Troubling speculation causing trouble

Some time ago I was invited by the Narrating Climate Futures initiative at Lunds University to give a lecture on my research, and preferrably ‘something related to urban futures’. I gladly accepted, partly because this invitation would allow me to talk about some recent research that I am very excited about, but also because I really appreciate the people involved in and around the initiative. When I was asked to provide a title for my talk, I decided to formulate something a bit more bold that I usually do, and came up with the following: Speculative urban futures: an undisciplinary attempt at staying with the trouble. The trouble, as I formulated it in the short description of the talk, had to do with taking planetary boundaries and social (in)justice seriously, something that few (if any) project on urban sustainability manage to do in convincing ways:

“Contemporary ideas and practices of sustainable urban development are firmly based in a rationalist problem-solving paradigm where sustainability is understood as harm reduction. Through self-driving cars, energy efficient buildings and green area factors, the negative impact of urban development and urban life is to be mitigated. From a planetary boundaries perspective however, these measures fall painstakingly short. Through a series of speculative and design-driven projects, Josefin Wangel and colleagues have explored how urban sustainability could look like should the planetary boundaries be taken seriously. Through re-presenting urban sustainability, speculative approaches help making visible some of the troubles that the predominant discourse of ecological modernization seek to silence, but can also point out new directions for innovation, policy-making, planning and design.

However, when I started working on the presentation (which I at that point thought would be a rather straightforward exercice), the notion of trouble started causing… trouble. Trying to define what ‘staying with the trouble’ could mean in the context of speculation made me realise how little I had contemplated this for real. This is not the first time preparing a talk forces me to dig into issues I have previously been able to dodge or gloss over, but this was way more serious than anything I had experienced before. Was it even possible to combine these two ways of relating to the world? If not, should I cancel the talk? The only two things I felt at least somewhat certain about was that troubling speculation goes far beyond taking sustainability and justice seriously (whatever that means), and that I wasn’t ready to give up on combining speculation and staying with the trouble yet. So I did what I guess most scholars would do: I went back to the source, in this case the 2016 book “Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene” by Donna Haraway. Re-reading this made me remember how I, when I first read the opening paragraphs of this book, got very uneasy, because of her critique of the kind of futures studies I had spent so much time on working on:

In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and past (…) Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

Haraway 2016:1

Eventually, and after reading some additional stuff on utopianism (e.g. Fournier 2002) and utopia as method (e.g. Levitas 2013), I started gaining a more nuanced understanding of what Haraway was critiquing. I realised that it was not the practice of engaging with the future per se that she was questioning, but the lack of connection between those futures ‘made safe’ and action in the present. In other words, Haraway urges us to engage in speculation and futures only in ways and to the extent to which it strenghtens and develops our response-ability. The term response-ability also comes from Staying with the trouble and points to the material and performative aspects of ethics, i.e. the ability to respond to ‘trouble’. This was as far as I had come in making sense of ‘trouble’ before starting working on the presentation, but re-reading this paragraph in light of the presentation I was to give brought two additional ideas. It reminded me of the concept response-ability and all that comes with it, and it reminded me of a citation from a text by Val Plumwood, where she points at the need to not only imagine new, better ways of living together on the planet, but also to work these ways out:

If our species does not survive the ecological crisis, it will probably be due to our failure to imagine and work out new ways to live with the earth, to rework ourselves and our (…) high consumption…”

Plumwood 2007

In a notebook from a workshop on Looking Backwards to the Future: Studying the Future with Counterfactuals that I attended in February this year, I found yet another clue to what it could mean to trouble speculation. It was a note made in relation to a presentation by Betti Marenko at UAL Central Saint Martins, which said:

“maximising friction in the present” – Stengers?

I do hope I someday start writing a bit more comprehensive notes, but it turned out that this was all I needed to identify what I think was the source, and which in any case turned out to be a very useful essay by Didier Debaise and Isabel Stengers on “The Insistence of Possibles: Towards a Speculative Pragmatism“. In this essay they write on speculation as a way to intensify the recognition of possibilities in the present, i.e. that things could be different:

Making a situation, past or present, be of importance, means intensifying the sense of possibles it harbours, as expressed by the struggles and claims to another way of making it exist. This is why speculative thinking is so readily found in stories and tales, which, like science fiction, explore other possible trajectories.

Debaise and Stengers 2017

Moreover, Debaise and Stengers point at that the ‘speculative gestures’ which seeks to intensify the sense of possibility of the present is not same as the abstracted and generalist types of scenario exercises that today dominate the field of futures studies, but are always situated and experience-based:

Speculative commitment therefore has little to do with what Kant denounced, i.e. abstract thinking, founding the world on one’s own theoretical principles or judging it in the light of one’s projections. It is all the more necessary to highlight this point since we find the same characteristics in the formalist trends of speculative thinking today.

Debaise and Stengers 2017

I also wanted to include some insights from a rather recent (2013) but still relevant debate on critical and speculative design, which to a large part to place in the commenting field at MoMA’s Design and Violence page in relation to the project/scenario/exhibition Republic of Salivation. The discussion per se is definitely worth a read but I will here mainly draw on the essay “Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design” by Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliviera (2014) where they describe speculative and critical design (SCD) as:

the vast majority of the body of work currently available in the field has concentrated its efforts on envisioning near futures that deal with issues that seem much more tangible to their own privileged crowd. Projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privileges — gastronomical, civil or cultural — in a bleak, dystopic future abound, while practitioners seem to be blissfully unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge, in some cases) of other realities. (…) Speculative Design can only earn its “Critical” name once it leaves its own comfort zone and start looking beyond privilege, for real.

Prado and Oliviera 2014

Drawing on these readings (and also Josephson-Storm 2015 and two pieces that I’ve part of writing: Hesselgren et al. 2018 and Wangel et al. 2019) I could make a draft suggestion of what I think speculation that stays with the trouble is not about, i.e. what ways of engaging in speculation and futures to avoid. Such un-troubled speculation is characterised by:

  • Detached and generalistic thought experiments;
  • that derive from modernist and eco-modernist worldviews;
  • and/or are made in/from spaces of priviledge

Following this, and based on this ‘negative’ (in the double sense) version of speculation that stays with the trouble, I could start formulating a first suggestion on what it could mean to speculate in a way that allows for ‘staying with the trouble’, a speculative practice that I, in lack of a better name will call troubled speculation, and which is characterised by being:

  • Intimate, situated and experiential;
  • in a way that ’intensifies possibilities’;
  • and ’maximizes friction in the present’;
  • without becoming (yet another) ’bleak dystopic future’, ’climate porn’ or ’techno-utopia’

This is the list I presented during my talk, but writing this down now I’m thinking that maybe I should add one more item to this, so as to clarify what kinds of possibilities and friction I see that troubled speculation should contribute to in order to engage critically in whatever issue is examined. Drawing on three critical and feminist scholars of storytelling and science fiction – Barbara Eckstein (2003), Helen Merrick (2003) and Veronica Hollinger (2003) – this could be formulated in terms of contributing to a de-naturalisation and re-politicisation of things taken for granted, to ‘shake things up’ through telling stories (and practices!) which were:

previously invisible, untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable, unimaginable, ‘impossible’).

Hollinger 2003:128

An updated list of characteristics of troubling speculation could perhaps look something like this. Troubling speculation should be:

  • intimate, situated and experiential;
  • in a way that ’intensifies possibilities’;
  • and ’maximizes friction in the present’;
  • through de-normalising and re-politicising things taken for granted;
  • without becoming (yet another) ’bleak dystopic future’, ’climate porn’ or ’techno-utopia’

The next step in this process of simultanously exploring and defining what speculation that stays with the trouble could (or should) be about is to flesh these characteristics out, both in terms of connecting them to theory/-ies and to concrete examples. I did provide a few examples in my talk, but will write about those in another post.

Debaise, D. and Stengers, Isabel, 2017. The Insistence of Possibles. Towards a Speculative Pragmatism, PARSE Journal. Translated by A. Brewer.
Eckstein, Barbara, 2003. Making space: stories in the practice of planning, in: B.J. Eckstein, J.A. Throgmorton (Eds.), Story and Sustainability: Planning, Practice, and Possibility for American Cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Fournier, Valerie, 2002. Utopianism and the cultivation of possibilities: grassroots movements of hope. The Sociological Review, 50(1), 189–216.
Haraway, Donna, 2016. Staying with the trouble : making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hesselgren, M. Eriksson, E. Wangel, J., Broms, L. 2018. Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of Energy Transitions: Towards a Bridging Practice of Provoking and Affirming Design. DRS 2018, Limerick, Ireland.
Hollinger, Veronica, 2003. Feminist theory and science fiction. In: James, E., & Mendlesohn, F. (2003). Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Josephson-Storm, Jason. 2015. Capitalist Dystopia Part 3——Fissures in Paradise: First World Problems or Micro-dystopias, Bullshit Jobs, and the Seeds of Bourgeois Alienation. Essay posted in blog Absolute Disruption. Published July 31, 2015.
Levitas, Ruth, 2013. Utopia as method: the imaginary reconstitution of society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Merrick, Helen, 2003. Gender in science fiction. In: James, E., & Mendlesohn, F. (2003). Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plumwood, Val, 2007. A Review of Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics of Decolonisation.‘ Australian Humanities Review 42 (2007): 1-4.
Prado, Luiza and Oliviera, Pedro, 2014. Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design: A rant on the undiscerning privilege that permeates most Speculative Design projects. Medium.
Wangel, J, Hesselgren, M, Eriksson, E, Broms, L, Kanulf, G, Ljunggren, A 2019. Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction, Futures 112.