CineLab • Conference

Sami Khatib

Aesthetics of Real Abstraction

In the chapter on commodity fetishism, Marx introduces the aesthetic status of the commodity specifying its dual character. What Marx calls commodity fetishism is not an epistemic illusion of the subject of cognition but the result of the split nature of capitalist reality itself. Commodities as “sensuous supra-sensuous things” (Capital I) are a form of appearance of abstract, yet really existing value-relations, which structure social relations in capitalism. It is not that ideologically produced illusions veil material relations but rather that things produced by capitalist society – commodities in their very sensuous graphicness – “veil” social relations. That is why Marx’s definition of the commodity as a “sensuous supra-sensuous thing” has to be taken literally. In this talk, Sami Khatib will bring this aesthetics of the sensuous supra-sensuous into conversation with Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s term “real abstraction,” according to which commodity abstraction is not an intellectual operation but a real movement; it fuses the realms of the sensuous and the supra-sensuous. “Wherever commodity exchange takes place, it does so in effective ‘abstraction’ from use. This is an abstraction not in mind but in fact.” (Sohn-Rethel, 1970, 1978). But what is the meaning of “mind” and “fact” in this context and how does this substitution amount to an “aesthetics of real abstraction”?

Sami Khatib (HfG Karlsruhe/American University of Beirut)

Background readings:

Sami Khatib: “Marx, Real Abstraction and the Question of Form”, in: Critique: The Stakes of Form, eds. Sami R. Khatib, Holger Kuhn, Oona Lochner, Isabel Mehl, Beate Söntgen, Zürich, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2020, 69-92.

Sami Khatib: “‘Sensuous Supra-Sensuous’. The Aesthetics of Real Abstraction”, in: Aesthetic Marx, eds. Samir Gandesha & Johan F. Hartle, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, 49-72.


Sami Khatib is an interim professor at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG) and a founding member of the Beirut Institute for Critical Analysis and Research (BICAR). His publications include a co-editorship of the volume Critique: The Stakes of Form (Zürich, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2020) and authorship of the book Teleologie ohne Endzweck: Walter Benjamins Ent-stellung des Messianischen [Teleology without End. Walter Benjamin’s Dislocation of the Messianic] (Marburg: Tectum, 2013). His ongoing research project on the “Aesthetics of Real Abstraction” examines the aesthetic scope and political relevance of Marx’s discovery of the commodity form.