereign wealth funds, pension investors, and banks. This paper is an effort to consider the geographies produced through abstraction and the development of a philosophy of praxis that might be adequate to critique and challenge that abstract reality.

To speak of the violence of abstraction is not a novel claim (Lefebvre, 1991; Marx, 1973 [1857]; Sayer, 1987). Nor is it particularly novel to speak of abstraction as a real, concrete process (Day, 2013; Osborne, 2004; Sohn-Rethel, 1978; Toscano, 2008). Nevertheless, very few have considered the fundamental importance of real geographical abstractions. As this paper develops, I will consider space, scale, and nature as real abstractions that are in large part, but not solely, determined by historically and geographically specific practices. My focus on abstraction is not intended to uncover the appropriate level of empirical detail for geographical investigation. Such debates were considered in far more eloquent fashion in the localities debates of the 1980s, influenced as they were by critical realist modes of thought (Cox and Mair, 1989; Sayer, 1984). Instead, my interest is in better understanding the manner in which forms of social domination have been sustained in the contemporary world.

My argument builds on both historical materialist readings of real abstraction and also the recent interest of geographers in Marx's Grundrisse (Gidwani, 2008; Mann, 2008; Sayre, 2008; Wainwright, 2008): indeed, my understanding of the process of abstraction is derived from that same germinal text. …

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