Speculative Praxis & The No Normal

Photo by Laura Forlano, January 2021; Pictured: Artwork by Jessica Hargreaves, “Nunc tempus est” with reflection of artwork by Roya Farassat, 12 paintings from “Women Gilded” Series, 601Artspace, New York

Laura Forlano is Associate Professor of Design at the Institute of Design (ID) and Affiliated Faculty in the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, where she is Director of the Critical Futures Lab (lforlano@id.iit.edu)

This blog post relates to the Global Discourse article Laura Forlano: Foreword

We cannot rationalize our way out of a crisis – or, to be more exact, the multiple crises that we face. We cannot audit our way towards a better future. We cannot merely criticize the failures of the past or those of the moment. We must have an artist’s vision, we must cultivate an activist’s ability to reimagine and we must create a collective dream that allows us to enact and experience alternatives to the current conditions. In short, we must embrace a speculative praxis.

2020 revealed, in stark terms, the realities of the multiple interrelated crises of our time – from our own health to that of the climate and planet, from economic devastation to related extreme inequality and from White supremacy, domestic terrorism and the breakdown of democracy to the corresponding police violence and anti-Blackness that seeps through all of our institutions no matter their proclamations.

Many reports will be written, working groups will be commissioned and data sets will be analyzed. But they are not enough to avert the next disaster in a world that is spinning out of control. We cannot predict and control the world as we simultaneously destroy it. Perhaps this has been sufficient for the last hundred or, even, several hundred years but it is no longer possible.

If anything, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as well as the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. is strong evidence for the power of storytelling. Stories mobilize and motivate in ways that logical arguments and facts cannot. Both rational facts and fictional narratives are social processes. They allow people to find meaning, identity and community in ways that are essential for ongoing human life.

Fact and fiction are not oppositional binaries but rather they exist on a continuum of modes of reasoning about and imagining the realities of the world. Donna Haraway’s figure of the cyborg illustrates the complicated coexistence of fact and fiction. In my Foreword to the Special Issue on ‘Staying with Speculation’, I explain the ways in which facts, techno-optimism and speculative imagination are necessary co-conspirators in the making of future visions. These include, for example, corporate visions, legal documents and prototypes as well as demonstrations and performances that can be experienced by the public. 

Social scientists and humanists – especially, sociologists, anthropologists and histories of science & technology — are fond of asking the question ‘How might it be otherwise?’ But, they tend to avoid making prescriptive recommendations or speculative proposals that ask ‘What if’. Yet, in recent years, the impulse to embrace speculation as a method (as well as other creative and artistic approaches) in the social sciences and humanities has grown. This form of speculative praxis, which I define as a way of ‘making sense of and making futures’, integrates both critical and creative capabilities. This approach is politically useful for thinking about one’s own research and data differently; communicating one’s research to wider audiences; engaging publics with complex issues; and, even, simulating and experiencing alternative futures.   

According to Arundhati Roy, the pandemic presents a ‘rupture‘ between the past and the future, writing: ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. If, as Roy has suggested, that ‘The pandemic is a portal’ what exactly is on the other side? And, how will we know when we have arrived? In order to live in a different future, we must first be able to imagine it.

Further reading

Nik Baerten: Practitioner afterword: the debate

Kaya Barry, Michelle Duffy & Michele Lobo: Speculative listening: Melting sea ice, and new methods of listening with the planet        

Shawn Bodden & Jen Ross: Speculating with glitches: keeping the future 

Paul Cureton: Reply to Investment in the imaginary

Lewis Coyne: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston: Reply to Reviews of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Joe Deville: Reply to Speculating with glitches: keeping the future moving

Marketa Dolejšová: Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food Future   

Maria Luján Escalante: Reply to Beyond Speculation: using speculative methods to surface ethics and positionality in design practice and pedagogy       

James Fathers: Foreword to part 3: speculative ethics

Laura Forlano: Foreword

Ann Galloway: Foreword to part 2

Jack Griffiths: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston 

Michael Hauskeller: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Anna Jackman: Investment in the imaginary

Naomi J. Jacobs: Reply to Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation

Arjen Kleinherenbrink: New Images of Thought – On Two Kinds of Speculative Realism 

Vivienne Kuh: Practitioner afterword

Melanie Levick-Parkin: Beyond Speculation: using speculative methods to surface ethics and positionality in design practice and pedagogy

Michael Lewis: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Clare McCracken: Dystopias for discourse

Luke Moffat: Reply to Science fiction, reconfigured social theory and the Anthropocene Age: Exploring and thinking about planetary futures through fictional imaginaries          

Luke Moffat, Christine J. Mortimer & Maria Luhan Escalante: Introduction

Christine J. Mortimer: Reply to It Matters what Designs Design Designs: Speculations on Multispecies Worlding        

Angela Piccini: Reply to Dystopias for discourse  

Serena Pollastri: Reply to Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food Futures 

Paul G. Raven and Johannes Stripple: Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation

Yannick Rumpala: Science fiction, reconfigured social theory and the Anthropocene Age: Exploring and thinking about planetary futures through fictional imaginaries    

Stuart Sim: Reply to New Images of Thought – On Two Kinds of Speculative Realism     

Bronislaw Szerszynski: Reply to Speculative listening: Melting sea ice, and new methods of listening with the planet     

David Tyfield: Interview: Governing Complexity and Reconceptualising Liberty     

Georgina Voss: Practitioner Afterword: Three Decks And More  

Michelle Westerlaken: It Matters what Designs Design Designs: Speculations on Multispecies Worlding