Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Note on Abstraction

The Latin means to draw away or to draw off; to separate or remove. When we say that Plato's forms are abstract, we mean that they are not here. And also that where the forms are, the things that they stand in for are not there either. So to be abstract means to be a thing apart, but also a stand-in, an epitomization, in this absence.

This is the sense of the earliest instance recorded by the OED, from the 14th century, by the chronicler John de Trevisa: "The names of the auctores been rehersede here, of whom thys presente cronicle is abstracte." And in fact, "abstract" has almost always been a document given in lieu of some other document, just as it is still for a house or a journal article. Thomas Hobbes reserves the name "abstract" for names "severed (not from Matter, but) from the account of Matter."

One of Ezra Pound's undergraduate classes in Latin poetry at Penn is described as "Introduction to the methods of textual and exegetical criticism... Practice in using the philological periodicals, and the books of reference that are most important to the teacher of Latin, as well as the dissertations and works that especially deal with epigrammatic literature." Pound, who wanted to study the great Latin poets themselves, never forgave his teachers, and afterwards each of his critical texts (and many of his poems) were long on selections of actual poetry, short on apparatus.

My own belief is that the rejection of literary "abstraction" in the modernist period is a function of the disintegration of this mode of handling information. The 19th-century is the age of the chancery and the scrivener, the hand-copied ledger and the index. The telegraph, typewriter, and carbon copies both made the meticulous summarization and reduplication irrelevant and, through the sheer proliferation of paper, made the traditional modes of transmission, circulation, and storage untenable. A turn-of-the-century advertisement for a vertical file cabinet reads like a modernist manifesto. Liberate yourself from the tyrannical weight of the past with these glorious new machines!

In the nineteenth century, to be lost in abstraction isn't to be contemplating algebra equations, but to be thinking about something other than what is immediately present. It's really only with the twentieth century that you begin to see "abstract" as a synonym for "nonrepresentational." There is virtually no contradiction between the modernist embrace of formal "abstraction" in the visual arts and the excoriation of verbal and critical "abstraction" in the literary arts. The two words simply do not refer to the same thing. At one point, one meaning was drawn off from the other, until the two collapsed, foundering under a common signifier.

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