Edited by Vyjayanthi Venuturupalli Rao, Prem Krishnamurthy, and Carin Kuoni
Speculation, Now: Essays and Artwork
(Duke University Press, 2015)
“Speculation is a word with at least two meanings. The first is ‘mirroring,’ from the Latin speculum (mirror). Here, speculation means a true reflection of reality that presents itself as an empirical fact,” begins Boris Groys in the first of the contributed essays compiled in Speculation, Now. Self-awareness is one of the ways in which humans differentiate themselves from other animals. Still, a handful of species—apes, dolphins, elephants, and a few others that we associate with high intelligence—can recognize themselves in the mirror. Groys continues his definition, “But speculation can also mean a reflection on reality that may be hidden behind its empirical image. In other words, speculation is a reflection on the mirror and not merely the reflection in the mirror.” Humans are likely the only species that “reflects on the mirror,” imbuing the object with cultural significance as Central-African diviners do, using them as “the technology par excellence to open up the invisible, reveal the unseen, facilitate a passage between the known world and the underworld, open up different temporal scales, and speculate about the hidden causes in the past of wrongs and misfortunes in the present,” as Filip De Boeck explains in the second essay in Speculation, Now. A cast of over fifty professionals, scholars, and artists expound on this prompt of meta-speculation given to them by editor Vyjayanthi Venuturupalli Rao, who begins her introduction with a quote from Aristotle via Anne Carson, “All men by their very nature reach out to know.”
Groys and De Boek’s essays form a complementary one-two opener as they discuss first- and third-world (respectively) spiritual aspects of contemporary speculation. Groys’s essay compares mechanical and digital means of reproduction (are you reading this on paper or screen1?) and contemplates the divine elements of the Internet. “One could say that we conjure the data as earlier we were conjuring spirits by calling their names,” he writes, eventually leading him to the democratic implications of forced governmental transparency that have become apparent in wake of WikiLeaks. “Thus, a new Utopian dream emerges which is the truly contemporary dream—it is a dream of an unbreakable code word that can forever protect our subjectivity.” Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are proponents of the Internet realizing its great universal potential—digital medium for humanity’s unfiltered collective conscious.
De Boek’s essay speculates on how the introduction of capitalism to third-world populations, specifically Congo, can be propelled by native spirituality. The ideas of commodity and trade were the first concepts used to acquaint the population with capitalism, and certain items found value in their occult significance.
“After the Portuguese established a colony in Angola in the seventeenth century, a whole new political economy developed, generating new caravan and trading routes that traveled inland from the Atlantic coast to obtain rubber, ivory, beeswax, and slaves in exchange for various imported European commodities, including mirrors, but also beads, guns, cloth, and, more surprisingly perhaps, Catholic statuary.”
The spiritual usage of commodities provided a grassroots entry for the capitalist ethos to pervade through the culture, eventually manifesting in the dreams and aspirations of the population to modernize. De Boek cites Congo’s example of this in the developmental “La Cité du Fleuve” which broke ground in 2008 with promises of “a standard of living unparalleled in Kinshasa [which] will be a model for the rest of Africa.” De Boek tempers expectations as “construction has considerably slowed down because of cash flow problems, [and] there is a huge difference between the spectacular images used to promote the idea of this new city and the banality of the actual materialization of this idea.” The globalized economy has left few places untouched by capitalism and advances humanity towards monoculture, despite obvious shortcomings.
Of the myriad meanings of “speculator” in Speculation, Now, most represented is “one who gauges financial risk.” In order to “delineate the contrast between speculative action and standard financial practice,” Satya Pemmaraju recalls George Soros’s famous gambit in 1992, when Soros bet that the position of The Bank of England in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) was untenable. Withdrawing his own sizable investment in the English pound, he forced the Bank of England to drop from the ERM on what was called “Black Wednesday”. Soros pocketed upwards of a billion dollars in the process, making him one of the premiere financial speculators of the modern globalized marketplace.
In their essay, economists Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, Jr. argue that the primary source of racial inequality lies in the wealth gap, which stems from “racial differences in inheritances, bequests, and intra-family transfers […] [more than] education, income, and household structure.” They postulate that the United States government should invest in wealth-based “baby bonds,” which would fit into their budget for asset-development policies. These bonds would become accessible once the child becomes financially independent and would be required to be spent on stable investment, such as a mortgage on a house, which Hamilton and Darity, Jr. believe “would in about two or three generations go a long way to eliminating the racial wealth gap.”
The modern nuance that Speculation, Now seems to have short-changed are the implications of humanity’s affect on the environment. Carin Kuoni begins her foreword by asking, “Nothing on this planet remains untouched by human activity: how then should we account for our entanglement with everything in this new era of the Anthropocene?” It is noteworthy then that there is only one essay that directly addresses our atmospheric responsibility. In Trevor Paglen’s “The Ethics of Deep Time,” he argues that because of our discovery that the earth is billions of years old, the scope of our irresponsible environmental behavior is greater than we give credit. He puts economically concerned speculation in perspective, “We worry about the effects of fiscal policy over the course of a few years, or, at best, concern ourselves with climate change over a few decades. But humans have made equally great interventions into the deep time of geology and even the cosmic time of the galaxy.” However, no one in Speculation, Now postulates any macro policy reform or micro lifestyle choices that could ameliorate the detriments of the Anthropocene.
The artistic interludes in Speculation, Now provide reprieve from the academic format as they seem to take light-hearted approaches to the prompt. Walid Raad presents photos of Islamic art that are currently in the Louvre but will be transferred to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, oracularly stating that the pieces featured in his photographs will be “affected by the journey in ways that historians, curators, and conservators could not have anticipated nor predicted.” Artist collaborators Lin + Lam show photos of different psychic storefronts around New York City in 2010, and pair them with photos of the same place taken in 2013. Artist Hans Haacke contributes a collection of five photographs entitled ?... that seem disparate, but play with background visuals obfuscated by foreground. Perhaps most thought provoking, though least aesthetically appealing, are speculative pixels from Google Earth of global terrain that it has yet to document, contributed by Lize Mogel.
Some readers will find Speculation, Now to be a turgid glossary on contemporary meta-speculation—more than half the entries are crammed into the margins, printed in a smaller, light blue font, which at first glance appear to be annotation. For others, this book could provide the basis for once-a-day mental pushups to prepare them to impress on their next amble through a humanities department. This is a difficult read as different academic fields have their own jargon to penetrate, but hours of speculation has gone into each entry and getting through them may make you feel triumphantly inspired to recite Descartes to your human reflection in the mirror.
- The title of the BBC show “Black Mirror” coins a new phrase for describing the screens of personal technology.
Brendan Garrison is a Brooklyn-based writer and a Production Assistant at the Brooklyn Rail