Speculation has been a hot topic, a nebulous yet mostly negative concept, and occasionally a swear word. Associate Professor of Sociology at UCL Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou dissects speculation with more attention and precision, looking at its historical genealogy and how it percolated from the financial world to our everyday lives. In this interview he tells us about the motivations and frustrations behind his newly published book Speculative Communities in which he investigates the financial world’s influence on the social imagination, unraveling its radical effects on our personal and political lives.

Chiara Di Leone: What made you write Speculative Communities?

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou: Having studied Economics as an undergraduate student, I have always been fascinated by financial markets and interested in understanding their impact on everyday life. I was of course disappointed by the profound inadequacies of my formal training in the discipline – by the lack of historical and social grounding in the curriculum, by the short-sightedness and quixotic forecasting claims of economic models. But, at the same time, I was also inexplicably drawn to the mystified world of economic future-making that was simmering beneath these abstractions. Speculative Communities, in some ways, is an attempt to go back to this complex, obfuscated and bewildering world of financial markets as a sociologist, with the intent of doing something more than merely ‘deconstructing’ that world. The book also comes out of a frustration with the often naive and universalizing ways in which contemporary markets tend to be treated in social and political theory, which often cast them as an ‘over-rationalising’ force sequestering our political agency and imagination – or as a fanciful world that is completely ‘disembedded’ from society and politics. Though many of these arguments point to real problems with our financialised world, they tend to engage only superficially with the rich and generative complexity of finance, which therefore remains a ‘black box’.

The core question in the book speaks to a key feature of our contemporary moment which has been precipitated by finance, what we could call a radicalization of uncertainty: the way in which our contemporary sense of reality is perceived increasingly as profoundly unstable and volatile, as traditional structures and narratives are failing to provide satisfactory answers about what is going on. I wanted to delve, specifically, into a perplexing ‘paradox’: we no longer seem capable of or even interested in controlling such uncertainty. Many of our behaviours, across different realms of our lives, are geared increasingly towards more upfront engagements with the unknown, which seem to be accepting and endorsing uncertainty rather than trying to limit it or to mitigate it. 

The book traces the recent history of this phenomenon, focusing on the historical period following up from the 2008 financial crisis. I look at some of the ‘unexpected’ political events of the tumultuous 2010s, like the election of Donald Trump, Brexit in the UK, and the growth of the global national-populist current with Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and so on. I discuss the rise of a particular brand of rather chaotic and strange mix of ideologies coagulating into the right wing populism that has become so prevalent, often befuddling political commentators and theorists alike. My argument is that these kinds of unexpected (political) events represent a shift in the ways voters imagine their futures, how they relate to political narratives and promises. Such imagined futures are no longer geared towards stability and the promise of greater security. Emerging political narratives fueling the global rise of the populist right are disjointed, chaotic and uncertain – and yet somehow they ‘make sense’. Some of the prevalent academic explanations of this issue have been overly focused on people who ‘vote against their interests’, casting them as ‘irrational crowds’ and delusional masses. 

In Speculative Communities, I wanted to examine this paradox from a different perspective, through the lens of finance: I wanted to understand how finance has been nurturing a certain way of imagining, what I call a speculative imagination, in society at large - an imagination that has cultivated these disorienting narratives and attendant political behaviours. Our seemingly ‘irrational’ responses to uncertainty make sense, then, much in the same way as finance’s own speculative endorsement of uncertainty is perfectly rational when it seeks to capitalise from it. Swathes of society have been immersing themselves in a seemingly chaotic and confusing moment with the hope of benefiting from radical uncertainty (rather than trying to avert it). So that’s a core argument that threads through the book, and which I discuss on different levels including economic, social and even intimate life.

CDL: You have expressed frustration not only with economics as a discipline, but also with some of the most popular critical approaches to economic theory. You open the book talking about homo economicus and the critique of economics which are focused on the debunking of the rational agent and of rationality. Next to that, you propose this figure of homo speculans, can you tell us a bit more about that?

AK: You’re right to say that beyond my frustration with the discipline of economics (especially with how I was exposed to it at university) there is a perennial frustration with political critiques of rational economic theory as well. I think that such critiques also ultimately adhere to the same abstract and lopsided view of economic rationality that their imaginary opponents seem to share. One thing to say there is that even within economics itself, the consideration of economic agents is now much more complex than critics often admit - economic models now at least intend to offer a richer view of economic behaviour. But there has been a persistent view in contemporary critical theories that tend to still focus on homo economicus as the dominant hegemonic subject of contemporary capitalism, often setting it up against an idealised Homo politicus. In response, discussion tends to centre on a search for ‘alternative narratives’ that strive to ‘rescue’ more radical political subjectivities from the imagined figure of homo economicus, which is seen as utility-maximising and strangling our political agency, stifling our political imagination, if you like. 

That’s a very well versed narrative that I didn’t quite feel happy with. And so the figure of homo speculans, whose outlines I draw in the book, in some ways seeks to shake up the debate around what the hegemonic subject of contemporary financialized capitalism looks like - and in doing so to move us away from a binary view economic and political agency as either rational or irrational. There is something quite fundamental about our notions of economic subjectivity that need to be opened up, in order to include the profoundly relevant role of imagination in shaping economic agents’ choices and relations. 

To do this I turned to some thinkers that have not traditionally been brought into the conversation so far, when it comes to questions of economic imaginings: Cornelius Castoriadis and Benedict Anderson. Both thinkers have written extensively about the generative, constructive, productive role of the human imagination in moulding human subjectivity, but also our collective bonds, communities, and of course markets: all spaces, in other words, where human relations unfold. With homo speculans, I sought to rehabilitate this role of the imagination in economic as well as social life, which precedes both rationality and what can be designated as the realm of emotions, what Keynes famously called ‘animal spirits’. And a key implication of this was to challenge the reductive view of individual economic agents  that are seen as irrational masses and crowds in the aggregate level, and to foreground instead questions of community, relationality and connectivity: the ways in which our economic imaginations produce a kind of collective sense of self. 

CDL: What is your idea of what constitutes communities, which you argue is the site where imagination happens? There is an underlying assumption in the book that imagination is very important, because what is imagined is not just a mirror, but an engine, and it actually has the power to mobilise certain kinds of changes, to make a certain view of society real, another one discarded, so it is an extremely important activity. But the first immediate critique that I had was that, yes, imagination does have an influential role on the organising of society, but for certain kinds of communities that is more true than for others. Of course the imagination of influential individuals that operate in powerful communities (like governments and financial markets, for instance) weighs much, much more than the imagination of me and my friends hanging out on Co-star (which we’ll talk about later). I wanted to ask you to be a bit more precise about what constitutes communities and what is the theory of action there between imagining and doing? 

AK: There is an important point to make here. I don’t view the imagination as a force that is necessarily or inherently positive; and I do not consider all imagined social, political and economic futures to be ‘progressive’. In the book, I argue that imagination is generative, that it doesn’t mirror reality – it produces it. But some produced realities can be extremely depressing. There’s perhaps something counterintuitive here. When I tell people that I am interested in the way finance (re)imagines the world and our futures, there’s something jarring, I suppose, because our intuitive understanding of finance is that of a force that extracts and limits rather than produces. But my framing of the imagination argues that even the most destructive operations of finance are in a sense generative: because they involve fashioning new forms of society, new relations, new narratives, and new futures. And to go back to your question, there is a big caveat here: power is still operative in this process. As you said, not everyone’s imagination carries the same weight or has the same power to influence the reality that they help shape. The speculative communities that I described in the book are not equal communities, they are marred by profound inequalities.

Let me take a step back here and say a few words on my use of the term ‘community’. Anderson describes the proto-national community that is forged through the reading of newspapers and novels (made possible by the invention of the print press). The speculative communities of our own time are instead imagined through new collective rituals in virtual media – not ‘in the turn of the newspaper page’ but through what we could call the infinite scroll and the infinite swipe. There is, in these digital rituals, a different kind of imagination that allows us to cope with uncertainty, a sense of belonging into something that exceeds the merely narcissistic self, something that is more communal even if disorienting and ephemeral. However, this  isn’t necessarily a beautiful utopian community. Speculative communities are cleaved by unequal structures of power, which are undergirded by an unequal distribution of resources and a scarcity of technologies that can be mobilised. Our capacity to imagine is contingent on having access to such vital material resources, without which our collective wagers on the future cannot successfully hedge uncertainty. But part of my point in the book is that the very field of ‘the struggle’, so to speak, the form of contemporary conflicts of power is today shifting towards the realm of the speculative imagination. 

CDL: Just to echo what you said about Anderson’s argument that the nation state is also the result of a collective imagination of certain communities. That came about through novels and through, mostly the literary genre. But you say that now speculative communities operate on a different kind of temporality: it is not the slower and narrative-based temporality of the book or of the newspaper article. You talk instead about “visual moments”; I wanted to ask a bit more about the importance of the visual, versus the literary modes of knowledge production and consumption, and how these different media influence the kind of speculative communities that emerge as a result?

AK: Yes, with Anderson, we get a sense of a national imagination that is fired up by textual narratives such as those found in the print novel and the daily newspaper, as well as by classificatory systems like museums and maps. Those Imagined communities were characterised by a reasonably stable narrative and structures that were discernible and could be clearly visualised. By contrast, the kinds of technological tools on which we rely in the present moment to scaffold our shared imaginaries look very different. And I think a key difference is, as you say, this sense of impermanence that emanates from these new digital temporalities. There is a sense of things being in flux, as we consume unceasing flows of confusing visual content through Instagram stories, Tik Tok posts, YouTube videos or images of potential partners on dating apps. These endless streams of visual data to which we routinely turn our speculative imaginations, don’t offer us a reassuring, stable narrative in the way that a newspaper or the novel used to do. They circulate fragmented, strange and inconsistent narratives that mirror our own uncertain present, the kind of dizzying reality I was describing in response to your first question. These images “work” by way of reflecting back to us this uncertain, volatile reality and they therefore feel oddly familiar. 

Now, critiques of new digital media tend to focus too narrowly on the alleged individualization they cause, on how they fragment and cleave modern societies. They paint a gloomy image of dooms-scrolling crowds, you know, atomized individuals that are hidden away in dark rooms scrolling their ways into oblivion… I think that there is a profound misunderstanding here of the way in which these users, especially the youngest among them, engage with such financialised streams of data and how they come to understand themselves as part of something larger in doing so. In the book I argue that there’s something rather more generative here–without wanting to idealise it. Instagram, TikTok, Tinder and so on are in their essence proprietary financialized structures that commoditize the users’ behaviour and that represent concentrated wealth and power; they don’t quite liberate us. But for all their pernicious power, it is clear that the explosive growth of their user base also represents a more collective, even if tentative, way of inhabiting the unknown. 

Recognition of this kind of tentative sociality opens up a different perspective to the politics of resistance articulated from within the dominant structures of a technologized surveillance capitalism. In contrast to suggestions that we must slow down, and disembark from the virtual if we are to effectively resist the forces of commodification, I argue that we need to better understand the existing possibilities of our very immersion in this world. An immersion that need not be self destructive, but can potentially be weaponized towards more progressive, radical aims with a more transformative impact.

CDL: In the book you talk about  “speculative technologies” as this set of technologies we use to form and foster speculative communities. I want to bring up an example that you discuss in your book:  Costar. Costar is this app that analyses the users’ astrological profile, but also it puts it in relation with their friends’ profiles, and that’s actually the biggest innovation of the app and that’s actually what drives people to the app. So my question is, do you think that these speculative technologies influence the kind of the shape and change the communities where they intervene? So for example, Costar is changing astrology in many ways, which is a very, very ancient practice. Do you think that these technologies simply hold up a mirror to what already exists? Or do you think that they have a very important role in actually shaping and changing the practices and the communities where they intervene?

AK: I consider speculative technologies like Instagram, digital dating apps, astrology apps, as parts of technological assemblages: an interconnected infrastructure that reconfigures  our everyday rituals of social, political and economic engagement with uncertainty and with each other. They are the nodes around which our imaginings are moored, rehearsed, cultivated and circulated. If the speculative imagination is the vernacular of financialised capitalism, these technologies are its grammar - much like for Anderson commodity print media were vital in structuring the collective national imagination. But I want to be careful here. I don’t see Costar and TikTok as carrying some sort of divine revolutionary potential to transform the world around us. They do, however, something by influencing our present responses to the exhausted promises of neoliberal capitalism for security, stability and life fulfilment. 

Let’s take Co-star. What I find fascinating about this new type of digital astrology is that it establishes a different relationship between foretellers and users than that between the astrologer of past (more wholesome) times and the readership of astrology columns. Costar’s users interact with the app in a rather distinct way: they don’t merely browse its content with the expectation of finding a discernible, clear answer about their uncertain futures. Like the ephemeral and fragmented images circulating on TikTok and Instagram Stories that we discussed earlier, Co-star’s narratives of the future don’t attempt to offer solace or even escapism from an incomprehensible reality. They seek to heighten and cultivate such reality further still. So, although digital astrology is often criticised for naive or simplistic answers that draw users into a parallel reality, Co-star in fact offers narratives that are playful, mischievous and often cynical about the future – and that is exactly what makes them popular. Or consider the narrativization provided by modern dating apps: the language they use and the functionality they offer no longer project a simple romantic love pursuit - they don’t claim to help users with “finding the one”, the ideal partner and a stable future. Rather, Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and the like now invite us to “enjoy the ride”, to accept that swipes may not lead to anything but at least swiping can be itself enjoyed in the here and now.  

For for me all this is very interesting, because, in doing so, these technologies encapsulate the paradox that I described in the beginning of our interview: the fact that we no longer appear to pursue determinate answers in response to our chaotic moment; rather, we immerse ourselves even deeper into the whirwhil of this moment. This is also a point that challenges some of the commonplace understandings of surveillance capitalism, which see the omniscient predictive power of proprietary technologies holding modern societies hostage to an illusionary belief that there is an answer to everything (an answer that can be computed and realised). I think that the appeal of these technologies is precisely that they are understood to eschew such answers altogether – and it is this emerging collective awareness that connects us into speculative communities.