Predictions, premeditations, precautions, preparedness. These are all signposts of a speculative science slouching toward the future. But what does it mean to speculate otherwise?
We recall an old parable of two types of knowledge: a life-affirming “gay science” and the “dismal science” of scarcities. The first refers to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous theories about life-enhancing knowledge, as opposed to knowledge wedded to the production of objective truth. In the playfulness of artists (poets, songwriters), Nietzsche finds the kind of sensuous knowledge that is life affirming and that produces a profusion of effects. This is one way of thinking of an open-ended, creative, generative speculation that parleys in infinite possibilities. What it assumes is a human (and later, other organic and inorganic matter) bound by consciousness (the Cartesian subject) as well as sheer life potential in a world of abundance. When constrained or foreclosed, this abundance registers as scarcity: choices made about resource use (water, top soil, fossil fuels) lock societies into specific path dependencies, eliding options that were once available. The investment in these specific pathways not only depletes particular resources but also diminishes the political capacity to innovate more sustainable technologies and social practices (bright green, permaculture, frontier green innovation). As soon as capacity becomes the measure of potentiality, we have already harnessed vital, self-renewing forces; we hold them standing in reserve.
The gay science, a flirtation with life potentials, is necessary to counter the hegemony of the dismal science in defining controlled speculative activity. The latter is Thomas Carlyle’s nickname for economics as he saw it in relation to Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), with its grim predictions of food scarcity in the face of population growth. “Not a ‘gay science,’ I should say, like some we have heard of,” notes Carlyle in a tract of 1849 that argued for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies, “no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.” Here Carlyle mobilizes the language of infinite abundance—vital life forces harnessed as labor power under slavery—for the production of capital, a supposedly cynical instrumentalization of potentialities in order to refute the Malthusian “dismal theorem” that bemoaned a world of depleted resources. (“Supposedly,” since Occasional Discourse is often considered a satiric tract written to mock the “pure” motives of the abolitionists, rather than a real call for the reintroduction of slavery.) A few decades after Carlyle’s passing evocation of “a gay science,” Friedrich Nietzsche would elaborate the idea in a very different direction. In Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882), Nietzsche invokes “gai saber,” a Provençal phrase referring to the poetic skills of thirteenth-century troubadours, in order to make his case for a type of knowledge that attends to physiological drives and expands on the profuse energies of human and nonhuman matter. The life-affirming force, Nietzsche’s famous “will to power,” is inherent to the dynamic biological organism that strives for self-regeneration (Machtgelust); it finds expression not only in rational cognition that abstracts, reflects, and analyzes but also in the senses (pain and pleasure). Such invocations of sensuous knowledge take us back to Baruch Spinoza—who Nietzsche himself considered his “precusor” in many respects—and in particular to Spinoza’s argument for intuition as a “third type of knowledge,” in direct contravention of the Cartesian reflective subject. To this genealogy we might add Georges Bataille, who would elaborate the general economy of the universe, those great, unproductive expenditures of energy that are controlled and accumulated in a restricted economy. We would also add Jacques Derrida, who considered play as undoing those sciences that reduce or constrain. If we follow this line of thought, we can begin to track an intellectual history of affirmative speculation. Ours is not a genealogical project but rather an effort to bring heterogeneous thinkers conventionally not considered together into the same conversation: for instance, one hardly thinks of Frank Knight, the darling of the Chicago School, who held on to the concept of radical uncertainty, in the same breath as Nietzsche, philosophical swashbuckler, who insisted on irreducible potentialities. But both thinkers, we propose, push us toward elaborating an affirmative speculation.
The uncertain commons practices the gay science of affirmative speculation: we think and act in the vicinity of something that is not actually there and yet is always latent and incorporated in real bodies and real situations. This means we periodically and insistently touch radical uncertainty, a vertigo-inducing abyss. To think and act in the vicinity of such an abyss means to be open to it, that is, to let oneself be troubled and undone by it. To affirm potentiality is to take real risks, namely, to experiment. This manifesto, this writing in common, has itself been an experiment—an exercise in mutuality. Yet the conditions of writing in common are not easily won. There were some invaluable opportunities, institutional support, and public spaces available to us to work in research clusters. That was how it all started, the assembling to explore the possibilities of common thought. Obviously we had strong advocates: some patiently funded all the meetings necessary for writing in common; others joined us in conversation; still others steered us toward actualization in the manifesto form. We cannot name them, but they know who they are. We thank them all; they have gambled and speculated with us.
Our uncertain commons emerged through the giving of time, labor, even love, over many lively if exhausting sessions of reading, arguing, and writing, as well as many evenings of repose, hanging out. We disagreed, often vociferously. You will find those traces all over the manifesto. We struggled with interdisciplinary thinking, the movement across scales and domains of existing knowledge. An intense living in common, with friends and lovers, transpired in those initial memorable weeks. Now our collective thinking has spread to other projects, other collaborators—students, colleagues, coconspirators. They too cannot be named, but we thank them for their engagements, their rigor, their creativity, their enthusiasm for the venture.
We invite you to join these speculations. All of you can take these thoughts, if you so desire, for your own purposes. This book is open source. We will not blink if you claim it as your own. If you tweak, revise, extend, regurgitate, plagiarize the writing, we would be delighted. If you are the uncertain commons, who is to say you are not?
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff, poems trans. Adrian Del Caro (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). ↵
- Thomas Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, first published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country Vol. XL (December 1849): 670–79. ↵