SPECIAL BOOK EVENT: JAMIE PIETRUSKA ON ARIS KOMPOROZOS-ATHANASIOU’S “SPECULATIVE COMMUNITIES”

[Critical AI’s special book events feature author visits and commentary by respondents. Below is a blog on a March 4, 2022 event featuring Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou (Sociology, University College London) who discussed his new book,Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World–with moderator Jamie Pietruska (History, Rutgers) and respondent Justin Jocque (Visualization Librarian, Michigan), Click for the video and  for the discussion that followed.]

By Jamie Pietruska (History, Rutgers University)

Amid the twenty-first century’s waves and surges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the accelerating climate crisis and the increasing prevalence of weather- and climate-related disasters, rising tides of nationalism and xenophobia, the erosion of liberal democracy and human rights, and assaults on science and expertise, uncertainty is a predictable feature of everyday life. What is the nature of the relationship between these uncertainties and global finance capitalism? How might new social formations respond to a disorienting social media onslaught of “fake news” and disinformation? Can a new kind of speculative imagination help generate a new, liberatory politics of radical uncertainty? 

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou’s new book, Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World (University of Chicago Press, 2022) begins with a glossary of key terms redefining speculation and related concepts. This is the project of the book: to re-theorize speculation as not merely market activity but also an act of anticipatory imagination that transcends individual actors to offer the possibility of community-building and grassroots political engagement. The speculative imagination, as Komporozos-Athanasiou defines it, is a response to uncertainty not as an economic or social threat but rather as an opportunity to “bring forth new collective images of the future” (ix). Speculative communities, the collective form of the speculative imagination, are “defined by a speculative engagement with the future and a connection with others on the basis of shared experiences of volatility and precarity” (ix).

Komporozos-Athanasiou’s talk was framed by a set of questions that animate the book: Why do we welcome uncertainty? What does welcoming uncertainty have to do with finance? What is the relationship between finance capitalism and unexpected political events? What are the similarities between K-Pop fandom communities and Wall Street’s high-frequency trading? Is finance inadvertently revitalizing politics? As an entry point into these questions, Komporozos-Athanasiou discussed two June 2020 events that illustrated resistance to what he defines as speculative politics, or “the politics of sowing chaos to reap power” (x). First, cyberprotestors posted K-pop fan cams and various GIFs to the iWatch Dallas app when the Dallas Police Department requested footage from the protests against police brutality and white supremacy in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a former Minneapolis police officer.  Second, Tik-Tok users and K-pop fans disrupted a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in late June by registering for hundreds of thousands of tickets and then not showing up, leaving two-thirds of the arena seats empty. These events, as Komporozos-Athanasiou argued, created disruption and disorientation by “deploy[ing] fakery to create real chaos.” This mode of cyberprotest serves as an example of what Komporozos-Athanasiou described as “the political weaponization of the volatility of today’s financialized world,” or what his glossary defines as a form of grassroots counter-speculation.

Shutterstock.

Komporozos-Athanasiou then turned to a case study of digital astrology to illustrate how financialized capitalism’s speculative technologies—“the commodified digital infrastructures enabling the circulation of speculative imaginations” (x)—create and reflect conditions of radical uncertainty. The app Co-Star is one of the industry leaders amid the recent boom in astrology in which online platforms have seen a spike in traffic from users during a period of widespread uncertainty.  Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, during the political chaos of the Trump administration, the New York Times sought to explain “how astrology took over the Internet.”

In some respects, this ascendance of astrology is not surprising. Historically, forms of mystical foreknowledge have found renewed popularity during periods of cultural crisis and political and economic uncertainty: the boom in spirit mediumship during the American Civil War and World War I, the appeal of business astrology after the stock market crash of 1929, the best-selling astrology titles during the political and economic shocks of the 1970s, and the turn to fortune-telling and astrology during and after the Great Recession of 2008.What is new, of course, is the digital infrastructure and use of AI-generated text to generate what the Co-Star website bills as “the hyper-personalized, social astrology experience. . . powered by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers.” Co-Star’s content writers consult astrology books and social media discourse on astrology to generate fragments of text corresponding to particular planets and astrological signs, which a proprietary algorithm converts into individualized daily horoscopes and a series of push notifications. As a 2019 Verge interview revealed, these pithy and edgy notifications (e.g., “Check your ego,” “Do you play well with others?”) constitute what founder and CEO of Co-Star, Banu Guler, characterizes as a form of “‘collective self-care.’” 

Image Credit: Alex Castro.

Indeed, much of the popular and journalistic commentary on the current cultural fascination with astrology has focused on this mode of intimate therapeutic reassurance, which is gendered: a 2019 New Yorker profile revealed that 80 percent of Co-Star users were women with an average age of 24. However, Komporozos-Athanasiou emphasized that Co-Star’s appeal is not comforting promises of predictive certainty but rather the playful, ironic embrace of uncertainty conveyed in the motto “allowing irrationality to invade our techno-rationalist ways of living.” Positing a shift in astrological charts from forecasting tools to “vehicles of collective uncertainty” (79), Komporozos-Athanasiou argued that Co-Star has “little in common with the astrologers of the past.” An important difference is the shared experience of Co-Star’s social networking features that connect users with their friends’ daily horoscopes to offer what Komporozos-Athanasiou described as a “speculative kind of sociality.” Yet, there is also an important continuity between astrologers past and present in Co-Star’s rejection of predictive certainty, which echoes the longer historical trajectory of occult prediction. In the United States, beginning in the early 20th century, fortune-telling and astrology were considered legal as long as they did not make claims about the future with certainty. So then, as now, the purposeful vagueness of astrologers, fortune-tellers, spirit mediums, and psychics is a key part of their cultural appeal, business success, and moral legitimacy. With its marketing of irrationality and uncertainty as a feature, not a bug, Co-Star has cleverly inverted the 19th-century moral critique of fortune-telling as fraudulent because it made claims to predictive certainty.

Portion of a Typical Early Nineteenth Century Star Chart, Bode’s Uranography 1801.

Komporozos-Athanasiou then presented an overview of his theoretical framework for financialized capitalism in which Co-Star and other speculative technologies “coproduce and represent the conditions of radical uncertainty that define a speculative mode of being” (81).  Invoking Frank Knight’s and John Maynard Keynes’s influential formulations of risk and uncertainty, Komporozos-Athanasiou began from two premises: first, that markets view the future as unknowable and indeterminate, and second, that uncertainty can be both lucrative and desirable. He then turned to the historical distinctions between gambling and speculation in Proudhon’s 1854 Manuel du Spéculateur a la Bourse and legal battles over organized commodity futures trading in late 19th-century Chicago in a discussion of “the great wars for the moral legitimation of speculation.” The history of futures trading in the late 19th-century United States is a point of origin for Komporozos-Athanasiou’s retheorizing of speculation, which hinges on an interpretation of “futures traders as the insurers of society.”Here Komporozos-Athanasiou acknowledged the dual function of speculation as risk-taking and as insurance (i.e., both shorting and hedging). 

From speculation’s economic functions, Komporozos-Athanasiou shifted to its imaginative registers, discussing what he described as symbolic forms of insurance (e.g., nationalism, ethnonationalism) that allow ordinary people to make their own wagers as a “collective coping mechanism” during times of political and economic volatility. In this formulation, the temporalities of speculation are both future-oriented and rooted in the present, at once a mode of experiencing the present as well as anticipating—and creating—the future.  Komporozos-Athanasiou concluded his talk by returning to the radical potential of counter-speculation as a “collectivizing of uncertainty.”

A response from Justin Joque, author of Revolutionary Mathematics: Artificial Intelligence, Statistics and the Logic of Capitalism (Verso, 2022), highlighted three major aspects of our present moment which Komporozos-Athanasiou’s theoretical framework for speculation brings into sharper focus: (1) the renewed allure of fascism, ethnonationalism, “race science,” and astrology; (2) the connection to the individual that resists the overdetermination of markets and the economy; and (3) the connection between the speculating subject and the imagination.  Joque’s concluding question—how do we navigate the thin line between destructive and productive speculation?—led into a lively discussion with the audience. 

The group discussed a series of provocative questions, including the following:

(1)   How might we enact Komporozos-Athanasiou’s “counter-speculation” and Joque’s “revolutionary mathematics” in a politically activist sense? In Speculative Communities, Komporozos-Athanasiou sets forth Homo speculans as a capacious category that invites us to imagine new radical possibilities for a more just and equitable system of global capitalism, mentioning in the introduction capitalism’s excluded social groups as well as those populations who are forced into their speculative position (5-6). The group discussed what this new speculative imagination or methods of counter-speculation might look like in everyday life for different social groups. 

(2)   The group explored Komporozos-Athanasiou’s category of the “real fake” of capitalism and its echoes of historian Jay Cook’s research on the 19th-century showman P. T. Barnum, which revealed that people who bought tickets to Barnum’s shows knew that they were paying to see a fake—a fake mermaid, for example—and what they were really paying for was the self-reflexive epistemological play with the very categories of genuine and fraudulent. 

(3)   The group also discussed whether there was a role for increased government regulation and state power in speculative communities.

(4)   Komporozos-Athanasiou’s attention to the historical context of late 19th-century commodity futures trading, where he locates the origins of homo speculans, led to a discussion of intellectual and technological responses to uncertainty in the past and present. In the late 19th century, there was a great deal of cultural anxiety over the economic and social implications of uncertainty. The writer Edward Bellamy warned of a “specter of Uncertainty” haunting late Americans in a boom-and-bust economy, and the novelist William Dean Howells used the term “economic chance-world” to make the point that having a job and housing and food on the table could be as arbitrary as a roll of the dice. In this period, the new quadruplex telegraph and stock ticker accelerated the circulation of news and market information and reshaped finance capitalism by enabling continuous trading on commodity exchanges and driving the rise of commodity futures trading in which the volume of speculative commodity futures often exceeded the volume of the physical commodity. 

Komporozos-Athanasiou and the audience closed the event by pondering whether earlier, pre-digital computing technologies were also “speculative” technologies, or whether speculative technologies must always be digital. Komporozos-Athanasiou’s work posits a technological disjuncture in which digital computing, Internet culture, and social media platforms have enabled unique forms of speculative imagination and speculative practices.  Yet the history of speculation suggests that anticipatory ideas and technologies, which have shifted over time, have often been characterized by commercialization and community formation, including practices of divination that span antiquity to the present day, speculative “manias” in the 17th and 18th centuries, 19th-century commodity futures exchanges and “bucket shops,” early to mid-20th-century “policy” lotteries, and the shift away from open outcry commodity futures trading to on-screen trading at the turn of the 21st century.  With his provocative redefinition of many of speculation’s keywords, Komporozos-Athanasiou has provided a robust theoretical lens through which scholars might re-examine these and other instances of technologies at the center of communities that have cohered around speculative ideas and practices.

FOR FURTHER READING.

For a recent history of ideas about speculation, see Gayle Rogers, Speculation: A Cultural History from Aristotle to AI (Columbia University Press, 2021)

On astrology and fortune-telling, see:

Monica Azzolini, “Horoscopes,” in Information: A Historical Companion, ed. Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 486-490

David Allen Harvey, “Fortune-Tellers in the French Courts: Antidivination Prosecutions in the
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,”
French Historical Studies 28, no. 1 (2005): 131-157

Alana Piper, “Women’s Work: The Professionalisation and Policing of Fortune-Telling in Australia,” Labour History 108 (2015): 37-52
Shane White, “The Gold Diggers of 1833: African American Dreams, Fortune-Telling, Treasure-Seeking, and Policy in Antebellum New York City,” Journal of Social History 47, no. 3 (2014): 673-695

On gambling and “policy” lotteries, see:

Ann Fabian, Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America (Routledge, 1999)

LaShawn D. Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy (University of Illinois Press 2016)

Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach, Dream Books and Gamblers: Black Women’s Work in Chicago’s Policy Game (University of Illinois Press, 2022)

On commodity futures trading, see:

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton, 1991), 97-147 (“Pricing the Future: Grain”)

Jonathan Ira Levy, “Contemplating Delivery: Futures Trading and the Problem of Commodity Exchange in the United States, 1875-1905,” American Historical Review 111, no. 2 (2006): 307-355

David Hochfelder, “‘Where the Common People Could Speculate’: The Ticker, Bucket Shops, and the Origins of Popular Participation in Financial Markets, 1880-1920,” Journal of American History 93, no. 2 (2006): 335-358

Alexander Engel, “Buying Time: Futures Trading and Telegraphy in Nineteenth-Century Global Commodity Markets,” Journal of Global History 10, no. 2 (2015): 284-306

Alex Preda, Framing Finance: The Boundaries of Markets and Modern Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2009)
Caitlin Zaloom, Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

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