Tag Archives: speculation

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’



‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)

Some speculations on speculation

I appeared on a panel about Speculative Design at LonCon3 over the weekend just gone, and one of my fellow panellists, architect and writer Nic Clear, mentioned that he had some misgivings over the use of the word “speculative”.

Definitions of 'speculation' from Oxford Dictionaries Online

It’s always had two meanings, after all: there’s the imaginative, extrapolative and science fictional sense in which we tend to use it today, but also the rather unfashionable (read as “historically tainted”) financial sense — think speculative building, for example, or the land speculations of the railroad barons.

We don’t talk so much of people speculating on the stock exchange as we used to; nowadays, one invests in the market. The nature of the game hasn’t changed, but the label has. Here’s an Ngram chart of word frequency over time:

Now look again at the secondary definition of speculation: “in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss” — my emphasis.

An investment, meanwhile, is “[t]he action or process of investing money for profit”; the word carries connotations of safety, security and foresight, especially by comparison with the gambler’s odds of speculation. An investment carries the promise of a return, not the possibility; as Chomsky is always pointing out, costs are socialised, while profits are privatised. Perhaps not incidentally, the archaic meaning of investment was “[t]he surrounding of a place by a hostile force in order to besiege or blockade it”. Plus ça change, non?

In another conversation, possibly one that followed the Body Modification panel, someone (to my shame, I can’t remember who — convention syndrome) pointed out the way the framing of Soylent as a product shifted over time: originally posited as a quick’n’easy occasional food replacement for busy people — sorta like Slimfast or protein shakes, but without the weight-loss or buffness angles — it only started being framed as a utopian replacement for a normal diet once the vencap money started turning up.

Ethan Zuckerman, describing advertising as the internet’s original sin — itself a curiously religious metaphor — introduced me to the concept of “investor storytime” by quoting from a speech by Maciej Cegłowski:

“Investor storytime is when someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site.

Pinterest is a site that runs on investor storytime. Most startups run on investor storytime.

Investor storytime is not exactly advertising, but it is related to advertising. Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the world’s most targeted ad.”  [Emphases mine.]

All selling is a game of narratives, a game of stories. To sell an idea to the vencaps, you need to tell them stories they like, stories that reflect their desires. We know the sorts of stories that the most successful vencaps like. Stories about strong ROI, certainly, but they have other interests: lax tax regimes, immortality, freedom from the restrictions of the petty mortals for whose trickle-down wellbeing they strive so hard. Capital-T Transhumanism and Singularitarianism are enthusiastically supported and bankrolled by these people.

Silicon Valley is where the two meanings of speculation collide, and Soylent is a metonymy of that collision. It figures a future where even eating is reduced to a purely economic act, a forex transaction: cash for kiloJoules. Texture’s extra, bub.

Not at all incidentally, “futures” is another word with two meanings: there are the futures of designers and writers and technologists, but then there are the futures in commodities and derivatives which are traded by HFT bots, their lightspeed speculative trades producing billions of tiny fragments of speculative profit; value without goods, signifier without signified. Marx called this “fictitious capital”. It’s a story we tell ourselves, loudly and repeatedly: a story about a world of infinite resources, a world with an infinite capacity to absorb all that we feel we have tired of, all of the dross and the waste… all of the risk.

It’s getting harder and harder to believe that story any more, despite its core fandom’s enthusiastic bankrolling of an ongoing series of ever more specious reinterpretations. Speculation births speculation. We are driven by the repercussions of financial speculation to speculate for ourselves, to dream of a different future to that offered by the neoliberal narrative.

Like all stories, it turned ugly when its tellers mistook it for truth.