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Speculation and Counter-speculation

From value to price, from labor to debt, from revolution to disruption

One can say that ours is the worst of all possible worlds, because this world does not allow itself to imagine any other world beyond itself. That is why the available notions we have of the future simply entail more versions of the present. This paper explores the ways financial speculation and disruption have become common traits defining our political imagination. In this discussion a variety of notions emerge — a shift from value to price and from alienation to metabolic synchronization, together with non-linear warfare, fake-news, derivatives, disruptive innovation, and other operations that involve capitalizing from contingency.

Finance is speculation on debt. In the past decades, finance has replaced production, while debt has replaced waged labor as the main generator of profit in the contemporary economy. Under the reign of production, labor-time aimed to semiotize value. In other words, each terrain of human activity was assigned a value that could be exploited. By the dynamics of dependency on the value generated within this activity, the exploited became a potential subject of political change. Today, price is presented as the objective totality that aggregates all partial knowledge of human economic activity. According to neoliberal economic theory, price acts as a sort of information transmitter, such that constitutes communicates the potential of anticipated earnings. In this way, a shift occurred wherein price replaced value as the key to economic truth. This shift entails immense repercussions for our notions of meaning, and for the ways in which our subjectivities are assembled. Under the primacy of price, speculation now aims to profit from discrepancies in the distribution of knowledge over time. When addressing speculation’s operations in relation to the corresponding shift from labor to debt, we can suggest counter-speculation as a notion which works within the reality of finance but is driven by an imaginary that can counter speculation.

“Lack of imagination”

Speculation has become the epitome of our time. The term is commonly used in recent years in philosophy, literature, politics, arts and science. As varied as the usages of the term may be, the current usage of speculation in these different fields derives from the world of finance capital and its premise of managing risk, rather than providing security. As Randy Martin has put it in Knowledge LTD: Towards a Social Logic of the Derivative:

“Financialization… entails a shift in policy emphasis from providing security to managing risk.” [1]

Derivatives, Martin says, are a way to hedge risk and extract a return from an unknowable future by hedging its various possibilities. Derivatives, a recent invention of finance, can even extract a surplus from uncertainty itself.

The original meaning of speculation has been that of an instrumental imagination. The Latin word “speculator” derives from the Roman name for a sentry (speculari) who kept a lookout for danger or misfortune.[2] Similarly, the age of speculation is an era in which all forces are mobilized to perform unexpected and disruptive actions simply so everything can remain the same. From investment bankers to the precariat, all are managing volatility. Speculation’s absolute pragmatism generates more and more extreme models within the current system of control and accumulation by dispossession. This can be seen from the real existing internet as a system of entertainment/surveillance, and social media’s immaterial labor of the general intellect, to navigation apps for avoiding traffic due to lack of infrastructure. These models manifest themselves through relations between knowledge and credit, the unknowable and debt, the objectivity of the economy and the demise of professional expertise.

We could regard Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns phrase, “the things we don’t know we don’t know,” made during a press conference in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, as the catch phrase of speculation. In Errol Morris’s 2013 biographical documentary on Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known,” the former US secretary of Defense, explains his hyperbolic-cold-war game-theory-logic through what he sees as the reason for the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — the “lack of Imagination” of the US military.

Imagination here gets a very different meaning than what we would usually assign to it. For Rumsfeld, the different scenarios for “what could happen” require instrumental imagination, oscillating between probability and possibility. Therefore, he sees in himself the limit of his own knowledge, meaning that he cannot learn anything new — his only enemy is his “lack of imagination.” In this sense, he is compelled to plan (and execute) perpetual pre-emptive strikes. Lack of intelligence (unknown unknowns) turns from a failure of intelligence gathering to a fruitful, and almost limitless, sphere of speculative scenarios; spiraling repetition, chasing its own tail, following his own shadow — this is where imaginative energy is invested today.

Just over a decade since the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the structures that were introduced in the region a hundred years ago following the Sykes-Picot agreement have collapsed into what commentators describe as the “end of the Middle East.”[3] The refugees from Syria entering Europe are but the most recent in a series of exoduses from Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria due to continuous war in the region. The fact is that the disintegration of these countries is a direct result of the execution of this Cold-War-game-theory strategy that Rumsfeld demonstrated as Secretary of Defence. It is a case of severe lack of imagination indeed. In order to understand the roots of this strategy, it is necessary to illuminate the shifts in the ontology of what constitutes economic activity over the last few decades.

Pragmatism Gone Wild

The economic era in which value best described human activity was the time of political revolutions and of the political and artistic avant-garde. These dynamic pulses were generated under the all-encompassing logic of productive labor, in which accumulation of wealth was driven by the profits extracted from the value generated by waged labor. This scheme relied on employment as the locus of exploitation, and of social change and revolution: think of the factory floor, for example. Our time is different in that its underlying logic is that of general-intellect driven accumulation of wealth through price. This new scheme relies on debt, rather than labor, as the locus of exploitation. With this shift, a series of transformations occur politically and artistically: disruption replaces revolution, and speculation stands in for the avant-garde. We have moved from dynamic pulses to diffusion currents.

Thus, the age of price is, also, that of speculation. Speculation, as instrumental imagination, means today absolute pragmatism. As contradictory as pragmatism and imagination might seem, imaginative pragmatism would be a possible way to describe speculation. Today, all creative drive is channelled into extreme operations and scenarios to allow everything to remain the same. An example that comes to mind is the number of Apps for avoiding traffic during rush hour. This presumes that infrastructural planning and construction of mass transportation systems are redundant. This mode of speculation we are faced with goes the furthest away possible from any notion of revolution, or even of reform. In fact, the age of speculation is an era in which all forces are mobilized to perform unexpected and disruptive actions simply for everything to remain the same in a large, systemic sense. Since nothing is certain under the rule of capital, we are all busy speculating, compelled to create predictive models to guide our conduct. The only invariant element in these models is the perpetuation of this form of financialized market economy itself.

A volume of Collapse Journal from 2014 focused exactly on the genealogy of the contemporary usages of speculation. The volume, titled “Casino Real” is dedicated to “surveying those practices in which intellectual resources are most acutely concentrated on the production of capitalizable risk.”[4] The volume, which aims to uncover the “conceptual underpinnings of methods developed to extract value from contingency — in the casino, in the markets, in life” includes an almost two hundred page essay by Suhail Malik on the ontology of finance. In it, Malik describes a political economy constituted by the ontology of price. He says that “the most advanced theoretical tools available today” are finance, and, particularly, derivatives.[5] From there on, Malik formulates an ontology of the current financial economic system that operates around the notion of price rather than value. Using Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s work on capital as power, Malik asserts that “Price, then, is core to the capitalist cosmology as an organizing index of differential accumulation.”[6] This corresponds with the formulation made by philosopher Noam Yuran, who explained how, with brands for example, things are now valuable because they are expensive, rather than expensive because they are valuable.[7] A whole array of negotiations between use, exchange, symbolic, and sentimental values, is now deemed meaningless with the advent of price as the unit of absolute objectivity.

The shift from value to price has already been highlighted as the foundation for neoliberal doxa. While both value and price can be assigned to any human activity, price is perceived, in classic neoliberal economics, as a market signal that aggregates the knowledge of all actors in the market. Economics becomes, under the supremacy of price, a form of model-making for knowledge gaps between buyers and debtors — these are being speculated on through finance.

And so, under finance capital, speculation becomes a form of pragmatism gone wild. In the reader Speculation, Now: Essays and Artwork, the afterword by renowned anthropologist Arjun Appadurai includes a description of the way financial traders operate in an environment of extreme volatility:

“When the trader is ‘in the liquid,’ when she is entirely in the zone composed of her body, her turret, her skills and her counter-parties. This is the speculative moment, in which the trader seeks to perform an immanent critique of the market as it presents itself in the current moment of prices, volatilities, uncertainties and probabilities.”[8]

In his afterword, Appadurai positions speculation within the realm of action rather than mere contemplation. But the class relations at the core of financial speculation are such that any calculation of risk, threats and opportunities is done by those who act according to their reflections on the actions of those who cannot act, nor reflect, on their own condition.

Debt Economy

The shift towards the logic of speculation also involves a shift from measure to matrix. While measure relates to an actual perceptible thing, a matrix does not have a stable point of reference — it is a reference to other references. Thus, the bet is not placed on a thing but on other bets. One can see how this can result in price hikes when the living are measured and quantified through the matrix of finance. Finance distributes risk unevenly. One meaning of a pricing system based on managing risk, is that we subsidize it. Interest rates also find their way into price. They are rolled through the chain of financialization all the way to the consumer. So when we buy a product, we are literally buying its price, in the sense that the price embodies the financialized process that brought it to be: from corporations dealing with extraction of raw materials, to those transporting them, to those processing them, to manufacturers, to those assembling, marketing and so on. In other words, price reflects the costs of production. At each point, the process involves interest on loans and bonds, which the price accounts for at every stage. So it is not only the profitability of each of these for profit entities that the price invokes, it is also the financial institutions’ profitability and their risk management, which is taken care of at every stage of the process.

If we are to take seriously the fact that finance, rather than production, is the way in which value is extracted today, as Arjun Appadurai says in Banking on Words, then instead of encouraging debt refusal and other activist initiatives, we should think about democratizing finance for the benefit of all. [9] The financialized shift from employment of productive labor to indebting the general intellect and speculating on it requires a new political project. Like organized labor in the factory, this project is one that cannot afford to simply dismiss finance but rather find ways to engage with its logic and combat it from within.

As the life-taxes we pay in order to enter the employment market, those we pay in the form of rent on a weekly or monthly basis, are privatized, capital not only controls privatized assets (housing as real-estate, private education and childcare, health services and insurance, supermarket chains, agribusiness, debt speculating banking), it also in-debts us. We support this rent economy of life-taxes through debt. From mortgages to credit cards and loans, households today are going into debt in order to simply enter the employment market. With the channelling by law of pensions into the stock exchange, households are being forced to feed finance capitalism with its project of internal-colonization through privatization, of accumulation through dispossession.

Therefore, it is easy to see how economic growth is being achieved not by production but by the extraction of house-hold debt. Rents feed FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) out of the loans they demand and the debt they generate. As a result, a variety of financial tools have emerged. This is why in our world suddenly everything behaves like real estate. As Fredric Jameson says, “Today all politics is about real-estate, postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs on a local as well as a global scale.”[10]

Even something as open as what the internet was supposed to be became just another terrain of accumulation through rent, mining and licensing, just like land. Steve Jobs did not make music, but if you wanted to listen to anything you needed iTunes. The idea is basically to be the marketplace, here we come full circle with the casino (“The house always wins”). In many post-industrial parts of the world, labor has shifted from production to consumption, and taken on debt-peonage characteristics. We go into debt in order to enter the labor market. The “Gates and Jobs” business model, named after Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, proves that “innovation” is another name for rent-by-monopoly — be it through licensing or by controlling the marketplace (think of Windows, for example). With online operations focusing on aggregating attention to generate value. Contemporary business models of affective labor and sociability like Facebook have privatized the general intellect, or better, monopolized it. In this respect, the proliferation of art fairs in the last two decades goes part and parcel with this model of “being the market” under a culture of price-semiotics.

As far as artistic projects go, “The Present in Drag,” the 9th Berlin Biennial (2016), stands as a marker for the aesthetics of speculation. The biennial was curated by DIS (for disruption) editorial team. The title suggests that whatever is to come will simply be the same as our grotesque reality, just more extreme. Writing on the Biennial and its meaning, Ana Teixeira Pinto and Anselm Franke claim that this title “does not point to a queer or camp magnification of that which is often misrecognized as natural, but rather to a programmatic erasure of (critical) difference, which recuperates the feminist critique of nature/culture binaries in order to deploy it in the service of domination.” The aesthetics of the whole show was described by Teixeira Pinto and Franke as a gesamtkunstwerk of Post-Internet art, which “performs one single conceptual gesture: to affirm the identity between art and capital.” Teixeira Pinto and Franke analyse how the gestures of Post-internet art are those of total submission and affirmation through mirroring, or as they put it: “mimetic or affirmational strategies.” [11] Although they did not use the term speculation, Teixeira Pinto went on to write on the Alt-Right and Neoreactionary aesthetics in relation to Silicon Valley libertarianism, accelerationism, Post internet art, and the rise of new fascisms, all in the context of affirmational mimetic strategies. She wrote: “Affirmational strategies speak the idiom of the fetish. Their sole register is intensification (e.g., the worse the better; trolling the trolls; the only way out is the way through).” Teixeira Pinto recognizes that “chauvinist epistemes are undergoing a process of normalization via groups who themselves have no far-right leanings.” This occurs, for example, through the affirmation effect of “Meme Magic.”[12]

Counter-Speculation

V.I Lenin is quoted saying to his first biographer, Romanian Dada poet Valeriu Marcu: “one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” Counter-speculation, a term I’d like to introduce here, attempts to articulate exactly that. Under the logic of financialized life, when both the investment bankers and the precariat need to navigate uncertainties, the only certainty everyone agrees on is the inevitable perpetuation of financialized life. Such is the logic of speculation, and the models it generates all share this paradigm. Counter-speculation will therefore require destabilizing the perpetuating of this supposed inevitable logic of life subjected to financialization.

This speculative condition demands us to re-evaluate our institutions and activities — the museum and creativity, for example — and to recognize modalities of counter-speculation. In her opening essay for the Speculation, Now reader, Vyjayanthi Venturupalli Rao stresses that another kind of speculation is needed. She writes of an:

“uncertainty conceived, not as the lack of knowledge about the content of any specific possibility but rather as the idea that a variety of actualizations can emerge from the event.”[13]

I’d like to call this counter-speculation. With counter-speculation, the certainty of our own finance-dominated reality can itself be conceived as uncertain. We are not projecting the current reality onto a future that we wish to capture, quantify and bank on, but rather limit the speculative mode of thinking onto the present. This counter-speculation induced present means that our financialized reality loses its feeling of inevitability, and goes from certain to unstable. Let us turn to some artworks that have explored this point.

Counter-speculation, as is suggested here, invites actualization of potentials of the present, now. While exploring new forms for living while under financialization, counter-speculation assigns scenarios and narratives that actualize within the present its own potentials.

Francesco Finizio’s installation “How I Went In & Out of Business for Seven Days and Seven Nights” recounts the weeklong performance that took place in the ACDC Gallery in Bordeaux in October 2008. For a week, right after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Finizio opened and closed as many businesses as possible. The businesses that succeeded one another during this period were created from a limited vocabulary of poor materials. In seven days, a total of twelve businesses were opened. The gallery space was in a situation of almost constant transformation. Businesses succeeded one another, each rising from the ashes of the previous one. The piece was not concerned with participatory practices — by making a scenario of the space, the potential of usage was already there. Finizio’s work did not entail engaged audiences performing their relational aesthetics in the installation, as was the case with so many works gaining recognition pre-2008. With its playful makeshift style, Finizio’s clever installation pushed a given situation to its breaking point, revealing the contradictory states and hidden dimensions of the economic world we live in. By proposing the familiar world as inside-out, Finizio’s work suggests a mode of operation that we can call counter-speculation. In the moment of a real estate crisis, revealed as credit crisis, exposed as sovereignty crisis (bailouts for the few and austerity for the many), Finizio outlines the spatial manifestation of speculation on a given site. His “How I Went In & Out of Business for Seven Days and Seven Nights” performs the flickering of space that we are so used to by now, with the convergence of the urban and digital through dating, renting and image sharing apps.

Another example of an artist working with speculation against its own logic is Cristina Garrido, who developed an installation titled “#JWIITMTESDSA? (Just what is it that makes
today´s exhibitions so different, so appealing?)” made for the Generación Prize shortlist, La Casa Encendida, Madrid, 2015). The installation is based on collecting and categorizing the flow of JPGs, Instagram feeds, art blogs, artist webpages and other image blast platforms of contemporary art. By paraphrasing Richard Hamilton’s seminal 1956 pop collage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” and turning it into a Twitter hashtag, Garrido expands onto the speculative nature of contemporary exhibition and art making. From Pop Art’s depiction of the absorption of production surpluses, to the deployment of speculative patterns of economic strategizing, Garrido’s seemingly nonchalant arrangement of stuff is framed by her ongoing research into current trends in contemporary art. A list of certain things seems to be needed in order for today’s exhibitions to be so different, so appealing: birds, bottles, unframed canvases hanging on the wall, cardboard boxes, circles and spheres, creased things on the floor, fans, grids, monoliths, references to the ancient world of Rome and Greece, plants, rocks, rugs, bulky square-shaped TV monitors, stands with hanging elements, objects leaning against the wall and on the floor, wooden structures, and vertical flags. Garrido found all of these items to be essential elements in exhibitions of contemporary art. As she explores these compositional and material choices, Garrido situates the notion of the contemporary within the logic of speculation.[14] With this, Garrido lets speculation play out its own deadlock aesthetics. Her depiction of speculation is one of stasis. She outlines its limits, by a counter-speculation that questions the status quo’s imaginative force.

A long-term inquiry into the perception of what good art is has been conducted by artists Hannah Rosa Oellinger and Manfred Rainer in Vienna. In their ongoing project, Oellinger and Rainer question the criteria by which young artists and art school graduates examine and judge contemporary art. Through a series of surveys, they conclude that artists choose to show things that have “worked” for other artists. The Oellinger/Rainer research shows that young artists’ choice of mediums, compositions, themes, materials, colors and gestures are based on what has already proven effective for other artists (either critically or commercially). Those are the ones accepted as “good art” within contemporary art and are therefore most likely to be repeated. For both Garrido and Oellinger/Rainer, it is not a specific image or a discernible material that testifies to a sociological or anthropological true nature of contemporary art, but rather the aggregated presence of things that testifies to an economical logic underlying contemporary art.

Within our economic and political reality of financialization, by which any object materializes the negative space of debt, Finizio, Garrido and Oellinger/Rainer propose to observe how debt is plasticized, how it materializes as objects and compositions, how things — actual things — look and behave now as instantiations of speculation. Through their research into how exhibitions look, they sketch the outlines of speculation and counter-speculation as they are manifested in contemporary art.

Joshua Simon is director and chief curator of MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam, and author of, among other book, Neomaterialism (Sternberg Press, 2013). The exhibition The Kids Want Communism, which he curated at Kunstraum Kreuzberg Bethanien, Berlin is on view until Nov. 12 , 2017.

Footnotes

[1] Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD: Towards a Social Logic of the Derivative, Temple University Press, 2015, p. 55.

[2] Joseph Vogl explains how the word “speculator” derives from the Roman name for a sentry (speculari) who kept a lookout for danger or misfortune. See: Joseph Vogl, The Spectre of Capital, Stanford University Press, 2015, p. 7.

[3] See for example, the work of fellows at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Brookings institute Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Robin Wright and Itamar Rabinovich. Robin Wright, “How The Curse of Sykes-Picot Still Haunts the Middle East,” The New Yorker, April 30, 2016; Itamar Rabinovich, “The End of Sykes-Picot? Reflections on the prospects of the Arab state system,” Saban Center at Brookings, Middle East Memo no.32, February 2014.

[4] See: Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Volume VIII, Edited by Robin Mackay, Urbanomic Media, Falmouth, UK, December 2014.

[5] See: Suhail Malik, “The Ontology of Finance,” in: Collapse, Volume VIII, Urbanomic Media, p. 640.

[6] Ibid, p. 645.

[7] See: Noam Yuran, What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire, Stanford University Press, 2014.

[8] Arjun Appadurai, “Speculation, After the Fact,” in: Speculation, Now, Edited by Vyjayanthi Venturupalli Rao with Prem Krishnamurthy and Carin Kuoni, Duke University Press in association with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2014, pp. 208-209.

[9] Appadurai writes that addressing debt alone, without dealing with derivatives and the current financial market, adds little to what Marx and Weber could have said about our current circumstances. Appadurai suggests we should seek equality by democraticing debts. See: Chapter Eight “The Global Ambitions of Finance,” in: Arjun Appadurai, Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance, University of Chicago Press, 2016, pp. 125-148.

[10] Frederic Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” in: New Left Review 92, March-April 2015, pp.
130-131.

[11] See: Ana Teixeira Pinto and Anselm Franke, “Post-Political, Post-Critical, Post-Internet: Why Can’t Leftists Be More Like Fascists?,” Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain, September 8, 2016.

[12] See: Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Artwashing – on NRX and the Alt-Right,Texte zur kunst, Issue No. 106, June 2017, pp.162–170, uploaded online July 4, 2017:

[13] Vyjayanthi Venturupalli Rao, “Speculation, Now,” in: Speculation, Now, p. 20.

[14] Randy Martin writes on samples and breaks in music and horizontal habits in dance in relation to the derivative form, suggesting these are forms that respond to the blocking of forward or upward social mobility. “The break, from this perspective, could be considered a space of arbitrage, a place where a manufactured difference between two sources becomes a generative realization of some value.” Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD: Towards a Social Logic of the Derivative, Temple University Press, 2015, p. 189. Moreover, volatile populations have developed a “kinaesthetic” which elaborates sideways moves “moshing, mashing and mixing.” p. 210.

 

Joshua Simon

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