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Short description from MLA program:

This roundtable explores histories and practices of critical speculative fiction, theory, culture, and politics. Financial speculation harnesses risk for the sake of accumulation. To speculate imaginatively, by contrast, is to invent, theorize, and enact different kinds of worlds. How can speculation about alternatives and futures challenge dominant times and spaces of state, capital, empire?

Thursday, 3 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Gardner, Sheraton

A special session

Presiding: Shelley Streeby, Univ. of California, San Diego
(Shelley Streeby is unable to make to to MLA; we’re grateful to Andrea Hairston, Smith College, for stepping into this role.)

Speakers: Aimee Bahng, Dartmouth Coll.; Jayna Brown, Univ. of California, Riverside; Alexis Lothian, Indiana U. of Pennsylvania; Tavia Nyong’o, New York Univ.

This roundtable will showcase and develop the interconnections among speculative formations of race, utopia, futurity, sexuality, capital, and media. We consider the term speculation along two axes: speculation about, where cultural producers across media platforms imagine different kinds of worlds and futures; and speculation on, where financiers, technologists, and other gamblers win or lose their bets on how the future’s possibilities will end up closing down. Histories and practices associated with the two meanings overlap, contradict, and intersect.

Speculative fiction is one term for nonrealist cultural production, a category large enough to include the genre histories of science fiction and fantasy, utopia and dystopia; the alter realities lived and performed by racialized subjects fractured, erased, and dislocated within colonial realities; and the transmedia worlds that jump between multiple platforms and multiple imaginations today. Non-fictional acts of speculation, meanwhile, have shaped the time and space of race, gender, sexuality, and empire. Speculative capitalist excursions in the 18th and 19th centuries carried traders, settler colonialists, and scientists alike, imposing alien narratives on bodies occupying the land on whom they speculated. More recently, speculative capital is often described as divorced from the material, challenging previous eras’ common sense about the nature of reality and building utopian worlds for the 1% who are insulated from the very material consequences of financial risk and failure. Its markets depend on narratives of futurity: fictions. But as temporalities of speculation seek to colonize the future, the potentialities of fictive speculation are harnessed to keep alternative possibilities open. The racialized, the queer, the deviant, the poor––those who have long been scrutinized with speculation’s classificatory instruments––create and reimagine speculative futures, as Sun Ra did, “on the other side of time” (Space is the Place).

This roundtable explores the work of radical, racialized, queer kinds of speculation and asks how we can stake out the future as a space-time of radical potentialities (rather than an already occupied territory of First World imperialism). Rather than present separate papers that set forth modular arguments that separate out forms and practices of speculative fiction, finance, and futurity, we will gather our ideas together in order to reflect the connections and contradictions among histories, politics, forms, and platforms that emerge when we think with and through processes of speculation. Each of the panelists is deeply engaged with speculative concerns both in our own research and in joint projects. The panel builds in particular on two 2012 collaborations organized by members: a Social Text Periscope collection on Speculative Life and a seminar discussion “On Speculation” at the Cultural Studies Association conference.

Each panelist will speak for five minutes, exploring a specific example of speculative practice, theory, or cultural production in lightning talk mode. The diverse cultural texts on which we work include the science fiction of Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Larissa Lai; the history of politically radical speculation in Mexican anarchist movements; the television show Battlestar Galactica and the online fictions and cultures that surround it; and the 2008 short film Pumzi by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu. Yet across formats and platforms, periods and locations, in more and less visible and intentional ways, we can trace a shared practice of critical speculation in these works and others. After presenting individual provocations, the panelists will take time to trace these connections in relation to broader questions of speculation, before inviting audience participation for the second half of the group discussion. Questions and suggestions will also be solicited well as in advance via a public blog where passages and examples for discussion and contemplation will be posted.

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