- The Realism of SpeculationContemporary Speculative Fiction as Immanent Critique of Finance Capitalism
"By now," Christian Marazzi argues in his 2011 book The Violence of Financial Capitalism, "finance permeates from the beginning to the end the circulation of capital." And because today "every productive act and every act of consumption is directly or indirectly tied to finance," Marazzi continues, we must understand our moment in time as the period in which finance's "speculative logic" has become the logic of capitalism's dominant form (Marazzi 2011, 107). But when speculation becomes the dominant logic of material reality, what happens to speculative fiction (sf)? The editors of this special issue have chosen a poignant title for this collection of essays, one that, as I will show in what follows, gets at the heart of the logical and structural relationship between speculative finance and speculative fiction today. In fact, I would suggest, one could think of this issue's title—"Speculative Finance/Speculative Fiction"—as shorthand for the dialectic of speculation [End Page 37] that binds together the financial imagination and the critical and political potential of speculative fiction in our time. This essay asks how we might be able to understand the relationship between speculative finance and speculative fiction as a topic for literary criticism. What exactly is the nature of this relationship, if indeed there exists such a link? This essay is neither interested in matters of homology (examinations of semblances between speculative fiction and speculative finance) nor in matters of representation (examinations of ways in which speculative fiction may be said to represent aspects of speculative finance). Rather, I wish to ask in this essay how finance capital's speculative logic and structure become a historically specific aesthetic problem for literature. Or, put differently, this essay asks how the historical rise of dominant finance capital gives form to speculative fiction and how, as a consequence, we may understand the possibility of speculative fiction in the age of speculative finance.
To offer precise answers in a relatively short essay, I will concretize these questions through the analysis of a novel that formally mediates exactly this dialectic of speculation. William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003) allows us to understand speculation as both the dominant logic of contemporary capitalism and as a guiding principle of the immanent critique of this form of capitalist thought via speculative fiction. We can understand speculative fiction as a mode of critique, therefore, that probes the limits and immanent contradictions of speculative finance, thereby creating the conditions for its transcendence. Yet, this critical engagement with finance capitalism and its speculative logic and structure is not merely a matter of the novel's content. Instead, it is the guiding formal problem of Gibson's novel, a formal problem that allows us to understand not only the relation between speculative fiction and speculative finance in our time but also the relationship between speculative fiction and realism in contemporary literature.
Upon the publication of Pattern Recognition, many critics could not help but voice confusion at Gibson apparently abandoning cyberpunk, the very genre with which his name had become synonymous. Gibson's novel is set in the globalized present, not in a highly technologized future. What, then, does it mean that the godfather of cyberpunk has written a realist novel? Fredric Jameson has suggested that this apparent difference in genre may be [End Page 38] attributed to the fact that what used to be the future imagined by cyberpunk authors has now become our present. Rather than seeing Gibson's latest novel as evidence of an abandonment of a genre, Jameson interprets the shift from speculative fiction to realism as a closing of the gap between genre and social reality brought about by the movement of history, locating Gibson even "closer to that 'cyberpunk' with which he is often associated" (Jameson 2005, 384). This account of the formal shift in Gibson's work certainly resonates with the logic of Gibson's oeuvre. After all, his initial development of a cyberpunk aesthetic necessarily recognized the brief shelf lives of both genres and futures. Such early short stories as "The Gernsback Continuum" (1981), for instance...