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3 The Means and Meanings of Reduction

Sculptors tend to use the words ‘reductive’ and ‘subtractive’ interchangeably. When they refer to ‘the reductive method’ they mean any process where significance is increased by taking something away. Reduction is a shared word; it is not unique to sculptors.


Henraux marble quarry, Pietrasanta, Italy


Reduction in general is a mode of exploration and focus. Traditional scientific reduction is a technique of breaking something up into its constituent parts, then studying each part separately so that it is neither completely overwhelming nor subject to adjacent or outside influences. Too often what is beside or before or around something interferes with that thing’s reception. A freedom from such distortion is of inestimable worth.

This idea on which reduction rests is part of a lineage that stretches back at least to Aristotle, perhaps further, a way to divide the world into what Aristotle called ‘essence’ and ‘accident.’  Essence refers to those qualities that make anything what it is, and accident is what can be taken away without changing it into something else.  If it were possible to focus only on essences, then embellishments, undergrowth, and other unrelated attachments would not be a distraction. Many of the things that become distractions have accumulated so slowly that they were never noticed. Reduction is a tool of action in the service of discovery. It provides intensification and clarity, as it moves toward increased precision. It can make the superfluous disappear.  

Reduction cuts into its subject to reveal what is hidden within; it often presages further revelations. Albert Camus believed that thinking itself is reductive. In The Myth of Sisyphus he observed, “To think is first of all to create a world (or to limit one's own world, which comes to the same thing).” Editing occasionally has the power to reveal what is hidden which then creates something that wasn’t exactly there before.  

When something is extracted and placed in another context, the change in surrounding can change in meaning.  Mining or quarrying could be examples of where this kind of reduction is at work. The carving of a quote from a text is another example.

Language itself is reductive.  No language is large enough to squeeze the whole world into it.  Some things do not fit. Not everything gets named, and those that do get named begin to take the places of the un-named.  Small bits of the world disappear. A compromised world like this is invisible because in the end there is no evidence of loss.  Emptiness itself is invisible.  Everyone today adapts to ready-to-wear clothing that fits so well that no one notices that nothing actually fits perfectly.  

Reduction is present whenever there is a functional management of information. Nearly all information about the world is received as packaged abbreviations.  If these packages are delivered via television, radio, or print the information is further reduced into discrete digitised bricks.  We are buffered in an abbreviated world. Even something as ordinary as the structure of human manners is reductive.  As Madame de Stael observed “Politeness is the art of choosing among your thoughts.” Civilization is preserved, and culture established, by carving it out of less helpful possibilities.  


This marble sculpture of oil drums was carved by a robot and then manually finished. Carrara, Italy


It is fashionable today to be against reduction, and the word itself is almost a censure. It is easy to find places where reduction fails to give an accurate answer. People often believe that they understand when they have only been given part of the picture, and whenever this happens it makes further discovery more difficult.  Quantum physicists describe particles too small to be divided that can mysteriously be in more than one place at the same time. They can never be measured in isolation; observation changes whatever is observed to the point that nothing can ever be accurately measured.  Allotropic medicine, like any situation where multiple systems benefit each other, sometimes overlooks important clues. When a part is chosen to represent a whole it may not give the whole story but it can still be a successful form of accounting. William Blake was able to see the universe in a grain of sand, a vision that could be called extreme context. Belief in the expansiveness of the detail can elevate the specialist over the generalist.  There is the risk that narrow expertise might obscure context while revealing detail.  It is important to determine which simplification will lead to wisdom.  As Albert Einstein put it, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Today’s antipathy to reduction is not often based on objections to reduction’s actual limitation; reduction can be (mis) used as a synonym for incomplete, thin or superficial. People apply the word to situations where initial assumptions are so intractable that they ignore any new evidence, such as when the researcher proceeds to find only data that supports what he has already set out to prove.  

It would be very helpful to find an alternate way — an alternate word — to name situations like these, because when the word reduction is used it shrinks a useful three-dimensional word into a less useful two-dimensions. A kind of literalism invades its usage and comes close to reversing reduction’s original meaning. True reduction, in all of its forms, is guided by an urge to preserve, clarify, or refine something, not reduce or diminish it. Reduction’s real role is to trim away anything that is not essential to a real identity. It is an act of essential purification.  Classic abstraction is a good example of reduction.

Just as it would be useful to find a word for situations that are hindered or diminished by oversimplification, it would be useful to have a dedicated word to encompass the nuances and depths of a process of enrichment that can only be arrived at by taking something away.  The word “subtractive” avoids some of the complications of a heavily burdened word like reduction, but it is also less inclusive, less able to include the richness in the process. It lacks the associations with concepts of investigation, exploration, purification or refinement. There are many situations where a more limited word is the right one to use, but this is not always the case. A debate rages about which term to use in reference to both carving and the larger issues that carving encompasses.  At this point in discussions of carving the words are used almost inter-changeably. To continue to do so might be the best protection against inadvertently throwing out an essence as an accident. To avoid discarding essence as accident may be the sculptor’s most difficult challenge. 

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