Home » Contributions (what?)

Rock Pub Abstraction

Written By: Art Collings on August 4, 2010 17 Comments

Actual Conversation from the Rock Pub in Troy Monday night.

1. It’s taken the whole conference, but it has finally registered with me that people really do exist who are agnostic to the existence of an Abstract/Actual opposition. Their point may have come to me sooner, but they speak so …. abstractly. Speaking without examples, believing ideas literally …

2. But after enough conversations, finally an there is an example, and also I remember in Group 2 Day 2, a clear occasion where I perceive a statement as Abstract, while another group member (Robert) perceives the same as very concrete.

3. Two performances are given — both at the Rock Pub — after 2am.

  • Ben & Alex, co-directed by Art.

Ben and Alex ask, very sincerely ‘what is a Group’. [of the mathematical type].

Art directs Ben and Alex through a series of little games, and they discover for themselves “from the ground up” what a group is.

  • After a bit more bar time passes, and a bit more conversational & proximal shuffling occurs, Judy, who is  apparently an abstraction non-believer, engages Art in conversation regarding the ‘Abstraction/Actual’ Group to which they had both belonged (she for only the first day). After some discussion, Art replies as follows to assert existence and usefulness of abstraction.

Summary of Actual: Given the late hour, describes the  play experience with Ben and Alex, describing it as a ‘bottom up’ process, and uses it as an example of Acual.

Example of Abstract: in contrast, Art says “consider this” — and he proceeds to perform a complete, formal definition of a mathematical group. It is a performance because he presents it in a tone and rhythm that makes it clear it is not meant to be understood for its content, but as  example of a style of communication that is dense and difficult. Once the performance of the definition is complete, Art returns to his prior tone and cadence.

Art leaves with the satisfaction that he has successfully made his point, though also with the understanding that it has not entirely been affected by Judy.

4. Driving  home

Not long after finally (at least in body) having taken leave of the conference and now driving home from Troy (did I mention Art was the only pub goer who was not drinking) — Art laughs, realizing that performing the Abstract has turned it into Actual, while summarizing the example of Actual has made it Abstract.

17 Responses to “Rock Pub Abstraction”

  1. ben sweeting says on: 5 August 2010 at 10:38 am

    that bar was amazing.
    i see the abstract/actual as more of a continuum along which a thing might sit in various positions. even a completely abstract idea has to be actualised in some way (like your performance) in order to be communicated. and even the most actual thing can have abstract ideas constructed about it. the world to me seems full of hybrids like the ones you describe.. eg this painting/ notation/ architectural form/ terminology is abstract.. these things have prescence themselves..

  2. Art Collings says on: 5 August 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Yes, agreed about the bar, It was great on many levels!

    Per abstraction, I wasn’t necessary thinking that there are any hybrids — in the story I am raising the possibility of seeing them discrete, but having the capacity to swap characteristics discontinuously. Perhaps akin to the earth swapping poles. Maybe also akin to the subject/object swapping discussed by RG.

    So taking your continuum metaphor, I’d run with it but insert a twist, and make it into a mobiuus strip, or much better, a Klein bottle. Abstract is the “inside” of the bottle, Actual the “outside”. Or vise versa ….

    Stepping back from those ideas for a second, based on my discussions at the conference, I see at least three threads.

    1) The first relates to the typical mathematical understanding of abstract and actual. Mathematicians routinely take relatively simply concepts and abstract them. Say for example the clock rotations we discussed the other night. We were talking about the rotations of a circle divided into 4 equal parts. This idea can be generalized into the rotations of a circle divided into n equal parts. When this is done, the corresponding mathematical language tends to lose direct connection with the tangible tangible original objects. But the mathematical language that is created is incredibly rich. And extremely critical, the division between specific instance permits the mathematician to employ a predictive feedback models to test their ideas.

    So, for some examples, Group theory would be the abstraction. Specific instances of groups would be the actual. One of these is a clock with 4 states per our conversation.

    Playing around with this specific instance would permit a mathematician to test out some offer ideas, play around with them, and possibly generate new ideas.

    Or a bit more tangible for most people, any function might be a the abstraction — say
    f(x) = x ^ 3 , and instances would be f(1) = 1, f(10) = 1000 and so on.

    The main point is that a feedback loop based on testing has been created. Which of course is cybernetic by nature.

    Many non mathematicians also communicate in this style, filling their writings with examples, frequently asking for examples when presented with new or complicated ideas.

    2) I had a number of conversations in which I heard that from people who simply don’t relate to the above understudying of abstract — essentially because their disciple uses the term in a different way. Architects in particular seemed to have this issue. They seemed to say, “what’s the big deal, we have no idea why this is interesting. As we use the word, its just a minor and technical thing. How can it be interesting to talk about?”

    3) I also interacted with several people who do not accept the distinction between abstract and actual at all — and were extremely energetic and relentless in dismissing the concept. During the conference, I could not understand this position at all. On reflection, later, the following is my effort to construct a viable version of this position:

    a) assume a radical constructionist position. There is not necessarily an outside reality that is separate from an observer/actor. Then it highly problematic to maintain the concept of actual.

    b) also assume some flavor of a wharfian perspective that language itself creates reality. Then the speaking act itself is progenitive. To the extent that the above Actual/Abstract feedback mechanism is absent, other communication feedback mechanisms assume a more important role. Non-verbal mechanisms. Rhythm, tone, and timbre in speech become dominant, and content recedes. These components are of course present in all speech, but assume critical importance in these worlds. Communication occurs principally through entrainment rather than discourse.

    These mechanisms (I am wildly conjecturing) can be seen in interesting ways in cultures that diverge from the dominant western model, but also in the extreme can be seen in cults.

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 6:56 am

      Point of clarification it was Ruck Pub, one reason I don’t believe much of what anyone says, including myself. We just don’t get the facts (concrete) clear, and then abstract accordingly.

      What to do, what to do, what to do…. (herbert brun in conversation)


    • ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 9:48 am

      as i misheard it originally from a few guys on the street at midnight and then my misnaming of it still communicated accurately to some other guys on the street at midnight we could tentatively conclude that, thankfully, facts have a certain tolerance as far as usefulness goes..
      anyway, it will always be the Rock for me, a much better name.

  3. ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 9:57 am

    i’m happy with the idea of things swapping. taking the clock example for instance – the clock can be both an actual example for group theory as we used it but it also uses an abstract representation (circular movement, numbers) to represent time visually. to me it seems possible to characterise anything we experience as being actual including those things which are abstractions we have created of other things (flag, drawing, clock…). so perhaps it depends how we want to look at them?

  4. Art Collings says on: 7 August 2010 at 10:31 am

    Judy — I suggest we

  5. Art Collings says on: 7 August 2010 at 10:35 am

    … chant/sing/hum the changes from ‘uh’ to ‘ah’ next time we meet at Ruckrock.

    Mis-transription of string-based information (one of) the source(s) of evolution’s creative force.


    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:28 am

      Sometimes creative often destructive.

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:29 am

      What is more important is our misinterpretations are taken as Truth.

  6. Art Collings says on: 7 August 2010 at 10:59 am

    Make that: is (one of) the source(s) of evolution’s creative force.

    Apparently then your thinking doesn’t fall into 3a or 3b above then.

    Since ruck is a rugby term (which explains why there was always Rugby rocking on the TV) that means to fight for the ball, I am wondering perhaps whether think that conversation is some form of ruck/skirmish/scrummuage between facts and words? [OK, probably not ...]

    Or maybe (something of the opposite), that words are directly linked to their objects naturalistically?

    I guess what I think you are saying is that you distrust abstraction because you believe it twists things into what they are not?

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:34 am

      For me, must I always say that? Can’t people assume I am talking about what I think when I talk not what they know.?

      Language is never trivial and always in a language space. Most people want to control the conversation of the language space, which may prevent a new more honest language to arise.

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:35 am

      For me, must I always say that? Can’t people assume I am talking about what I think when I talk not what they know.?

      Language is never trivial and always in a language space. Most people want to control the conversation of the language space, which may prevent a new more honest language to arise.

      Wow I just got a duplicate language message from this site. What’s that about? Does this site know the “power’ of language?

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:36 am

      Oh, I see, know way to delete the second?

    • ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:46 am

      i dont have all the background on this discussion but.. is it helpful to distinguish between the question of whether there ‘is’ such a thing as a distinction between actual and abstract and whether making such distinctions/ creating abstractions is an undesirable idea?

  7. Art Collings says on: 8 August 2010 at 7:22 am

    @Ben: The context of this discussion (as I see it) is that the first group that I was in choose not to be interested in discussing the question(s) regarding the distinction between actual and abstract. Several people in the group, including Judy, were vocal in expressing this disinterest. At the time, I was not able to understand her reasons for voicing this position (nor for that matter the position of the other principal voice expressing a similar level of disinterest). Judy self-selected herself out from this group on the second day, and the next opportunity I had to speak with her was in the Ruck (I like the idea reserving the name Rock for the imagined bar, and Ruck for the factual bar … ). We had an interesting, non-argumentative conversation, which ended in the anecdote I related in the parent post. As I recall, Judy replied in a way that implied that she didn’t think that the actual/abstract distinction was interesting or useful — but I didn’t get a chance to ask her to elaborate.

    @Judy: 1) I would be most appreciative if you would explain your opinion that distinguishing between actual and abstract is not interesting. By all means express this in terms of your own thinking.

    2) With respect to “language space”, that’s an idea outside my frames of reference — if you can direct me to one, great, otherwise I’ll treat it intuitively.

    • Judy Lombardi says on: 14 August 2010 at 2:50 pm

      Hello Art,

      I don’t remember saying there was no distinction between actual and abstract is not interesting. It just I necessarily call it that. Can you help me with the context of this statement?

      Conversations emerge in a language space where one can pay particular attention to the language, more specifically languaging, rather than so much as to who is doing the saying.

      It is through this paying attention that one can provoke and invite a new honest language. Something I desire.

  8. Art Collings says on: 20 August 2010 at 8:00 am


    I think our conversation space here is getting a bit too warped by the technology (the blog, keyboard issues, etc.) to attempt to reconstruct the context of the question. So instead I’d like fall back upon invoking an old Troy principle: there are some things that can only be discussed at the Ruck Pub.


Leave a Reply:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Copyright © 2010 American Society for Cybernetics, All rights reserved.