Speculation occupies the imagination, even the imagination of occupation. Starting in an autumn of discontent, the Occupy movement lives on—and not only in spectral form: tent cities, reminiscent of early settlements, protestors unsettling business as usual, volatile gatherings, occasional fires, live-streaming media events. There is no telling where a new emergence—the unpredictable event, cousin of the emergency—will mushroom. There is no telling how broad actions against social and economic inequality might mutate elsewhere. There is no telling when or where insurgencies against political repression might flare up, fade to embers, or be extinguished. It is not always clear what the program is or might yet be. There is no center, no core organizers, no predictable locations, and no overarching agenda. In London they organized against austerity. In Nicosia they occupied the UN buffer zone to protest the division of the city. In Seoul they objected to free-trade agreements with the United States. In Santiago they took up educational reform. In Rome they repurposed the Cinema Palazzo, and in Mexico they occupied Cine Lindavista. There has been no singular vision linking these various actions and movements; nonetheless, a global imaginary of occupiable common space has emerged. Assemblies, encampments, and anonymous collectivities continue to erupt everywhere, unexpectedly—online as well as on the ground. They are mobilized by the pathologies of the present: austerity for the masses and tax cuts for the rich, tuition hikes and dwindling school budgets, rapacious banks, foreclosed homes, communities displaced in the name of development, hawkish intellectual property laws, corporate determinations of government, states turned against their citizens, and of course predatory forms of speculation. And yet what really brings them together, beyond the endemic restlessness, discontent, and distrust, is an inchoate sense of potentiality, an opening to the future, in other words, speculation of a different kind.
Speculation is our zeitgeist. We live in a world shaped by practices of speculation, from probabilistic sciences (risk analysis, predictive genomics) and anticipatory techniques (financial arbitrage, technological forecasting) to forward-looking institutions (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Health Organization). More and more, it seems, the future is imported into the present, bundled up, sold off, instrumentalized. Some eagerly buy into these futures markets, placing their bets; others imagine things differently. All in all, nothing more than speculation and nothing less.
Etymologically speaking, speculation comes from a series of Latin verbs, which all stem from a Greek root, in turn deriving from Sanskrit (spàs meaning to spy, see, or observe). In this lineage the word suggests an act of mastery over the object observed—after all, speculation and spectacle have the same origin. In its modern European linguistic variations, speculation derives from the late Latin noun speculatio (observation, contemplation), itself deriving from the classical Latin verbs and nouns specere (look), speculari (observe, examine, explore), and speculum (looking glass, mirror). The Sanskrit root verb spàs is the fountainhead of a range of words that variously mean to observe and ascertain something not readily evident, to perceive clearly, to obstruct, to undertake, to string together, and, importantly, to touch, feel, or affect (spàrsa). The etymological links between sight and touch, clarity and obfuscation, turn us toward not only speculation as thought but also speculation as a pressing toward an apprehension of the unknown.
This complex etymology frames our capitalist present of speculation. Even through millennial as well as planetary vicissitudes, the etymological concatenation or signifying chain remains remarkably consistent: what all roots share in common and what binds them across time and space is a privileged relation to vision, sight, and seeing. Notably, it is also in the early seventeenth century that species, derived from the Latin speciẽs (linking to specêre) for outward appearance and form, comes to signify coin, money, or bullion. For the moment, this is what concerns us: the etymon linking speculation to vision and hence to representation gives rise to a modern ambivalence, namely, a structural oscillation and internal chasm between thought and money.
Speculation has two distinct semantic-conceptual registers: cognitive and economic. To speculate may mean to contemplate, to ponder, and hence to form conjectures, to make estimations and projections, to look into the future so as to hypothesize. And it may also mean to buy and sell so as to profit from the future rise and fall of market value, to invest in the hope of profit but with the risk of loss, and hence, more generally, to engage in business transactions of a risky nature that may yield unusually high returns in the future. The bridge that spans across the two registers of modern speculation and that binds them indissolubly to one another consists of a certain conception of the future: both intellectual or financial investments project into and stake claims on the future. Whether the lasso thrown across time is thought or money, speculation always constitutes an attempt to draw the future fully into the present. Both registers index an attempt to represent and calculate a future that is unpredictable, unrepresentable, incalculable by definition; both registers index an attempt to fix and capture a potential future in and as the actual present. Such, then, is speculation: a modern technology for the absolute actualization of potentiality without remainder, a modern apparatus for erasing the future by realizing it as eternal present.
But just how modern is this technology for seeing, representing, and possessing the future that we are calling speculation? As Sigmund Freud points out in The Interpretation of Dreams, the “belief that dreams foretell the future” is ancient. More generally, the art of divination by whatever means is indeed an ancient art. Our provisional answer is that, unlike ancient divination, modern speculation knows no bounds and is limitless: it operates as if there were no limits to the annexation and incorporation of the future into the present, as if everything in the future were representable, knowable, and calculable in principle, as if nothing of the future could possibly escape valorization through either thought or money. To foretell or foresee the future, after all, is not to exchange the future for the present or to believe that the future is now. To divine is to dream the future—namely, to live the present in the tense of the future anterior, to let the present be formed by the futures of the past, to allow the present to be affected by what could have been yet never was and might one day still be; whereas to speculate is to project the future—namely, to live both the future and the past in the present tense, to extend the present forward into the future and backward into the past by making estimates based on current trends and averages.
This is not a history but an interested interrogation, at this historical juncture, of how speculation as a form of knowledge has been hijacked in its economic materialization. If we focus on the financial and commercial articulations of speculation, the story is complex. The earliest forms of speculating future harm, that is, insurance as social custom, are to be found among Babylonian merchants who, following the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC), tailored their borrowing practices to protect against possible financial loss while trading in the Mediterranean. Later, Chinese traders of the second and third centuries BC distributed valuable goods among different vessels while traveling the river rapids in order to manage possible loss. Some scholars of early modern western Europe track speculative practices to insurance contracts (commenda, in Latin) for maritime risk-pooling in fourteenth-century Genoa, Pisa, Venice, Marseilles, and Barcelona; and later, to the institutionalization of risk underwriting in seventeenth-century London (the opening of the Fire Office and Lloyd’s Coffee House). Others, locating references to risk in the Qur’an (the Arabic rizk appears in 120 verses), speak to the informal contracts (qirad, in Arabic), as early as the seventh and eighth centuries, of Arab traders invested in protecting their goods traded over the desert and, later, the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. But most scholars agree that speculation becomes global—that is, consolidated as a standardized practice with its specialized instruments across a projected totality of human activity—with the rise of modern global capitalism in the seventeenth century. The two semantic registers of speculation—the one cognitive (to ponder the future) and the other economic (to buy and sell so as to profit from market value and hence to invest in future profit)—become indisputably interlinked by the close of the eighteenth century. The first recorded instance of the former in English comes from the late sixteenth century, while the first recorded instance of the latter appears in the late eighteenth century. This means that the economic-semantic register of speculation emerges specifically at a moment that many scholars have identified as a period of intensification and an exponential leap in the development of finance capital. If finance was the first modern practice squarely oriented toward an uncertain future as simultaneous threat and opportunity, speculation was the concept that tied together thought and money, intellect and capital. It bound together imaginations of the future and financial investments in the future; in fact, the future, indeed the common human future of the Enlightenment, sutured the two registers of speculation.
The earliest financial bubbles arrive on the scene during this period: the tulip mania of 1637 and later the South Sea Bubble of 1720. We ought to remember that the South Sea Company was a British joint-stock company, born of mercantile capitalism that traded in South America; as the bubble burst, the first global financial crash occurred. The calculative rationality of risk emerged to manage global connections between historically disparate systems, bringing them within the same enclosure; as a result, financial risks were spread across the world as early as the seventeenth century. This was also the century that inaugurated the global project of slavery, speculation now transforming human potentials into financial assets, setting the stage for biocapitalist accumulation on plantations and in colonial settlements. During this age of empire, we witness the extent to which racial and colonial logics of subjugation and exploitation play a foundational role in the intertwined histories of financial and land speculation—histories that help establish the unequal relations between debtor and creditor, the “racial logic of global financial capitalism.” Soon after, the first philosophical reflections on speculation as economic-financial knowledge began to emerge. One of the earliest formulations appeared in Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Nature of the Wealth of Nations (1776), in which both registers of speculation were invoked and intimately connected throughout: philosophical speculation, Smith explains, bridges the epistemic distance between dissimilar and distant objects, abstracting them into general equivalence, much in the same manner as those “very pretty machines” (referring to the steam engine) abridge labor, bringing all modes of work into equivalence. Whatever it is that makes it possible for philosophical speculation to combine together such dissimilar and distant objects, what we are confronting here constitutes a dialectic of identity and difference that is not unlike the one Karl Marx found in the relation between exchange value and use value. Our point is not merely that philosophical speculation is revealed here to constitute instrumental reason: that is, the philosopher aggregates otherwise different objects into a general and abstract power, just like technology aggregates otherwise different workers into a general and abstract labor power. Our point is also that in both cases the same logic is implicitly at work, such that the general and the abstract are posited as the condition of possibility for constructing an exponentially powerful aggregate. This is precisely the logic that underlies economic-financial speculation.
More generally, we note that the late eighteenth century marks at once a split and an integration in the semantic-conceptual field of speculation: as soon as the bifurcation occurs and the economic-financial register emerges from the mental-intellectual one, the new register alters the older irrevocably by turning it into its own specular image, thereby homogenizing the entire semantic-conceptual field; put differently, no sooner does this field branch off into two seemingly divergent paths, than both those paths converge at that same crossroads where thought and money turn into specular images of one another. Thus the present preoccupation with how to think or know the future: an anxious speculating about speculation.
This specifically modern form is what we call firmative speculation, a firming (from the late Latin firmã) or solidifying of the possibilities of the future. It is a speculative mode that seeks to pin down, delimit, constrain, and enclose—to make things definitive, firm. The ur-image of such agency is the firm, a type of business house (emerging in Germany in 1744) that capitalizes on market conditions, working toward an optimal level of production that will ensure maximum profit and minimum cost while always on the lookout for fresh opportunities for expansion—aggressively pushing its products through advertising, shaping new needs, and consuming publics. Firms draw on expertise in speculative science materialized in risk instruments such as insurance, annuities, and stock options. These instruments render firm the uncertain future, enclosing us within a relatively secure horizon—a firmament, as it were, seemingly fixed over the earth. The experts tell us of stable forecasts and well-established pathways. We note that such predictable futures of token acknowledgments, perfunctory adjustments, and administrative reforms will simply metastasize the present, keeping things more or less as they are.
On the other hand, there is expectation, conjecture, and anticipation: modes of living that recognize the dormant energies of the quotidian and eventualities that escape the imagination. We call these modes affirmative speculation. To speculate affirmatively is to produce futures while refusing the foreclosure of potentialities, to hold on to the spectrum of possibilities while remaining open to multiple futures whose context of actualization can never be fully anticipated. This is not to say speculative living is simply ephemeral; rather, it is a consistently modifying practice that seeks to act in shifting, multiscalar worlds. It mandates intuition, creativity, and play. In this sense affirmative speculation affords modes of living that creatively engage uncertainty. Its stakes are resolutely collective: often sabotaging individuated and privatized prescriptions, it builds on the tentative mutualities that arise in the face of uncertainties. In short, affirmative speculation embraces ways of living in common.
The concept of affirmative speculation directly engages what risk brackets: uncertainty. In the history of classical probability calculations and the emergence of risk discourses, uncertainty has been perennially figured as the site of pathology, that which must be enumerated, managed, and contained. Might a focus on uncertainty, whose potentials we multiply rather than harness, provide an antidote to the narrow instrumentality of risk? The question has compelled us to revisit the risk-uncertainty analytic, if only to pry loose the fossilized relations between the two complementary concepts. It was economist Frank Knight who countered modernity’s emerging risk calculus to insist on the irreducibility of a radical uncertainty. Today, uncertainty has made a spectacular return in the reflexive analysis of financial crashes, environmental crises, biological insecurity, and terror. When crises escalate, true uncertainty cuts loose from its capture by risk discourse and can be seen as productive rather than contained or containable. New risks are anticipated—and with them new data, new enactments, and new algorithms—but laced with the humbling recognition of radically unknowable states beyond statistical forecasts. And so this incitement to affirmative speculation: to acknowledge the power of conjecture without attempting to capture and produce one collective future.
But this is not simply a matter of good and bad speculation. It is instead more about functions and modalities. Speculation, we shall argue, is essentially always about potentiality: a reach toward those futures that are already latent in the present, those possibilities that already exist embedded in the here and now, about human and nonhuman power, which is, in effect, the ability to become different from what is present. One mode of speculation—the firmative—renders latent possibilities as calculable outcomes: the regenerative qualities of a plant become measurable as medicinal capacity; the worker’s embodied energy is formalized as specialized skills; creativity is reduced to intellectual property. Such translations into quantifiable capacity seek to harness and exploit potentiality, foreclosing other possibilities. We are most familiar with these forms of speculation, a predatory speculation that negates potentiality through a variety of mechanisms, turning open-ended futures into more of the same; it firms the status quo in the name of change. Yet the regenerative qualities of a plant persist as the medicinal commons, especially in indigenous life worlds, the worker’s productivity is hardly limited to what he produces on the assembly line, and no intellectual property regime has successfully controlled creative media practices in vertiginous circulation. This other mode of speculation—the affirmative—embraces uncertainty and, in so doing, remains responsive to difference, to unanticipated contingencies. Responsive to change, it takes responsibility for the future. Affirmative speculation, while sharing the same epistemological structure of the firmative, seeks to productively unsettle the worn pathways of managed anticipation by opening up to unknown states whose context of actualization has not yet arrived. Potentia qua potentia: a latent force that may become expressive in the future, that may achieve actualization under conditions to come.
To affirm is to live intended toward the future: to live simultaneously in the virtual (a future unsettled from the present, somewhat unrecognizable in its newness) and the partially actualized, rapidly mutating present (contingent actions that point elsewhere). Both constitute the present, our “reality.” Affirmative speculation, in this sense, is a “setting to work” of what is to come. As we shall see shortly, affirmative speculation unsettles in order to conjecture creatively. It dares to temporarily materialize forms not yet realized, forms for which the conditions are not yet ripe: a tool that could help a transborder immigrant find water while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border, remains primarily a prototype; a cat glows in the dark when a jellyfish protein is sequenced into its genes, a process that might potentially transform AIDS research; and the realities of climate change, accelerated by the practices of firmative speculation that cling tightly to an unsustainable petroculture, may ultimately galvanize a greener, more responsive global politics. We are not, however, suggesting the wild west of potentiation. To be responsible to a future is to coordinate, recombine, and reset the circuitry of material and immaterial flows. Things are in motion; there are actual practices in nascent forms; the imagination is occupied, proposing an unfolding we cannot cognitively capture in its entirety. Affirmative speculation dares to live a future. It makes nonsense of the obsessive call to define agendas, programs, outcomes, or impacts.
Affirmative speculation unsettles the smooth, abstract, well-managed worlds of firmative speculation: the regulated, secured financial risks within the global banking system, the international agreements on TSA screenings, the global health advisories on the brink of each flu pandemic. These are important mechanisms for ensuring collective futures, and the task here is not to call for their removal. We are focused on what they render invisible: those unequal relations that constitute the “global,” those elsewheres that are deemed unruly when riots, fires, and clashes break out. There is condemnation, gloom, and doom. Sympathizers argue that well-mannered civil protests, the right of the global sovereign subject of law, are the safest speculative acts for a common future. But the varied, irrepressible articulations, under different contexts of actualization, lend affirmative speculation a situated granularity. To affirm is paradoxically to refuse a single “globality,” a totalizing image of the world we live together, and to speculate instead on multiple globalities that arise from manifold lived realities.
The World Economic Forum has developed a capacious Risk Response Network that tabulates and assesses fifty global risks, ranging from biohazards to terrorist threats to systemic financial failure. Risk management would serve as a predictive rationality that translates all types of possible harm into equivalent instances. Thus across risk domains, we are witnessing a breed of speculative ventures based on an agglomerative logic of probability: what occurs in one instance will unfold in the same way everywhere. States and supranational institutions now seek modular strategies and solutions transposable across risk domains—whether financial markets, public health, or border security. We are confronting new modes of governance underwritten by a militarized strategy that pushes one model of preparedness and a neoliberal market rationality.
And yet, when we focus on specific instances of risk, they escape a common panacea. Consider the following: After the market crash of 2008, it was widely believed that financial futures worldwide were in jeopardy. We had arrived at a historical crossroads, as global crises were propelling us from fictions of security into uncertainty. If both the past and the future were up for grabs again, they lent a specific historicity to the present. The present was not unforeseen, the pundits reminded us, but the now-historic, nonexpert 99 percent chose not to know it. At least in the United States, the middle class was busy living a “national delusion.” So the problem was displaced readily onto a discrete, easily identifiable enemy such as Wall Street. The truth of the matter was that institutions and citizens together made global financial systems tick, a situation underwritten by a collective blindness to the moral hazards of risky behaviors. The risk calculus of hypothetical states enabled complex financial practices; abstruse formulas, equations, and algorithms have come home to roost in foreclosed homes, lost jobs, and bankrupt retirement securities.
Another instance: On April 30, 2009, the swine flu reminded us once more of the connectedness of the world. Here uncertainty—surrounding new mutable pathogens, traffic across borders, and irrational human behaviors—reared its ugly head with dire consequences. Within a month the United Nations issued a formal statement about the vast geographical spread of the disease. As national health boards and governments panicked, stockpiling vaccines, quarantining travelers, and amplifying health advisories, it became clear that this was not a universal problem. In sharp contrast to the willful myopia of financial risk perception, the production of risk in public health crises produces another kind of blindness: actors hallucinate imaginary vectors of contamination between human and virus where there are none, and national emergency systems stockpile the antidote for a flu that does not arrive in epidemic proportion (as, for example, in the European controversy over the swine flu vaccine). Such hyperbolic “seeing” is a fundamental misrecognition of the experiential present completely overwritten by future emergencies and driven by fears of imminent harm. More importantly, these recurrent public health crises facilitate easeful swings between molecular and planetary scales, so that all humans are implicitly at risk in a shared present that no one can escape. And yet in these crises the link between risk perception and risk distribution surfaces to trouble managerial ventures. On the one hand, there is a world of divided resources, a striated globality of precarious zones. On the other hand, since no security system can possibly immunize both the haves and the have-nots, the precarity over there produces risk over here. And so uncertainty replaces risk in the public imagination. Since those with every resource at hand could not localize the H1N1 infections in 2009, it was clear that risk management could never really keep up with a dynamic global circulatory system in which microbial “threats” were endemic.
A third instance: On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami triggered by the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, causing multiple technological failures. We know its repercussions are still emerging, physically (one hundred thousand tons of contaminated water, somatic injuries, loss of homes and livelihoods), technologically (a reevaluation of nuclear safety), and politically (the furor over biohazard disclosures and sea-level rise). Not only is the time scale of such an event indeterminate, but also what Fukushima illuminates about the limits of firmative speculation will be debated for years to come. That accidents are “normal” for large complex technological systems is a critical commonplace, but the extent of the damage and the ever-growing list of failures at Fukushima Daiichi give new pause to the hubris of risk calculations that drives firmative speculation. Among the many failures of prediction, which would include rising sea levels, seismic climatic shifts, antiquarian power plants, and inadequate safeguards, was the risk calculation of the tsunami heights: the probabilistic thinking that could readily dismiss a supposedly tiny variance (the possibility of a forty-one-meters-high tsunami affecting 650 kilometers of the Pacific coast) as too small to shake up the overall pattern of expected values from more likely “normal” times. The confidence interval for Fukushima’s safety was almost 100 percent or effectively zero risk on the books. Now the accident activates the distinctive future-perfect temporality of the catastrophic imagination: thinking of what we will have done by the time the next catastrophe hits, a living in the future perfect becomes common in the age of precautions and preparedness. We are back to calculations of statistical probability armed with new, and still emerging, data. Japan’s 670-page report to the International Atomic Energy Agency frames Fukushima as a global event, conveying the sense of a collective, even universal, crisis. The spectacular, globally telecast event, alongside the escalating reports, analyses, polemics, and critiques in cyberspace, enhanced risk perceptions at scales well beyond danger levels for the thirty-one countries with 436 nuclear plants. Everyone is at risk, and the next catastrophe is just around the corner. With that realization comes reflection on the information overdrive that characterizes the media event. When one compares the Fukusima media event with Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, we instantly recognize the critical significance of the risk media to firming speculation. As a multiscalar disaster, Fukushima highlights the contradictory forces at work in risk communication: noise or information overload (the difficulty of parsing expert diagnoses), silence or information scarcity (inadequate biohazard warnings), and missed signals (the lack of coordination among local, national, and supranational institutions).
These events set the stage for our discussion, and we return to them periodically. They plunge us into risk, now found everywhere. This is the obscenity of the present. Most people living in societies organized around risk respond to risk every day, be it in the habitual popping of pills or in the following of travel advisories; indeed the escalation of risk discourse within a life world characterizes it as a “risk society.” Even as risk discourses fuel anxiety, paranoia, and global panic, there are heroic attempts—often armed with probabilistic sciences and mathematical tools—to manage and tame the threat of uncertainty. In this manner, uncertainty reemerges as risk. These social and analytic technologies become generative places for knowledge production: knowledge about economies, bodies, and globalities as effects of unknown and unknowable futures. Economic, medical, and political regimes are increasingly organized around statistical calculations of possible futures, a probabilistic accounting of the present in terms of an always-deferred assessment of whatever might come. The probabilistic itself becomes a new form of certainty, a way of knowing the world as the trace of mass statistical phenomena, which now feel more determinative than the lived everyday. Statistical risk discourses have become so intrinsic to our lives that they affect how we live, how we relate to other people, our intimacies, our biologies. And this brings a kind of comfort. A drug providing a 70 percent chance of good health is imagined to be a good bet; a 60 percent chance of having a certain kind of oncogene produces a mistrust of one’s own body; young men of color in Western societies are more likely to be incarcerated because they are more given to crime. These forms of statistical knowing, and their shadow uncertainties, guide the organization and management of everyday life: what to eat, when to sleep, how to move one’s body. Risk discourses ironically provide a kind of organizing reassurance, a sense of relief in the face of burgeoning uncertainty. But the costs of that relief accrue elsewhere. For if risk materializes a managerial present to secure “our” future, it does so by systematically parceling or outsourcing actual risks to those less enfranchised. Risk perception, risk assessment, and risk management produce a globality that obscures those who die in drug trials or drone attacks so that the privileged may enjoy the comforts of surplus life.
Speculate This! emerges from a deep dissatisfaction with the paradigmatic articulation of risk as an analytic category: risk capitulates to demands of the state and the corporation and accepted forms of governmentality, foreclosing certain political possibilities at the very moment of their emergence. There is a growing acknowledgment across disciplines that knowledge is necessarily imperfect and even incomplete. Drawing on the long-term theorization of indeterminacy in the economic, physical, and life sciences, we posit uncertainty as a generative paradigm. We proceed from the recognition that the consequences of risk are now irrevocably global: “security,” for instance, has become the ubiquitous mode of managing recalcitrant forms of imagination and behavior, banishing them to the margins. Theorizing a radical uncertainty demands that the margin must be brought back into focus. In this moment of imploding fiscal projections, risk management has become an impossible project, and risk itself is a sign of failure.
Even the best political intentions that call for a global civil society, with its high-minded institutions, treaties, and supranational networks, and a proliferating rights discourse (to food, to employment, to education), bulldoze differences and discontinuities. Forcing equivalence across local situations only sharpens global divisions and disjunctures. As data analysis pools human behaviors, it segregates populations into high-risk and low-risk groups; as transnational capital markets develop and credit systems globalize, farmers are driven to suicide; as toxic waste proliferates, it is dumped in someone else’s backyard. The top-down modalities not only exacerbate disjuncture, but they also block from view the pragmatic resourcefulness of world-making practices from various “elsewheres.” From such liminal sites, affirmative speculation involves nothing short of participating in global processes, of inserting oneself into history—effectively transforming the global. What ensues is a proliferation of speculative globalities, not only the experimental vanguardism of critical resistance but also the more compromised—if also more grounded and robust—popular acts of world making.
The point is worth elaborating. To stop at a critique of firmative speculation would be to remain in thrall with managerial processes, however skeptical one might be of them. We aim to unsettle familiar analytical habits shot through with melancholic negativity and instead attend to vernacular practices of speculation. At the risk of overextending ourselves, we search for a common critical apparatus that allows us to engage speculation across disparate risk domains—the financial, the technological, and the biological—without pulverizing their granular textures. This means affirmative speculation is not only a specific way of knowing the world as commons, but also a specific praxis of the common.
Speculate This!—a collectively authored manifesto—is written in solidarity with diverse experiments in speculative living that take place among pirates, artists, protesters, hacktivists, environmentalists, sexual outlaws, and utopians of all species. We write, then, in solidarity with all manner of communitarian practices and maker communities that prioritize being—and building—in common: do it yourself (DIY), free/libre/open source software (FLOSS), eco-communes, biohackers, community credit networks, locavores, ragpickers, gleaners, and sustainable urbanists, to name just a few. We look to them for ways of investing in the production of “alternative nows” and possible futures.
This compels us to step out of our customary intellectual habitus, even as we continue to function within an increasingly corporatized academe that demands that we churn out quantifiable outcomes for merit and promotion. But this is not a search for true resistance, whatever that might entail; we do not write outside the system but instead playfully inhabit the forms, vocabularies, and media ecologies of public discourse.
This manifesto was six years in the making, emerging from many conversations, debates, and disagreements—a noisy crowd that became an uncertain commons. We have not always agreed about the shape of the worlds in which we dwell, but that has not prevented us from speculating together. Our writing is a speculative practice, an open form of the common. There is a rich intellectual history of writing in common: for example, Nicholas Bourbaki, the pseudonym for a group of twentieth-century mathematicians who elaborated set theory; Luther Blissett, a nom de plume used by hundreds of artists, activists, and pranksters in the 1990s; the novelists writing under the name Wu Ming (“anonymous” in Mandarin); Tiqqun, a political collective that “practices anonymity like some others practice terrorism”; or, relatedly, the Comité Invisible, whose The Coming Insurrection (2007) has notably fueled the apocalyptic imagination of conservative political commentators. We might also recall Marx’s antipathy to the bourgeois fetish of the individual and his attraction to anonymity as a form of radical political collective expression. (After all, the first edition of the Communist Manifesto was published anonymously—and not only for reasons of censorship.) In the early 1850s, responding to a new French law that decreed that all newspaper articles ought to bear their author’s signature, Marx writes, “So long as the press was anonymous it appeared as the organ of a public opinion without number or name; it was the third power of the state. With the signature of each article a newspaper became merely a collection of journalistic contributions by more or less well-known individuals. Every article sank to the level of an advertisement.”
Still, we do not intend to romanticize this form of communal authorship, which is a fairly ordinary twenty-first-century writing practice, exemplified by the corporate report, the memo, the wiki, and the scientific article. Even in their heterogeneous composition, these genres necessarily crystallize around a unifying theme, argument, thesis, or vision. Such univocality binds together the “team,” the exemplary postindustrial organizational form with a corporatized stamp on collaborative labor. While these managerial forms rely on consensus—a way of firming things up—there are other collaborative modes that instead embrace dissensus. And dissensus can make for viable politics. Think of new transnational social movements: deep ecologists rub shoulders with trade unionists at the World Social Forum. Or think of the hacker group Anonymous: a multiheaded hydra that articulates itself as a collective (“we are legion”) even though it comprises a diverse field of actors with at times radically divergent motivations (pranks versus politics).
Anonymity, in our view, is the sign of thinking and acting in common. To write anonymously as a common is to live the loss of what counts as individuated work—whether in an established corporation or in an experimental collaboratory. But if firmative speculation looks forward to owning the product of anonymous labor, affirmative speculation looks forward to giving it up, releasing it to fate. We are an uncertain commons. We do not claim authorship. We do not seek controls over this work, this emergence. And likewise, without a solidifying political vision or collective aesthetic agenda, we have not endeavored to erase traces of disagreement that still appear throughout this work. Indeed, they inspire us to speculate further.
- We are inspired by the extensive critical conversations on the movements and processes of occupation. For some examples, see Occupy Wall Street (http://occupywallst.org); and/or Evacuate (http://occupyeverything.org); Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy (http://www.occupytheory.org); Journal for Occupied Studies (http://occupiedstudies.org); Occupy the Buffer Zone (https://occupythebufferzone.wordpress.com); Keith Gessen, Occupy! (London: Verso, 2011); Geert Lovnik and Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Franco Berardi & Geert Lovnik: A Call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software,” net critique by Geert Lovnik (blog), Institute of Network Cultures, October 12, 2011, http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software; Mike Davis, “Spring Confronts Winter,” New Left Review 72 (November–December 2011), http://newleftreview.org/II/72/mike-davis-spring-confronts-winter; Noam Chomsky, Occupy (New York: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012); Alessio Lunghi and Seth Wheeler, eds., Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (New York: Autonomedia, 2012); Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio, eds., What We Are Fighting For: A Radical Collective Manifesto (London: Pluto Press, 2012); Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean, “A Movement without Demands?” Possible Futures (January 3, 2012), http://www.possible-futures.org/2012/01/03/a-movement-without-demands; Michel Bauwens, “‘Occupy’ as a Business Model: The Emerging Open-Source Civilization,” Al Jazeera (March 9, 2012), http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/2012361233474499.html; Jodi Dean, “Occupation as Political Form,” and/or Evacuate (April 12, 2012), http://occupyeverything.org/2012/occupation-as-political-form; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Declaration (New York: Melanie Jackson, LLC, 2012); Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Why I Occupy,” Public Culture 24, no. 3 (fall 2012): 451–56; and Stathis Gourgouris, “Assembly Movements and the Deregulation of the Political,” PMLA 127 (October 2012): 1001–5. ↵
- We cannot hope to be fully comprehensive with our citations in this text, but we would like to highlight those who have particularly informed our thinking on speculation: Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (New York: Verso, 2007); Eugene Thacker, The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Michael Fortun, Promising Genomics: Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008). ↵
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. Joyce Crick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). ↵
- The enormous literature on maritime risk presents the case for insurance contracts emerging in fourteenth-century Europe, while emerging scholarship tracing Mediterranean practices of risk locates the concept in the early settlements of the Arab world. For instance, see Gaspar Marial’s forthcoming “The Mediterranean Origin of Risk” (cited with permission of author). See also Charles F. Trenerry, The Origin and Early History of Insurance (London: P. S. King and Son, 1926), especially on the contract of bottomry, i.e., bottoms of ships. ↵
- Anthony Giddens, Consequences of Modernity (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). ↵
- The early practice of insuring slaves developed rapidly among Dutch traders, recognized in the customary laws of Antwerp. This form of insurance became codified as Dutch slave trade expanded, connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. See J. P. Van Niekerk, The Development of the Principles of Insurance Law in the Netherlands from 1500 to 1800, vol. 1 (Kenwyn, South Africa: Juta, 1998), 439–40. ↵
- Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva, eds., “Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime,” special issue, American Quarterly 64, no. 3 (September 2012). ↵
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). ↵
- Karl Mark, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1992). ↵
- See, for example, Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1994), and Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). ↵
- The collaborative project that has partly culminated in this manifesto began with an interrogation of the production of globality—a single totalizing horizon—through risk discourse. Hence the first discussions of risk and uncertainty focused on the theorization of the dialectic in economics, specifically, Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933). Written in 1917 in the midst of the first major global crisis of the twentieth century, Knight's text theorizes uncertainty as too quickly instrumentalized in risk calculations; what he calls “true uncertainty” is never fully captured or completely capitalized by the speculative calculus that tries to make it profitable. Economists generally acknowledge that Frank Knight pioneered the study of the relationship between imperfect knowledge and popular expectations as the key to understanding how uncertainties are assimilated into the financial market. See B. Emmett Ross, Frank Knight and the Chicago School in American Economics (London: Taylor and Francis, 2009), 42–43. ↵
- Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). ↵
- Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). ↵
- Joseph Stiglitz’s popular account of the crash, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), exemplifies this mode of self-reflection on the “blindsight” of “non-expert” citizen-subjects of the United States. ↵
- Cass Sunstein, The Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). ↵
- Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (New York: Basic Books, 1984). ↵
- Tatsujiro Suzuki, “Deconstructing the Zero-Risk Mindset: The Lessons and Future-Responsibilities for a Post-Fukushima Japan,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 67, no. 9 (September 19, 2011): 11–18. ↵
- Sharon Friedman, “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima: An Analysis of Traditional and New Media Coverage of Nuclear Accidents and Radiation,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 67, no. 5 (September 19, 2011): 55–65. ↵
- Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992) and World At Risk (London: Polity, 2008). Within the vast discourse on risk, we would also highlight Francis Ewald, “Two Infinities of Risk,” in The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 221–28; Paul Slovic, The Perception of Risk (New York: Routledge, 2000); Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Claudia Aradau and Rens van Munster, “Governing Terrorism through Risk: Taking Precautions, (Un)Knowing the Future,” European Journal of International Relations 13, no. 1 (2007): 89–115; Marieke de Goede and Louise Amoore, eds., Risk and the War on Terror (New York: Routledge, 2008); and John C. Welchman, The Aesthetics of Risk, SoCCAS Symposium, vol. 3 (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2008). ↵
- On clinical trials among populations that will not themselves be drug markets, see Kaushik Sunder Rajan, “Experimental Values,” New Left Review 45 (2007), http://newleftreview.org/II/45/kaushik-sunder-rajan-experimental-values. ↵
- Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007). ↵
- For examples, see Chris Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip, Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008); Matt Ratto, “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” The Information Society 27, no. 4 (July–September 2011): 252–60; Douglas Farr, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (Hoboken: Wiley, 2007); Mason White et al., Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), and also see related issues in the Pamphlet Architecture series; Benjamin Noys, ed., Communization and Its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles (New York: Autonomedia, 2011); Camille Bacon-Smith, Science Fiction Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000); Constance Penley, NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America (New York: Verso, 1997); Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy (London: Zed, 2000); Martin Medina, The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007); Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I (New York: Zeitgeist Video, 2000), DVD; and Amber Hickey, ed., A Guidebook of Alternative Nows (Los Angeles: Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, 2012). ↵
- tiqqun, https://tiqqunista.jottit.com. ↵
- In 1877, late in life, Karl Marx also wrote, in a letter to Wilhelm Blos: “From my antipathy to any cult of the individual, I never made public during the existence of the International the numerous addresses from various countries which recognized my merits and which annoyed me. I did not reply to them, except sometimes to rebuke their authors. Engels and I first joined the secret society of Communists on the condition that everything making for superstitious worship of authority would be deleted from its statue.” Quoted in Nikita S. Khrushchev, The Crimes of the Stalin Era: Special Report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (New York: The New Leader, 1962), 8. In a recent essay that traces the symbiotic relations between certain discourses of anonymity and certain discourses of communism—and which includes engagements with Marx, Foucault, and Wu Ming, among others—Thoburn argues for a desubjectifying politics of anonymity that resonates poignantly with many strands of our collaboration. Nicholas Thoburn, “To Conquer the Anonymous: Authorship and Myth in the Wu Ming Foundation,” Cultural Critique 78 (spring 2011): 119–50. ↵
- Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile, ed. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973), 134. ↵
- Gabriella Coleman, “Anonymous—From the Lulz to Collective Action,” New Significance (May 9, 2011), http://www.thenewsignificance.com/2011/05/09/gabriella-coleman-anonymous-from-the-lulz-to-collective-action. ↵