A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik
Time is changing. Human agency and experience lose their primacy in the complexity and scale of social organization today. The leading actors are instead complex systems, infrastructures and networks in which the future replaces the present as the structuring condition of time. As the political Left and Right struggle to deal with this new situation, we are increasingly wholly pre-empted and post-everything.
Armen Avanessian: The basic thesis of post-contemporary is that time is changing. We are not just living in a new time or accelerated time, but time itself — the direction of time — has changed. We no longer have a linear time, in the sense of the past being followed by the present and then the future. It’s rather the other way around: the future happens before the present, time arrives from the future. If people have the impression that time is out of joint, or that time doesn’t make sense anymore, or it isn’t as it used to be, then the reason is, I think, that they have — or we all have — problems getting used to living in such a speculative time or within a speculative temporality.
Suhail Malik: Yes, and the main reason for the speculative reorganization of time is the complexity and scale of social organization today. If the leading conditions of complex societies are systems, infrastructures and networks rather than individual human agents, human experience loses its primacy as do the semantics and politics based on it. Correspondingly, if the present has been the primary category of human experience thanks to biological sentience, this basis for the understanding of time now loses its priority in favor of what we could call a time-complex.1 One theoretical ramification of the deprioritization of the present we can mention straightaway, but will need to return to later, is that it is no longer necessary to explain the movement of the past and the future on the basis of the present. We are instead in a situation where human experience is only a part of — or even subordinated to — more complex formations constructed historically and with a view to what can be obtained in the future. The past and the future are equally important in the organization of the system and this overshadows the present as the leading configuration of time.
Complex societies — which means more-than-human societies at scales of sociotechnical organization that surpass phenomenological determination — are those in which the past, the present, and the future enter into an economy where maybe none of these modes is primary, or where the future replaces the present as the lead structuring aspect of time. This is not absolutely new, of course: for a long time political economy and social processes have been practically dealing with the subordination of the human to the social and technical organization of complex societies. Equally, under the heading of Speculative Realism, philosophy too has recently been trying to reset the notion of speculation as the task of finding more-than-human forms of knowledge by establishing the conditions within conceptual thought of knowledge of what is beyond human experience. That project is certainly attached to the conditions of the time-complex but is also distinct to it --
AA: – And to some concrete examples of the speculative time-complex that we know from everyday experience or from daily news. These are phenomena that usually start with the prefix “pre-,” like preemptive strikes, preemptive policing, the preemptive personality--
SM: Could you outline these phenomena?
AA: What has been called preemptive personality or personalization is how you get a certain package or information about what you might want that you haven’t explicitly asked for from a commercial service.2 We know a version of this from Amazon: its algorithmic procedures give us recommendations for books associated with one’s actual choices but the preemptive personality is one step ahead: you get a product that you actually want. The company’s algorithms know your desires, they know your needs even before you become aware of them yourself. It doesn’t make sense to say in advance that “I’ll send it back” because it is likely that it will be something you will need. I don’t think that all this is necessarily bad, but we do have to learn how to deal with it in a productive or more pro-active manner.
Another thing, often criticized, is the politics of preemptive strikes, which is also a new phenomenon of the 21st century. Brian Massumi and others have written about the kind of recursive truth they produce: you bomb somewhere and then afterwards you will find the enemy you expected.3 You produce a situation that was initially a speculation. The logic here is recursive and, to reiterate, the strike is not made in order to avoid something, a deterrence before the enemy strikes. It’s also very different to the twentieth century logic of the balance of threats or prevention. Rather, what happens in the present is based on a preemption of the future, and of course this is also linked to what has been called a tendency towards premediation in the media.
Another everyday example of this new speculative temporality discussed a lot nowadays is preemptive policing. You have it in science fiction, notably with the “PreCrime” and precog detection of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report (and the Spielberg film based on it). Versions of this are adopted more and more in policing today. This has to be distinguished from other current surveillance strategies; for example, CCTV is more of an older idea of watching what people are doing or documenting what they have done, to reinforce exclusion mechanisms. The question today, if one puts it in chronological terms, seems to be more along the lines: what kind of policing is needed to apprehend people even before they do something, with what they will do — as if the future-position promises more power, which creates a future-paranoia? This is less a surveillance directed to the exclusion of people than one that deals with people inside the social space, with the value they produce. How can they be observed and how to extract value from their activities? There is of course a hugely important biopolitical factor in this regulation of the population, especially with regards to medicine and insurance.
SM: Along with “pre-,” what’s advanced by the time-complex is also a condition of the “post-,” the current ubiquity of which characterizes where we are at now, and which is maybe added to with the contention of the post-contemporary. Everything now seems to be “post-” something else, which indexes that our understanding of what is happening now has some relation to but is also disconnected to historically given conditions.… While the “pre-” indexes a kind of anticipatory deduction of the future that is acting in the present — so that future is already working within the now, again indicating how the present isn’t the primary category but is understood to be organized by the future — what the “post-” marks is how what’s happening now is in relationship to what has happened but is no longer. We are the future of something else. The “post-” is also a mark of the deprioritization of the present.
If we are post-contemporary, or post-postmodern, post-internet, or post-whatever — if we are now post-everything — it is because historically-given semantics don’t quite work anymore. So, in a way, the present itself is a speculative relationship to a past that we have already exceeded. If the speculative is a name for the relationship to the future, the “post-” is a way in which we recognize the present itself to be speculative in relationship to the past. We are in a future which has surpassed the conditions and the terms of the past.
Combined, the present is not just the realization of the speculative future (the “pre-”) but also a future of the past that we are already exceeding. As many contributors to this issue propose, we don’t quite have the bearings or the stability or the conventions that the past offers to us (the “post-”).
AA: That’s the important thing, that the change of the present, the shaping of the present, is not necessarily determined by the past. The present can no longer primarily be deduced from the past nor is it an act of a pure decisionism, but it’s shaped by the future. For me, that’s the key problem and the key indication that the logic of the contemporary with its fixation on the present — you called it the human fixation on experience — that this presentism has difficulties or even completely fails in dealing with the logic of being constituted by the future.
I think that’s partly the reason for all the critical reasoning and questioning of contemporaneity in recent years that happened parallel to the so-called speculative turn. Unfortunately, speculation is often discussed as just a logical or philosophical issue but not in its unique time aspect. But obviously we are also still looking for the right philosophical or speculative concepts for this post-contemporary (or past-contemporary) condition or time-complex.
SM: Yes, as much as we are each indebted in different ways to speculative realism, and shared the move away from the poststructuralist or late-twentieth century models of philosophy that we both come from, nonetheless speculative realism has mostly argued for an intra-philosophical or conceptual notion of speculation, which is to think of the outside of thought and the experience of thought. The interest of the post-contemporary is to understand and operationalize the present from outside of itself. I don’t know at this point if that is also outside of thought. But, in any case, the time-complex can be thought, with “speculation” taken primarily as a time-historical speculation, like futurity, rather than an exteriority to experience or an exteriority of thought. This brings us much closer to current business and technical operations rather than the conceptual demands of speculative realism.
Armen Avanessian frequently teaches at art academies in Europe and the US. He is the founder of the bilingual research platform www.spekulative-poetik.de and editor-in-chief at Merve Verlag Berlin. Recent publications in English include Speculative Drawing (together with Andreas Töpfer, 2014), as co-editor #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (2014) and Genealogies of Speculation (2016). Avanessian’s Overwrite – Ethics of Knowledge, Poetics of Existance is forthcoming with SternbergPress.
Suhail Malik is Co-Director of the MFA Fine Art, Goldsmiths, London, where he holds a Readership in Critical Studies. Recent publications include “The Ontology of Finance” in Collapse 8: Casino Real (2015), and, as co-editor, Realism Materialism Art (2015) and Genealogies of Speculation (2016). Malik’s book On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art is forthcoming from Urbanomic.
A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik is taken from:
1. The time-complex is specific to the structures of integrated sociotechnical and psychic mnemic systems of individuation proposed by Bernard Stiegler. See for example Technics and Time Volume 2: Disorientation, trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008) and Symbolic Misery Volume 1: The Hyperindustrial Epoch, trans. Barnaby Norman (Oxford: Polity, 2104). But the speculative time-complex is distinct to Stiegler’s thesis in that (i) it comprises a speculative constitution of time rather than memory and human temporalization, and (ii) the speculative time-complex is here affirmed against Stiegler’s appeal to rescuing an aestheticallyconstituted experience of individuation despite complexifying sociotechnical configurations.
2. Rob Horning, “Preemptive personalization,”,” The New Enquiry (September 11, 2014)
3. Brian Massumi, “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption,” Theory & Event 10:2, 2007.
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