IAS Talk Pieces: Concepts for the 'New Normal'. #1 Speculation
by André M. Carrington, Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, Ming Tsao, and Marina Vishmidt. Music by Afrikan Sciences, Ming Tsao, Active Denial System and Shō. Image by Heide Hinrichs.
15 December 2020
We’ve asked some colleagues about the multiple ways the media uses the concept of speculation: The UK Health minister and businesses say that the media speculates, and this affects their speculations. Countries speculate against each others’ speculations. Timescales, vaccines, movements, land, ecological and human alliances, salaries, taxes... everything seems more prone to speculation than ever in the uncertainty of what we tend to refer to as the ‘new’ normal. We can render speculation in terms of social benefit — thinkable futures and catastrophe warnings — or social degradation — conspiracy theories, capital investments and pressures to medical progress. In terms of certainty: from opening multiple possibilities and connections such as in science fiction, art practices or speculative music; to closing down a future for the many such as in capitalist logics. Or in terms of subject-object identification through speculative realism, materialism, psychology and physics. Is speculation a useful term to think about our current times? And can multiple forms of speculation and their conflation help us understand our way into the new normal and our material and psychological circumstances?
Opening with Afrikan Sciences’s piece of music 'All Day Speculative', you will hear from Andre M. Carrington, thinking through our present conflation of events that no science fiction dared to imagine, inviting us not to abandon or, as Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou follows, to pay attention to marginalised communities opening uncharted spaces where ‘everything is possible’. Active Denial System’s piece of music of 'Speculations' takes us to Ming Tsao who explores the materiality of speculation through bodies and musical language encounters. His surrounding piece of music Miranda Atemwende connects us to Paul Celan’s Atemwende, Breathturn, the concept behind Heide Hinrichs artwork in the cover of this episode. Marina Vishmidt’s piece closes this episode, accompanied by Sho’s piece of music titled 'Present, Tense' bringing us to our current divergence between financial markets and real economy and their unavoidable conflation.
- Speakers: André M. Carrington (UC Riverside), Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou (SRI, UCL), Ming Tsao (composer) and Marina Vishmidt (Goldsmiths).
- Music by Afrikan Sciences, Ming Tsao, Active Denial System and Shō.
- Image: Heide Hinrichs, Atemwende (Breathturn) (2018), series of 12 drawings, 27,9 x 21,4 cm, pencil on paper.
- Sound effects are by the BBC Sound Archive
- Producer, Editor and Host: Albert Brenchat-Aguilar
- Executive Producer and Host: Nicola Miller (IAS Director)
Nicola Miller: Welcome to the first podcast in our series ‘Concepts for the “New Normal”. In each episode, UCL Institute of Advanced Studies will bring together colleagues to explore a key concept of our times; offering a variety of perspectives from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, on the ideas that are shaping our lives. Today’s concept is ‘speculation’.
Albert Brenchat-Aguilar: Opening with Afrikan Sciences’s piece of music 'All Day Speculative', you will hear from Andre M. Carrington, thinking through our present conflation of events that no science fiction dared to imagine, inviting us not to abandon or, as Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou follows, to pay attention to marginalised communities opening uncharted spaces where ‘everything is possible’. Active Denial System’s piece of music of 'Speculations' takes us to Ming Tsao who explores the materiality of speculation through bodies and musical language encounters. His surrounding piece of music Miranda Atemwende connects us to Paul Celan’s Atemwende, Breathturn, the concept behind Heide Hinrichs artwork in the cover of this episode. Marina Vishmidt’s piece closes this episode, accompanied by Sho’s piece of music titled 'Present, Tense' bringing us to our current divergence between financial markets and real economy and their unavoidable conflation.
André M. Carrington: That none of the stories I read or taught in my classes on speculative fiction presented the circumstances we are currently living in should be reassuring to my creative colleagues. No matter how far-fetched the scenario, there wasn’t a single story that combined the pandemic, the metastasis of American white supremacist fascism, and the discoveries of Phosphine on Venus and water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. I joked at the beginning of the response to community spread in the United States, around March 13, that the difference between the situation we find ourselves in and the stories I teach in my classes is that in real life, at least people stay dead. I am myopic (literally, I wear glasses) and I’m African American, so I think about the numbers of U.S. fatalities a lot—it’s my curse.
The counterfactual history of this era, which I look forward to reading, will redact the United States and focus instead on: the moment when NGOs stepped out of their tunnel vision; when the shift to remote work met adequate resources, infrastructure, and support for accessibility; when water, air, noise, and light pollution attenuated to an extent unseen since the cessation of air travel in 2001; when large numbers of dying Africans failed to materialize; when the human organism came into the kind of irreversible relationship it had not experienced for a long time, the kind that caused it to live differently. In that speculative fiction, humans withdraw our companion animals from the market, and cats stay indoors, sparing millions of birds from unexpected predation. They might combine with bats to slow the actual pestilence of flying insects, but the long-awaited collapse of the globalized supply chain may permit the remediation of ecosystems that are currently entombed by plantation monocultures. In which case, let the locusts come; they’ll exhaust the temporary abundance, and then, who knows?
In the story without the American plot, humanity becomes a species that survives its extinction without vacating or destroying its only habitable planet, and there are finally endings for all those stories foreclosed by the sacrificial justice of the cautionary tale, where the impostor, the adversary, triumphs. In the current timeline, we are absolutely certain that the virus will not kill us all, not every single American, not the worst and not even the least among us. The new world will carry a residuum of this reality, even if it is finally defeated, so we can’t afford to be so fortunate that we eradicate every trace of this hateful normal on our way to the future. We may have to come back here to find what we need to survive when the next one hits.
Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou: Speculation is the definitive feature of our chaotic times; our collective coping mechanism, our go-to answer to everyday life’s disorienting volatility; and, ultimately an instrument for orienting our collective imagination, and for developing the myths and narratives we need to make sense of a profoundly uncertain future.
Our era seems to be on a hinge. Time itself feels anxious and unpredictable, while previously common sense ‘truths’ are shaken in both economy and polity. fake news mills’, ‘troll farms’, and ‘disinformation warfare’, are the order of the day in mainstream politics. Conspiracy theories continue to gather strength, from new anti-vaccination movements denouncing the Coronavirus pandemic as a spam, to QAnon’s plots of an anti-Trump ‘deep state’. This state of affairs reflects a new political ‘unreality’, a world rendered more and more opaque by a deliberate sowing of confusion.
At the same time, such opacity and confusion become common features of everyday social life. Our routine navigations of image-hungry social media like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok teem with disorienting videos unfurling on our smartphones. Screen time and real time collapse in the short-lived experience of Facebook’s perpetual scroll, and dating app Tinder’s left-or-right swipe – a nervous pursuit for ephemeral connection that seems at once compulsive and unyielding. With each scroll and swipe, our notions of ‘truth’ and ‘observable reality’ seem to drift further out of our reach.
All we are left with is speculation.
In financial markets, Speculation can be defined engagement in investment activities that are inherently uncertain, for the purpose of profit. Speculation includes wagers on possible future movements of asset prices, but also the trading of assets that seeks insurance against such price movements. It’s both shorting and hedging. But above all, to speculate in contemporary highly sophisticated, algorithmically generated trading, means at a fundamental level to endorse uncertainty rather than try to control or eliminate it.
Today speculation becomes the model for society writ large - from our choices of partners to our choices of government. Futures, securities, bonds – terms once repurposed for the market speculator’s lexicon, return to our everyday social and political vernacular to infuse it with finance’s own ambition. We live in the age of speculative communities. ‘To speculate’ means increasingly to ‘connect’ with others on the basis of a shared precarity, to endorse uncertainty pre-emptively, rather than try to control it, as a means of social survival uncertainty, and to bet on it.
I am suggesting therefore that speculation must therefore be understood as a profoundly generative, social and political force, which may also contain some of the answers to our current predicament.
We may call this type of progressive, radical speculation ‘counter-speculation’. A type of collective political action that consciously inhabits spaces that are inherently ephemeral and uncertain. When nothing is true everything is possible’- but how do make sense of that open-ended possible? Paradoxically, the distinctive cloudiness of our modern reality has a ‘transparent quality, which allows us to peer into struggles of imagination that were previously hidden away: instances when those groups traditionally subjected to speculative violence (women, racialised and queer people) rise to wage their own bets on the future: Crucially, such instances unveil possibilities of re-imagining that future. As new speculative communities emerge out of the invincible ‘There Is No Alternative’ doctrine, the challenge ahead of us is learning to occupy this new uncharted territory of ‘everything is possible’. Can we both expose the nefarious forces of exclusionary and dogmatic ignorance, while finding ways to retain our trust in a shared reality, or better yet, acknowledging that such shared reality contains myths of our own making no matter how uncertain these might look like?
Ming Tsao: Speculation has had an important tradition in music composition since its roots in late medieval and early Renaissance Western culture when notational practices began with Gregorian chant. The development of writing and symbolic notation formed an essential aspect of speculative thinking in music composition.
In the Medieval and Renaissance eras, music composition was divided into the speculative and practical categories. What is interesting is that speculation in music composition was grounded in mathematics as essential properties of music, such as number, proportion and symmetry (including such ideas as the harmony of the spheres where it was speculated that the periodic motion of the planets produced a music that lay outside the range of human hearing).
These mathematical properties, as forming the material of music, constituted an important quality of speculative thinking before music composition became oriented, in the early seventeenth century, towards human expression and emotion.
This is how I think of speculation in my own musical compositions. I search for ways in which the ungraspable can be momentarily sensed by a listener. And by “ungraspable,” I mean that which lies outside the reach of our common understanding of the world, an understanding which places the human subject always at the center of orientation and expression. By challenging this humanist orientation in music, other forms of expression are potentially opened up and discovered, perhaps other musical languages and networks of sounds that lie outside our desire for interpretation, meaning and closure. Speculation in music composition can point back to the fragility of our own speaking and expressive voices to show that they that are embedded in a much larger ecology of sounds that deserve to be heard.
Yet it is important to acknowledge that speculation cannot occur in a vacuum and must take into account the world that supports it with its many layers of historical sedimentation. For music composition, this context constitutes the practical components of musical expression, what I refer to as the concrete musical situation. This situation is where bodies and languages intersect and find points of resistance. Bodies refer to those aspects of musical production – producing sounds on instruments and of the material resistances that they present when musical expression is at play. Languages constitute the desire for musical expression, its phrasings, contours, rhythms and cadences – which is rooted in human speech - and make up what we refer to as “musical language”, the basis for musical expression.
The practical context of music composition is precisely when our desires for expression come into conflict with the material resistances of sound production. And this context provides the ground for speculation such that mathematical structures and processes – as orderings and relationships that are wholly other than those based in human speech - can create interferences and moments of contingency.
These moments of contingency are what composer John Cage calls “anarchic harmony” where the sonorous meeting of sounds escapes human intention, desire and control. And it is with “anarchic harmony” that beauty in musical expression finds its most sublime articulation.