Derivatives are commonly defined as a type of contractual agreement that determines the terms of a future transaction (futures) or exchanges one kind of cash flow with another (swap). The value of the derivative, for the time of its duration, is determined by fluctuations in the underlying assets. While such definitions would associate derivatives with the ‘unproductive’ excesses of financial speculation, their operational role, and a materialist reading thereof, troubles the conceptual dualisms structuring many established critiques of political economy: productive/speculative, exogenous/endogenous, risk/uncertainty, form/matter. Accordingly, the study of derivatives calls for a methodological approach that aims at A) the ways in which the speculative and futural operations of derivation undermine the semiotic stability of temporal modes, thus complicating any articulation of the ‘present,’
and B) the importance of analyzing the history and operations of racial capitalism through the prism of the intimate relations of seemingly disparate moments and locations—be it a colonial ‘past’ and a postcolonial ‘present’ or the site of extraction and the site of accumulation.
By commensurating various currencies, commodities, debt obligations, as well as other derivatives across their conceptual or institutional boundaries, derivatives ensure the operational role of money as universal equivalent, precisely by “establishing equivalence between different equivalents” (Liquidity).
Derivatives, in this sense, can be said to constitute the more-than-metaphorical relational fabric of the global logistics of capital. The ‘fabric’ in question, however, is neither passive substance nor the dull intelligence of a Turing Machine. It is, rather, a smart and processual form of relationality that builds upon the “constitutive character of contingent associations” (Plasticity).
Within the operations of computational capital, the experimental axiomatic of derivatives displays an accidental and strategic relation to randomness, incomputables, and objective uncertainty. By making change itself the medium for speculation, the unpredictability of an interconnected and dying world is transformed, in the most cynical act, into a site of valorization and extraction in its own right.
The performative enactment of derivatives combines these contrasting logics – from uncertainty to risk, and from risk to uncertainty– into a self-referential, proliferative tendency that unfolds as a systematizing grammar or blueprint for a multi-scalar, sense-making process whereby capital necessarily and always creates its own ‘Other’ (a racialized other in/as ontological unknown). Racial, gendered, and classed violence is rationalized as structural adjustment necessary for the maintenance of economic resilience, defined here as actionability in reaction to and in anticipation of crisis and uncertainty. The necessary failure of capital to fully regulate social practice is therefore “both cause for celebration and a profound site of incalculable and insatiable violence”.