Essay by Eirik Melstrøm, April 2019
In her collection of essays Duty Free Art, artist and philosopher Hito Steyerl directly addresses the concept of speculation:
Speculari means to observe in Latin. It is used as the Latin translation of the Greek theoria and describes the quest for the essence or origins of things behind their empirical existence. At the same time, it refers to a jump into the haze of pure appearance (…) Speculation characterizes periods of transition in philosophy, when the questions exceed the possible rational means of answering them. Thus philosophical speculation also presents risks and opportunities. It presents the possibility of thinking outside the box as well as the danger of getting completely lost out there.
Culturally, the term Speculation often carry with it negative connotations. In the financial world, it involves taking a risk, stepping into a zone of unpredictability to reach possible greater gains, but also greater loss. In Natural Sciences, speculation is the antithesis to empirical and certifiable data-based knowledge production. Associated with conspiracy thinking speculation is often dismissed in popular terms as being untruthful, and thus unproductive and undesired.
On the contrary I believe speculation to be as productive to the way we process and experience the world as empiricism. I am far from the first to challenge the opinion that Natural Sciences are devoid of speculation. In his study Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), STS- (Science and Technology Studies) pioneer Bruno Latour revealed fundamental limitations in empirical approaches to so called scientific truths. He showed that these facts to a large degree are socially constructed by the very people doing the research. Latour in the process rejected entirely that there is such a thing as empirical truth.
Oscar Wilde applied this to artistic practice by calling it “the need for imagination” – an artist’s attempt to visualize that which is not present, that which cannot be rationalized by science. In his Decay of Lying (1889) Wilde dismisses the focus on the rational over the imaginative in saying that “everything is a lie”, because we have no clue what truth really is – of what life is really like. Thus, he says, explanation falls short of imagination. It leads me to the conclusion that a work of art based on a lie can be as truthful to the human desire of understanding the world, as theoretical physics is to the desire of explaining it.
When looking upon one of American artist John McCrackens glossy colored epoxy columns you do not dismiss them based on whether you believe the artists story or not, even if that story involves him being abducted by extraterrestrials. You do not question the work based on whether you believe it to be truth or false, in the same way you would not ask Miles Davis why he chose to play the specific notes he did, or Jackson Pollock why he painted one specific drip, even though you could. You experience the work, and it is precisely in the disconnection from our overdeveloped ability to rationalize, quantify and seek answers, that the speculative give birth to a new mode of experience, a new set connections, and in my opinion, new knowledge.
I want my work to balance on the point where you can choose to read the speculative aspects into it, or you can choose not to. I want the reading of the work to be able to tip both ways, like I experience with McCrackens work, that it can be experienced independently of the speculative narrative, or as a direct expansion of it. I am fascinated by the prospects of an artwork being able to serve the viewer multiple entries. Unknown pleasures into unknown space.
Venturing ever further into space, Albert Einstein stated while working on his theory of relativity that an intuitive approach to his work was necessary, that the reasoning of the proofs in question often came to him by relating to scenarios in his own subjective experience of the world rather than through calculations alone. Looking out the window while riding the bus being one example. Ergo, creative thinking through association, not empiricism alone. Sigmund Freuds research leading into his theory of the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams can be said to be highly speculative. For one he based it all on a very limited case study of only a few so called “hysterical women”. Secondly, in producing the idea of sublimation and the sexual drive he literally wrote fictional narratives based not on empirical research, but on his own beliefs, as he himself stated: “in an attempt to follow through with an idea, being curious of where it could lead me”. Many of these ideas and fictional narratives have been rightfully discarded, like for example his idea that “women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own”. Nevertheless, his speculative methodology led to the knowledge that we have an unconscious, that there are processes going on at a level in our minds that we cannot access rationally, and into which we suppress certain aspects of our lives. This is something that today are shared beliefs, something that is still held as reasonable, and something that over the years have helped many a distraught mind.
Contemporary philosophical thinking concerned with human and non-human relations has also recently embraced the speculative. The anthology The Speculative Turn, edited by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, both prominent figures in what has become known as Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, shed light on limitations in how humans have come to constitute the idea of reality. In short, they criticize the way humanity has been at the center of the idea of reality, and that reality appears in philosophy only as the correlate of human thought. They introduce a new approach to realism that breaks with the anthropomorphized modes of understanding our environments that have been prominent since Kant, and perhaps even more so Descartes so-called Cartesian revolution. Common to the new thinkers is that they have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of human thought and of humanity more generally. The different fractions of this New Materialist philosophy either reinstate autonomy to all non-human agents in the world (Object Oriented Ontology), or point to the interconnectedness of objects causing multiple modes of existence for each object (Actor-Network Theory), as opposed to the fixed ontological categorizations of the past. In the process, they are rejecting the lingual and textual critique of earlier philosophical traditions (from phenomenology to postmodernism) as it adopts an anthropocentric and thus limiting view of reality:
This activity of ‘speculation’ may be cause for concern amongst some readers, for it might suggest a return to pre-critical philosophy, with its dogmatic belief in the powers of pure reason. The speculative turn, however, is not an outright rejection of these critical advances; instead, it comes from a recognition of their inherent limitations. Speculation in this sense aims at something ‘beyond’ the critical and linguistic turns. (…) In the face of the ecological crisis, the forward march of neuroscience, the increasingly splintered interpretations of basic physics, and the ongoing breach of the divide between human and machine, there is a growing sense that previous philosophies are incapable of confronting these events.
Going for this “beyond” in my mind correlates with what Steyerl called “a jump into pure appearance”, what McCrackens is going for by destabilizing the significance of “truth” in his work, and what Fedorov sought in his quest for universal immortality. In many respects, it also relates to the concept of love, in the beyond-ness of an affectionate relationship; beyond both language and materiality. The speculative in my mind inhabits this unfixed and mobile position of the beyond.
As much as I have stated the need for speculative thinking in knowledge production, speculation also represents a potential hazard. Steyerl recognize this hazard especially in our constant changing age of digital representation. As much as a way of thinking outside the box, speculation is also a source of distorting reality, with the concept of “Fake News” being a candid example. When the fundamentals of truthfulness are questioned, the danger of misuse in the name of personal gain becomes apparent.
The speculative represent a danger and a potential at the same time. It is not anti-facts, nor science-fiction. It is rather a way of experimentation, of not being confined by the positivist frame of thought that is being applied to more and more aspects of our lives. I associate speculation not with untruthfulness, but rather with play – a way of actively seeking the unknown without the need to produce conclusive answers. Speculation is a mode of being, like that of play, rather than a subject or a methodology. It represents a wish to interact with the world, our surroundings, in a way that is fluid and not fixed. In my mind, it correlates with what it means to have an active and constantly developing artistic practice – of what it means to be an artist.
The developments of the world need to be processed from multiple angles and by multiple practices, scientific and artistic, to obtain what writer Siri Hustvedt calls “focused zones of ambiguity”. There are no fixed ontological approaches to the world, our lives nor our environments. No absolute definition, no universal truth or stable core. We must seek multiple entries of investigation to be able to represent the multiple realities that exist between human and non-human elements of the world. To include the concept of speculation into these investigations is in my mind paramount in moving forward.