Abstract Society

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The Abstract Society: A Cultural Analysis of Our Time is an obscure sociological treatise from 1970, by Anton C. Zijderveld.

The problem, as it is formulated, is that society is abstract. Society is abstracted by the pluralist segmentation of its institutional structure and the division of the sciences, among other factors. This abstraction poses a problem of increasingly complexity.


“In every modern industrial state more and more individuals find themselves confronting and revolting against an abstract entity — ‘the system’ or ‘the establishment’ which seems to rule their lives.” — The Abstract Society

The book is a level-headed critique which clearly relates the processes of modernization and alienation to abstraction. Many other terms enfold into modernization, adding different dimensions to the process of abstraction: segmentation, bureaucratization, institutionalization, rationalization, autonomization, commercialization, etc. All of these reflect the ways in which society becomes increasingly abstract and systematized

It is arguably in the sense of globalization that abstraction is the most salient, vis-a-vis Marx’s commodity abstraction — “… the veneration of abstract realities… particularly possessed by the abstraction par excellence: money”


self replicating abstractions accelerate this. [1]


Pluralism is of course essential in the generic sense — and he confirms this — but is “no longer the coherent, meaningful universe it had been before.” Pluralistic society has an “atrophied experience of meaning and reality.” It creates an illusion of freedom, characterized as Marcuse’s ‘one dimensional man’ on a consumption spree. There are growing gaps and voids between humanity and institutions, and between rationality and irrationality.


Zijderveld relates abstraction with increases with distance and size as well. As industrialization and bureaucratization grow, society becomes more abstract. The world is dominated by technocratic abstraction, and modern consciousness is polarized into intellectualization (smartening up) and primitivization (dumbing down), hence the broad notion of ‘the abstract society.’ The general theme of the book is that abstraction is a variegated process with negative social implications, so we must consider abstraction way beyond just the cognitive concept.

“Two aspects are typical of modern consciousness, according to Gehlen: on the one hand, an increasing intellectualization; on the other, a growing primitivization. By intellectualization Gehlen means the tendency to think and speak in terms of highly abstract models and formalistic categories, to experiment and to emphasize calculable effects. Parallel to this runs modern man;s tendency to express himself in slogans. He has a need for simplicity and plasticity, and a concurrent aversion to subtle conceptual distinctions and nuances. He sacrifices intellectual honest for popularity and emotional satisfaction. Gehlen calls this primitivization. It is represented by the mass media which continuously bombard us with their slogans and nervous shocks promising us the newest, the latest, the best, and the deepest.” — The Abstract Society Zidjerveld attempts to clarify by problematizing micro- and macro- abstraction separately. Beginning with the individual dimension, the author’s concept of abstraction revolves around the dangers of false consciousness and reification, which are central to the sociology of knowledge.  [2]


Sociology thus is founded upon an abstraction from concrete reality, performed under the guidance of the concept of society.” — The Sociology of Georg Simmel [3]


The system conceives the entire universe as a constellation of abstractions[4]which in the autonomous ego seem as real as reality. Community comes to be understood abstractly, other countries and cultures are understood mythically, nature is perceived through a sentimental prism, history is reduced to cliché or to quiz-friendly fact-fragments, the objects (and increasingly the ideas, feelings and experiences) which men and women produce appear in their lives as mysterious artefacts dropped from a spaceship (‘reification’), and society rises up before them not as a lived experience formed by their own actions, but as a monolithic thing which happens to them (‘alienation’). Life entire, which means our own lives, is naught but a schizoid phantasm. When the reality of it is encountered directly, actually, the result is inevitably profound shock and horror.

abstraction giving birth to alienation.

in other words its abstraction that creates new divergent memes

with an increasing population, more people abstract.[5] and the proliferation of information technology means there is more to abstract.

with virtual and cyber realms, abstraction becomes more intensified. [6]


this is an abstraction of abstraction.