- Promissory FuturesReality and Imagination in Finance and Fiction
You and I, dear reader, in our own ways, are reproducing fictitious capital. The question is: how can we do so otherwise? Under what banner or standard might we reimagine our shared future? And what formation, if any, can actually challenge the massive power of financialization not only over governments and economics, but over everyday life, lived culture and the imagination itself?—Max Haiven, Cultures of Financialization (2014, 189)
The speculative and the fictional inform one another in myriad ways in the speculative economy. From one point of view, this is merely an extension of the ways in which economics has always been, in part, a narrative that functions by compelling belief: currency is a kind of promissory note whose worth is guaranteed only by the stability of the government that issues it, and values in the stock market similarly depend on such discursive factors as investors' confidence and the company's projected performance. Yet since the 1980s and the rise of new financial instruments, the [End Page 11] fictional qualities of finance seem to have intensified. Derivatives and similar instruments instantiate a trade in abstractions rather than physical commodities, oriented toward the future and expressed in the subjunctive mode (if … then).
The fictionality of such instruments is intensified, and their reliance on subjunctive structures and their orientation toward the future makes this fictionality like that of speculative fiction. Although the speculation in speculative finance refers to its qualities of risk—the gamble or guess about likely market movements—this usage retains a trace of the older definition of speculation as a conjectural contemplation of a subject, the imagination of possibilities. This paper begins by asking, what happens if we think of the speculation of speculative finance as similar to the speculation of speculative fiction? What kind of worldbuilding does speculative finance do, and, once we acknowledge its narrative features, how might we use the tools of speculative fiction to intervene in this process? Simply put, can speculative fiction help us to recognize finance as a storytelling practice and, from that vantage, tell better stories that counter the ongoing economic crisis of neoliberalism?
Rather than providing a reading of any particular work of speculative fiction, then, this paper explores both the degree to which speculative fiction and speculative finance operate according to similar narrative and imaginative strategies and how they remain distinct. Its purpose is twofold: first, to theorize the implications of understanding how much the economic relies on fictions and thus to understand interventions into the imagination and affect as important sites of political structure; second, to argue from this foundation that speculative fiction continues to have distinct worldbuilding and narrative strategies (although many have been appropriated by speculative finance), and therefore the genre provides us with methods via which we might deconstruct the worlds narrated by speculative finance and resist the normalization of their logics, to offer instead more egalitarian and inclusive visions of the future. Although speculative fiction can simply reinforce the capitalist worldview as an inevitable default for the future, seducing us into believing that the evitable damage caused by a myopic focus on profit is the necessary cost of other progress, at its best the genre's commitment to complex worlds inhabited by characters who voice multiple perspectives on this reality means [End Page 12] that speculative fiction can resist the erasures inherent in finance capital's visions of the future and offer us better alternatives.
Narrative in Fiction and in Finance
Several literary critics argue that fiction offers important techniques for representing the otherwise invisible precepts of financialized economics (Joseph, La Berge, McClanahan, Poovey, Shonkwiler). All acknowledge that the current moment entails distinct challenges for representation, even as they embed their work within a larger history of how economic and other narrative modes are entwined. Mary Poovey (2008) influentially argues that it was the rise of the novel and its techniques for realist character portrayal that provided the rubric for evaluating people and their creditworthiness for the banking system.1 Annie McClanahan (2018) reinforces this insight when she argues that homo economicus is better understood as a character...