Speculation is clearly the buzzword of the moment; in philosophy, art, the art market, literature, and finance. But what does it mean, exactly, to speculate? What operations are we dealing with when we speak about speculation?
Speculation grasps for the nonexistent. As a financial operation, speculation aims to make the future controllable. It does so by algorithmically calculating possible price developments on the basis of empirical data. In this form, speculation is one of the elementary pacemakers of present-day capitalism. It also plays a pivotal role in generating value in the field of contemporary art, where it massively transforms the character of collections: Speculative collecting anticipates a subsequent resale with profit maximization. The possible has thus become part of the economically exploitable.
In contrast to this notion of a calculability of the possible, theoretical speculation, for example in the form of Speculative Realism, is directed toward the fundamentally uncertain. The speculative aspect of this ontologically oriented philosophy, which has recently increasingly lent itself as a basis for contemporary art discourse, consists in its call to conceptualize or even lend possible meaning to the non-human, to that which is independent of the subject, but can, for example, be verified scientifically. In this context speculation is frequently positioned against the program of critique, with its concomitant activities of judging the given, as well as assessing the conditions of possibility for the very act of judging. On the other hand, contemporary speculative thought is often directed against aesthetics as a tradition of investigating perception, experience, and the conditions under which the subject and object of artistic experience correlate. What this rejection of critique and aesthetics risks – speaking from their perspective – is an unreflecting leap toward the things themselves. The question, then, is whether such a danger of re-essentializing objects does not in turn require a critical examination; and also, wherein the opportunities of speculative models lie.
Their appeal could consist in initiating a thought that departs from the object, which now – unlike Bruno Latour’s work, for instance – paves the way for political approaches that address the potential. The dimension of time (in the form of the future) is also reconceived in Speculative Realism. In this sense, speculation bears the promise of not only critically addressing what is given, but also of thinking a possible, of catching up with the hypothetical. Understood in this manner, speculation and critique would complement each other in their rejection of merely accepting the status quo.
The contributions in this issue approach the promises and problems of speculative models from various directions. Steven Shaviro starts with an introduction to Speculative Realism and the works of its first protagonists. He analyzes this philosophical point of departure that mainly criticizes the preference given to epistemology over ontology in philosophy since Immanuel Kant. Armen Avanessian, an important mediator of Speculative Realism or a Speculative Poetics and its associated political movements such as Accelerationism in the German-speaking realm, conceived this issue with us and therefore contributed an insider position. In his programmatic text, he collects evidence that the aesthetic regime of art and literature, and the specifically aesthetic mode of theorizing them, may have already been sung. What, Avanessian asks, would be the alternatives?
Suhail Malik is a further Speculative Realism protagonist who has repeatedly pointed out that economic and theoretical speculation are incompatible. Here, he discusses those areas of contemporary art that, based on a general distributability of artistic value, support a system that can attach a price to everything and everyone. In his work on collecting as investment, sociologist Michael Hutter examines speculation-based developments of the art market, while also focusing on art’s function in investment portfolios. He describes the mechanisms of a flourishing segment of the art world that increasingly views art as an asset. While these trading operations with future price developments are complex manifestations of traits that have always been inherent to capitalism, Sophie Cras demonstrates that proper art funds are an invention of the twentieth century. In her essay, she reconstructs a primal scene of speculative art trading, namely an association of collectors called La Peau de l’Ours that existed in Paris from 1904 to 1914 and purchased works by young artists including Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, and Henri Matisse under the premise of selling them again at an auction ten years later.
In a conversation, Joseph Vogl and Philipp Ekardt examine the temporal contracts that are implemented by speculative operations. While digital technologies enable a type of economic speculation that unleashes an “assault of the future on the rest of time”, the question arises in what ways speculation itself can be represented and mediatized. Against this backdrop, several figures of more recent speculative thought appear as aggressive defenses of a newly established variant of humanism.
Rainald Goetz’s text also suggests that speculation lends a new acuity to the question of man by drawing a line from the absence of the human in Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory to the actual mortality of the human body. Entwined in this discussion, he ponders the question of whether literary writing in the novel, as realism, is only tenable if it also reflects the possible and thus becomes speculative realism. Alexander Kluge’s five stories address speculation in the economic sense, but also in love, film, and philosophy. Speculation is no less central here as a literary and artistic method, which, in Kluge’s case, stands under the auspices of a partly counterfactual poetics that takes position for what was unrealized in the past. Confidently, Kluge asks: Can the dialectic dream?
Focusing on the exhibition “Speculations on Anonymous Materials” in Kassel, Kerstin Stakemeier investigates currently widely popular curatorial recourses to speculative philosophy. She, too, accounts for digital media’s inextricable entanglement with present formations of capitalism, and, consequently, with the current crisis; a crisis for which, in her view, the works shown at the Fridericianum display a higher degree of awareness than the philosophy contextualizing them.
A survey finally asks for artistic, curatorial, and theoretical assessments of the current boom of speculative models. Diedrich Diederichsen, Karin Harrasser, Jenny Jaskey, Jutta Koether, and Sam Lewitt respond.
A final note: In the context of the discussed poetics of the possible, which exist under the banner of speculation, one concept is (so far) notably absent – utopia.
(Translation: Karl Hoffmann / Edwina Pru)