In the Pull of Time A conversation between Joseph Vogl and Philipp Ekardt on speculation
Whether they occur in finance or in forming theories, speculative incursions into the realm of the potential do not take place in a vacuum. These incursions are facilitated by media and institutions, and have a real impact. The operation of today’s financial markets, for example, is inconceivable without digital technologies, and requires the framework of specific contractual forms. One repercussion of this intensified speculative opening toward the future – palpable in society, knowledge, lives, and labor – is an erosion of the present.
The scholar of culture, media, and literature, Joseph Vogl has extensively studied the consequences and premises of both economic and theoretical speculation. In the following conversation, he discusses the reorganization of the regimes of time that pervade our ways of life, aesthetics, and economic and political constitutions. He also addresses the more recent foundational ventures of Speculative Realism. Its efforts over ancestrality may bear the hallmarks of two familiar tendencies: Humanism and reification.
Philipp Ekardt: As an economic – and perhaps more general – operation with possibilities or futures, speculation is distinguished by a peculiar invisibility. Speculation is something we can’t see. But then speculative economic operations are inconceivable without media. That raises the question of the mediatization, and even representability, of speculation, which is something you’ve thought about a great deal.  Can speculation be recorded, and if so, how?
Joseph Vogl: Most immediately, speculation is a particular form of contract that refers to uncertain futures. The betting contract, which derives from Roman law, is arguably a case in point – a contractual obligation that refers to uncertain future events. In the financial markets, this form of contract has become the standard case; any transaction, any sale, or purchase of financial products refers to future price developments and effects the present payment of future prices. In the circumstances created by the most recent developments in media technologies, this means, first, an acceleration of operations (all the way to high-frequency trading), and second, the implementation of algorithms designed to make uncertain futures or market trends expectable or probable. It’s about the systematic transformation of uncertainties into expectabilities; about the taming of time.
Ekardt: So when we talk about speculation in the economic sense today, we have to discuss digital technology as well?
Vogl: Yes – digital technology is a media-a priori of today’s financial markets. Which is not to say that these things weren’t also going on in the past; only the technical as well as institutional conditions were different, as the history of the stock exchange as a scene of market activity illustrates.
Ekardt: Haven’t today’s stock exchanges lost this quality of being the concrete scene of the action?
Vogl: We can indeed observe several transformations with regard to localization and temporalization, as well as a change of institutional formats. As recently as the sixteenth century, speculative deals were struck at the so-called trade fairs, which were held four times a year, which is to say, in a spatially and temporally limited setting. The earliest stock exchanges turned this into a continuous business. Amsterdam’s was the first exchange where financial products like stocks as well as the corresponding futures contracts were traded, starting in the early seventeenth century. So that was a chronotopos of its own kind. The most recent development has been a deinstitutionalization of these speculative deals on several levels – for example, in what’s been called over-the-counter trading in the past few decades – which is to say, a disengagement from the fenced-in and rigorously controlled stock exchanges.
Ekardt: Writing about speculation via electronic digital media in your book “Das Gespenst des Kapitals,” you’ve succinctly described it as an “assault of the future on the rest of time.”  In the early 1980s, Alexander Kluge coined the phrase “assault of the present on the rest of time” to capture his reflections on electronic media. In the history of these media, has there been a gradual escalation of their grasp of time?
Vogl: The “assault of the present” can likewise be read with reference to media situations. For instance, to the history of television. Initially – at least until recording technologies, which is to say, video formats, were developed – television was nothing but an unceasing stream of momentary broadcast presence. Nowness without memory. The transience of the present becomes the drama of what is shown. The digital media nexus – which is to say, first, digital networks; second, certain methods of calculation; and third, the corresponding storage technologies – promises something else: That future events, or in other words, uncertain futures, can actually be transformed into defined probability horizons that can in turn be sold in the form of contracts and thus securitized or hedged against. The replication of past processes is supposed to make the future calculable. The “assault of the future on the rest of time” becomes manifest, and manifest as an assault, when this future – future profits – determines actions in the present and de-actualizes that present. This takes a dramatic turn in crises, which are simply seismic events along the faults between temporal horizons.
Ekardt: You’ve also coined the formula of the “specter of capital returning from the future” or “haunting us from the future”. Are these two figures interconnected: The bleeding of the present into the future and the growing obligations we incur toward the future, contractually, financially, but perhaps also in our biographies and ways of living?
Vogl: Yes, the economic system is the paradigm that lets us understand the powerful pull of time and of futuristic conditions. It becomes very visible, almost trivially so, at a specific point in the financial economy: When we are compelled to recognize that our social contracts have been tacitly rewritten. A social contract based on reciprocity, however fictional it may be, can still be the founding document of a republican society. That’s the legacy of political theories since the eighteenth century. Now there’s suddenly a social contract in its stead that’s defined by an economy of credit and finance in which the structural insolvency of the system is perpetually compensated for by an ongoing “futurization” of debt. Societies are held together by debts that no one can pay, by credits that can’t be redeemed. All that necessitates a systematic and future-fixated incessant operation of the whole economy.
Ekardt: Do you see parallels with other forms that commit the subjects to their individual futures, for example, in the project economy that’s become typical of the art system and the so-called culture industry and even the academic world? Here, too, people are supposed to realize anticipated outcomes, but the realization no longer stands in for the creation or stabilization of present structures. Instead, project-based work means leaving whatever has been accomplished behind at once in order to begin work on the next project, picking up the next work of realization. Correspondingly, individual biographies are increasingly screened – say, when it comes to hiring people for a job – with a view to the candidate’s “development potential”. The present-day “sum total” of a candidate’s achievements matters less and less.
Vogl: This project-based work is a subsidiary strand of the de-routinization of presents, which requires a certain artistry in dealing with short time limits. But I would also ask more generally: What are the places where something like an intuitive sense for the future comes in, which is to say, where a self-conception of contemporary society is engendered by the fact that everyone’s actions in the here and now are chosen solely with a view to what will be. Meteorology is our paradigmatic science; we look to trends and the forecasting business for orientation. The lifeworld is a system for the notation of market trend data. And fashion is not just about clothes and accessories. Instead, what it demands of us is that we behave today – out of conformism or extravagance – in accordance with tomorrow’s trends.
Ekardt: True – fashion actually works on consuming the present in a certain way. Walter Benjamin already suggested that the fashion collectives possess this sort of futuristic intuition, and Georg Simmel’s philosophy of fashion describes how it grows toward its own destruction. Fashions are phenomena that spread until a system is saturated with them, at which point they cease to exist as fashions. Then the next difference must be entered. The strong emphasis on the present, on the “now” of fashion, is an effect of the fact that countless distinctions are simultaneously drawn in the system that set the present off both from the past and from the future. So there’s no complete presence of fashion; it’s always already woven into a differential economy of time in which it is coming, is fading, is plunging into the future and consuming itself in this plunge.
Vogl: We’ve somehow stumbled into frenetic modes of existence and can’t find a way out.
Ekardt: Something else that we can describe as a characteristic feature of speculation is that it makes reference problematic, an observation that’s often discussed in connection with the abolition of the gold standard. Is that plausible?
Vogl: That’s a different issue. Speculative deals are forward transactions, an old business practice in which someone pays today for what he will receive tomorrow. It’s a way to hedge against expected price increases, for example. And such deals can go wrong; see the example of Thomas Buddenbrook, who made a grand gesture out of buying a future grain harvest that was then destroyed by a hailstorm.
Ekardt: So there’s an anticipation that the future referent will at some point be, let’s say, filled in for by a material substrate or an object that covers the value. In the Buddenbrooks’s case, this anticipation would have been mistaken.
Vogl: Exactly. And regarding the gold standard: It never existed in its pure form. All modern banking systems are fractional-reserve systems; with all modern currencies, there’s always been more “paper” in circulation than was directly backed by hard cash. The gold standard probably had two sides – a mythological one, where the notion of a gleaming treasure works like a confidence-building measure; and a technical one, as in the Bretton Woods Agreement, where the intention was to hedge the exchange rates between the currencies by guaranteeing the convertibility of dollars into gold. In the end, that didn’t work.
Ekardt: Is this related to the fact that, as you write, speculation is the basic form of all financial transactions?
Vogl: Yes. If capital, in a highly simplified definition, means that we’re looking at a sum of value that is available for exploitation, that promises potential future returns, then any investment is speculative on its face.
Ekardt: In other words, the current development is not a categorical transformation of what capitalism once was but simply the escalation of a trait that was inherent in the system from the outset?
Vogl: Yes. “Growth” is needed because the logic of capital dictates the present realization of tomorrow’s yields. So they have to be generated.
Ekardt: You open “Das Gespenst des Kapitals” with a reference to a novel, Don DeLillo’s “Cosmopolis”, whose protagonist, Eric Packer, is a currency speculator. If we didn’t have this information, we’d hardly recognize him as the classical speculator type. He has nothing in common with the figures we know from recent stock-market movies like “Wall Street” or from portraits in the realist mode like Zola’s novel “L’Argent”. Packer exists in the isolation of his limousine driving him through Manhattan, and information flows reach him only through selected channels and isolated interactions. The typical dramatic mass scenes set on the trading floor are completely absent.
Vogl: But he’s inherited all traits of the other, extravagant speculator figures since the nineteenth century: The wolfish features, the dandyism, the nervousness, the bachelordom, the insomnia. And a strange spiritualism that yearns for a kind of Eucharist, a transmutation of what is heavy and inert into the immaterial. What’s new is his office limousine, in which he swims through the Manhattan traffic like a latter-day Odysseus. Its screens illustrate the most recent shift of the standard behind currencies; the transformation of money into information. He knows that money today is bought with information.
Ekardt: There are several passages in the novel – DeLillo, it turns out, knows his way around art, too – where a very classical modernist aesthetic resurfaces. Eric Packer’s art dealer Didi Fancher advises him to buy a Rothko. His apartment is decorated with abstract paintings – monochrome empty canvases that, as DeLillo emphasizes, aren’t new. Then there’s this very funny passage about how Packer, when he feels slightly out of balance, takes the elevator at a quarter of the normal speed while Satie is playing. On the one hand, that’s a joke, because Satie is in fact regarded as the father of elevator music. On the other hand, Satie, like certain varieties of abstraction, is exemplary of aesthetic programs that, though they seem to bear an affinity to the speculative modes we’ve talked about, diverge from them in a significant way: They de-objectivate, eliminate referentiality, and let “color”, “painting”, or, if you want, “language as such” speak for themselves. In the current speculative constellation, this form of aesthetic appears as a mere stabilizer: Modernist strategies of emptying out and reduction now serve as the last aesthetic buffers, providing the speculator with a leveling affection.
Vogl: If an ontology of this type existed, it would be tied to the question of how a floating existence can be created. Accumulation of options, minimization of attachments; amassing futures, erasing pasts. That’s also where the aesthetic intervenes, creating a sort of biotope of possibility. Modern finance loves modern art: it lets you decorate your walls with options. This brings us to another, even more direct link between art and finance. The capital and art markets follow the same logic. Art dealers have the same nose that brokers have, the same intuitive sense for trends and opportunities. They don’t just know that Russian oligarchs have a penchant for large formats or that pictures from Picasso’s blue period sell at high prices, because they’re decorative. More importantly, they know deep down that nothing has a “real” price, that demand triggers demand, that high prices lead to higher prices, that taste is a competitive discipline. And that every financial crisis is heralded by a crisis in the art market.
Ekardt: The same speculative tendency also affects the art system in various ways. For example, the nature of collecting has changed because buyers, down to those with very small collections, make their choices based on the assumption – which, by the way, is often enough wrong – that art is an investment, an asset that can potentially be sold at a profit.
Vogl: Yes, the concept of the collection has changed. It extricates itself from its archival setting, as it were, and becomes a bank.
Ekardt: Can one generalize this combination of art and speculation we encounter in the Packer character?
Vogl: I don’t know. On the one hand, the nexus between art and speculation reminds us that both are fields in which aspirations to autonomy condense. Autonomous art and capital, as wealth that has become autonomous by cutting all social ties, may sometimes feel something like an affinity or brotherly sympathy for each other. On the other hand, we mustn’t forget that most actors in the financial markets are at bottom pretty much squares.
Ekardt: I want to go back to the issue of temporality: It’s interesting to note that some Speculative Realists have recently conceived the relationship between time and speculation in terms that differ from the cases we’ve talked about. Quentin Meillassoux, in his essay on “Metaphysics, Speculation, Correlation”,  for example, speaks of the “antinomy of ancestrality”, meaning the scientific-empirical datability of processes, and hence of expanses of time, before the arrival of humankind. He asks how we can speculatively form an idea of this sort of temporality. The futurization of financial speculation effectively amounts to an attempt, to use your term, to tame time, resulting in an erosion of the present; Meillassoux’s project, however, would seem to have more to do with the attempt to drop an anchor.
Vogl: The question of the significance of the pre-human era for thinking is not new at all. In “The Order of Things”, Michel Foucault asked similar questions. When he speaks of the “empirical-transcendental doublet”, that’s exactly what he means: That man is tethered to something that consistently eludes him – language, life, work. He analyzed this as an epistemological intrigue of the human sciences, of anthropology. We could also recommend a novella by Max Frisch to Meillassoux, “Man in the Holocene,” in which a fading human existence confronts the massive geology of a mountain range. But it seems to me that Meillassoux has fewer questions than answers. That’s what gives rise to a new form of scholasticism or dogmatism. Or a philosophical absolutism in the literal sense, which objects to what Meillassoux calls “correlationism” by going back to the insistence on solid “facts” and “realities”, an unquestionable absolute. We might say that it’s an attempt, in the field of philosophy, to go back to something like an intellectual gold standard. With a bit of exaggeration, I would call these attempts alchemical experiments in the field of philosophy.
Ekardt: Do the technological and media instruments that are used to establish datability play a part in this connection?
Vogl: Meillassoux’s text shows little interest in how the data (such as the dating of the earth’s age) which he invokes are manufactured. He simply treats them as data, as givens. He doesn’t care about the technological procedures used to make the past produce signs, to send signals addressed to us – so there’s something flatly positivistic about it, to put it bluntly. That’s why at the end of the day, he stubbornly turns empirical conditions into transcendental ones, which is to say, he does metaphysics.
Ekardt: That would seem to go together with Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, which is to say, his attempt not just to think the correlation between subject and object, or its conceivability, but also to venture beyond these firmly drawn boundaries, in ways both speculative and empirical. He is relatively open about his interest in the question of how to strike philosophical meaning out of this scientific datability, which also sets his project apart from others that have reflected on such datability in the past. If you look at Friedrich Kittler, he precisely drew a distinction between what’s datable and what’s meaningful. So is Speculative Realism the attempt to relate meaning back to what media theory had already described as that which differs from meaning? Is this ultimately a rollback?
Vogl: I’m not sure about that. It’s just my impression that this peculiar constellation is informed by a philosophical xenophobia: An empirical subject – one, it should be noted, that has a proper name, bowing its head over the desk and writing and perhaps also doing philosophy – expels definite aspects of otherness with which it is endowed, aspects that are, you might say, part of its anthropological endowment, into the realm of the strictly non-human and non-anthropomorphic. The empirical subject represents the species, the species-subject has been anthropologically expurgated, and so the whole operation is clean, as it were. There’s no disconcertment anymore, no embedded splinters of otherness, which, in a daring sleight of hand, have been antedated into the ancestral realm, that alien world beyond and before man. What is other is unceremoniously expatriated, or to use a more traditional term, “reified.”
Ekardt: So, an aggressive and expulsive humanism?
Vogl: Yes. There’s a philosophical humanism here that no longer has the nerve to engage with the impositions and aporetic questions of humanism. We mustn’t forget, by the way, that certain shock-like experiences of this otherness have of course been known since the late eighteenth century, if not even earlier – certainly from the moment on when people were compelled to acknowledge that the world is more than three or six thousand years old, older than any creation myth, and that it has a history that is vastly longer than the history of life, which is in turn vastly longer than the history of humankind. In light of this experience of otherness, these “ancestral” chasms, what Meillassoux brings up isn’t new at all. What’s new is the radical resolve not to conceive this profound disconcertment as a state of affairs to be recognized in the difficult process of understanding the self. And then it takes a very big pot indeed to hold all the different things and positions Meillassoux subsumes under the title “correlationism”; the flavors of ingredients as divergent as hermeneutics, discourse analysis, deconstruction, structuralism, et cetera become difficult to tell apart, and that’s the point: They’re meant to be thoroughly blended. We have never been modern. What obviously makes Meillassoux impatient is harboring the suspicion of complexity. Faced with so many complexities, with regard to various entanglements of world and subject, with regard to difficult geneses of the subject, with regard to the shifting fault line between external and internal histories of man, it seems, he lost control of his Occam’s razor.
Ekardt: One last question: Is there a complementarity between financial speculation and the current speculative thinking, in the sense that forms of virtually fundamentalizing speculation emerge at a moment when the other form of speculation flees into the future, potentializing the present by redefining it as a space of possibility? Or is that too symmetrical?
Vogl: Well, the most interesting comparisons happen to be the ones between apples and oranges. If “speculation” – from Latin speculari, to scout or spy – means “to look out for dangers”, and if the speculative proposition in philosophy performs a transgression of common sense, of community standards, and an obliteration of finite phenomena, then philosophical speculation and financial speculation can both be seen as techniques that operate not on the representation but on the risks of a de-presentation of the world. To put it in a nutshell: Whereas a “speculative realism” runs the risk of speculatively losing its existing realities, financial speculation can take pride in speculatively gaining realities that never existed.
(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)