Grammar Of The Speculative Present
A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik
continues from the previous post:
SM: To return to your question: in contrast to the sorry complex of right and left reactions to the speculative present that is contemporaneity in art and elsewhere, what is needed is a way to engage with the time-complex that is not just about drawing profits and exacerbating exploitation on this revised basis, as neoliberalism has so successfully done. That capitalized formation of the time-complex is a kind of limited and restricted organization of the speculative present; one that for all of its complexity reverts to presentification because the profits have to be accumulated now as per the short-termism of neoliberal capitalism.
AA: The problem is that one has to admit that the social, technological, political and economic formation of neoliberalism has an advantage because it acts within the speculative temporality, in part as it has established institutions functioning in accordance with this speculative logic. But the neoliberal formation also reduces the speculative dimension of the time-complex because it repudiates the openness or contingency of the future as well as the present.
SM: No, I disagree. I think the problem precisely is that it opens up more societal and semantic contingency. That is what Ulrich Beck and others involved in the notion of “risk societies” diagnosed in the 1990s in other terms.9 What they call risk is the acknowledgement in the present of how the speculative time-complex opens up the future as the condition for a societal order (more accurately, a quasi-order).
AA: No, no. The contemporary is a constant production of innovations and differences, but it doesn’t introduce a difference to the recursive movement of time. The German allows for distinction between Beschleunigung, which is acceleration as a speeding up, and Akzeleration. The latter really means something like, in the old days, when a clock was too fast. A deviation ahead — not a circular movement, but a recursive one. Akzeleration introduced a kind of difference to the functionality of the clock. And it’s this difference that the neoliberal or neofeudal economic system hardly allows for, because it produces an automatized future. While the kind of criticism typical of the contemporary (left) art is not wrong, it doesn’t see the possibilities of speculative time and reduces it to the present. It just sees the capitalist effects of it. Contemporary critical art mostly produces different — essentially, decorative — objects or meanings that maintain the reduced form of the speculative time-complex. And I am arguing not on the level of just semantic meaning, but really on the level of the materiality of language and the materiality of time, which are not separable.
SM: So the task of the post-contemporary against contemporaneity is to change time?
AA: The post-contemporary works within the speculative present. It understands it, it practices it, and it shapes our temporality. Are there alternative actualizations of the speculative or asynchronous present, are there different readings of it? In her contribution, Aihwa Ong highlights some of these constructions in her anthropology of what she calls “cosmopolitan science.” She outlines how the universalisms and abstractions intrinsic to scientific entrepreneurialism support and are supported in Asia by specific historical-culture formations of meaning, scrambling any simple opposition between local and universals, or between past (culture) and future (entrepreneurial technoscience). With speculative poetics, to take another example, the issue is how do we understand the future in an open way and not just as a kind of indicative future.
SM: What do you mean by “indicative”?
AA: There are three modes in grammar: the imperative (“Go!”), the indicative (“She goes.”), and the conjunctive (“I could go.”). In language philosophy — but also politically — it’s important to understand that all tenses are modal. The past and the present have to be understood in a modal way — primarily as indicative. But the future tense and the conjunctive mode are pretty close in that they both deploy the grammar of possibility. It is this contingency that is reduced by the logic of the contemporary logic and is often misunderstood by the closure of speculative time to the present (“I will have gone.”). But, if I may get a bit more into the technical analysis, the conjunctive is constructed before you are actually going, so whether you are using the conjunctive mode or the future tense in the present you are not yet going. Maybe that’s too technical for here, but the main point is that mode is how a future tense is transformed into a present tense and subsequently into a past tense.
SM: Is the conjunctive the form of contemporaneity? What it sets up is a sense that actions could have happened, but did not happen: “they would or could go,” but they didn’t. And this is a sense where the subject of the sentence is left with a potentiality, which is unrealized.
That makes sense of the celebration of “potentiality” everywhere across the critical left today, and also, again, the limitation of the speculative time-complex by the domination of the present. Claims in contemporary art and contemporaneity are emphatically limited only to setting up options with potentials, without actually doing anything or mobilizing the speculative present to construct a future. The future is only and just a set of potentials that must never be actualized for fear of instrumentalization and, paradoxically and self-destructively, realizing in any present a future radically distinct from the present.
AA: The reduction of the time-complex to contemporaneity does not understand the future to be contingent but the only possible future present that becomes real; in grammatical terms, the future or the present here are understood only via the indicative. But the present is not just an “is,” just as tenses don’t represent time. We have to get rid of an a-modal understanding of time.
SM: The contemporary is a-modal?
AA: Yes, and what is needed instead for a thinking and praxis adequate to the speculative temporality we live in — a Zukunftsgenossenschaft as I called it earlier — are means for transforming a future tense into a present tense. That’s why for me grammar is a way of understanding speculative time in its openness, instead of subjecting it exclusively to the indicative mode. A future happens in the present only if a conjunctive is successfully realized, which happens by way of an imperative. In between “I could go” (present tense conjunctive) and “I go” (future tense indicative) is the hidden command “Go!” (imperative).
For me, it’s exactly this grammatically organized difference that opens up not just a different future and the possibility to do and act differently in the present instead of being subjected to an automatized future, whether it’s by preemptive policing or derivatives. More generally, we have to understand that language changes meaning and time — and on a material and ontological level, not just on a linguistic or conceptual level. These complexes can be tackled via grammatical analyses.
SM: OK, but as nearly all the contributions to this issue demonstrate, we also need to generalize the construction of the time-complex beyond language and its grammar. The conditions we are talking about are made of the broad infrastructures and systemics of the speculative present in large-scale integrated societies. Esposito identifies a scrambling of the time-line against its received and modernist logics that suggests a new openness to the future, which is to the advantage of a relatively new kind of capital accumulation but can be mobilized otherwise. Ivanova makes the case for how a new global juridico-political quasi-order is constructed via unstable restagings of the relations between particulars and universals, while Srnicek and Williams look to the systemic techno-social advance of robotics and automation to transform the fundament of the capitalist rendering of human activity. Benjamin Bratton extends these possibilities under the rubric of “Speculative Design” to more specific scenarios and, simultaneously, along longer time-lines; Ong also takes up the jurisdictional and operational issues in the specific case of the fabrication of a scientific enterprise that makes sense in ethno-cultural terms in Asia, transforming the practical manifestations of where and how identity formation takes place. Laboria Cuboniks wrestle with the legacies of feminism given just such futural and technoscientific reorganization of bodies, identities, and concepts of selfhood; and Roden scrambles body, affect, language in light of a “Disconnection Thesis” according to which the kinds of intelligence inaugurated by Artificial General Intelligence completely change the space of coding at any and every order.
In general, and similarly to the insufficiency of experience as a basis for apprehending the speculative present, the constructions of (presumably only some) human languages is only part of this integrated complex but not wide enough as a mechanism to meet the broad material and semiotic condition.
AA: We need more than a language theory, for sure, but in any case we need what I call a “poetic understanding” which, for me, is informed by language theory instead of an aesthetic one.
SM: My divergence is that, first, even taking poetics as a name for production in general, it still seems to me to be too tied into the structures and affordances of more or less ordinary human language and their ordering. That’s of course a fundamental condition of the systemic, social, technological, economic structuring and mediation necessary for large scale organization. So, while poetics as you present it gives us as human linguistic actors a way of reordering the speculative time-complex in other formats than the kind of repressive mechanisms of contemporaneity and what you identify as the indicative, it’s also necessary that the restructuring are operationalized also in non-linguistic terms. We have to open up the time-complex in its infrastructures which are more structured in terms other than those of human languages. This is what Bratton’s proposal of Speculative Design in this issue puts forward in concrete ways and with specific situations and time-lines, not least with his identification of “The Stack,” which rearranges sovereign power according to the material and infrastructural conditions of computation that is interconnected at a planetary scale. Even more generally, however, we need a grammar adequate to the expansive infrastructure of the time-complex in its widest formation.
9. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: SAGE, 1992)
Revised transcript of a conversation held in Berlin, 29 January 2016.
The German version of this text is part of the book Der Zeitkomplex: Postcontemporary edited by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik.
Illustrations Andreas Töpfer
A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik is taken from:
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