Wednesday, March 27, 2024

"Speculative Finance and Predatory Abstraction: On Jonas Eika’s 'After the Sun'"

What the heck is this? I read it twice, looking for either a punch line or a cosmic truth and, not sure if I missed one or both, ended up back here at the blog.

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, March 16:

IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD, we endure not only wars, pandemics, and climate emergencies but also the growing devastation wrought by speculative financial capitalism. We see its ever-increasing influence in the proliferation of derivative trading and in the rise of volatile cryptocurrencies. But when speculation becomes the dominant modality of contemporary capitalism, what happens to speculative fiction? How do the formal properties and narrative tropes of speculative fiction offer unique ways to interrogate the abstract and virtual aspects of finance, alongside their material instantiations?

Speculative fiction can assist in reimagining the market as a distinct social actor. It can reveal the underlying forces that inflict violence through what I call “predatory abstraction.” It helps us respond to the futures presented by speculative finance in ways that counter its damaging abstractions. It can engender skepticism towards the techno-optimistic outlook we tend to embrace and, at the same time, reclaim the future as an alternative to the present by being structurally appropriated by speculative financial forces.

These financial forces exert structural control in shaping the trajectory of the future, potentially altering the course of the future to align with their speculative interests or objectives, which are geared towards profit maximization and the elimination of alternative possibilities. In brief, speculative finance suppresses alternative futures, while speculative fiction multiplies and reveals alternative possibilities. As the future is increasingly closed off from new potentialities, the present appears to resemble a sort of financial temporal prison. Thus, speculative fiction performs the very task that speculative finance seeks to evade: it exposes the contradictions inherent in financial speculation and reveals the latent possibilities concealed within the present.

How can we express the realities and dynamics of speculative finance within literary narratives? Which works delve into the speculative aspects of financial capitalism and criticize its impact on how we live? Jonas Eika’s After the Sun (2021; originally published as Efter Solen in 2018), a collection of short stories that explore the impact of financial systems on characters’ thoughts, emotions, and bodies, presents one example of this kind of speculative fiction. In After the Sun, we can trace the aesthetic manifestation of the implosion of speculative finance.

Translated from Danish by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, After the Sun has received prestigious accolades including the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the Michael Strunge Prize, the Montana Prize for Fiction, and the Blixen Literary Award. In 2022, it was long-listed for both the International Booker Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Furthermore, the book’s short story “Me, Rory and Aurora” has been honored recently with the 2023 O. Henry Prize.

After the Sun primarily interrogates themes of economics and tenderness, examining the effects of speculative financial capitalism on our intimate lives. Notably, it places its focus on the dystopian present rather than a distant future, providing a representation of speculative finance that defamiliarizes it. In this regard, the first story, “Alvin,” is particularly intriguing: it explores the impact of financial derivatives on both bodies and psyches. In the story, a Danish IT consultant living in Málaga, Spain, travels to Copenhagen to implement software for another bank. However, upon his arrival at Kongens Nytorv, he discovers that the bank has collapsed, as if it had exploded. Shocked by the inexplicable destruction of his workplace, he heads to the nearest café where he meets the enigmatic Alvin, a “young man, mid-twenties, short dark hair parted to one side, tall forehead, round rimless glasses.” While the narrator is employed in the traditional banking sector, Alvin, in contrast, delves into trading derivatives and operates within a realm of financial capitalism that might seem like speculative fiction, even though it is very much a reality.

 “Derivatives,” Alvin says. “I don’t speculate about the future, I trade it.” He explains that derivatives and derivative capital have thoroughly conditioned the economy. Although illegal before 1970, derivative capital now “grossly exceed[s] the capital that came from the production and sale of goods and services, including stocks.” In brief, derivative capital represents a form of speculation devoid of genuine human labor—an undertaking where commodity prices, as articulated by Alvin, are nothing more than “ghosts from the future.”....